Write a Book

Time to Edit Your First Draft

Once I understand my story lines and have an intimate relationship with my characters, it’s time to figure out how to begin the story.

How does a novelist determine exactly where to begin the novel? Many new authors are apt to start a story too early rather than too late.

To determine where to start, determine when your first dramatic event or your first major plot point occurs. Thought your beginning doesn’t need to start with action, something important does need to be occurring as it relates to the story line. The beginning of your novel needs to begin by hooking your audience into the story through either action, character, or setting.

The First Line

The story begins with the first line. Perfect first lines can be vivid or establish a unique story voice. It may contain a surprise, something that makes the audience laugh, a statement of truth. The first line can also be very clear and contain the entirety of the novel. The perfect line takes many forms and only you can determine the perfect first line of your story.

Be patient as you look for it. You may have to take several tries before you find the right one that hooks the reader into your story.

Try starting with an interesting detail of character, setting or something symbolic of your story’s largest themes.

Your Novel’s First Paragraph

Your great first line must then be followed by a great opening paragraph.

A great opening line must be followed by a great opening paragraph. It’s hard to do either if you don’t have a central story idea that inspires you and suggests ideas, but if you have done the work of determining your story line (and subplots) and have developed an intimate relationship with your characters, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. Take some information about your protagonist and your setting and create a scene where your protagonist is just before the first plot point. This type of story opening can us a feeling of sweeping history, of epic time spanning generations. We get roped more into the character’s life as we start to see glimpses of his past and the environment and upbringing that shaped him.

In addition, you may want to add a bit of mystery to your story. For instance, your character may do something in the opening paragraph that makes the reader wonder what is going on and why that character might be doing what he is doing.

If the story opens with a narrator, how does the narrator’s voice itself capture our interest? with humor? or distinct personality?

Every novel opening contains at least one of the following elements of great opening hooks. Do you have unanswered questions? Intriguing actions or events? A troubling or unusual or suspenseful scenario?


With your first paragraph, determine how you will handle tense and point of view throughout the whole story. Most novels are written in the past tense. It is important to maintain that tense throughout the entire book. If you choose to try to use some other tense (as an experiment), be sure to use that throughout the novel.

Though traditionally, tense has been past tense, you have always had options when it comes to how traditional novels approach point of view.

You might choose first person. I ran after the dog.

You might choose third person Jan ran after the dog.

You might choose omniscient. Jan ran after the dog while the class watched and wondered. Would she catch him?

A more modern approach is to switch between viewpoints and even use present tense instead of past tense. Before deciding on viewpoint and tense consider this. Studies have shown that older readers prefer past tense while younger ones prefer present tense. If your audience is older, use past tense. If younger, consider using present tense.

hatever you decide, use the same method throughout the book either present or past tense. You want to avoid confusing your readers with too many tense or point of view changes.

Not sure which POV to write in? Write your first scene first in first person, then third person limited and then omniscient. Which one feels right?

Look for A Natural Starting Point

Does writing your own starting point make you realize your choices are limitless, and this paralyzes you? Yet your novel must flow from the first scene you select. Where should you start? Start wherever you think it should start. You can always change it later. Perhaps even several times until you have the perfect beginning.

You can also start with your character sketches. Ask yourself what this character is doing when you first meet him and write about it.

Read over how you started your first draft. Did you start at a good place or do you think you should have written it later? Did you start too far before the action? If so, look for a better place later in the book. The truth is, you can start your story any number of ways. Come back to this first line, first paragraph and first page several times throughout the writing process until you believe that it is as good as it gets.

Present Strong Characters Immediately

Remember the old adage: Show Don’t Tell. Be sure to bring your protagonist into the first chapter and show him doing something. Establish your characters’ situations. What do they know at the beginning?

Don’t Overdo the Setting

Don’t give the opening scene in too much depth. You’ve got it all pictured in your head: the colors, sounds, flavors and feelings. You want everybody to be in the same place with the story you are. Instead, easy them into the view. An introduction is enough, for now. You’ll fill in the details later. Just give them the basic feel of the setting of whether you’re on star ship or a street in a British colony. Instead of giving the history of the place and how long the character has lived there and the weather, consider showing the character in the setting with a few details that show the scene in that moment. Perhaps even indicate how the character feels about the scene.

Later you can add more details telling about the house, the street, the neighbors and the household pet.

Carefully Choose Details to Create Immediacy

In chapter one, you’ll need to keep your details economical, but avoid vagueness. You want to include details that are necessary to the story and move it along. If the detail serves the story, you can’t have too much.

Make Chapter One a Story in Itself

It’s no accident that many great novels have first chapters that were excerpted in magazines, where they essentially stood as short stories. I remember being knocked to the floor by the gorgeous completeness of Ian McEwan’s first chapter of On Chesil Beach when it was excerpted in The New Yorker.

Every chapter should have its own plot, especially chapter one.

Focus on action. Make trouble. Put your characters in jeopardy early. Make trouble early and make it big or make it ominous.

Don’t let your characters be wishy-washy. Make them decisive. A good way to do that is to make a character take decisive action. End chapter one with some closure, but make that closure false.

Put your Best In Chapter One

Set your tone and flaunt it. Have confidence to own your book. Show the reader that you have generated a terrific idea for action and emotion whenever you want. Pull your reader into your story from the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraph, and the first line. Hook your reader like a big game fisherman.

Don’t Make these Rooky Mistakes

Whether you’re thinking about self-publishing or going traditional, here are several ways that professional agents would not like if you use these following “techniques” when writing your first chapter.

