revenge story

How Do You Write a Revenge Story (That Stuns Readers)

What makes a good revenge plot?

Revenge plots are structured pretty similarly to mysteries, when it comes down to it. Instead of solving a mystery, though, the main characters are plotting revenge, often in the form of murder. This involves a similar amount of investigating, especially if the perpetrator is in hiding or the main character doesn’t know their location. 

A Strong Motive 

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First things first, we need a strong motive for revenge. You want the motive to more or less justify what our main character does in their pursuit for revenge.

You also want the motive to justify what the main character does when they get revenge—if the main character is getting revenge for a stolen lunchbox and ends up beheading the thief, we’re probably not really going to root for the main character’s violence. 

The audience needs to see what the perpetrator did to justify this level of drama, and we need to believe the perpetrator deserves it. At least, this is the case if you want your main character to be perceived as morally good. If you want your reader to think your main character is bad, maybe the motive isn’t all that tempting. Still, it should be obvious why your main character feels the way they feel, even if the reader doesn’t agree. 

For example: In John Wick, the story opens with a mobster stealing John’s dog. This dog is the last thing John has of his recently deceased wife. This thievery triggers John’s revenge quest to get his dog back—while some people might not have done the same thing in John’s shoes, the story is set up so that you understand clearly why John feels he needs to do what he does. 

The Revenge is Difficult to Get 

Second, revenge can’t come easy. In an action-adventure, it would be super underwhelming if the main characters just defeated the villain the first time they saw him, like it was no big deal. You want setbacks, obstacles, and mini-defeats to make revenge feel difficult. This makes it more satisfying when our main character finally gets what they wanted. 

The Revenge is High-Stakes 

Not only should revenge be difficult to get, but it should be vital. Again, this means the character needs to feel that they must have revenge in order to move on with their lives—dropping the issue isn’t an option. 

It also means that, if possible, there should be stakes to getting revenge. Maybe the killer is going to hurt someone else if the main character doesn’t catch up to them in time. Maybe the killer is part of some bigger, more dangerous operation which needs to be taken down for the greater good. 

This isn’t a must, but it can help up the drama and expand the story. 

Compelling Characters — a good hero, victim, and perpetrator 

A good revenge story needs a good cast of characters. At minimum, you’ll need some sort of victim (the person wronged by the perpetrator), the perpetrator or villain themselves, and the hero. The hero might also be the victim, or the victim might be someone close to the hero. 

The victim should be someone with whom the audience sympathizes. No one cares if a terrible person gets avenged. You don’t want to make this character a one-dimensional defenseless little angel, either, but the audience should feel that the victim was wronged and want justice for that wrongdoing. 

The hero should also be someone with whom the audience sympathizes. Even if your hero is more of an antihero operating in a moral grey area, the audience should still be at least interested in what they’re doing. If they just seem like a jerk with no real motive, it’s not going to be a good read—it’s going to feel like a miserable slog with no narrative substance. 

Finally, you need a good perpetrator. Again, avoid making this character one-dimensional and plainly evil—a moustache-twirling supervillain will probably feel fake on the page. However, you do want your reader to feel strongly about whether our main character gets revenge on them. 

For an example of this done well, look at season four of Game of Thrones. In this season, Oberyn Martell travels to King’s Landing from Dorne. We learn that the Mountain, who’s basically a massive killing machine, killed and defiled Elia (Oberyn’s sister) and her children. We have a sympathetic victim—if the audience doesn’t feel bad for Elia, for whatever reason, they certainly feel bad for her babies—and we have a sympathetic hero. Oberyn is, generally speaking, one of the kinder characters in the show. We also have a compelling villain in the Mountain, who has been awful since the start. 

Revenge story structure

Let’s talk about how to set up a revenge story. 

Start with the Wrongdoing 

Revenge stories and mystery stories alike should open with a hook—we see the injustice happen, and it’s dramatic and interesting and we’re left with a need to see this problem solved. This might not necessarily involve your main character, and that’s alright. The idea is to create a problem, immediately, which the reader will want to see solved. 

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Plotting Revenge (setbacks) 

We’ve had our wrongdoing, and now it’s time to get revenge. This is where we meet our main character and surrounding cast, and it’s where we learn more about them, what they want, and why they want it. This is also where they’re going to do their scheming, plotting, and pursuing. 

In a mystery, authors include red herrings to throw the reader and the main character off the perpetrator’s scent. In a revenge plot, authors include missed opportunities. Maybe the protagonist came to the wrong town, or maybe they got so close to cutting the villain’s head off before the villain made a narrow escape. This is where you make the revenge difficult to get. 

The Confrontation 

This is the climax of the revenge plot—finally, the hero comes face to face with the villain. This can go one of two ways: they get revenge, or they don’t. If they don’t get revenge, it’s usually because the hero has a lesson to learn about how revenge isn’t always the best way forward and won’t actually solve anything. If they do get revenge, it’s usually treated as a bittersweet victory. The hero won, but it was a long, bloody road to get here—the hero might get revenge and then learn that revenge doesn’t actually solve anything to make the victory bittersweet. 

The Ending 

Your hero rides off into the sunset! Or maybe they don’t. However the story shakes out, this is where we see where everyone ended up, and it’s where our themes are hammered home. Is our hero finally at peace, having gotten revenge on her assailant? Is she harrowed by the murder she’s committed and still feels incomplete despite her revenge? Here’s where we talk about that! 

How to find revenge story ideas

If you’re looking to write a revenge story of your own but don’t know where to start, here are a few tips to help you find an idea: 

Read revenge stories 

As with any other genre, you’ll want to read widely. Check out other revenge stories. There’s plenty of classics (I’ve got a few for you later), but there’s also plenty of contemporary examples in both book and television form. Get a feel for how these stories play out, what sorts of tropes are used, and how the endings work, and let them inspire you. 

Dig through the news 

Turning to real-world events is a fantastic way to spark your imagination. The news is full of stories about crime, from small-town robberies to white collar crime and everything in between. 

You don’t want to use real, literal people and the tragedies they’ve undergone, but you might find some patterns or trends which inspire a story of your own. Reading how these things are treated by the news might also give you a realistic idea of how difficult it might be for your main character to get justice in their case. For example, there are real obstacles and difficulties for women in getting their sexual assailants convincted—we see this happen over and over again in the news. Knowing how that works will matter if you want to make your novel believable. 

Try out a writing prompt 

If all else fails, turn to a writing prompt. Writing prompts can help you get your creative gears turning, and even if you don’t love the prompt on its own, they can be a jumping-off point for other ideas. Try taking a prompt and twisting it to make it a revenge plot. What could go wrong with the prompt you’ve been given? How would the protagonist seek justice? 

Examples of revenge stories

I’ve included here a list of revenge stories for you to read—some of these are more recent reads, and some of them are classics, but all of them have revenge at their core. 

The Princess Bride by William Goldman 

Even if you haven’t read this book, you’ve almost definitely heard the famous revenge quote from the movie: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” 

Carrie by Stephen King 

This is a classic example of a horror rooted in revenge. Carrie is tormented by bullies at school, and finally, she decides she’s had enough. Some scholars consider this to be a revenge tragedy, considering it doesn’t exactly go brilliantly for Carrie in the end. 

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Hamlet by William Shakespeare 

Hamlet is another great example of tragic revenge. Hamlet spends the entire play obsessed with killing his uncle, and this obsession ends up consuming him. 

True Grit by Charles Portis 

True Grit follows a fourteen year old girl who wants revenge for her father’s murder. She seeks out a Deputy Marshal and finds one in the drunk, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, and the two head out in search of the killer. 

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe 

If you’re looking for a shorter read that doesn’t skimp on the drama, this is for you. In the Cask of Amontillado, our completely oblivious protagonist wanders deep into a wine cellar, where he’s entombed alive. This piece is fantastic because it uses the oblivious nature of the first person protagonist to amp up the dramatic tension—we feel like something is wrong, but our main character just can’t hear us yelling at the page. 

What is the greatest revenge story?

Taylor Swift said on her album Speak Now that there is nothing she does better than revenge, and you’d be hard-pressed to prove that “Better Than Revenge” isn’t a banger. 

But seriously, the greatest revenge story in literature is up for debate. Many consider Hamlet to be one of the best, while others will give that award to The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Both are powerful examples, and you can’t go wrong with either. But which do you think is the greatest revenge story of all time? Is it one of these two, or one we haven’t listed here? 

rising action

How to Use Rising Action Effectively

Have you ever gotten stranded while writing your second act? 

It happens to the best of us, even those of us who like to outline. Sometimes we get past the introduction, we write the scenes we’d envisioned, and then we hit this no-man’s-land in the runup to the climax. This can make a first draft lag hard before events just start happening, rapid-fire, before the climax. 

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This section of your work is usually the rising action. It’s one of the simplest parts to understand and locate in other pieces of work, but putting it together yourself can be surprisingly difficult. 

In this article, we’ll talk about what rising action is, how to write it, and where you can find examples of rising action to reference later. Let’s get started! 

