7 Useful Lists To Help You Create A Character

Are you looking for a creative writing exercise to share with your students or your writing group? Use this infographic as a quick fix to help beginner writers create more rounded characters.

Lists are one of the most useful prompts for writers to use as a starting point. I suggest that you start with a list of five items for each list. Use each list for a different exercise. 

Example: Use the 'Dreams List' to create a scene where the character thinks about what she still wants to achieve. Let her think about these things as she performs a mundane task.

If you are looking for more detailed ways of creating a character, read The Only Character Questionnaire You Need to Complete and 127 Prompts To Finish Before You Write About Yourself (Or Any Character)

Do you want a daily prompt?

Remember that you can send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za with the words DAILY PROMPT in the subject line. We will add you to our mailing list.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

 by Amanda Patterson.  Follow her on  Facebook,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Use Your Antagonist To Define Your Story Goal

If you want to write a book, you have to keep your characters busy. You need to give them something to do. Presenting them with a tangible threat, giving them a reason to overcome it, and allowing them a way out, will give them a physical story goal.

As Chuck Palahniuk says: 'One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.'

The easiest way to define your protagonist’s story goal is to determine your antagonist’s physical story goal. The two will be in conflict with each other. 

It is often easier to give your antagonist a physical goal. It is also easier for us to assign base story goals to villains than to assign them to our heroes. If you understand this, we can use it to your advantage. 

Remember, to define a physical story goal a character needs: 
  1. to get something physical
  2. to cause something physical
  3. to escape something physical
  4. to resolve something physical
  5. to survive something physical
The pursuit of the physical goal is the road map your character needs to follow to achieve his or her abstract story goal. [Read The Story Goal - The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure]
Let's look at this example of a physical goal from Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
The antagonist's physical story goal: The constable wants to find, and kill, Danny Angel because Danny mistakenly killed his girlfriend, Injun Jane. The constable wants to cause something physical – Danny’s death.
The protagonist's physical story goal: Danny wants to physically move away from the constable and survive. He wants to live, and write books. Danny wants to escape something physical – The constable killing him.
When the constable finally tracks him down, Danny kills him. The constable therefore fails to achieve his story goal.  Danny achieves his story goal. When the antagonist does not achieve his physical goal, the story ends. 

Let's look at the abstract goal from Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
The antagonist's abstract story goal: The constable wants revenge.
The protagonist's abstract story goal: Danny Angel wants to be free to live a normal life.
When the constable fails to kill Danny, he does not get his revenge. He does not achieve his abstract story goal. When Danny survives, he is able to confess his part in the accident, and go on to live ‘a normal life’. He achieves his abstract story goal as a result of his actions.
The physical goal is always the most important for the purposes of plotting and writing your book. Never forget this. Without the constant tension created by this physical goal , it is difficult to sustain momentum in your story. Chasing an abstract goal is as absurd as fighting a war on 'terror'. 

If you apply this rule to your own life, you will find that you achieve your abstract goals. For example, if you want to become a success in the publishing industry (abstract goal), you will first have to write many books (physical goal). 

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

 by Amanda Patterson.  Follow her on  Facebook,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

If you enjoyed this article, read:

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

10 Ways To Create Dangerously Nuanced Antagonists

Better antagonists create better protagonists. Our novels revolve around these characters. Without strong adversaries, our heroes have nobody to test them. Great antagonists force them to learn about their weaknesses and to realise their strengths.

If the antagonist exists to make or break the protagonist, it follows that we need to create a worthy character for this role. Two-dimensional villains are not good enough. If they are weak, our protagonists will easily find ways to beat them and we will bore our readers. 

By crafting a worthy adversary who is able to push the protagonist’s buttons, we write better stories. Readers want us to show them antagonists who are as interesting and as nuanced as they are dangerous.

How do we do this? 
  1. Make them complex. Our antagonists should be the most complex characters in our books. They expose our protagonists’ fears and weaknesses, and they are a constant source of conflict. Shallow, obvious antagonists are tedious for both readers and writers.
  2. Make them ambitious but not obvious. Nakedly ambitious people are too predictable. Their aggression often defeats them because their actions force us to reveal their true nature too early in a story.
  3. Make them enjoy their work. We spend most of our lives working so a successful antagonist who is happy at work would be much more dangerous than somebody who hates what he or she does. 
  4. Make them curious. People who never stop learning are dangerous. They will out-think and outwit us. This quality gives them the depth and the ability to surprise and shock us. A lazy antagonist is boring.
  5. Allow them to explore the world. Let them travel. Expose them to different ways of life and different world views. They can use this knowledge at unexpected moments.
  6. Unleash their creativity. Let them paint or draw or write. Creative people look at problems differently. They are more likely to find ways to beat the odds and to get themselves out of difficult situations. Examples: Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr Ripley paints and gardens; Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair sings, acts, and plays the piano.
  7. Make them fit in. Even if they don’t really, and even if they are loners, their ability to adjust to their surroundings and make allies makes them stronger.
  8. Make them care about the details. The devil is in them, after all. People who notice things can use them to their advantage. 
  9. Allow them to be flexible. They should know when losing a battle will allow them to win a war. They should be able to take no for an answer, and to deal with setbacks.
  10. Create them first. Taking our antagonists seriously and creating these characters before we create our heroes will stimulate our imagination. It gives us a unique perspective, which will add depth and texture to our storytelling.
Antagonists drive our protagonists because they create the impetus for them to act. They force them to change and to want something different. This is what makes their lives interesting and this is why readers read novels. They are too important to be shallow.