False beginnings Make Readers Feel Cheated

1. Don’t kill off your main character at the end of Chapter One.

2. Don’t create opening scenes that you think are real, but then the protagonist wakes up.


1. Readers prefer to find themselves in the midst of a moving plot from page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.

2. Make chapter one relevant and well-written

3. Prologues are a lazy way to bring back-story chunks to the reader. Backstorys can be handled better within the story. Forget Prologues.

Exposition and description

1. Don’t go beyond what is necessary to setting the scene. The reader wants to feel as though he or she is in the hands of a master storyteller. Long descriptions in chapter one can make the story seem amateurish and contrived.

2. However, equally as bad is the lack of any exposition where the reader becomes disoriented when they learn five pages in that the location is not what the reader thought. Better to have a balance between exposition and mystery.

3. Avoid too many adjectives and adverbs.

4. Avoid long laundry lists of character descriptions. Work character descriptions into the story.

Starting too slowly

1. Though you might want to start with “status quo” at the beginning, don’t have the characters moving around doing little things like housework and thinking.

2. Don’t start with “in the beginning” or “once upon a time” beginnings where nothing happens.


1. Show don’t tell. Fill your readers’ heads with curiosity about your characters and questions that must be answered. Do this rather than fill them in on exactly where when, who and how.

2. Avoid filling scenes with flowery prose.

3. Avoid starting with a cheesy hook.

4. Avoid starting with My name is. . .

5. Make your main characters more interesting than your secondary ones.

Characters and backstory

1. Don’t make your characters too perfect. Heroes and heroines need obvious flaws.

2. Have a great plot started before you express too much about the character’s backstory. Good writers focus on plot and cut out the back story. You’ll be amazed at how much the backstory is part of the character’s DNA.

3. Start with action rather than reflection.

4. Don’t drop too much information into the first few pages. Getting to know characters is like getting to know people in real life.

In crime fiction

Don’t start with the protagonist waking up with a hangover.

In fantasy

Don’t start with the opening scene set with a battle or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs.

In Romance

No having a woman (or man) awakening to find herself with a strange man in her bedroom and automatically finding him attractive. If the average woman awoke to a strange man in her bedroom, she’d be reaching for a weapon, instead of lusting after him.

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Time to Edit Your First Draft

Very few books are just about a protagonist and the antagonist. Most novels have characters that support the primary characters and help add to the drama of the story. Who are these supporting characters and what is their function?

The SideKick

What sleuth in a mystery doesn’t need a friend or relative with access to inside information? This character is often called the sidekick, and is probably the most important supporting character in many genres.

The Tormentor

We spoke of the antagonist last week, and the tormentor is similar, but this person is different in that he or she is someone whom the protagonist spars but in some way often admires.

Conflict is the spice that makes characters come alive, and an adversary can cause the protagonist all kinds of interesting problems and complicate your story by throwing up roadblocks to the investigation.

In developing an adversary, remember it should be a character who’s positioned to thwart, annoy and generally get in your sleuth’s way. With an adversary in the story, the protagonist gets lots of opportunity to argue, struggle and in general show his mettle and ingenuity.

Fleshing out The Supporting Cast

A supporting character can be anyone in your sleuth’s life—a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a professional colleague; the local librarian, waitress, town mayor; even a pet pooch. A supporting character may get ensnared in the plot and land in moral peril, or even take a turn as a suspect. In a series, supporting characters return from book to book and can have ongoing stories of their own.

Supporting characters come with baggage too so pick yours carefully. Think about what all this means to the story line. If your sidekick is married, what’s his/her role in all this. Does he/she get jealous if there is a sexy suspect? If your protagonist has children, not only do you need information about these children, but also about their caregivers. Do they have a nanny or do they go to day care? A significant other? Be prepared to handle the inevitable attraction to that sexy suspect. Remember, if the antagonist has a dog, the dog needs to be walked twice a day which means that your antagonist will have to walk him regularly or hire a dog-walker.

Supporting characters give your character a life, but each one should also play a special role in the story. Supporting characters might start out as stereotypes: a devoted wife, a nagging mother-in-law, a bumbling assistant, a macho cop or a slimy lawyer. It’s OK to typecast supporting characters during the planning phase. When you get into the writing, if you want them to play bigger roles, you’ll want to push past the stereotype and flesh them out, turning them into complex characters who do things that surprise you—and, in turn, the reader.

Like subplots and backstories, you don’t want supporting characters to hog the spotlight. You don’t want bland, uninteresting characters either.

Naming Characters

We’ve discussed many aspects of character sketches within a character bible as well as various types of characters including the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick and the tormentor. One thing we haven’t yet used is naming characters.

Give each supporting character a name to match the persona, and be careful to pick names that help the reader remember who’s who.

Nicknames are easy to remember, especially when they provide a snapshot reminder of the character’s personality or appearance. Throwing in some ethnicity makes a character’s name easy to remember, too. Avoid the dull and boring as well as the weirdly exotic.

It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.

Create a list of names that you consider “keepers,” and add to it whenever you find a new one you like.

Walk-on Characters

Minor characters should make an impression when they come on the scene, but not a big splash. It doesn’t matter that the character is tall or short, fat or thin, bald or long-haired. What matters is what he or she does. He delivers three lines of dialogue and gives the protagonist an all-important sym-card that moves the plot along.

A minor role is no place for a complex character. Don’t imbue one with a lot of mystery that your reader will expect you to explain. A name, a few quirky details, and a bit of action or dialogue are more effective than a long, drawn-out description in minor characters.