This guide to rising action covers:

  1. What is rising action?
  2. How to write rising action
  3. Examples of rising action

What is rising action?

In the simplest terms, rising action is the list of plot points which lead to the culmination of your novel, or the climax. It falls after the inciting incident—your characters are introduced, something triggers their adventure, then there’s rising action until the climax. 

For a clearer understanding of how rising action works, let’s take a look at Freytag’s Pyramid. 

Consider the graph of Freytag’s Pyramid below: 

rising action diagram

Here, ‘exposition’ covers the introduction, where we meet our characters and their world and get a sense of what kind of conflicts they might have. Then, something happens which sets the plot in motion—this is the inciting incident. Think of the first Hobbit movie when Bilbo leaves the Shire, yelling “I’m going on an adventure!” 

After the inciting incident, you’re in act two. Act two is all about pointing the action toward the climax—everything your characters do from here until the climax is your rising action.

So, when all is said and done, rising action should accomplish the following: 

  1. Bring us closer to the climax 

Authors commonly get stranded writing the rising action because they aren’t writing with the climax in mind. They get lost writing random encounters or ticking off a list of scenes they wanted to include, but they’re not thinking about how those encounters or scenes will result in the climax of the novel. 

You should be able to draw a line from each piece of rising action directly to the climax. Think cause-and-effect. Because of the last scene, what’s happening now? If you can’t think of anything that ought to happen as a direct result of the last scene, it’s probably because that last scene didn’t do anything to change the status quo. What they do next will feel arbitrary, when it should feel essential. 

  1. Challenge the characters 

You want your story to earn its climax because you want your characters to really earn their rewards. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be half as fun to watch if Cersei shrugged and decided to give the throne to someone else—she’s holding on to it with all she’s got, so everyone has to fight for it with all they’ve got, and that’s where interesting things start happening. 

  1. Raise the stakes 

Rising action should raise the stakes. Again, think about earning that climax. You want the most (believably) dramatic, satisfying win for your protagonist, which means you’ve got to up the stakes to make it more and more impressive when they do win. Don’t be afraid to make your characters experience real discomfort, loss, and significant setbacks along their journey. This is how they grow! 

  1. Explore the world 

Rising action is where you’ll be exploring your characters, pushing them to their limits, and exploring the world you’ve put them in. Show us some cool stuff! If we’re going on a journey far from home, make the landscape as much of a villain as the evil warlock. Give us interesting secondary characters to add flavor to the world and to our hero’s journey. 

How to write rising action

How do you write rising action without falling into no-man’s-land? Here are a few pointers: 

Know where your story’s headed 

Don’t worry—I won’t force you to outline if you don’t want to. Outlines aren’t for everyone, and that’s completely fine. However, understanding where your story is headed (specifically having an idea of the climax) will help you out. If you know where you’re going, you’ll have a better time getting there, and you’ll be able to factor that end goal in when you’re thinking about what your characters should do. 

Understand your character arcs 

This is in the same vein as the last point, but have an idea for where you want your characters to end up. Even if you don’t have an idea for what exactly the climax will be, you could at least keep in mind what you want the ending to look like. Do your characters win the war, for example, or lose it? Does one of them become king? Do they get together in the end, or break up? 

Having this in mind will also help you know what to set up in the rising action. 

Challenge the status quo 

If your second act is full of random scenes with little impact on the story itself, it might feel a little like nothing happens until the climax. To make your story interesting, you have to introduce changes to the status quo. Break and re-break your characters so they grow, change, and work towards that climax or endgame idea. 

Raise the stakes 

How are you going to challenge the status quo? You’re going to raise the stakes higher and higher and higher. 

Find new ways to make the journey difficult for your character. To use Game of Thrones as an example again (and spoilers for season three, by the way): Jaime Lannister gets captured by the Starks, and Brienne of Tarth is tasked with taking him back to King’s Landing. The goal of the writer is to make this entire ordeal as difficult as possible. So, how do we do that? 

Brienne and Jaime hate each other. Both of them get captured, and just when we’ve gotten used to that, Jaime’s hand gets cut off. It’s one disaster after another after another, and no character or appendage is sacred in making the journey brutal. 

The reason why Jaime’s character arc is so satisfying to watch is he loses everything—-his sword hand, and by extension his ability to fight, is vital to his core identity. We watch him slog in the mud and drink horse pee and struggle endlessly until, finally, he starts becoming a better person. It’s satisfying because it’s hard-won, and it’s a great lesson in rising action for us all. 

Don’t forget about payoff 

Rising action is basically setting up the payoff we’ll see in the climax and falling action. You’ll have smaller instances of setup and payoff sprinkled in throughout your novel, but these pieces are the big character-arc things. While you’re writing the rising action, think about how it’s going to pay off in a later scene. Maybe you have a scene where one character reveals a history of substance abuse—in a later scene, if there’s a new character struggling with that issue, we’ll expect that character to have some kind of connection to them. 

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Keep track of where your characters are and what’s happening, and make sure you’re paying off what you set up. If we have a character who’s a sharpshooter, for example, and this is showcased a hundred times throughout the book, we’ll be confused and disappointed if they could use this skill but don’t, for no reason, in the climax. 

Examples of rising action

Check out these examples of rising action to get a better sense of what this looks like in practice: 

Shrek 

In Shrek, the rising action is everything that occurs after the magical fairytale creatures crash Shrek’s swamp. His journey to question Lord Farquaad, his encounter at the tournament, and the journey to and from Fiona’s castle all fall under rising action. Everything is geared toward the climax, where Shrek stops Fiona from marrying Farquaad because he’s fallen in love with her. 

In other words, the rising action is where Shrek learns to love someone else, and in turn, love himself. This takes him into the climax, where he has to act to save Fiona (and himself) from an unhappy life apart. 

Twilight 

In Twilight, the plot can be a little hard to track—-a lot of romances rely more heavily on character-driven storytelling as opposed to plot-driven storytelling, and this is a great example. Our rising action here is really everything that happens after Bella learns that Edward is a vampire. His being a vampire is the thing that kicks the plot into gear, and after that, the stakes are raised until we get to the climax, where Bella is attacked. 

The rising action in Twilight includes the baseball sequence. The Cullens take Bella to the baseball field, and Victoria and her friends crash the party. This is where we get the first real hint that Bella is in serious danger here—-the stakes are raised. It’s not just Edward who might snap, but we have to worry about these other vampires, too. 

The Hunger Games 

The Hunger Games’s inciting incident is when Katniss decides to volunteer as tribute in place of her sister, Primrose, for the Hunger Games. After this, we launch into the rising action. She’s taken to the Capitol, where she has to learn how to play diplomacy games, and finally she’s taken into the arena to actually play the Games. 

Everything between her decision to volunteer and her final showdown with Kato at the Cornucopia is the rising action. Everything she does takes her to the moment she decides to use nightlock with Peeta and dupe the Games into letting them both leave the arena alive. The lessons she learns and the bond she shares with Peeta all lead up to this, as well—if she hadn’t learned to play the Games and if she hadn’t grown closer to Peeta, she may have chosen a different route. 

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Beauty and the Beast 

In Beauty and the Beast, the inciting incident occurs when Maurice gets lost in the woods and captured by the Beast. Everything after this is rising action, up until the moment Belle breaks the curse in the climax. 

Belle refusing Gaston’s proposal is rising action, which is paid off when he fights the Beast and loses. Her decision to become the Beast’s prisoner so that her father can be released launches her love story with the Beast, and much of the rising action is the Beast learning to be less of an awful person around Belle. 

how to write a mystery

How to Write a Mystery Story (That Will Grip Readers)

For the longest time, I thought mysteries were impossible to write.

That’s partly by design—a compelling mystery will pull the rug out from under your feet and make you wonder how you missed the conclusion, which now feels obvious. It surprises and excites you, and it makes you want to go back and look at all the clues and details you might have missed along the way.

This can make a mystery feel like a hugely difficult feat, and this is why many writers will steer away from writing mysteries altogether. But mysteries aren’t inherently more difficult to write than any other genre! There’s just a few tricks you’ll need to help you along your way. 

In this article, we’ll talk about what mystery stories are, what makes for a good mystery, how to create mystery (even if you’re writing in a different genre), and how to structure and write a mystery novel.

This guide on how to write a mystery covers:

  1. What is a mystery story?
  2. What makes a good mystery?
  3. How do authors create mystery?
  4. How to write a mystery story

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What is a mystery story?

First things first: what is a mystery?

A mystery novel’s core plot revolves around solving a specific crime or string of crimes.

Mystery novels also tend to have their own set of tropes which come as a result of their plot. The loner detective, the anonymous killer narrator, and the femme fatale are all examples of tropes unique to the mystery novel.

What makes a good mystery?

Before we can get into how to write a mystery, we first have to consider what makes a mystery good. If you’re familiar with writing novels or plot structures, some of these tips may look familiar to you—these tricks will make any novel more engaging and interesting, but they’re absolutely essential to a mystery.