'You don't really understand an antagonist until you understand why he's a protagonist in his own version of the world.' ~John Rogers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

 by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

127 Prompts To Finish Before You Write About Yourself

If you’re writing a novel or a memoir, or brainstorming interesting questions for a profile or an interview, you'll love these prompts.

Use them for your character biographies or as daily writing prompts or to generate ideas for blog posts.

If you're thinking about writing a memoir, they will jog your memory and bring long-ago incidents into sharper focus.

Tip: Try to use your five senses in as many of these prompts as you can. The concrete is important in fiction and even more important in memoirs. Experiencing your story through taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound makes it come alive for readers. 
  1. Which is your best physical feature? Why do you like it? Describe it.
  2. Do you have a vivid early childhood memory? Describe it using the five senses.
  3. Which medical emergency can you remember most clearly when you were a child? Describe what happened and where it happened, concentrating on the doctor’s rooms, the ambulance, or the hospital.
  4. Write about your most interesting grandparent.
  5. Who was the school bully? What was his or her name? Write about an incident you witnessed or experienced.
  6. Which part of school did you enjoy the most? Why did you like it?
  7. Which part of school did you dislike most? Write about it.
  8. Make a list of the top 10 pros of being an introvert or an extrovert, depending on which one you are.
  9. Make a list of the top 10 cons of being an introvert or an extrovert, depending on which one you are.
  10. Would you wish upon a falling star? Are there any superstitions you believe in or follow? Is a cracked mirror a sign of bad luck? Are there things you do to avoid bad luck? Not walking under a ladder? Avoiding the black cat?
  11. We all have a strange holiday experience. Write about yours. What was odd about the holiday? Where did you stay? Who were you with?
  12. What was your favourite toy when you were a young child? Write about why you loved it so much.
  13. Write about the first time you remember spending the night at a friend’s home.
  14. How did you get to school each day? Write about your routine.
  15. How do you get to work today? Describe your routine.
  16. Is there something you really wanted as a child? Write about why you wanted it and if you got it.
  17. Who was your first best friend? Where did you meet him or her? Do you still see each other?
  18. Write about your favourite time of the year.
  19. Discuss freedom of choice.
  20. Discuss gender. Do you feel comfortable with your gender and its stereotypes? If not, why not?
  21. Would you ever consider adopting a child?
  22. Tell a story about a lie you told that everybody still believes. Why did you lie and why haven’t you told the truth?
  23. Write about your dream home. Describe each room. Use the senses.
  24. Which astrological sign are you? What do you think about it? Does it suit you? Do you believe in astrology? If not, why not?
  25. We all have one special place we love in our homes. Describe yours.
  26. Write a thank you letter to your body for all the years it has served you.
  27. Write about something that terrified you when you were a child. Describe an incident where you can feel the fear.
  28. Write a wanted advertisement for your ideal roommate.
  29. Do you have a favourite sibling? What is so special about your relationship?
  30. Write about a family feud.
  31. Cats or dogs? Which do you prefer? Write about the pets you’ve had and how they’ve affected your life.
  32. “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” ~Edward Abbey. What is your opinion on patriotism?
  33. How do you dress? Discuss your personal style and how it has changed over the years.
  34. Write about your hair. Which hairstyles have you had over the years? How many times have you coloured your hair?
  35. What do you love about your country and what do you dislike about your country? Do you think you would be happier if you lived somewhere else?
  36. Discuss fate.
  37. Discuss the pros and cons of marriage.
  38. Tell a story about a birthday party that made an impact on you.
  39. Tell a story about your hometown. What defines it? If you had to describe it as an animal, which animal would you choose?
  40. Write a 10-point-plan for what you would do if you were president or prime minister of your country.
  41. Discuss the idea of romance. Does it work in real life? Do you believe in it?
  42. What do you think about religion?
  43. Do you think people should have to vote in elections?
  44. If you started a political party, what would you call it?  What would it stand for?
  45. Would you consider running for political office?
  46. We all have ideas of behaviour that we would and could forgive. What is the line you believe nobody should cross?
  47. Don’t judge a book by its cover. But we do, don’t we? How do you judge people based on their appearance?
  48. Write about a snap decision you wish you had never made.
  49. Write a letter to your mother when she was pregnant with you.
  50. Some people believe in a god, others believe in astrologers. Do you believe you can control your destiny?
  51. Discuss the pros and cons of having children.
  52. What is one thing that surprised you most about being a parent?
  53. What is one thing that surprised you most about being married?
  54. What is one thing that surprised you most about being divorced?
  55. What is one thing that surprised you most about being widowed?
  56. If you could take any course or class, what would you do?