Remember that the world of your novel will also be full of walk-on characters who provide texture and realism. Each one may also have some small role in facilitating the plot, but for the most part, walk-on characters are there to make scenes feel authentic. When crafting your more important minor characters, don’t get carried away and forget that walk-ons should get no more than a sentence or two of introduction. They don’t need names, and a touch of description is plenty. Choose details that can be a kind of shorthand commentary on the neighborhood or context.

Used in this way, walk-ons remain as much elements of setting as they are characters—and that setting will be a fitting backdrop to help both your protagonist and your more important supporting characters stand out.

To Do This Week

Use this information that you have created about your characters and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas in character development, and fix those problems.

Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.


Time to Edit Your First Draft

For the last several weeks we have been discussing the components of character sketches in general within a character bible. This week we are going to dig a little deeper into the most important characters in your story—the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is the main character in the book and the antagonist is the one who stands in the way of the protagonist from getting what he or she desires.

Novels typically follow the lead character, the protagonist, through the story events. This protagonist is acted on by other characters and events in the story and acts on those other characters and events in turn. Something out of the ordinary—an inciting event—moves the lead character from the status quo and into the drama of the story.

Something’s at stake for him, and the story revolves around his actions to resolve the problem(s) he faces.

The protagonist and antagonist have specific aims at the story’s start. They want something, or they want something to happen, or, even perhaps, they want something not to happen. Maybe they want to be left alone, want to just finish their day’s work and not be bothered by anyone. Maybe they want to hide from the world, from a friend, or maybe from an enemy.

But once a story begins, both your protagonist and antagonist have their lives interrupted by others or by events beyond their control. They’re pulled into a mission or quest or an adventure they hadn’t planned to have happen.

By the end of the story, their goals have changed.

Your protagonist now has new goals, goals that push and pull him through your story, that logically get him from scene to scene and meeting characters who either help or hinder him.

Your Antagonist

A protagonist is probably the easiest character to define because everything about the story revolves around this character, however, many beginning authors have difficulty creating good antagonists. That is why we are going to focus most of this blog on the antagonist.

The antagonist is the main character who stands between the protagonist and his way. This person is considered the villain but is not necessarily evil. This character’s goal is in direct conflict with the protagonist’s goal.

The antagonist should not exist merely to obstruct the protagonist. He or she should be equal in strength to your protagonist and be able to put up a good fight. The best type of antagonist is someone already in the protagonist’s life. This character’s motive for opposing the protagonist must be as strong and logical as the hero’s reason for opposing the antagonist. The antagonist does not need to have negative motives. It could be that if the roles are reversed, the villain could be the protagonist. In addition, the antagonist must believe that his motives are valid, and his actions are justified.

How to Create a Strong Antagonist

A strong antagonist is trying to accomplish something, something evil. In plot-driven novels an event triggers his or her actions. In character-driven novels this person might be trying to hurt the protagonist in some way.

The antagonist has personal desires. He might be a murderer, a greedy person, someone who enjoys violence or have a personal demon. He or she won’t just wake up one morning and decide to be evil for the fun of it. The antagonist wants something and is determined that his or her plan is the best course of action to get it. He may, however, simply be the protagonist’s rival.

The antagonist must be highly motivated to act. The more plausible you make these motivations, the deeper your villain. For character-driven novels, the antagonist might are motivated as intently as the protagonist is.

The antagonist might be trying to avoid something. He needs to have something at stake as well. Failure should mean more than just failing in the plan. Nasty consequences must exist.

There will be consequences if she doesn’t succeed. She might be the cautionary tale if the antagonist took a darker path or gave in to temptation. It is important that the antagonist has a good reason for his lofty goals. Being evil for the sake of evil risks having a paper doll villain that isn’t scary or interesting.

Don’t make your antagonist fall for the same old traps again and again. Better to have a strong villain who adapts his or her plan based on what the protagonist is doing. This forces the protagonist to grow, always staying one step ahead. In a character-driven novel, the protagonist might rationalize following a destructive path.

Give your antagonist positive traits as well as negative ones. This helps keep the villain from always acting as a villain, but as a more complex and understandable person. In addition, the antagonist must also be flawed in relatable ways. Human weakness is always something that readers can relate.

Readers relate to human weakness. If your antagonist has flaws that tap into the human side of her (even if she’s not human) then she becomes more real and readers can see her side of the story.

A good antagonist has secrets. He or she is afraid that people will find out certain things because the antagonist is up to no good. Sometimes exposing those secrets also expose weaknesses or flaws that she doesn’t want anyone else to see.

The antagonist must be an obstacle to the protagonist and therefore must cross paths (and swords) with the protagonist and does it often. However, this does not have to be deliberate.

Types of Antagonists

Many types of antagonists exist. Sometimes the antagonist starts out as a close ally. Characters who oppose your main character’s goals aren’t necessarily ‘bad’, yet they serve a primary function: Standing between another character and their destiny.

Five Types of Antagonists

The malevolent villain is the villain from common fantasy genres, but are in many different stories. This antagonist has an appetite for destruction. However this type of villain has pitfalls because villains who are evil for evil’s sake often lack development and motivations that make characters believable.

To make these characters realistic, brainstorm reasons that this character would be evil.

Give them vulnerabilities or weaknesses. These don’t have to be emotional or physical. They could be strategic. For example, a villain who surrounds themselves with greedy henchmen is more vulnerable to betrayal if their supporters are easily swayed by material rewards

The ally-antagonist is an ally turned antagonist.