High stakes crime

If you’re writing a mystery novel for adults, it’s going to be hard to get your readers to care if the crime is inconsequential. No one’s going to stay glued to the page if the protagonist is trying to prevent a string of break-ins at the YMCA lockers—it doesn’t feel important enough. This is why so many mysteries revolve around serial killers. Having the perpetrator kill people immediately raises the stakes and engages the reader. This person is dangerous, and we want the protagonist to catch the perpetrator in time before another innocent person dies.

You also want your protagonist to be connected to the stakes in some way—maybe their job is on the line if they can’t catch the killer, or maybe they know someone the killer means to target. Giving your protagonist a personal connection to the stakes will make them more invested, and by extension, the reader will be more invested, too.

Red herrings

A ‘red herring’ is basically a false lead. It’s something that the protagonist and the reader believe is the answer, but which actually isn’t. Maybe the detective thinks the wrong person committed the crime, or maybe they stake out the wrong house looking for the perpetrator.

Having believable red herrings will make the reader believe that this mystery is a tough one to solve, and it’ll make it much more satisfying when the detective finally gets it right in the end. 

A good protagonist or detective

Readers follow the protagonist or detective through the entire mystery, so it’s important that this character is compelling. Often, the protagonist is a detective, police officer, private eye, or sleuth, because this makes for an easy start to the story—they solve crimes for a living, and this is one of them.

However, it can also be interesting to use characters with no background in solving crimes. In fact, having an underprepared character can make for a compelling read. Your average reader also probably doesn’t know much about solving mysteries, so they’ll be able to relate to the protagonist’s underpreparedness, and they’ll root for the character’s transformation from everyday woman to hardened detective.

A believable conclusion

A good mystery novel needs a believable conclusion. The reader should be able to re-read the story and find all the details they missed which led to the final reveal. If the final reveal is random or set up poorly, the reader isn’t going to feel dazzled or surprised. They’re just going to feel cheated. No one could have figured it out if it came from nowhere, which makes the entire reading experience up to the reveal feel like a waste of time.

How do authors create mystery?

Now that we know which elements to include in a compelling mystery, let’s talk about how to make those things happen on the page.

Know more than the characters

Mysteries, at their center, are about revealing information to the reader in such a way that they’re figuring things out alongside the protagonist. This means you need to know every little detail of the crime, its perpetrator, and all the surrounding suspects, crime scenes, and characters.

Create a strong atmosphere

Intrigue and mystery comes from the plot, but it can also come from your story’s setting and atmosphere! Setting your story in a tiny, eerie seaside town can give it an immediately spooky and mysterious ambiance. Setting horrible murders in sunny suburbs can also make for a compelling contrast.

Have multiple suspects with strong motives

In order for the plot to be compelling, we need misdirections, and for the misdirections to be compelling, they need to be strong. If it’s obvious to the reader that the detective is pursuing the wrong suspect, they’ll get frustrated and bored.

To prevent this, have multiple suspects. Again, you should know everything about these people, and these people should be characterized strongly so they stand out to the reader. Think about murder mystery games like Clue—these characters are distinctive. We don’t have to struggle to remember them.

These suspects should also have strong motives and connections to the crime, or at least it should appear that way to the reader.

Don’t tell the reader everything

The reader should be uncovering the mystery alongside the detective. There’s no mystery if the reader already knows everything right off the bat—authors create mystery by revealing just enough information to keep the reader following along and speculating about what might have happened. Too little, and it’s too confusing to follow. Too much, and the game is ruined.

How to write a mystery story

At last, it’s time to talk about how to structure and create your very own mystery novel!

How do you structure a mystery story?

While mysteries will vary a bit by subgenre, most of them contain the following elements:

Step One: The Hook

These are stories about solving crime, and that means the plot should start off with, well, a crime. Think about detective movies: they often begin with an exciting, dramatic scene where a crime is committed. This gets the reader hooked right off the bat and immediately makes them want to find out who is responsible for what they’ve just seen.

Step Two: The Investigation

After we’ve seen the crime, we’ll need to get into the investigation. This is where we meet the detective and our core cast of characters. This is also where we learn about our suspects, the location where the crime took place, and set up all the little pieces that will pay off later.

Step Three: The Red Herrings

Before the detective can solve the case, there have to be some setbacks. Remember, these red herrings need to be believable in order to work, so really dig into the characters and locations to make the detective and the reader both convinced they’re right.

Red herrings also require a bit of practice with pacing. If the book is three hundred pages long and the detective thinks he’s found the killer on page fifty, the reader isn’t going to believe it. This doesn’t mean the detective can’t be wrong—it just means the book shouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on red herrings that are too obvious. It’s better to pick a few compelling misdirections than to constantly misdirect the reader.

Step Four: The Capture and Grand Escape

Finally, the case is solved! This is usually the climax of the novel, and it should be structured as such. There should be some sort of red herring or darkest hour to make the leadup to catching the perpetrator as thrilling as possible. Think of the movies and books you’ve seen—the detective loses their job and the confidence of their spouse chasing a bad lead, or after seeming to respond to the treatment the doctors settled on, the patient suddenly gets worse.

Then, we catch the real bad guy, the detective usually makes some sort of escape from the clutches of said bad guy, and the mystery is solved.

How to write a murder mystery

In a murder mystery, you’ll follow all the regular story beats associated with mystery stories. However, the crime your detective is solving will be murder. This is usually a serial killer, since having previous kills to relate to creates a pattern for the detective to follow.

To make an interesting murder mystery, you need an interesting murderer. What’s this murderer’s weird motive? Do they have some signature way of killing people? What’s the significance of that?

How to write a mystery short story

A mystery short story should be just as compelling as a novel, but, as you may have guessed, shorter.

To make a mystery story shorter without losing out on depth, try focusing on a smaller setting, like a house, small boat, or apartment. Keep the cast of characters as small as possible, and while you should still include red herrings, there should be fewer of them (but they should still be convincing!).

How do you write a fantasy mystery novel?

To write a fantasy novel, take what you know about writing mysteries and apply it to a fantasy setting. Here, you’ll really want to work in elements of the setting and worldbuilding to make the mystery feel unique. The murderer might be using some sort of magic unique to this world, for example, or maybe the crime is happening within a royal family.

To make this work, you’ll need to do the work of explaining enough about the world to the reader that they can pick up on necessary clues. If the murderer is using magic, for example, we need to know how that magic works. Otherwise, the reader has no way of speculating or guessing what might be happening.

How to write a cozy mystery

A cozy mystery contains all the regular pieces of a mystery story, but it’s usually less focused on horrendous violence and more focused on the nuts and bolts of solving the mystery. The setting is usually a small town or a peaceful village, and our detective is probably an amateur who hasn’t ever solved a crime before.

To keep your mystery cozy, look away from graphic depictions of violence. There may still be a serial killer, but we won’t see up-close murder sequences or horrifying dead bodies.

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SPS 141: Creating A Genre, Writing Interesting Books, And The Craziest Marketing Ideas You’ve Ever Heard with AJ Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs is an author, journalist, and speaker. He is the author of The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. His latest book is The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. He has also given several Ted Talks. As you can tell by the titles of his books, he is clever and funny and lives life with curiosity. 

We talk about AJ’s ability to come up with and write unique books and what he’s learned from having four New York Times bestsellers. This episode will be on his marketing efforts and his crazy experiences when writing his books. AJ shares how he starts with a clear, succinct hook and makes the content relevant to multiple markets. He also makes sure that he has a unique angle when reaching out to reporters and other people who can help with marketing his book.

It’s no accident that his titles and ideas are unique. AJ makes a point to spend 15 minutes each day thinking about a topic and then generating unique ideas and angles about that topic. We also learn about AJ’s research and writing methods. He takes extensive notes on his journey and talks to interesting people. He compiles outlines until he has most of the book in the outline. He then breaks down the topic into sections for each chapter until he has a funny and unique story all his own. We also learn some of his unique marketing methods, from the benefits of Ted Talks to sending over 1000 thank you letters to readers. 