  57. Create a missing poster for something or someone who has gone away.
  58. Would you prefer a neat or a more comfortable home? Describe the room you’re sitting in now.
  59. Describe the most beautiful piece of art you’ve ever seen. Tell us how it made you feel.
  60. Write about winning something.
  61. Write about losing something.
  62. Who was the most inspiring teacher, mentor, or authority figure you’ve had in your life? Write about an incident that shows why they inspire you.
  63. Is there an object that has special significance for you?
  64. Write about the worst boss you've ever had.
  65. Describe the contents of a jewellery box – your own – or your mother’s. Write about each piece and any memories or thoughts they inspire.
  66. Every day, I struggle to forget …
  67. If you could have any plastic surgery, would you choose to have any? If yes, what would you choose and why?
  68. If you could propose a new law, what would choose?
  69. Tell a story about getting into trouble when it wasn’t your fault.
  70. Create a menu for the perfect dinner party.
  71. What would you like to teach the world if you had a platform?
  72. If you feel sad, what do you usually do to make yourself feel better? Do you prefer to be on your own or with somebody?
  73. Write about a house guest who overstayed his or her welcome.
  74. Is there a fashion trend that you really dislike? Discuss.
  75. Have you ever been addicted to something or someone? Are you still struggling with this?
  76. Your best qualities are…
  77. Your worst qualities are…
  78. If you were a stranger meeting yourself, would you trust yourself based on first impressions?
  79. How do you tell if you are really in love? Write about what true love means to you.
  80. Write about a party you loved. Describe it in detail. Include the time of year, the people, the food, and the occasion. Use the five senses.
  81. Who do you trust most in the world? How did you meet this person? Is he or she still in your life?
  82. Write about the consequences of keeping quiet when you should have spoken up.
  83. Write about the first person who broke your heart. Write about them in first person present tense.
  84. Write about a guest who visited that you wished would never leave.
  85. Tell a story about a car accident that involved you.
  86. Make a list of the things you miss most about a previous version of yourself.
  87. Make a list of the things you would never change about who you’ve become.
  88. Write a story about a time when you refused to give up.
  89. Do you have a story about a friend who broke your trust? Write about how it made you feel when it happened and how you feel (not think) about it today.
  90. Who was your favourite musical performer when you were a teenager? Do you remember the songs you loved? How did they make you feel? Who do they make you think of?
  91. Write a letter to yourself as a child, where you warn your past self about the best and worst things to expect from your parents. 
  92. Write about being irrationally angry.
  93. Discuss tattoos.
  94. Do you have a phobia that you can’t talk about? Write about it. Write about the first time you can remember experiencing the fear.
  95. ‘Stupid people are dangerous.’ Discuss.
  96. Have you ever cheated in a test? Were you ever tempted to? Write about it.
  97. What is your favourite physical activity or exercise?
  98. Do you believe people who say they have no regrets? Do you have any? If not, why don’t you have any?
  99. What was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you when you were a child?
  100. Write about a birth in your family that changed everything.
  101. Write about a death in the family that changed everything.
  102. How do you feel about your name? Do you know what it means? Where did it originate? Do you like your name?
  103. Write about the things you like most about each one of your parents.
  104. Write about something you did today that you’re proud of doing.
  105. Describe an incident where you were the victim of physical abuse.
  106. Do you think your country is incapable of evolving, or will it change for the better or worse?
  107. Have you ever tried your best and failed?
  108. Do you know when to give up?
  109. Have you ever known that something would happen moments before it did? Describe the feeling and the experience.
  110. Do you succumb to peer pressure?
  111. Are you an only child? Do you have siblings? How do you think this has affected you over the years?
  112. What do you do when you’re home alone?
  113. Describe how you cope under pressure.
  114. Do people automatically assume you are from the country you were born in? If not, where do they think you’re from and why?
  115. What is your greatest talent?
  116. Make a list of famous people you admire - living or dead. Write about why you like each one and what you would say to them if you met them.
  117. ‘Everybody lies,’ said Dr House. What are the lies you tell most frequently?
  118. Have you struggled with chronic pain? Describe it in first person present tense.
  119. Have you ever felt as if you’ve been in a haunted space? Write about it.
  120. Write about the five most important things that changed the course of your life.
  121. Is there something you believe that you don’t share with other people because you’re afraid of being judged?
  122. Have you ended up where you thought you would?
  123. What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you when you were a child?
  124. Write about your favourite street.
  125. Write about five objects that tell the story of your life.
  126. Make a list of 10 books you would like your children to read. Give a reason for each one.
  127. If you could wear a sign around your neck explaining something about yourself before somebody started speaking to you, what would it say?