The ally-antagonist is a useful character because they show how easy it is for a ‘good’ character to make a regrettable choice

When writing an ally-antagonist, remember to Show the flaws in their personality that explain their behavior. Give them compelling motivations for their choices. Ally-antagonists add shades of grey in the ‘black and white’ of ‘good vs evil’. They show us how easily people can take destructive paths that result in negative outcomes. Some also refer to this type of antagonist as a ‘hero antagonist’ since they may be motivated by noble ideals. The nobility or virtue of this underlying wish makes his actions more tragic, since it appears his intentions are good.

The interfering authority figure stands between a primary character and his or her main goals.

An interfering authority figure is thus useful for creating challenges and complications that make life harder for your protagonist.

• This antagonist’s broader story role could be to show something about the nature of power and authority in your book’s society.

• This antagonist could demonstrate cultural values or practices that stand between your character and their goals

• The interfering authority antagonist can make selfish or value-driven choices that get in your protagonist’s way.

• A secondary antagonist could include authority antagonists like border patrol officers or power-drunk bureaucrats who delay characters.

The force of nature is one of the few types of antagonists that don’t need a clear motivation. This type of antagonist doesn’t have to have a character ARC or backstory explaining how they became corrupt You can vary this type of antagonist to create tension and unpredictability. In addition you can intensify the opposition. For instance, you can have an occasional surprise that is opposite. For instance, in Titanic, there was a fire on the ship that was sinking. Next, you’ll want to make the danger real. This will induce fear and repercussions. For the most tension and opposition, you’ll want this opponent to be at its worst self.

The inner saboteur is a story where the character’s main struggle is within himself. In this case the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person.

The danger of this type of antagonistic situation is that your character’s thoughts could dominate the narration, without much exchange with others.

If your character’s main opponent is his own self, remember to show destructive behavior in action. Think about the origins of their self-destructive choices. What motivated your character originally to embark on a path of self-destruction? You’ll also want to Include secondary antagonists who add external conflict to the mix

Many types of antagonists exist that bring gripping conflict and opposition to a story.

Whichever type you create, make sure to characterize each opponent with as much thought as you would your protagonist.

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Characters are the beings, the actors, of story. They can be human, animal, mechanical, or any combination of any of the above. Readers like character in which they can relate.

Last week, you learned about how to start a character bible by determining your character’s physical appearance and personality and include them in your books character bible. This week you’re going to dig deeper into your characters’ backstory and his or her wants and goals.

What is Your Character’s Baggage?

Everyone comes into a relationship with some sort of baggage so do characters. They can’t simply be dropped into a story, they must come from somewhere. We all have a past and if we want our characters to seem real, they also have a history that affects why they act as they do now.

Remember your backstory is not your main story, so don’t let it dominate it. Keep this at the forefront of your mind as you continue to edit the story that you are trying to tell.

Use your backstory to explain your character’s development and to help raise the stakes. We are all products of nature and nurture. For better or for worse, our genetics and significant events mold us throughout our lives. A bad childhood, an abusive relationship, a lost love, an inspiring mentor, a challenging event that made us or broke us, all create additional motivation and obstacles to our character’s success or failure.

A mouse phobia could be caused by an event that occurred in childhood which then affects an event during the story that the protagonist must overcome.

Relate Backstory to Your Story ARC

Don’t make the backstory more interesting than the main story arc. If your backstory starts to take over your main plot, you may be telling the wrong story. Your beta readers or editor may pick up on this and may be able to help you determine how you allowed your backstory to become too central to your story.

Characters also have a progressive arc and the backstory is part of it. The backstory demonstrates how the character got to the beginning of the story, and then relates to how your character grows and changes over the course of your novel. This is especially true with the protagonist’s ARC. By giving your character trials that are particularly significant in terms of the character’s personal psychology and having the character successfully overcome the trial, the reader will see the logical progression in that character’s ARC.

Including Backstory in Your Novel

Avoid making your backstory too obvious. Introduce the information so your reader doesn’t feel jolted into realizing that you’re filling them in on what happened in the past but make it as a logical and reasonable introduction to the information.

Don’t just include backstory for the sake of filling up space either. Use backstory to explain why something happened. Dropping a block of information into it brings the story to a halt. Make it seem a natural. An incident in the story could be a way for the character to relate the current incident with an incident from his or her past.

A technique used in many old movies is to use diaries, journals, newspaper clippings or other secondary sources to give the backstory. You can do this even if your protagonist is reluctant to think about this backstory consciously, but you can let the reader in on the secret.

Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story. Don’t think that you have to include all the character’s backstory verbatim. You shouldn’t dump all the character’s backstory into your novel. There is an art to including the right about of backstory to enhance your story. Backstory can be explained through dialogue and the way the character thinks or the way the character reacts to specific situations and people.

Flashbacks, Dream Sequences and Dialogue

Sometimes the reader needs to learn the backstory as quickly and efficiently as possible. When this is the case, ignore the “show, don’t tell” advice you’ve always heard and just tell the readers what they need to know in a sentence or two. Most of the time, however, back story can be made more interesting when dramatized. This can be done in a flashback, dream sequence or dialogue where one character describes an incident to another. Whatever the case, be sure to keep the dramatization as grounded and concrete as the rest of your story.

If you are dramatizing the backstory, have a natural trigger in the story for it. Don’t just have a character just start talking about something in his or her backstory. An incident or even a strong sensory impression like a smell or a song can be used to bring back the recollection.