Show Highlights

  • [02:09] AJ decided to write The Know-It-All because he is always looking for inspiration and wanted to write about his life. His father started reading the entire encyclopedia but stopped around the letter B. The book was inspired by AJ’s real life experience with his dad.
  • [03:33] AJ generates a lot of ideas but 99% of them are terrible. He spends 15 minutes a day every morning generating ideas. If he’s still thinking about the idea two weeks later there might be something to it. 
  • [05:14] His idea has to be something the audience will get something out of. He also wants to entertain them and make their lives a little bit better. It has to be something he’s passionate about. It has to be patchable in one or two sentences. He also likes to take on projects around big topics.
  • [07:02] Structure is crucial. Every chapter is about 1 part of the main topic. This is how he tackles the big topics. His puzzle book devotes one chapter to each type of puzzle. 
  • [10:22] In order to research his books he takes extensive notes of everything that happens in his life. He tries to take the reader on a journey. It’s good to be ignorant sometimes and ask the dumb questions. AJ also interviews and talks to interesting people.
  • [11:54] He loves to outline. As his outlines get increasingly filled out, his book just appears.
  • [12:37] AJ’s books usually take about two years. 
  • [14:29] At first AJ didn’t market. Now he enjoys it. He tries to blanket the market and get as many mentions as possible. He slices up his topics and creatively shares with audiences where it applies. 
  • [18:56] AJ wrote a book about family trees and how everyone is related. He’s cousins with everyone and this made a great introduction to get an article in The New York Times. Hey, I’m your cousin is a unique way to reach out.
  • [20:57] A unique method AJ used to promote his book on gratitude by writing 1000 thank you letters to his readers. It took him a year-and-a-half to hand write all of the thank-you letters. He got amazing feedback and some readers posted the letters on social media.
  • [24:29] AJ likes his topics for his books to be easy to summarize like his best selling book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible which has the topic of the book in the title.
  • [25:07] He’s also given several Ted Talks that have helped sell his book. He’s also been featured on TV shows. His beard helped with the Bible book. Religious-themed books sell well.
  • [28:46] AJ tries to be driven by curiosity in all of his books. 
  • [31:47] Ted Talks move books. It’s great for visibility and booking other gigs to promote your book. It’s good to have a topic that can be summarized in a Hollywood-style pitch.
  • [33:49] To book a Ted Talk, he would do smaller events and see what resonates with people. He would then send in a pitch.
  • [34:57] A quest is an adventure with a goal. Some readers find it compelling to go along for the journey.
  • [36:06] Original ideas are key. AJ makes an appointment to generate ideas. He doesn’t stop until the end of 15 minutes. Take a topic and spin angles for 15 minutes. 

Links and Resources

how to write in third person

How to Write in Third Person Properly

Picking a point of view for your novel can be tricky. After all, point of view has an enormous impact on the reader’s experience and on the meaning of the text itself. The character we follow will inform a lot of what we see and what we understand as we move through the story. 

While you’re weighing your options, you’ll probably want to take a closer look at third person. It’s maybe the most commonly used point of view, and it’s not an accident that it’s become so popular. In fact, some will even consider third person point of view as the default point of view. 

In this article, we’re going to talk about what third person is and go over some different types of third person point of view. 

This guide on how to write in third person covers:

  1. What is third person point of view?
  2. Why is third person point of view used in writing?
  3. Different types of third person point of view

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What is third person point of view?

In third person point of view, our narrator is a voice that exists outside of the story. The characters will be addressed by their names and appropriate pronouns. 

This is different from the first person in a few ways. In first person, the narrator is our point of view character—-we’re stuck inside their head for the entire story. This means the character’s voice will impact the narration. 

In third person, however, the narrator is like an invisible god, describing things to the audience. We’re not meant to take these descriptions as what the character thinks, necessarily (although this might be the case in third person limited, which we’ll talk about later). We also aren’t meant to assume that the main character is thinking everything that the narrator describes. 

However, the narrator is still describing things from the main character or characters’ point of view. Their perspective is still the central focus of the story. 

Why is third person point of view used in writing?

Why might someone reach for third person point of view? Like I said earlier, this is often considered the default, and it’s not for no reason. 

Basically, third person is simple. It’s easy to understand, and it leaves a little room between the main character and the narrative voice. This means the writer doesn’t necessarily have to factor in the main character’s voice or opinions into everything being written, and the reader doesn’t have to worry quite as much about an unreliable narrator. 

Let’s break this down into a few main points: 

The narrator remains omniscient 

In third person, the narrator remains somewhat objective. This might change if we’re in third person limited or third person close, but for the most part, the narration is impartial to the main character or their feelings. This is why we don’t have to worry as much about unreliable narrators in the third person—an unreliable narrator happens when the point of view character gives us untrustworthy information, making the story subjective. In third person, we have a more objective point of view. 

Third person isn’t always completely omniscient, and we’ll talk more about different types of third person later. 

The writer controls when information is divulged 

Because the third person maintains a degree of separation between the main character and the reader, the reader doesn’t necessarily know what’s going on inside the main character’s head at any given time. This means the writer can withhold information and reveal it when they want to—a character might act in an odd way, but we might not have an explanation for it. 

In first person, however, we would have to have an explanation. It’s almost impossible to conceal information about the main character in the first person because we’re in their head—hiding their reaction or feelings about a given situation is difficult to do. 

Flexibility between locations and characters 

Writing in the third person also gives the writer some flexibility when it comes to locations. In the first person, you’re committed to the point of view of the character—you may have a few different point of view characters, but you probably won’t have many, and while you’re in that character’s point of view, you can’t leave without a scene or chapter break. 

Say, for example, you want to hop between a scene at a diner and a scene in someone’s home. If your point of view character is a detective sitting in the diner, you can’t randomly jump to the scene at someone’s home—the point of view character isn’t there. If you’re writing in the third person omniscient, you can jump to and from that house as you please, and if you’re in third close or third limited, you only need a scene break or something to indicate the change of perspective. 

You also get more room to explore parts of a scene which the main character might not notice. Since the narrative voice is doing the describing, and not the main character, you can play around with what the narration describes more. 

Writers can present the objective truth 

In summary: the third person allows the narrator to present an objective account of events. This makes the story itself easy for the reader to follow, since they don’t have to worry about how the main character’s perspective would otherwise be coloring their account of the story. 

If you’re not sure whether to pick third or first person for your story, here’s a question to ask yourself: does the way the character experiences the story have an impact on the story and its theme? In other words, if we aren’t inside the main character’s head, are we missing out on a huge chunk of the story? If this is the case, then the first person might be for you. Otherwise, third person might give you more leeway. 

Different types of third person point of view

Now that we’ve talked about how third person works, let’s cover a few different types of third person point of view. Unlike with first person, there are a few different types which dramatically change the way the story is told, so it’s important to check up on all of them before deciding what’s right for your story. 

Third person limited

In the third person limited, we are limited to one character’s perspective in a given scene or chapter. This means we only get one character’s perspective, and the reader will only notice and see what this character sees. This is arguably the most subjective point of view among those in the third person, and it’s closest to first person. 

Third person limited is also sometimes referred to as third person close—however, some make a distinction between third person limited and third person close, labelling third person close as the most subjective. In third person close, the experience is almost identical to a first person point of view, except the main character is referred to in the third person. 

If third person limited and third person close can be almost the same as first person, why does it matter which you pick? 

It comes back to that sliver of objectivity. Third person, even when it’s very close, still allows the narrator to withhold a bit more information than would be possible in the first person. It also creates a bit of distance between the main character and the reader just by referring to them in the third person. 

Just to recap: the distance created merely by referring to the main character in the third person is the chief difference between the third person limited and the first person. Third person limited will mean that your main character’s perspective informs a lot of the narrative voice, since we’re noticing what they’re noticing—we’re still very much stuck inside the main character’s head. 

Third person omniscient

When something is written in the third person omniscient point of view, it means that the narrator knows everything that is going on and everything that’s happening. We aren’t limited to one or several characters’ thoughts. The narrator knows what everyone is thinking, planning, and doing, and can go anywhere at any time. 

The obvious pro to this is that the writer has enormous flexibility. Anything can be revealed at any time, and the writer can go anywhere they want to go. The con is that having such a broad lens can take away some of the intimacy gained from a limited perspective. It can also make it harder to know who to focus on and what to follow. 

Third person omniscient is considered one of the most objective points of view, since the accounts of the story we’re given are not coming from any one character, but instead from an invisible narrator. 

An important note: the narrator themselves is not a character in any of these variations on the third person. The narrative voice is the voice which describes what’s going on and lays out the script—in other words, it’s the writing voice. This is not a character unto itself. It’s also not meant to be the writer’s perspective or point of view. Think of narration as a tool used to tell the story. In third person limited, the main character is wielding that tool. In third person omniscient, multiple characters are wielding that tool, which gives us a much wider scope. 

Third person objective

Last but not least, we have third person objective. 

Third person objective, on its face, looks a lot like third person omniscient, because it isn’t tied to any particular character. However, third person objective is completely impartial. It doesn’t know anything about any character’s thoughts or feelings—the third person objective describes character actions to the reader without offering insight. 

In third person omniscient, we get insight into all or many characters’ thoughts and feelings. It’s more objective than third person limited or third person close because we have more information. Third person objective is the most objective because the telling of events isn’t colored by any character’s perspective at all. All we get are the events as they happened, and we have to piece together the rest. 

This can be a tricky point of view to write from, and it’s uncommon to see novels written this way. More often you’ll see short stories from this point of view. It’s difficult to get readers to connect to the main characters when they aren’t shown the character’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations—but it isn’t impossible! This point of view just has the most space between the reader and the characters, so writers have to compensate for that. 

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how to write a story outline

How to Write a Story Outline (Steps & Examples)

Tell me if this sounds familiar: 

You’re starting the first draft of your novel, and you’re super excited. You write a killer opening chapter and maybe even a killer first act—-you know your characters, you’ve got your premise, and you’re confident in sending them off on their journey. 

In the second act, it’s a little tricky, but you know what you’re doing, and you think you know where the story ends. You keep pushing. Then, somewhere in the middle of the second act, everything stalls. Your characters, for reasons you can’t explain, feel stuck. You don’t know how to move them, and the story stalls. 