If you get through these, you will find out if you really want to write about yourself and if you have something to say.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

Images: Pixabay

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

17 Resources For Writing About Troubled Fictional Characters

World Mental Health Day is on 10 October every year. The objective is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilise efforts in support of mental health. [The theme for 2016 is Psychological First Aid]

According to MentalHealth.gov

"Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. 

Over the course of your life, if you experience mental health problems, your thinking, mood, and behaviour could be affected. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including:

  • Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
  • Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
  • Family history of mental health problems"

If you want to write about mental health issues, we encourage you to research the subject thoroughly and to approach experts in the field for advice.

We are not experts, but we do have resources and articles on the site that you may find helpful when creating troubled characters in fiction.

17 Resources For Writing About Troubled Fictional Characters

  1. Personality Disorders - DSM-5 Resource for Writers
  2. When Crazy Is Good - 9 Good Reasons For Your Character's Bad Behaviour
  3. Mental Illness - Writing Resource
  4. 9 Famous Anti-Social Fictional Characters
  5. Personality Disorders - A Writer's Resource
  6. Shades of Emotion - Creating Characters
  7. Types of Love - Creating Characters
  8. Universal Needs - Creating Characters
  9. Psychopath Or Sociopath - What's The Difference?
  10. Writing About Characters With Phobias
  11. 37 Ways To Write About Anger
  12. 9 Famous Fictional Narcissistic Mothers - And How To Write About Them
  13. How To Get Your Reader To Identify With An Unsympathetic Character
  14. The 15 Most Memorable Mothers in Literature
  15. 15 Fascinating Fathers From Fiction
  16. What Is Love? 12 Literary Couples Whose Love Will Last
  17. 9 Ways to Make Readers Care for an Amoral Protagonist


If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

 by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

If you enjoyed this article, read:


Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 37: Rules Of The Game

Welcome to week 37 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Continue writing the scenes or chapters of your novel.
Breaking it down

Rude teddy bears and white-collar boxing
‘The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.”

In Chuck Palahniuk’s hypnotic thriller, Fight Club, the secret underground world of white-collar boxing is the invention of the disturbed Tyler Durden. There are other rules: only two men per fight, only one fight at a time, and so forth.

When your story or your plot operates outside of the conventional or the ‘real world’, you have to establish the ‘rules of the game’ and you have to let the reader or audience know what these are.

In the movie Ted, for example, Jon Bennett’s childhood teddy bear magically comes alive on Christmas morning – and turns into a minor celebrity and, eventually, a foul-mouthed slacker.

Here the rules of a ‘living’ teddy are given to the viewer early on. Ted can do pretty much everything we can do – talk, drive a car, Tweet, smoke drugs, have sex with his girlfriend. Every character in the story can interact with Ted.  He is a reliable character in the story. There’s no way we ever believe he is the product of Jon’s imagination. Without setting out the rules of the game, the audience may have been suspicious of this character.

In the 1950s film, Harvey, for example, the main character’s best friend is a mischievous six-foot tall rabbit called Harvey – and Harvey is invisible.

Since Elwood, an eccentric and alcoholic, is the only one who can see Harvey, his friends and family wonder if the rabbit is a product of too much drinking or even mental illness.  This creates a completely different dynamic in the film. 

If you’re writing in the genres of fantasy or a paranormal, sometimes even speculative/futuristic and horror, you need to explain or show the rules of the game. For example, your vampire can come out in daylight and sparkle – Twilight.  Or ‘don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight’ – for the comedy horror Gremlins.  Can you think of other examples?

The rules for three
Recently, I’ve been spending a few lunch hours writing with a colleague, who is also a writer. She was struggling to understand how the threesome in my novel came about. What was the motivation behind Jenna and Matt’s encounter? ‘If they were bored in their relationship, why didn’t they just go hiking?’

After we had a chuckle about this, I realised that the dynamic of a threesome or ménage à trois was something crying out for ‘the rules of the game’. 

I was faced with some tricky questions this week. Does my couple have an open relationship? Do they hook up with people separately or do they, as the saying goes, only play together? How is the instigator in this behaviour? Is it something they both want?

There has to be a code when it comes to this kind of behaviour. This is exciting for me as a writer, as it delves into sexual politics and behaviour. Thinking of Fight Club, they could have firm rules: no past hook-ups, no friends, no repeats, no drug addicts, and so forth. 

There could even be subtle code words or gestures that Jenna and Matt could use to communicate during the encounter.  While it’s important for me, as a writer, to understand the underlying psychology of their relationship, I also need the ‘device’ the rules of the games to give the story some structure and clarity.
internal logic
While facilitating Writers Write 2  – which is all about plotting – I was discussing the importance of stories having their own ‘internal logic’ and this dovetails with the idea of the rules of the game.