Watch your language. If you are describing a flashback, write the first couple of sentences in past perfect tense to signal a shift to a more distant past for the reader. You can then settle back into past tense for the remainder of the flashback until you reach the end. At that point, past perfect tense can signal the end of the flashback. Another technique for showing the readers placing a dramatization at the begin or the end of a chapter.

Reveal bits of backstory little by little. You can even use this technique to create stronger suspense for your reader as they wait to learn more about a character’s mysterious past.

Give Your Characters Goals

Another essential component to add to your character bible is in identifying character goals.

A goal may be based on a promise or the result of a bet. It might be lofty or earthy.

Critical to the story are the protagonist’s (main character) goals (what he wants), motivation (why he’s going after what he wants), and conflict (conflict with himself, others, their goals, or something in the setting).

He is opposed or challenged by the antagonist, another character with goals and motivations of his own. Their conflict is one of the major drivers of the plot.

Main characters, both protagonist and antagonist, have friends who help them achieve their goals and prevent their opponent from reaching his. Additional characters can enhance the setting and create opportunities for even more conflict. The goals and motivations of these characters can also add depth to a story.

There may be much more to the pursuit of them than a character could ever imagine.

Character goals are character objectives. They are a place a character must reach for or get to, a task he must complete, an enemy or monster he must conquer.

The character desires something. If the desire is strong enough, the character will pursue the goal. If that desire is strong enough and the character is thwarted—especially by someone that the character doesn’t want to get the best of him or her. He or she will work even harder to achieve his or her goal.

The character’s goal may have cause him or her to ignore rules or laws. The character’s goals may push beyond accepted and acceptable behavior. These goals may be so strong that the character physically/mentally/spiritually ruining the character’s reputation.

Character goals move the novel forward. Without character goals, the story goes nowhere. Disorganized goals prove to be aimless and without direction. Without character goals, a novel has little purpose and have an incomplete structure.

He has goals that drive him, that allow him no respite because someone’s going to die if he doesn’t achieve them. If he fails, someone’s going to hate him forever, or greatly disappointed. Perhaps he will disappoint himself, or he’ll let somebody down.

Types of Character Goals

Your main character’s goal may be an immediate gratification goal, a save-the-world goal, or a private-self goal.

The short-term immediate gratification goals are important to move a story from scene to scene, but for a book, your character needs long term goals. Easy goals or short-term goals may come into play for a scene or for several chapters (think subplots), but characters need potent long-term goals to get them through everything thrown at them.

The saving the world goal is ideal for some genre novels. Your protagonist might literally save the world. However, not all save-the-world goals are literally about saving the world. These are simply external goals that a character reaches for outside himself and saves his little world in some way.

In addition to saving the world, save the world goals includes things like: save the princess, recover a treasure, discover a new world where mankind can make a fresh start, destroy the enemy, uncover the plot, diffuse the bomb, neutralize the pathogen, identify the murderer, get a wife back, graduate from college, or complete a masterpiece.

Protecting the self, the third goal type, would work well for a literary novel. Here, the protagonist might have to discover who he is, or try to hide his nature from others to protect himself from some sort of harm. He may try to protect the status quo and not rock the boat. Perhaps he takes the other extreme and decided to shake things up so that he can discover who he is and where he’s from. This protecting-the self is an internal goal and is often much more personal than the external kind.

Personal or internal goals: prove himself, to not be found wanting, be a success, persevere, show himself a better man than his father (or better than his father’s predictions), succeed or die trying, make it one more day, not kill himself, do it alone, ask for help, show himself a friend, love unconditionally, love for the first time.

You could also use both saving the world and self-protecting goals. This set up creates a powerful story and riveting characters. You could drive him relentlessly, playing the goals off each other so he has no choice but to succeed, no option to turn back.

Coming Up

Next week we’ll dig a little deeper into the most important characters in your story—the protagonist and the antagonist.

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If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.


Time to Edit Your First Draft

Last month, we went over Story ARCs using them to assess the plots both the main plot and subplots of your novel. This month we’ll be switching gears and looking at the characters in your novel. This week we’ll begin our discussion about characters.

Effective sub-lots create layers and depth, however, characters with complex lives and histories and competing goals create layers and depth Without fleshed-out characters, fiction seems flat. Individual scenes may seem exciting, but there’s no emotion or involvement in the scene. The reader has no one with which to relate. Without well-developed characters, the reader cannot feel emotion for a character he doesn’t know, one he doesn’t care about. The reader can’t care about an under-developed character who’s nothing more than a stick figure without thought, dreams, goals or motivations. As the writer, you are responsible for creating characters that connect with the reader.

Develop a Character Bible

Have you ever read a book and realized that the writer has changed some aspect of a specific character’s life? Perhaps the character’s eye color had changed from blue to brown or perhaps a character born in New Jersey was now from Chicago. A character bible can help prevent this kind of mistake from happening in your book.

The way to avoid this type of mistake in characterization is to create character sketches in a character bible.

A character bible is a collection of facts or sketches about each specific character. This collection of character sketches includes the character’s physical characteristics If noted changes occur in the physical appearance of the character prior to or during the novel, it is important to include those changes. A character bible is especially important if you are going to use these characters in an ongoing series. You’ll want to keep your characters consistent from one book to the next. If you don’t, your readers will notice.

It is, very important to keep the character’s appearance consistent throughout your novel. Your character’s physical characteristics like hair color, height, weight, and eye color need to remain consistent. In addition, other vital statistics like the character’s age and marital status are also important.

Character Tags

Ethnic variations and speech patterns also need to be accounted to each character as well as character tags.