Getting stuck in a first draft is totally normal, but if you find yourself frequently unable to finish a first draft because you get lost along the way, it might be time to consider whether you need an outline. 

In this article, we’ll talk about what outlines are, how you might benefit from one, how to create one, and where you can get started making your own or borrowing from a template. 

This guide on how to write a story outline covers:

  1. What is the outline of a story?
  2. Do you have to outline a story?
  3. How outlines can help you
  4. How do you write an outline for a story?
  5. Story outline examples
  6. What is an outline template?

What is the outline of a story?

An outline is a plan for your finished manuscript. Think of it like the blueprints for a house. An outline will tell you what to do as you draft your novel. 

Whatever your method, whatever the length of your outline, the idea is the same: an outline is there to help you get through your first draft as painlessly as possible. 

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Do you have to outline a story? 

Nope! 

Plenty of successful authors don’t bother with outlines. They might make you feel too boxed in, they might kill the fun of a first draft for you. Writing your first draft and finding your plot along the way is perfectly fine, if it works for you. 

But if you’re having trouble without an outline, let’s talk about a few reasons why an outline might help you out. 

How outlines can help you 

The benefits of outlining can be summed up into two main points: 

Stay on track while drafting

Having a plan can keep you goal-oriented while you’re writing. Knowing where your story is headed helps you write each scene with that in mind, which makes everything more pointed and targeted. It also means that you’re less likely to get lost along the way, since you’ve got a roadmap telling you what to do next. 

It may be the case that when you draft, your characters end up doing things differently than you’ve planned. You may come up with new ideas and want to explore them. And that’s great! Explore those new ideas and embrace your new characters. Instead of viewing your outline as a strict rulebook, view it as a safety net. If you get stuck, defer to your outline and keep pushing. 

Save yourself time in revisions

Don’t get me wrong—no matter how detailed your outline, you’re probably going to need to rewrite most of your first draft. That’s just how revisions work, and it’s how writing a novel works. 

However, a detailed outline can often serve as a first draft in and of itself. Even if you don’t make a super elaborate outline, having one can still make your first draft more concise and polished. This can potentially save you some time when it comes time to revise. Instead of having to find the plot in your first draft, you just have to hone it.

How do you write an outline for a story?

If outlining sounds like it might be for you, read on for tips on how to write an effective outline for your story. When all is said and done, and outline should do at least the following: 

Identify major plot elements

The broad strokes of your story should be included in your outline. What these plot points are called might vary depending on which story template you’re using, but broadly speaking, you should include: 

  1. The introduction, or where your characters start 
  2. The inciting incident, or where and why the plot starts 
  3. The climax, or where the action in your novel comes to a head 
  4. The end, or how the book ends 

Identify your characters and their wants and needs 

A character’s wants are the things a character thinks they need to succeed. A character’s needs are what they actually need. These two things often conflict with one another, and that conflict creates a character arc. 

For example: in Tangled, Flynn Rider thinks he wants nothing but gold and riches, and he’s initially motivated by wealth and greed. However, after he meets Rapunzel, he realizes that he actually needs to be vulnerable and have a safe place to love someone. His want is selfishness, but his need is selflessness. This culminates when he sacrifices himself for Rapunzel, choosing her life over his own. 

How to outline scenes 

Every scene should do something to change the status quo. There should be no element in your book which could be removed and have little to no impact on the story—if there’s a scene in your book that doesn’t change anything, it needs to go. 

This means you need to make every scene essential, and outlines are a great place to make sure you’re doing that. 

Create a goal for each scene. What do the characters want in this specific scene, and what’s in the way of them getting it? Their success or failure should bring them closer to or further from their goals. 

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How do you start an outline for a book?

Sitting down to start outlining might feel just as daunting as sitting down to write a first draft (which makes sense, since, remember, outlines are sort of condensed first drafts). If you’re not sure where to start and you’re sick of looking at your blank Word Doc, I’ve got some tips for you: 

Start with the end in mind 

Instead of working from the introduction to the ending, try to figure out how you want your book to end first. Even if you only have a super vague idea of how the book ends (like knowing which characters are still alive, which side of a war wins, or who the main character ends up with), this will still help you out. When you get stuck, ask yourself what needs to happen to bring the characters closer or further from that end point. 

Start your outline with whatever you have  

This advice also works if you’re writing a first draft from scratch: write whatever you’ve got. If you don’t have the beginning yet, don’t let yourself get stuck trying to come up with one if you have an entire climactic battle planned and ready to go. If you think you know how the climax will work, and what will lead up to it, go ahead and write that out. 

Yes, it might change when you go back and do the beginning. This is how writing goes—there’s not going to be any quick hack that can save you from having to make huge edits in your second draft. First drafts (and outlines, for that matter) are mostly about momentum. Start with what you have, and use that momentum to carry you through the rest of the outline. You might find that while you’re outlining that climax, the inciting incident suddenly clicks in the back of your mind. 

Use an outline template 

If you’re feeling lost in an unwieldy outline, or if you’re unsure where to even begin trying to map out your plot points, it might be worth looking into an outline template (we’ll look at a few templates later on). These can help you see where your plot point should go and help you identify holes, gaps, or crowded spots in your story. 

How long is a story outline?

A story outline can be as long or as short as you need it to be. You might want to have basically a summarized draft ready before you write, or you might only want the biggest plot points outlined. You’ll have to do some tinkering to figure out what works for you! 

Story outline examples

There are about as many story outline templates as there are writers, but here are a few examples to get you started. 

Mind Map 

Mind maps are great for visual planners. Start with your central idea or character in the middle of a piece of paper. Draw a line out from it and write a related idea—what’s something about the character, something they need, something that happens to them? Keep branching off these related ideas until you’ve got all your thoughts down. 

You might transfer your mind map to a more linear format, or you might keep it the way it is—this is entirely up to you. 

Storyboard (Post-It Method) 

For this method, you’ll want some wall space, a posterboard, or a whiteboard, as well as a stack of sticky notes. Write your plot points on the sticky notes and stick ‘em on your surface. You can color code the sticky notes for different subplots or character perspectives, and you can include as many sticky notes as you feel you need. This method is nice because it allows you to physically see plot holes or gaps in the story. 

Summary/Synopsis 

For this method, you’ll write out a summary of everything that happens in your novel. Think of it like the sort of summary you might read on Shmoop or Wikipedia. It’s the whole story without the frills. Instead of having the conversation written out, there will be a sentence or two summing up what the conversation was about. 

Bullet Method 

Bullet outlines are just what they sound like. You’ll write each beat of your story as a bullet point and go through the entire book. 

Personally, I like to use bullet outlines when I get stuck on a chapter or scene. When I can tell I’m stuck, I map out everything I want to happen. It might look something like this: 

  • Jane buys lighter fluid at the store 
  • She comes home and sets the house on fire with the lighter fluid 
  • She sits in her car, ready to leave, when she remembers the store has a camera and she didn’t wear a hat to cover her face 
  • She calls her sister for help 

This helps you get your ideas out quickly, which can be paramount in digging out of a stuck spot. 

What is an outline template?

An outline template is a blank sheet with plot beats on it. Basically, it’s a fill-in-the-blank outline that’s ideally already taken pacing into account, so all you need to do is insert your plot points. 

Outline templates can sometimes make a story feel forced or mechanical, so they shouldn’t be followed religiously—you should still do your best to manage your own pacing and decide what to do next. But if you’re stuck, these can be hugely helpful. 

You can find a few outline templates here, and here! Or take the speed pass to outline your fiction novel in 24 hours with our course!

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how to write in first person

How to Write in First Person (Tips and Examples)

Anyone who has read and enjoyed any amount of fanfiction can tell you that perspective changes everything. 

The way an audience sees what’s happening hugely informs the way they experience the story. Imagine each character in your story has a GoPro attached to their head and a little device recording their thoughts and reactions as they navigate the plot. The feed would change hugely based on who you were watching, wouldn’t it? 

Choosing the point of view character (or characters) for your story is crucial, so it’s also important to know what your options look like. 

In this article, we’re going to talk about the first person. We’ll talk about what it is, give you some tips for writing in first person, and show you some examples of first person writing done well. 

This guide on how to write in first person covers:

  1. What is first person point of view?
  2. How to write in first person point of view
  3. How to write a story in first person
  4. How to write dialogue in first person
  5. How to write thoughts in first person
  6. How to not write in first person
  7. Examples of first person writing

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What is first person point of view?

In first person, you’re in the head of the point of view character, and you’re using the pronoun “I.” 

Say we’re writing a book about a woman named Sally, for example. If this story is in first person, you would be writing the book from Sally’s perspective as if from inside Sally’s head. Instead of saying “Sally walked to the store,” you would say “I walked to the store.” The “I” is Sally. 

This means that in first person, the reader is locked inside the POV (point of view) character’s mind. They see what the main character sees, and they don’t see what the main character misses. The POV character is narrating the story to us as they experience it, basically, which can create a very personal and relatable experience. 