When creating a fictional universe, it’s important to set the ground rules of for the worlds in which your story plays out. It doesn’t matter how bizarre of far-fetched, your story will be reliable if it follows its own internal logic and is self-consistent. This logic – if the reader trusts it and believes it – will allow for suspension of disbelief. You make things up, but they have to be believable.  

In that, you must recognise the reality in the fantasy. There must be a truth we can respond to in even the most incredible story. In my story, the idea is not to show how people get their rocks off – otherwise it would be the plot of a porno or bad French movie – but to show how jealousy in a relationship is sublimated and expressed. Jealousy is a truth we can all recognise.
Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Spend a half hour or hour a day writing your scenes or chapters.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. What rules didn’t you like when you were at school? Imagine one of your characters rebelling against those rules.
  2. Take a board game like Monopoly or Risk. Look at how the rules govern the game. How could you add a plot and characters to a game like that?
  3. What would happen if there were no traffic/road rules? Write a scene where your character is caught up in the chaos.
  4. List all the organisations that have rules – the office, the church – and list the rules. Could you use any in your novel?
  5. Write about a character who lives according to his or her own rules or moral code. How do these cause conflict with society?
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘I’m influenced by the internal logic of the story, the page leaps and dream leaps I can make while writing.’ — Lincoln Michel

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 36: 3 Must-Have Scenes That Reveal Plot
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 35: 3 Must-Have Scenes That Reveal Character
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 34: Spring Cleaning

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 35: 3 Must-Have Scenes That Reveal Character

Welcome to week 35 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Write the three key character scenes for your novel.
Breaking it down

1.  The monogram scene
In elegant days gone by, characters would emerge from the bathroom or boudoir wearing a monogrammed robe – it was usually white or a rich velvet affair.

In much the same way, you have to give your main characters a scene or two that ‘marks’ them as individuals – interesting characters we may want to follow in the story as readers. These scenes must show who that character is at their very essence.

It helps if you can find a brief description or key words that ‘nail’ that character. For example, my antagonist, Monty could be described as: rich, entitled, narcissistic.  OK, great – how do you show that in a scene?

For this scene, I have Monty flash his credit card to pay for drinks at a downtown club, only to have it declined, which sends him into an abusive rage with the waiter. He points out that the shoes he’s got on cost more than the waiter’s monthly salary. Hopefully, it shows him for what he is – a rich kid who likes to get his own way.
2.  The momentum scene
Have you ever agreed to go on a blind date? There’s usually a build-up of anticipation, the date itself – it’s usually awkward and anticlimactic – and then the aftermath of the date. 

Once your character has made a decision, whether a big decision or a small decision, they need to act on it – with careful deliberation or rash impulsiveness. The first could be the decision to go to gym to lose weight, the second is to eat half a chocolate cake at two in the morning.

It could be a moral decision or a life-and-death decision. It doesn’t matter. Here’s your chance to show your character – with all their strengths, flaws, anger or sense of humour – doing something.

Whatever your character decides, the natural flow of story dictates that they have to act on that decision. This gives you a chance to show your character signing up for gym, struggling to programme the treadmill, feeling foolish in their new gym gear, etc.

The point is you can’t have a character decide something and then they accomplish it in a few paragraphs. What a let down for the reader – and no fun for you as a writer!

You have to build up to that decision, tease it out in a scene, and show what comes after. It’s about moving things forward – building momentum. It’s the basic principle of scene structure: build tension and then release it.

3.  The glimpse scene
The one thing that can destroy a story is if we don’t believe the characters are real – if they seem too slick, too perfect, or too invincible, we don’t have anything for the reader to relate to. We always need a glimpse into their humanity. Just a glimpse. That’s all.

As a writer, ask: How will the readers find themselves in this character? How will they connect with this character and start to believe this character is real?  It doesn’t matter if your character is a superhero or a soccer mom – we need that connection.

A glimpse could be the ruthless tycoon who weeps when he learns his favourite Alsatian attack dog has been poisoned. It could be the doting mother who, over one too many wine spritzers, wistfully confesses to her neighbour that she dreams of running away. Show fears, secrets, flaws, all those things that make us human.
Timelock — 3 to 6 hours

Spend an hour or two on each of these key scenes.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. List your own bad habits – from smoking to procrastination. Is there a way to give one of these to your character?
  2. Write about what your character does when no one is looking – imagine you’re a fly on the wall.
  3. Write a monogram scene for a character from a favourite TV series.
  4. List as many key words that describe your character as possible. Then cross out all the uninteresting ones until you have only three or four.
  5. Write about the one decision your character always regrets making. Why do they regret it?
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘You invent and control characters. You decide whether they live or die.’ — Sidney Sheldon

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 34: Spring Cleaning
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 33: Beginnings, Backstory, And Other Bugbears
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 32: Your 6 Indispensable Plot Pivots

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

6 Things Alfred Hitchcock Can Teach You About Writing

Alfred Hitchcock was an English film director and producer who worked closely with screenwriters on his films. The master storyteller, born 13 August 1899, died 29 April 1980, pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. He is best remembered for films such as Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, North by Northwest, and Rebecca.