A character tag is a repetitive verbal device used to identify a character in the mind of the reader. More than a simple description, a character tag calls to mind aspects of the character’s personality and uniqueness. Character tags may be drawn from any aspect of the character’s appearance or behavior such as voice, gestures, body carriage, dialect and speech mannerisms, hair, type of clothing he/she wears, scent, and mental state.

Some characters in a novel may appear only a few times, but the most minor character needs a character tag or two to make the character more memorable.

Novel Character Personality

It helps to flesh out a character’s personality as well. To dig deeper into character personalities, it helps to get to understand various personality times. One way is through using the sixteen personality types used in Myers-Brigs Personality assessments. Another is to use the personalities of the various zodiac signs.

Based on one or a combination of both the Myers-Brig Personality assessment and the personalities of the signs of the zodiac, you then ask questions of the character to determine more about his or her individual personality and to discover the character’s hidden history and qualities. You can use the questions from my free Novel Editing Check List that I’ve created (get the list free by clicking here) or you can make up your own.

Ask Questions About Your Characters

Use the questions—and your character’s answers—as the basis for creating story situations and other characters that bring out the more colorful or emotional sides of your main characters.

If you want one character to get under the skin of another, to push his buttons again and again until that second character simply must explode in reaction, then you must know that character even better than the first character does. You must design the elements that set a character up to have his buttons pushed. You must develop and use triggers that will make characters react to stimuli specifically designed to do just that.

This kind of knowledge is especially needed in romantic novels so that the sparks that fly between the female and male leads appear genuine. When you’ve connected with the characters’ emotional triggers in your writing, your reader will also feel those emotional triggers and empathize with your characters.

This knowledge can also help you design both action and reaction. Coming up with such triggers on your own can be difficult when you’re deep into a character’s story, so having the character bible available with each character’s appearance and personality available will help remind you of details about your characters. A well-developed character personality profile can also help determine what a specific character is likely to do when presented with an obstacle to that character’s goal. For instance, is this character likely to run from the problem or stand up and fight? If he or she fails once, is he or she likely to give up?

Create Scenarios

When you know your characters, you can devise situations that make those characters respond. And respond at different levels of intensity, levels appropriate to the stimulus and to the moment in the story and in ways that will increase conflict slowly or blow it through the roof.

Use your questions (and the answers) to design characters and story events that feed off one another, that connect and drive the story.

Once you get to know your characters, you’ll be able to write more convincing and enthralling fiction. You’ll be able to manipulate all the characters and story events and bring out the best and the worst in them.

Looking Forward to Next Week

You’ve got a good start in developing your character with getting to know your characters by getting to know their appearances and personality, but you’re just starting to get to know your characters. Next, you’ll determine your characters’ own personal back stories and goals. That will be the subject of next week’s post.

Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.



Time to Edit Your First Draft

Last week we discussed how to plot out the main story ARC. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out now by clicking here. Dramatic structure in successful novels don’t unfold in one single, grand ARC. Fiction is rich with story lines that lead readers down the road and around the bend and over the rainbow. This week we will be discussing subplot and secondary story ARCs and how they can enrich your story.

Plots entwine readers in the lives and adventures of characters they’ve just met and characters they know well. Good plots snare readers from page one. They make it impossible for readers to turn away, impossible to keep from following characters through the most troubling periods of their lives.

Impossible to put the books down. That’s where subplots make the difference 


Several smaller sequences of rising and falling action within the larger story develop themes and secondary characters. If your book is part of a series, you’ll likely combine multiple arcs to sustain interest and tension within a larger, overarching plot arc.

Even if you’re not writing a series, creating smaller arcs within your main dramatic arc has multiple benefits. First, you’ll have other sources of tension and interest during your story where primary conflicts move to the background. These smaller ARCs help you develop your characters and central themes. Smaller arcs supply additional stake and add tension. For example, you can develop the secondary relationships for the characters that make the primary plot even more powerful.

Make Your Story’s Middle Fluctuate more to Sustain Interest

A common problem in many novice novels is a sagging middle of the story that loses momentum. Don’t cause your reader to wander off, never to return. Instead, create more drama in the middle that sustains your reader’s interest.

One of my favorite ways to shake up the middle is to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen here and then make it happen. That can often be done with a subplot.

What is a sub-plot?

A sub-plot is simply a secondary story line. It could be a love story in a mystery or suspense novel, a child’s death and its fallout or a business dilemma and its ramifications in any style of story, or even a health issue dealt with by one of the major characters.

A love story between secondary characters is a popular sub-plot in some contemporary romances.

Sub-plots are used to give depth to characters. They allow characters to have interests other than the singular one dealt with in the major plot. They are a way to reveal more of a character’s personality.

Sub-plots are also a way to distract characters from their stated course, a method for keeping them off balance when all their attention should be focused on the main problem.

Secondary plots are great for piling on problems. You want to make a character feel overwhelmed and overburdened? Add another problem through a sub-plot.

Think distraction, diversion, unbearable weight. Think of the character who’s already at the breaking point with one issue now having to face another heart-breaking or life-altering issue. Or maybe it’s not an issue that’s of major importance to him, but one that is important to someone he loves.

How does a character handle someone else’s life and death issue?

Adding an emotion-charged sub-plot works well to tie your characters in knots, change their way of thinking, push them into risks.

Look for a way to add not only a different level of problem, but a different type of problem.

Give a character a physical or emotional dilemma if the major plot line deals with a psychological problem. Attack your character’s family or his home, his health, his friends.

Challenge his dreams or career goals.