How to write in first person point of view

Writing in first person might seem like an obvious and even easy choice, but it can get gnarly pretty quick. When done well, it’s an intimate experience that brings the reader close to the POV character. When done badly, it can get clunky and detached. 

Here are a few tips for writing in first person! 

How to write a story in first person

Consider your POV character’s perspective 

When you’re writing first-person, you should always be thinking about things from the perspective of your POV character. 

Think of point of view like a lens. The story is happening, but we need a lens to see it. Our POV character might have a blue lens—this will tinge everything blue. There will be nothing that isn’t somehow affected by the blue lens, and there will be no way to see something without that lens or through a different one. 

While you’re writing, consider what your POV character thinks of the setting. Prioritize their reactions and the way they would describe things. Maybe you think parties are loud and claustrophobic, but you’re writing the first-person account of someone who loves parties. This means that instead of describing a party as noisy or dirty, the party should be exciting and fun. 

Stay inside your POV character’s head 

Writers new to first person will often veer outside the first-person perspective when they feel they need to, and this is a mistake. 

Remember: we’re only seeing what the POV character sees. It might be important for the reader to know that our main character’s husband is discontent with their marriage, for example, but we can’t jump into the husband’s head or read his mind. 

There’s a difference between your main character guessing what other people think and perspective-jumping, though. It’s fine if your main character projects and makes incorrect assumptions, but these projections and incorrect assumptions should be addressed, and it shouldn’t feel like we’ve left our main character’s point of view. 

Give your POV character a clear voice 

First person is the perfect place to explore voice. After all, we’re inside this person’s head navigating the story with them—their personality, manner of speech, and turns of phrase should come through in the prose. 

This doesn’t mean that your story ought to read like a diary entry, necessarily. Having excessively casual and overly characterized prose can get cheesy pretty quick. But it does mean you should let your POV character flavor your story. 

Make first person an important choice 

Above all, make sure that first person is the right choice for your story. 

What is the benefit to being in this person’s head? What does the story gain from this limited perspective? In The Secret History by Donna Tartt, our first-person main character isn’t present for some of the most dramatic parts of the story. This means that the reader, like the main character, is relying entirely on the accounts of his friends to explain what happened. Having this little information cranks the drama. We don’t know what happened, and we don’t know who to trust, and we’re eager to find out. 

In a romance, first person might give us a more intimate look into a character’s feelings and motivations. It’s a quick way to make a story relatable and personable, so it’s a go-to if you’re writing a memoir or an intensely personal piece. 

Consider your options, and pick first person on purpose. 

How to write dialogue in first person

How does dialogue work in first person? It’s the same as if you were writing from any other perspective. Use the correct pronouns in your dialogue tags, and you’re good to go. 

Here’s a quick example of first-person dialogue between a first-person narrator and someone else: 

“Hey, Dee,” I said. 

“Oh, hello!” said Dee. 

If this were third person, and let’s say the narrator’s name is Sally, it would look like this: 

“Hey, Dee,” Sally said. 

“Oh, hello!” said Dee. 

How to write thoughts in first person

Incorporate thoughts into the narration

You’ve probably read first-person prose where thoughts are written in italics to distinguish them from the narration. 

For example: 

“I couldn’t believe she was leaving. I’ll never see her again. I have to say something now. But before I could open my mouth, the door swung shut in my face.” 

You don’t need to say “I thought,” since the italics already distinguish the thoughts as thoughts. 

However, in first person, you also don’t need to use italics. We’re in the main character’s head, which means technically everything we’re reading is something the main character is thinking. This is especially easy to do if you’re writing in the present tense. 

Let’s take the example above and rewrite it to incorporate thoughts into the narration. 

“I couldn’t believe she was leaving. I’d never see her again. I needed to say something now. But before I could open my mouth, the door swung shut in my face.” 

This reads more smoothly, and it allows the main character’s perspective to add some flavor to the prose. 

How to not write in first person

What should you avoid when you’re writing in first person? I’ve made a short list of things to watch for: 

Filter words 

Since first-person accounts put us right in the main character’s head, everything we see is everything they see. Descriptions of things are, therefore, things that the main character is observing. This means we don’t need filter words, or words that put distance between the character and the writing. 

For example, instead of saying “I saw a bird fly into the window,” you would just write “the bird flew into the window.” “I heard the coach blow the whistle” becomes “The coach blew the whistle.” 

You may use filter words or phrases to create that distance intentionally, but it should always be intentional and never the default way of describing things to your reader. 

POV-hopping 

Like I said before, avoid POV hopping. We’re in the main character’s head, and we should stay there. 

What might POV hopping look like in first person? Here’s a quick example: 

“I did my homework while Mom worked on her painting. She wasn’t sure whether to use red or blue for the background, so she mixed them into a vibrant purple.” 

Unless we already know that Mom is struggling with the background, this is perspective-hopping. We don’t know what Mom is thinking. Instead, we could perceive her indecision and let the reader infer that she’s not sure what to do with the background. That would look more like this: 

“I did my homework while Mom worked on her painting. She touched her brush to the blank background, frowning. Her fingers drifted over her red and blue paints for the entirety of my math worksheet, and when I started on History, she’d mixed the red and blue into a vibrant purple.” 

Overdoing a character voice 

Earlier, I mentioned that overdoing a character’s voice can make the prose cheesy. This generally happens when the prose reads too casual, lacks interesting description, and includes too many exclamatory phrases. It can also happen when someone writes from the first-person perspective of someone from somewhere they don’t know and gives them a stereotypical voice. 

For example, if you were writing from the first person perspective of a ranch hand, this might read a little ridiculous: 

“Well, golly. The sun was shining in my eyes the whole diddly-darn time I was out attending the cattle. I sure was mighty glad to be back inside. I mosied on over to the water cooler and poured myself a big ol’ cup.” 

This doesn’t read authentically—it’s kind of cartoonish, which disconnects the reader from the story. Imagine reading an entire book like this. You wouldn’t want to, right? 

Getting too stuck in a character’s head 

What do I mean by this? Really, I just mean that most of your sentences shouldn’t start with “I.” Even though we’re in the POV of your main character, every single sentence shouldn’t be strictly about them. Avoiding filter words will help you with this, as will varying your sentence structure. 

Here’s an example of first-person prose that’s too stuck in a character’s head: 

“I got my groceries. Then, I bought myself a new suit at the outlet mall. On the way home, I listened to the radio, which I hated to do, but the quiet felt stifling for some reason.” 

See how we’re repeating “I” a bunch of times? Here’s another way we might word that same passage: 

“I walked to the store, then bought myself a new suit at the outlet mall. On the way home, the silence filled the car uncomfortably. The radio helped, even if it meant listening to the horrible clanging music on the local station.” 

By taking out some of those filter phrases and removing some instances of “I,” we have more style in the prose, more connection to the scene, and more sentence variation to boot. 

First person omniscient

A quick note on first-person omniscient! 

First-person omniscient is when we have a first person narrator who also is privy to the thoughts of other characters. This is pretty rare, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is a great example. There’s generally a reason as to why the first-person narrator has this information, whether it’s hindsight or, in the case of Zusak, the nature of the narrator being something all-knowing like death. 

Examples of first person pov writing

If you’re looking for some examples of first person done right, check these books out on your next trip to the library: 

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt 

Looking for Alaska by John Green 

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich 

Maximum Ride by James Patterson 

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SPS 140: Everything Is Figureoutable & How To Be A Time Genius While Writing Your Book with Marie Forleo

Most of you know Marie Forleo, but if not, she’s an entrepreneur, writer, philanthropist, and unshakeable optimist. Marie is the lady behind MarieTV, a fun and often hilarious weekly show full of wit and wisdom to help viewers create the business and life they want. She has also created hugely popular online training programs like B-School and the new Time Genius, which we get to talk about a bit today. 

Marie is the author of Everything Is Figureoutable, a book about training our brains for growth by asking and answering the right questions. Marie shares a bit of her first self-publishing experience, which led to a deal with McGraw Hill and made her hesitant to write again. Then she had the idea for Everything Is Figureoutable and tested it on stage with Oprah. We get to learn about her writing process, time struggles, and her marketing plan. She had a vast list and focused on preorders. She also gave away a course created from an extra chapter in the book, made strategic podcast guest appearances, and had a huge launch party/concert. 

She is also excited about her new course, Time Genius. She says that this course is especially relevant for writers struggling to find the time to write. The course is about working on what is most important and letting the unimportant things go. She says it’s about simplicity, not scarcity or stacking up your to-do list. Marie also shares three tips for anyone who wants to write a book of their own. You’ll love this fun podcast with Marie. 