I have taken six famous Hitchcock quotations to create these storytelling tips from this master of suspense.
  1. 'Drama is life with the dull parts left out.' Take chances. Hitchcock knew exactly how to move us out of our comfort zones. He knew that he couldn't afford to bore his audience. Neither can you. This means you should avoid pages of backstory and endless descriptions. Avoid writing beautiful paragraphs to impress readers. You won't succeed. Most of us read novels for story and to experience traumatic or extraordinary events vicariously. We want you to entertain us. 
  2. 'Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.' Readers want happy endings but the characters need to earn them. Good writers put their characters through hell. To make this work, they create empathetic characters with whom we can identify. Readers enjoy going through this cathartic experience with them. We feel the relentless horror experienced by a young socialite in The Birds. In Psycho, a young woman ends up on the run where she meets a horrible bloody end at the Bates Motel. In Vertigo, we empathise with a detective who is tormented by tragedy and his fear of heights. We suffer with Hitchcock's characters.
  3. 'I’m a writer and, therefore, automatically a suspicious character.' Always look for the dark side of human nature. We all have one. Writers are naturally suspicious because we always consider why people do the things they do. We need to become observers of the human condition. Never take anything at face value. Everything reveals something. Be suspicious of human nature, of possessions, of settings, of body language, of speech patterns - of everything.
  4. 'The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.' Many authors have told me that heroes are only as strong as the characters who oppose them. Create complex antagonists who are the heroes of their own stories. They do not have to be villainous or evil. They do have to have a believable story goal that opposes the protagonist's. 
  5. 'I can’t read fiction without visualising every scene. The result is it becomes a series of pictures rather than a book.' Setting is important. If you use setting skilfully enough, you can create a plot or move a plot forward with it. We all know that changing a setting can change a character. Great setting details create suspense and add layers of mood and mystery to a story. You also don't need elaborate settings. Rear Window takes place through the eyes of a photographer gazing out of the window of his apartment. Rope is set in one room, where a murder victim in hidden in a chest of books. Many people remember the atmosphere created by the settings in Hitchcock's films long after they've forgotten the plots.
  6. 'I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.' Don't be afraid to stick to a genre that suits your writing style. Most writers enjoy writing what they enjoy reading.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

 by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on Pinterest,  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Google+,  LinkedIn, and  Twitter.

© Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this articleyou will love:


Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book

I used to do manuscript appraisals when I taught creative writing full time. I would never have been able to do it without teaching, though, because teaching taught me how to become a critical reader. I learnt to observe, to critique, and to improve my own writing. 

Appraising a writer’s unpublished manuscript can be difficult, but it became easier when I broke it down into what readers and publishers look for when they read. The key to making it easier was thinking about the market. What works? What sells and what doesn’t? Why doesn’t it sell? 

My appraisals were based on the seven basic elements of good novel writing, which are:

1. Plot 
  1. Does the novel have a plot? Without a plot it is difficult to keep a reader interested. A plot involves a protagonist with a worthy story goal. 
  2. Is this goal strong enough to sustain an 80 000-word long novel? We prefer to read about characters who have something to fight for and something to lose if they don’t. [Read The Story Goal - The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure]
  3. Is the plot introduced early enough? The story goal is usually set by an inciting moment that turns the protagonist's life upside down in a negative way.
  4. Is there too much backstory? Readers are not interested in the detailed biography of your character. For the most part, they do not enjoy prologues.
  5. Is there opposition for the protagonist? Conflict is created when an antagonist is introduced to stop the protagonist from achieving the goal. [Read 7 Essential Things To Remember About Very Important Characters]
  6. Does the plot make sense? If it does not, we tend to include things which seem to have no reason for being in the story. A good idea can turn into a maze of irritation if the author does not know where the story is headed.
  7. Has the author used the setting to advance the plot? Descriptions should not be static or incidental. [Read 5 Ways To Use Setting To Advance A Plot]
2. Characters 
  1. Do I care about what happens to the protagonist and the antagonist? If a reader fails to make me care for one of these characters, I will not carry on reading the book. Why should I? C.S Lewis said that we read to know we are not alone. If I feel no connection with a character, I am alone, lost, adrift in the story. I do not have to sympathise with a character, but I need to care. [Read Make Me Care - 9 Ways To Ensure An Unforgettable Read]
  2. Are the main characters believable? If the characters seem contrived or forced, we stop reading. I think a good way of looking at it is to ask: If I met these characters on the street (even if the story is set in a different universe) would they seem real?
  3. Are their motivations believable? Give readers good reasons to buy into their story goals. For example, most of us would not ruin our lives to wreak revenge without a great reason.
  4. Is the author masquerading as the protagonist? Many first time writers want to write their own stories, but don’t want to write a memoir. They try to turn their experience into a novel. This becomes problematic because they are too close to the story and they cannot see the character objectively.
  5. Does the name suit the character? Sometimes you read a book and you feel as if the author has not thought this through. The name may be out of date or too strange for the world the character inhabits. Here are 10 Things To Consider When Naming Characters
  6. Does their body language, clothing, hairstyle suit them? Sometimes it's a good thing to suggest that a writer completes a character questionnaire so that the characters seem authentic. How a character moves, how he or she reacts with non-verbal responses show that the writer has treated the character like a real person. This cheat sheet for writing body language will help you. 
  7. Do their emotions fit? A character may be happy, sad, or infuriated. A good writer knows how to show these emotions in the things the characters say and do. This needs to be filtered into the story in a believable way. [Read 37 Ways To Write About Anger]
  8. Do the characters fit into their surroundings? Alternatively, do they fail to fit in because of who they are? [Read Wherever I Lay My Hat - How Setting Affects Your Characters]
  9. Has the author used contrived ways to describe the characters? It is off-putting if a writer describes the character in detail. For example, ‘She had blue eyes, brown hair, stained teeth, and she weighed 60 kilos.’ A good writer will let this filter through and leave some of it to the reader’s imagination. 
3. Viewpoint
  1. Has the writer chosen a viewpoint that suits the story? Most stories are written in third person past tense. For example, ‘He cradled the baby as Freda screamed.’  Most genre novels are written in this viewpoint. Memoirs are often written in first person present tense to make the writing feel authentic and immediate. For example, 'I cradle the baby as Freda screams.' [Read 10 Ways To Tell A Story - All About Viewpoint]
  2. Has the author chosen the correct character to tell the story? This happens mostly when we choose to tell the story through the eyes of the protagonist’s friend. This often makes the story sound forced because the friend cannot know what the character is truly feeling or thinking. It distances the most important character from the reader and there is more telling than showing as a result.
  3. Has the author stayed in the viewpoint character’s head? Many beginner writers head-hop between the different characters in a scene, and confuse readers. As a rule, you should only use one viewpoint per scene. [Read 6 Simple Ways To Handle Viewpoint Changes]
  4. Has the character revealed something he or she could not have known? There has to be consistency and a sense of continuity in storytelling.
  5. If the author chooses a first person narrator, is the character strong enough to bear the weight of a 360-page book? This might seem like common sense, but it’s a tough ask for one character who has to be interesting enough not to bore a reader. The character could be compromised, which is fine if you are considering using an unreliable narrator
  6. Has the author chosen an omniscient narrator? This is so old-fashioned that it takes a truly exceptional writer to make this work. Modern readers prefer to be closer to the characters they are following in stories. 
4. Dialogue 
  1. Is there enough dialogue in the book? I believe the book should have at least 50% of its pages filled with characters communicating. Being stuck in a character’s thought processes is agonising for long periods of time. Many beginner writers make this mistake, thinking that we will be intrigued. But it actually turns out to be the author who is stuck, trying to work through the fact that he or she does not really have a plot.
  2. Is the dialogue appropriate for the characters? Are you giving the characters the correct vocabulary and tone? Do their words suit them? [Read 10 Dialogue Errors To Avoid At All Costs]
  3. Do the characters sound too similar? This is a common problem for beginners. They use sentence structures and lengths that are the same for each character. Real people have distinct voices when they speak.
  4. Does the dialogue serve a purpose? Writers who include unnecessary conversations also have problems with plotting. All the dialogue in a book should move the plot forward, introduce conflict, or show us something about a character. [Read 10 Ways to Introduce Conflict in Dialogue]
  5. Have they included body language with dialogue? Real people do things while they’re talking. Here are some examples: 60 Things For Your Characters To Do When They Talk Or Think
  6. Are the dialogue tags good? ‘Said’ is the best tag you can use. The way characters say things and the words they choose should tell the reader how they say it. I am annoyed when characters hiss, spit, cajole, ejaculate and sputter. 
5. Pacing 
  1. Does the pace suit the story?  Books are made up of scenes and sequels. Scenes are faster than sequels and there are more of them. They are also longer. A good writer knows how to mix these up and how to get a rhythm that works for a story.
  2. Does the pace suit the genre? Thrillers will have more scenes. Literary novels are more leisurely and they will have more sequels.
  3. Is it too fast or too slow, and if it is, can it be fixed? Read The 4 Most Important Things To Remember About Pacing for excellent tips on how to improve problems with pacing. 
6. Style 
  1. Does the writer have a distinctive, engaging style? You can tell if a writer has this even if the grammar and spelling isn’t perfect. [Read 7 Choices That Affect A Writer's Style]
  2. Can the writer write? Sometimes there are real problems with sentence structure, punctuation, and a poor grasp of storytelling techniques.
  3. Is there too much passive voice in the story? This leads to telling instead of showing and drags a story down with it.
  4. Is the tone appropriate for the story? A sombre tone is inappropriate for a light-hearted romance and a flippant tone is unusual in literary fiction.
  5. Are the readability statistics acceptable for a novel? I work on the assumption that a good book will have an 80% readability value. Novelists need to learn how to write difficult things in the simplest way. [For more, read Why You Should Care About Readability Statistics]
  6. Does the writer have an engaging voice? The best way to find your voice and nurture your style is to write. If you are struggling, read this post for help: How do you find your writing voice? 
7. Beginnings, Middles, Endings 
  1. Does the story start at the beginning? A beginning is a delicate thing. There should be enough action combined with a touch of description, a hint of backstory, and dialogue – if necessary. Is the hook good enough to make the reader turn the page?
  2. Is there a great inciting moment? I want to be invested in the story from the moment I pick up the book. There should be something to make me care. [Read The Importance of Inciting Moments]
  3. Am I entertained through a muddle in the middle? Is there enough suspense, tension, and conflict to keep the story going? Good writers make the middle work by setting a deadline for a character. They force the character to change, throw in secrets, surprises and even add a dangerous twist. [Read A Tense Situation - Five Tips To Help You Write A Gripping Read]
  4. Does the ending satisfy me? A great ending always completes your story arc, shows a change in your main character, and leaves the reader wanting more. [For more help, read: The Sense Of An Ending - How To End Your Book]
  5. Does it fulfil the book’s promise? Avoid surprise endings and contrived twists. Rather go back and fix the parts of the book that should have been set up properly to support the ending you want. [Read How To Write A Beginning And An Ending That Readers Will Never Forget]
In the end... 