Twist the knife. Make him choose between fixing one problem and pursuing the other.

Beware the Subplot Take-over

However, never forget that your main plot should carry the story’s focus.

Don’t give your secondary plots more dynamic words or more dashing events than the main plot. Don’t give them more page space and emphasis. Don’t involve more characters in a side plot than the main one.

Don’t make a sub-plot’s climax and resolution more exciting than the one for your main story line.

Sub-plots don’t have to affect protagonist or antagonist directly. A sub-plot touches the main story, but it doesn’t always require direct action on the part of the main character or his antagonist.

Avoid Digression (Most of the Time)

Literary digression is a deliberate ploy of writers to steer story away from the main plot. One of its uses in the past was to add explanations or to allow the writer to delve into the history or purpose of some element they included in the story. Digression is the writer showing off his knowledge and what he learned while researching his book.

Digression definitely stops the forward motion of a story and reminds readers they are reading something that never happened. It pulls them out of the events you so carefully arranged and crafted to seem real.

However, digression can be used in a positive way. You can create little rabbit trails and small offshoots of the main story.

These digressions are not as fully integrated into the story as a sub-plot. Nor are they as complex. A good use of a digression might include a line or two of commentary.

However, like chocolate sprinkles, a little bit goes a long way. A digression can be added into the main story line with little notice by the reader. Little notice, that is, that the digression really has no true part in the unfolding plot.

Picture digressions not so much as plots or sub-plots but as author asides.

If you’re writing a mystery where you might want to mislead the reader, a digression—on the short term—can be good. On the long term can be a problem for the reader. A reader should never be aware that the author intruded with a digression. Digressions, if noticed, break down the wall between fiction and the real world.

Sub-plots must have a Purpose

They should have meaning for the story and the characters without becoming the major focus.

Sub-plots should, like every other element in story, work to advance the main plot, reveal character, and/or increase conflict. They can also stir reader emotion or affect tone.

They must work to advance the main plot.

Like main plots, sub-plots need beginning points, high moments, climaxes, and resolutions. They need their own ARC.

Don’t Leave a Sub-Plot Hanging

Don’t leave sub-plots dangling—unless you plan to complete them in another book. And if you do, make sure readers know that’s in the plan.

You might forget you’ve left a sub-plot without resolution, but your readers won’t. That’s why diagraming your sub-plots are as important as diagraming the main plot.

Subplots Must Enhance Your Story

Sub-plots can cure a flat story and keep the story full. It helps characters become multi-dimensional. (More about character development next week). Sub-plots can pile on the problems for the main character and can set up characters for a multi-book series. Sub-plots can also distract characters and readers so that they don’t catch on too quickly.

However, they can also distract from the main storyline and be more fascinating than the main story and take over. They can turn the reader’s focus to relatively unimportant events or characters.

They can also be unresolved and leave the readers dissatisfied. Sub-plots can also be too cliched and boring and dilute the impact of the main plot. A sub-plot might even pull the reader away from the fiction if the sub-plot doesn’t fit the main plot or the style or tone of the rest of the story.

Use sub-plots to create layers and depth to enhance your fiction and make your characters seem more real. By giving characters multiple plot lines, they will be more like the rest of us.

Modern fiction doesn’t make much use of true literary digression, but a momentary digression here or there might work for your stories. If, however, you intend to keep readers immersed in the fiction, stay away from digressions.

Write engrossing plots and use sub-plots to your benefit. Save your fascinating research for your blog or nonfiction article.

Though we started our editing process with the story line, the emphasis of your story may be character driven rather than plot driven, and next week we will be diving into getting to know our characters better.

Readers come for the characters, to see how they’ll overcome the obstacles of their lives. Or, viewed from the other side, they come for a plot that entertains, one that influences character behavior and thought. A story that changes a character’s life. As this process continues, you’ll have to determine (if you haven’t already) how you want your story driven. Next week we discuss developing our characters.

This week, flesh out and compare your subplots to your main plot. Do they enhance your main storyline or are they too much? Do they help improve what would be a saggy middle? Do they come to a satisfying end or do you leave the audience hanging? If you do leave it hanging, is it a set up for a sequel and how will you let the audience know? Are there any obvious digressions that need to be amended? How will you amend them?

Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.


Get Ready to Edit the First Draft


Time to Edit Your First Draft

Last week we learned that we have three basic editing steps-content editing, line editing, and proofreading. We read through our manuscript and determined the various story lines of the story and color coded each of these story lines as they weave throughout the story. To read this post, click here.

Develop Better Story Lines

Stories don’t merely happen simply by throwing a couple of characters into a setting. You must write the story. You must show the reader what’s important, where to focus.

You must create a mood and choose words to elicit an emotional response from the reader.

You create the path for characters to follow, a path that readers will also be willing to follow.

This week we are going to look at the foundation of the story line called the “Story ARC” to determine whether our story is well-structured. If you are a Plotter like I am, you probably worked with story ARCs when outlining and writing your draft, and you may have subconsciously created your ARCs if you’re a Pantzer who writes a book as he goes along, writing by the seat of his pants. However, in either case, it’s imperative you re-evaluate this aspect of your novel again once the first draft is completed.

What is a Story ARC and how do I use this in my editing process to improve my main story line?

A story ARC in a novel is the development or resolution of the narrative or principal theme. Many novels contain four or six-issue ARCs, the primary arc and secondary ones.

Story arcs are the overall shape of rising and falling tension or emotion in a story. This rise and fall occurs through plot and character development.