Show Highlights

  • [02:02] Marie self published her first book after making an ebook to promote her coaching business. She was then approached by McGraw Hill to publish her book. This was her first time working with a big publisher. It was great, but she lost control and became reluctant to publish again. 
  • [04:57] Around 2015, she started to want to write a book again. She gave her idea a test drive during Oprah Super Soul Sunday. 
  • [05:48] She went wide and found a publisher for this book Everything Is Figureoutable. This is the one thing that Marie wanted to share. 
  • [07:19] This book is part of Marie’s larger brand. It’s not a strategic marketing tool. It’s part of her core message. People have the power to transcend any challenge they have. 
  • [13:13] Everything Is Figureoutable didn’t have to be about business to increase Marie’s audience. Even though there are stories about business there.
  • [14:11] It was a struggle to write the book and to keep the business and the show going. Marie would wake up around 5 a.m. and devote 2 to 4 hours to working on the book.
  • [17:20] Sitting down to write a book is hard. It’s different from other writing tasks for business. 
  • [18:53] Marie loves marketing. She leveraged her audience to get pre orders. She created a free course from a bonus chapter that wasn’t included in the book. People who bought copies of the book received this course. 
  • [20:38] She also had a book launch party/concert. She was also strategic, mindful, and persistent about the types of podcasts she wanted to be on. 
  • [22:29] Marie’s been building an email list for decades. She couldn’t have gotten all the pre-orders without having already built an audience.
  • [25:53] Marie also did a book tour across seven or eight cities. She had different hosts at each stop. She also went to Australia and the UK. A book purchase came with each ticket.
  • [29:29] After the free course, Marie asked for reviews. She also asked on social media. Ask for reviews wherever you can.
  • [32:49] Time Genius is for Marie and her audience. It’s for folks who are feeling overwhelmed and feel like they don’t have time to breathe. Some of the things taught are shifting your mind out of the world of time stress. It’s about putting what matters most to you first every day.
  • [35:07] It’s around simplicity and not scarcity. It’s not about stacking up your to-do list. Working eighteen hours a day is incredibly ineffective. This course is especially effective for writers.
  • [36:49] Spend more time on what matters and blissfully ignore what doesn’t.
  • [37:48] Be really passionate about the idea that you’re going to write about and the audience that you’re writing to. Be clear on who the book is for and who it’s not for and be okay with that. Get into the practice of writing consistently.

Links and Resources

weak verbs

What Are Weak Verbs (Guide for Writers)

There aren’t a ton of true shortcuts when it comes to writing better prose. Improvement mostly comes with lots and lots of practice, long hours in revision, and reading as much as you can. 

However, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few quick tips you can apply to instantly improve your prose—even if you’ll need to practice using them. One of these quick tips is to revolutionize the way you’re using your verbs. 

In this article, we’re going to talk about weak verbs and strong verbs. We’ll cover what they are and why it matters, what weak and strong verbs can do, and how you can transform your weak verbs into strong verbs if necessary. 

This guide to weak verbs covers:

  1. What are weak verbs?
  2. Weak verbs vs strong verbs
  3. How do you change a weak verb?
  4. What are examples of weak verbs?

What are weak verbs?

When I say a verb is ‘weak,’ what do I mean? 

Before I tell you about the verbs we’ll be dealing with in this article, let’s talk grammar (it’ll be painless, I swear!).

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Weak vs. strong verbs in grammar 

Weak verbs (also known as regular verbs), grammatically, are verbs which end in -ed, -t, -or -d when they’re put into the past tense. Examples include walked, jogged, and blinked. 

A strong verb, in the grammatical sense, changes the vowel in the present tense form of the word when it’s put into past tense. Examples of this include ran, thought, and stood. 

This grammatical meaning doesn’t have anything to do with how effective the verb is in whichever sentence it appears. A weak verb, grammatically, isn’t necessarily a better or worse verb to use than a strong verb. It’s just a way to delineate these types of verbs. 

In this article, we’re talking about weak and strong verbs in a different way. When I say a verb is weak in this article, I mean that a verb isn’t as effective as it could be. In other words, it’s a poorer verb choice. A stronger verb, by contrast, is one that’s more effective, more evocative, or more descriptive. 

So! Let’s talk about weak (or ineffective) verbs vs. strong (or effective) verbs

Weak verbs vs strong verbs

There’s no hard and fast rule for deciding when a verb is weak or strong, so how can you pick them apart? Here are a few ways to tell whether you’re dealing with a weak or strong verb: 

Strong verbs are more specific 

A strong verb will be specific and evocative. It won’t make the reader fill in extra information to paint a more vivid picture—a strong verb will just paint that picture for the reader. 

For example, if I write “John closed the door,” you don’t have a ton of information. You know John closed the door, but I haven’t indicated his mood or what else might be going on in the scene. ‘Closed’ here is a weak verb. If I wrote “John slammed the door,” we have a more clear picture of what’s going on. We get the idea that John is angry or upset. 

Using a stronger verb gave us a more specific, detailed image of that scene. 

Weak verbs tend to lead to wordiness 

Because weak verbs don’t pull their weight, they force the author to make up for them. This will often result in authors adding lots of extra description or excessive punctuation to compensate for their weak verbs, when really they only need a stronger verb. Consider the following sentence: 

John closed the door angrily and stomped away. “I hate you!” 

‘Stomped’ is a pretty evocative verb, but it’s being deployed here because ‘closed’ isn’t pulling its weight. We wouldn’t need to tack on an extra clause to this sentence to suggest that John is angry if we used a stronger verb to begin with. 

“John slammed the door. “I hate you!” 

See how we get the same basic effect with fewer, more precise words? 

Strong verbs aren’t necessarily big verbs 

Weak verbs aren’t always short or simple verbs, and strong verbs aren’t always long and complicated verbs. Too much of either is a problem. Overloading your prose with multisyllabic verbs will make your prose feel tired and exhausting, while having a limited selection of short, simple verbs might make it feel two-dimensional. 

Basically, you’ll have to take a look at the scene you’re writing and decide what sort of verb you need. In dialogue, for example, you almost never need anything other than “said.” A weak verb is probably best there. However, if you’re writing a dramatic chase sequence, you probably want to reach for something more evocative than “ran really fast.” 

Weak verbs tend to require adverbs 

A quick way to tell whether you’re using a weak verb is to check for adverbs. I’m not going to tell you that you’re not ever allowed to use adverbs, ever, but I am going to tell you that adverbs, more often than not, indicate a weak verb. Replacing the weak verb and the adverb with a stronger verb makes the prose crisper. 

Let’s look at John again for another example: 

John closed the door angrily. 

Because ‘closed’ isn’t very evocative, we had to add ‘angrily’ to let the reader know what sort of mood is going on. Instead, though, we can swap out both the weak verb (closed) and the adverb (angrily): 

John slammed the door. 

Weak verbs tend to tell, not show 

And, finally, a weak verb tends to tell the audience what’s going on instead of showing them. 

Remember how adverbs have to let the reader know how the verb was meant to be used? This is what I mean. With a weak verb, you have to do more work explaining the overall vibe. A strong verb does it for you. Let’s look at a different example this time: 

Sarah ran as fast as she could. She breathed heavily and looked into the treeline for a long time, hoping the attackers were gone. 

We know what, technically, happened, but we don’t feel like we’re there. It feels like we’re being told about it from a friend instead of living it with Sarah. The weak verbs here are ‘ran,’ ‘breathed,’ and ‘looked.’ Let’s swap ‘em out. 

Branches whipped Sarah’s legs and scratched her arms as she sprinted. Panting, she stared into the treeline, hoping the attackers were gone. 

We could still use a little more transitioning between these two sentences, but see how just swapping out those verbs made it come to life? 

How do you change a weak verb?

I’ve shown you a few examples of how swapping out weak verbs can look, but how do you apply this to your own writing? Let’s review: 

Identify what you want to convey 

Figure out what emotion you want to get across to your reader. Is this a desperate scene, a romantic scene, or is it lighthearted? Strong verbs carry strong images, so you don’t want to use something out of place for the mood you want to set. If characters are hanging out and having a nice time, for example, and you’re not trying to make the scene feel ominous, you might say someone was “relaxing” in the background instead of “lurking.” 

Consult a thesaurus 

If you have a verb which you believe requires the adverb to communicate the feeling behind it, check out a thesaurus. Search for the weak verb you’re using and see what sorts of synonyms might work instead. You don’t want anything too archaic or flowery, but ‘screamed’ is far different than ‘said,’ and one might do a much better job than the other in your scene. 

Consulting a thesaurus is also handy if you find yourself reaching for the same handful of strong verbs. Plenty of writers struggle with this, especially during their first draft—they hit Control + F and search for ‘jerked’ or ‘pulled’ and find that it appears two hundred times. 

Strong verbs are only evocative if they aren’t overused. If there’s a verb you’re overusing, even a strong one, a thesaurus can help you find a different way to word that same action. 

Cut your adverbs 

Like I said before, finding an adverb will almost always result in finding a weak verb. Cut as many of them as you can. If you catch yourself tacking on an adverb, ask yourself whether the sentence gets its meaning across without it. Do we have a clear understanding of the action without it? If so, get rid of it. Do we absolutely need it to know how a character is feeling or how the action is being performed? If so, cut it, and replace the adverb and the weak verb with a stronger verb. 

The only time you really need an adverb is when the alternative would be to reword the sentence such that it would become lengthy and wordy. If an adverb is truly the shortest and more effective way to get your point across, so be it. But triple-check first. 