If these are covered, and if they work, I find that a book delivers. The author naturally shows me the story instead of telling me what I should think or feel. I also find that a theme is revealed naturally with great plotting and good characterisation.

If you want to critique a book, you can ask these questions and make notes. At the end you will have a better idea of why you did or did not enjoy it.

Happy reading and writing!

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

 by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

© Amanda Patterson

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa.Writers Write - Write to communicate.

60 Things For Your Characters To Do When They Talk Or Think

One of the easiest ways to show and not tell is by making your characters do things while they are talking or thinking about something. It could be anything including a chore, a daily grooming ritual, a hobby, or a group activity.

When you do this, you show who the character is by the things they choose to do or have to do. You also have to think about their body language, because the way a character does something says as much as the words they are speaking as they do it. [Read Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language}

Try to avoid the act of scrolling through cell phones. Even if many people do this, it is passive and does not allow for movement, thought, and changes in body language.

Choose activities that fit naturally into your characters’ lifestyles. Do not force them to do things unless you mean to make them uncomfortable. [Read 5 Simple Ways To Describe Characters]

If you are stuck for ideas about what your characters can do when they are thinking about something important or while they are having a conversation, I’ve put together a list of suggestions:
  1. Colouring in a book
  2. Shopping for groceries
  3. Working on a car or a motorbike 
  4. Trying on clothes – at home or in a shop
  5. Taking a dog for a walk
  6. Playing a board game
  7. Playing a game of cards
  8. Giving a dog a bath
  9. Cuddling a cat
  10. Feeding pets
  11. Walking through a museum or art gallery
  12. Knitting, sewing, needlework
  13. Having a bath
  14. Taking a shower
  15. Cleaning up after an accident – spilt glass of wine, 
  16. Cleaning up after a deliberate act – smashing a photo frame, throwing a wine glass
  17. Gardening – planting, weeding, cutting
  18. Doing the dishes
  19. Changing a baby’s nappy 
  20. Counting money
  21. Wrapping presents
  22. Buying a present for a friend or loved one
  23. Preparing a meal
  24. Baking 
  25. Setting a table
  26. Looking for something
  27. Browsing in a bookshop
  28. Catching the bus or train
  29. Decorating a room for a party
  30. Packing a suitcase
  31. Packing a box
  32. Unpacking a suitcase 
  33. Unpacking a box
  34. Sorting out old clothes
  35. Sorting through old papers
  36. Rearranging bookshelves
  37. Sorting through photo albums
  38. Ironing clothes
  39. Getting your hair styled or coloured
  40. Getting dressed or undressed
  41. Putting on makeup or removing makeup
  42. Dressing or undressing a child
  43. Putting a child to sleep
  44. Watching a child doing homework
  45. Tending to a wound
  46. Painting nails
  47. Playing a sport 
  48. Going for a run
  49. Hiking – alone or with somebody
  50. Sharpening knives
  51. Sorting medication for the week or month ahead
  52. Sitting in the doctor’s waiting room
  53. Making a shopping list
  54. Shaving
  55. Going to the gym
  56. Exercising
  57. Watering houseplants
  58. Watching a child play
  59. Saving a new contact on a phone
  60. Rearranging furniture
These activities allow for different types of reactions. A character could stop in the middle of any of these after hearing shocking news or realising something. News could also spur characters into changing what they are doing or the way in which they are doing it.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

© Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this articleyou will love:


Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa.Writers Write - Write to communicate.