The term “story arc” was coined in 1988 regarding a television series and quickly adopted for other uses. However, the idea regarding a story ARC is not new (Aristotle (367 BC – 347 BC) wrote about effective dramatic structure:

‘A whole should have a beginning, middle and an end… A well-constructed plot … must neither begin nor end at haphazard.’

In other words, a strong story ARC shows rise and fall, cause and effect in a way that makes sense.

The Purpose of the Story ARC

If something seems amiss in the storyline, the first place to look for a problem is often in the story ARCs.

The purpose of a story ARC is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change. This change or transformation often takes the form of either tragic fall from grace or a reversal of that pattern. One common form in which this reversal is found is a character going from a situation of weakness to one of strength. For example, a poor man goes on adventures and in the end makes a fortune.

Story ARCs often follow the pattern of bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends on, then forcing the character to find new strength without those supports. In a story ARC, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends in the last few chapters of a story.

Every classic plot passes through several stages and should be used as points in the writing process. These stages are statis, trigger, the quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, and resolution

Stages of the Story ARC


This is the “everyday life” in which the story is set. For instance, a group of teens could be riding in a car talking about one of their friends at school and how he’s such a “nerd”.


Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the trigger which sparks off the story. For instance, in our scenario, the car hits a pothole and the car veers into the opposing lane of traffic and the car is struck by a semi-truck.

The quest

The trigger results in a quest – an unpleasant trigger—for instance, the hero/heroine may have to deal with survivor’s guilt and the quest might involve a quest to return to the status quo. A pleasant trigger might be that no one was hurt in the accident, and the hero/heroine has a vision where he/she is to do some quest toward further enlightenment.

In the case of the story above, the protagonist could have to fight back from a debilitating injury and deal with family members of dead friends.


This stage involves not one but several elements and takes up most of the middle part of the story. “Surprise” includes pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.

Surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable – they need to be unexpected, but plausible. The reader must be made to think “I should have seen that coming!”

For instance, a surprise could be that the boy that they were talking bad about in the car could bring her flowers while she is still at the hospital.

Another could be overhearing her boyfriend say that he was only still with her because he didn’t want to look like the bad guy. He said that he planned to break up with her after a specific dance that he had asked her to attend.

Critical choice

At some stage, your protagonist needs to make a critical choice. This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. The character must decide to take a specific direction – not just something that happens by chance.

In many classic stories, the “critical choice” involves choosing between a good, but hard, path and a bad, but easy, one.

For instance, the girl could have to choose to go to a dance with her boyfriend who was just taking her to the dance out of pity or go with the nerdy boy who really likes her and her friends would make fun of her.

In tragedies, the unhappy ending often stems from a character making the wrong choice at this point – Romeo poisoning himself on seeing Juliet supposedly dead, for example.

In this case, the girl could make the decision to go to the dance with her boyfriend and bring a gun with her shoot him at the dance before he can tell her that he wants to break up with her.


The critical choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension, in your story.

In the case of our story it could be that the girl is standing on the dance floor her hand in her pocket shaking as it touches the cold steel of the gun in her purse ready to shoot the old boyfriend.


The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the status of the characters – especially your protagonist.

Your story reversals should be inevitable and probable. Nothing should happen for no reason, changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story should unfold as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.

In the story line we’ve created, let’s say that she looks over to the corner and sees the nerdy boy has come to the dance and their eyes meet. She decides that the old boyfriend isn’t worth the trouble and removes her hand from the purse and breaks up with him.


The resolution is a return to a fresh stasis – one where the characters should be changed, wiser and enlightened, but where the story being told is complete.

Our heroine goes to the nerdy boy and asks him to dance and he accepts. The story ends with the two of them dancing.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

You can borrow from archetypal plot ARCs which are core types of narratives based on the protagonist (main character involved in the ARC). These are called archetypal because they follow common patterns that countless stories are based upon. The six core types are:

1. Rags to Riches (a complete rise)

2. Riches to Rags (a fall)

3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)

4. Icarus (rise then fall)

5. Cinderella (rise, then fall, then rise)

6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Use the ‘5 W’s’ to plan each Story ARC

‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ are the basic building blocks of any story. When you think about it, stories are basically the 5 w’s plus change. As you’re reviewing your own story ARCs, think about how each might change and impact your story ARC in the process. When reviewing and editing how your plot arc developed, ask:

1. How did the cast of my story (the ‘who’) grow or diminish? In what ways did new central or secondary characters create extra tension, plot complications or emotional impact?

2. What new character motivations (the ‘why’) or external forces affected the course of the primary story ARC? For example: Did a misguided motivation lead to a fall, followed by enlightenment and change?

3. How did the story setting change (the ‘when’ and ‘where’) and what did this add to story ARCs? Could relocating setting increase tense and drama?

4. One thing that shouldn’t change is your story’s ‘what’. To maintain cohesiveness, the subject matter and themes of your novel need to maintain some relation to each other.

Create a Diagram of Your Story ARCs

To get a strong sense of your novel’s action, it helps to create a visual representation of your story’s structure. Use the archetypal plot ARC type you used as your template. Plot your novel’s core events and themes on this timeline. By visualizing your story this way, you can find ways to add reversals and turns of events that sustain narrative tension and keep the readers guessing. The color coding that you did last week should help you develop this diagram.

Update Your Storylines

Once you have created your Story ARCs, it’s time to start your second draft. What I like to do is open a new document and mark it as the second draft of this book. On this document, I fill in the Story ARCs and include any corresponding details from the first draft.

Get Your Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist

If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.


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