What are examples of weak verbs?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s run through a few more examples of swapping a weak verb for a stronger one. 

Example 1: 

“He worked really hard making dinner.” 

The phrase ‘really hard’ here is being used to modify ‘worked,’ because ‘worked’ isn’t doing much. We want to get across that this character has worked very hard, and we need a verb that does a better job getting that across. 

“He toiled over dinner.” 

Example 2. 

“She felt happy when she walked to the store.” 

Here, we’re just not getting a lot of information. Felt is acting as a filter phrase here, so we’re being told how she feels instead of putting it together for ourselves. Walked is a little boring, but it might not be a problem if we polish up the first part of the sentence. 

“Her heart lightened the further she got from the house. She read and re-read the recipe she’d brought with her, unable to help herself from thinking ahead to the delicious pie she’d make later.” 

Example 3. 

“She sat on a bench outside the theater while the rest of the movie played.” 

Depending on the context, this isn’t strictly problematic, but we can do a little more here. ‘Sat’ feels flat, and if we pick a stronger verb, we might be able to word the whole sentence more concisely. 

“She waited outside the theater for the movie to end.” 

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pantser

How to Write as a Pantser (And What They Are)

To outline, or not to outline? For a lot of beginning novelists, this is a stressful question. 

There’s a ton of writing advice out there that can get confusing even to seasoned novelists—for example. Some people argue that the word “said,” when used as a dialogue tag, is perfectly valid and, in fact, the best dialogue tag to use. Other people argue that dialogue tags in general are outdated and unnecessary. Still others will say that “said” is dead, and writers should find more interesting dialogue tags. 

If you’re a new writer, this is overwhelming, especially when so much of this advice is paired with the implication that unless you follow it, you’re not a “real” writer. 

And when it comes to outlining a book… oh, boy. 

There’s approximately sixteen billion different equally heated opinions about whether writers should outline, what outlining looks like, and how beginners should go about it. Broadly speaking, this debate breaks down into two groups of people: pansters and plotters. In this article, we’re going to focus on pansters. We’ll talk about what pansters are, what pantsing is in a writing context, and whether it’s useful. 

Let’s go! 

This guide to writing as a pantser covers:

  1. What is a pantser?
  2. What is pantsing in writing?
  3. What is a pantser vs plotter?
  4. Which authors are pantsers?
  5. How do you pants a story?
  6. Is it OK to write without an outline?

What is a pantser?

“Pantser” is a term for someone who writes their story without an outline. That’s it. 

This doesn’t mean that a panster won’t have an idea of where their story is going. They might even have some bullet notes on the plot—there’s not any hard criteria to being a pantser. It just means that in general, they prefer to go into the first draft of their book without a clear map. 

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What is pantsing in writing?

So: if a “pantser” is someone who writes without an outline, “pantsing” is just the verb form of the word. It means drafting with no outline. 

You might see someone use “pantsing” to refer to specific projects without applying to their writing method on the whole. Someone might, for example, choose to try pantsing short stories, when generally they prefer to outline longer pieces like novellas or novels. 

But, same as before, it’s really simple: it just means there’s not an outline involved. It’s important to note that this almost always refers to the first draft of a novel, though—it’s kind of impossible to “pants” a second draft when the first draft already exists and serves as a detailed guideline moving forward. Plus, it’s pretty commonly regarded as good practice to make notes on your first draft to guide your second draft. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time. 

What is a pantser vs plotter?

While a panster doesn’t work with an outline, a plotter does. 

Plotters tend to want things laid out before they start their first draft. They might spend more time on things like character creation, worldbuilding, and they might use outline templates to get their plot straightened out. These are the sorts of writers who need to see what’s going to happen before they can write it out. 

Plotting a novel can be super detailed and intense, with every action laid out in full, or it can be a quick breakdown of vital plot points and character beats. A plotter wants these pieces before they start drafting, whereas a panster might not spend as much time plotting before they start their first draft. 

We’ll talk more about this later, but again: most pansters do have some idea of what their characters are going to do and why. They might know how the book is going to end, or start with the climax in mind. But this doesn’t make them plotters, necessarily, because having an idea of where your story is going is not the same thing as requiring an outline to start drafting. 

Which authors are pantsers?

If you’re a long-time plotter, it might sound ludicrous or like a waste of time to start your first draft without an outline to guide you. But, lo and behold, there are plenty of successful writers who don’t outline. Here are just a few: 

Stephen King 

Stephen King talks about his disdain for outlining in his book On Writing, where he writes: “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers.” 

Meg Cabot 

In her blog post “Why I Don’t Outline,” Meg Cabot explains that outlining a book before you draft can stifle the writing process. She, like many writers, finds that it takes a lot of the fun out of exploring your characters and their world, and it can make the writing process feel mechanical. You don’t feel like writing your book because, technically, you’ve already written it. 

George R. R. Martin 

George R. R. Martin is maybe one of the most famous pantsers out there. Some people will claim that he hasn’t written the next A Song of Ice and Fire book because he didn’t have a clear outline—this isn’t entirely fair, since he does have a broad-strokes idea of where he wants some characters to end up. 

According to Insider, he had a list of the characters who would be left by the end of the series and an idea of how they got there. Other than this, though, he doesn’t outline, and his spontaneity definitely carries through to the finished product. 

Neil Gaiman 

Not only does Neil Gaiman prefer to write a story without an outline so he can keep the intrigue of a new story going all the way through his first draft, but he also prefers to write his first drafts longhand. Combined, this allows him to enjoy the “discontinuity” of a first draft. 

Diana Galbadon 

Diana Galbadon has said she prefers working without an outline, although she does have a general idea of where each book is going. She also keeps tabs on which characters she might need and what’s going on, generally, to keep things sorted. 

How do you “pants” a story?

Pantsing a story can make your first draft fun and exciting, but if you’re a brand new writer, it might also be super intimidating. You might imagine going from a blank page to a finished novel and want to throw up a little bit, and this is completely fair. 

Here’s how to write without an outline and not freak out: 

  1. Have an idea in mind for your story 

Before you start drafting, have some kind of idea of where the story is going to go. You should probably have a main character, at least, and an idea of their setting. It’s also good to know what sorts of conflicts are inherent in the main character and their setting. 

If you’re writing a romance, you want to set up what the character needs in a partner, for example, and you can go from there. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, consider who that character is in the context of their world. If they’re a peasant destined to be king, they’re going to have a much harder go at getting the throne than the prince might. 

It can also be helpful to know where your story’s going to end. You don’t have to know for sure, but having some kind of idea in mind for the climax or the end of the story can help you steer toward it as you draft. 

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  1. Draft as quickly as you can 

Perhaps the biggest roadblock any writer will face during a first draft is the urge to drop a project and come back later when things make more sense. 

If this works for you and has always worked for you, cool! But as a general rule of thumb, do not do this! 

Keeping your momentum through a first draft is vital for a few reasons, especially if you’re pantsing. For one, it will keep you engaged with the story and characters, so you’ll be able to think of more possible routes for them to take. For another, writing the first draft as quickly as you reasonably can dramatically increases your chances of actually finishing that first draft. 

You can work with a rough first draft, even if it’s full of plot holes and missing character beats. You can’t work with an introduction, a first chapter, and then nothing else. 

  1. Stick to a writing routine 

How are you going to write your first draft as quickly as possible? You’re going to stick to a writing routine

If possible, set aside a dedicated space and time to write. Create some ritual before you get started—I, personally, like to make tea—to let your brain know that you’re transitioning into writing time. Stick to this schedule as often as possible. 

Carving out time in your schedule is often half the battle with any practicable skill, and writing is no exception. Sticking to a routine will help you practice more, which will improve your writing, and it’ll help your brain flip that creative switch to ‘on’ all by itself. If you find yourself often waiting around for inspiration to strike, this might be a game-changer for you. 

  1. Lower your first draft expectations 

You might hate the idea of drafting without an outline because, like I mentioned earlier, you picture the blank Word document before you transforming into a complete manuscript. 

Ditch this idea. 

First drafts are inherently messy. They’re destined to be almost completely rewritten. The point of a first draft isn’t to create the book your friends and family will read—it’s to figure out what your story is, who your characters are, and how you’re going to write the second draft. 

The first draft of your story doesn’t need to be good, and it probably won’t be. It just needs to exist. If you’re stuck on a scene, write a note to yourself and move on. If you need to change something about your character in the middle of the story because you forgot about something, just do it and write the change down for revisions. 

Some people even consider a detailed outline to be a first draft all on its own. All you’re doing is getting the story out of your head and onto paper—don’t worry about the rest until it’s time to revise. 

Is it OK to write without an outline?

I have heard, a million times over, that writing without an outline is a bad idea. An outline can only help, after all, and wouldn’t you rather have that safety net when you’re stranded in the middle of the second act with almost no idea where your characters are supposed to go? 

Here’s the thing, though: every writer is different. Writers who need outlines can have their outlines, and writers who don’t like them don’t have to use them. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for writing a book. 

Try outlining, if you haven’t! It might help you. But it might not, and that’s okay, too. 

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