Showing posts with label fiction writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction writing. Show all posts

Foreshadowing in Fiction


Foreshadowing is a literary device used to make the reader wonder. It gives the story a sense of mystery or anticipation. It can also create tension.

According to Literary Devices, using this device, “a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story." (1)

Foreshadowing is a great device to keep the reader involved in the story and the characters.

There are a number of foreshadowing strategies. Below are four of them.

An Approaching Event

An example of this type of foreshadowing is in “Walking Through Walls.” Wang (the protagonist) listens as his friend, Chen, tell how neighboring warriors kidnapped his sister.  

The reader surmises or anticipates that there will be an upcoming battle to rescue Chen’s sister.

The Pre-scene

A pre-scene hints at something on the horizon.

Another example might be a new student entering a classroom and another student eyes him up and down. Nothing else happens in that particular scene.
The reader automatically anticipates there will be trouble between the boys down the road.

In an article at Novel Writing Help, “a pre-scene is simply a smaller version of a larger scene to come. They are not significant by themselves, but they imply that there is something more spectacular waiting to happen right around the corner.” (2)

The Loaded Gun

This strategy is attributed to Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov.

He said, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there." (3)

This type of foreshadowing doesn’t have to use a gun; it could be any object.

For example, suppose a boy is cleaning out the attic of a hundred-year-old home for a neighbor. He finds an old corroded coin. He absent-mindedly shoves it in his pocket.

The reader knows that coin is significant and expects something to happen pertaining to it in the story. If the writer is smart, she will fulfil the reader’s expectation.

The Prophecy

With this type of foreshadowing, a glimpse of misfortune to come from something that happens is given to the reader.

As an example, the albatross is a sign of good luck if seen by sailors. With the reader being privy to this knowledge, a sailor sees one fly over his ship at the midway point on every voyage he’s on. But, on this particular voyage, there is no albatross to be seen.

The implication to the reader is that there is going to be trouble for this sailor and this voyage.

Don’t Overdo It

While adding foreshadowing to your fiction story is an effective writing device, you don’t want to overdo it.

In an article at NY Book Editors, it explains that “to balance your story, there needs to be revelations and circumstances that catch the reader off-guard. If your reader is in a constant state of analysis [over foreshadowing], your pacing will suffer. To strike the perfect balance, introduce hints but then jolt your reader with something unexpected.” (4)

If you’d like to read more about foreshadowing and your fiction writing, check out the references below.

Foreshadowing is an excellent literary device when used properly. As mentioned early, it creates reader anticipation among other things.



This article was first published at:  


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author. She runs a successful children’s ghostwriting, rewriting, and coaching business and welcomes working with new clients.

For tips on writing for children OR if you need help with your project, contact Karen at Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi. And, check out Karen's The Adventures of Planetman picture book series.


Five Ways to Let Words Influence Your Writing Career

The Three Gates

5 Revision Tips

5 Key Elements to Making a Fiction Story Work


Contributed by Karen Cioffi

Think about the last time you read a story that stayed with you. A story that made you feel. A story that took you on an adventure or had you sitting on the edge of your seat. A story that made you cry or laugh ... or think.

These types of stories have it. They have the key to making a story work.

So, how do you go about creating a stirring story?

Here are 5 top tips to writing a fiction story that works:

1. It’s got to have conflict.

All writers have heard this and the reason is because it’s true.

Your protagonist MUST be striving for something, and it should be something significant. She needs to have obstacles in her way that she has to overcome in order for the reader to be engaged enough to turn the page.

The reader has to be pulled into the story wondering if, and more so hoping that, the protagonist reaches her goal.

You wouldn’t have much of a story following a couple in an amusement park going from ride to ride, waiting on line for food, and so on. There’s nothing for the reader to get involved with. There’s no emotional element.

Or, what if a great writer puts two children in a story that takes place at the Bronx Zoo. The narrator describes in detail all the exhibits they visit and does it wonderfully. But, what does the reader have to sink her teeth into. Nothing.

One of my all-time favorite movies was Thelma and Louise. The conflict was never-ending. And, it was the conflict that keep you on the edge of your seat.

How would they get out of the mess they were in?!

That’s how you want your readers to feel. There needs to be conflict in order to make the reader feel. It doesn’t have to be ‘seat of your pants’ drama, but it needs to be significant. It can be external or internal, but it has to be something the reader can grab and hang on to. It has to make the reader get involved with the story and care about it.

2. The readers need to be invested in the story.

A good story brings the reader into the protagonist’s shoes. This is what will motivate the reader to like and root for the protagonist.

It’s all about making the reader ‘feel.’ The story has to evoke emotion on the reader’s part. The story has to have substance.

Going back to Thelma and Louise, one wrong decision spiraled out of control into what seemed to them as a live or die situation.

Circumstances and choices took them bounding out-of-control, as if caught up in a tornado. This kind of story creates investment.

It evoked emotion in just about everyone who saw the movie. Everyone was rooting for the protagonists.

In an article, “Make Readers Deeply Connect to Your Characters,” the author calls this key factor, “transportation.” You’re bringing the reader out of their reality and into your story world. You’re transporting them.

Like Alice when she steps into the rabbit hole. Down, down, down she went into another world.

3. The characters have to act ‘real’ and be likeable.

Your characters need to be multifaceted. They need to behave like real people. This means they’ll have good traits, but they’ll also have some bad traits or weaknesses. It may be they’re indecisive. Or, at the beginning of the story they may be frightened of everything.

Your characters should make great decisions, but they should also make poor ones.

Along with this, your protagonist needs to be likeable. He needs to have traits that the reader will admire and connect to. It’s important that the reader likes the protagonist.

Maybe your protagonist will be honest, heroic, responsible, generous, or loyal.

You get the idea. These are characteristics that most people admire in others. They’re characteristics that will draw the reader in.

I forgot what movie it was and I forgot the exact details, but basically the protagonist was sitting in a diner across from her date. Another woman, elegantly dressed, walked passed with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her shoe. The toilet paper woman was heading to a table where a man was waiting for her.

The protagonist excused herself for a moment. She got up and removed the paper from the woman’s foot by walking behind her and stepping on the paper. Then she sat back down and returned to her conversation.

The woman that passed by never knew the kindness the protagonist showed her. And, the protagonist didn’t mention what she did to her date.

This one simple act of kindness spoke volumes about the character of the protagonist. She’s the type of person you’d admire and like to be friends with.

4. The protagonist needs to have some heroic qualities.

At some point in the story, the protagonist needs to step up. This can be in several small incidents that she overcomes throughout the story. Or, it can be in one climatic incident that wraps the story up.

In general, and especially in children’s stories, the protagonist needs to take action and reach her goal.

It may be after one or two or three failures, but ultimately, the protagonist must step up. Whether it’s physical or emotional, whether internal or external, she needs to fight through all obstacles that stand in her way.

Readers want a purposeful story. They want and even expect the protagonist to be victorious. Don’t let your readers down.

5. Tie-up all loose ends.

When you’re getting to the end of your story, make sure all loose ends are tied up. Any tidbits of information you put out there must be resolved.

You want the reader to go away satisfied. You don’t want her wondering why something was mentioned somewhere in the story and not resolved.

One example is mentioning that the protagonist’s close friend lost his dog. Then there’s no mention of it. Was the dog found?


Another example is in a middle-grade manuscript I read. The author had the friend of the protagonist saying he couldn’t go to the protagonist’s special event because he had something URGENT to do that day.

Afterward there was no mention of the urgent matter.

This is a NO-NO. What was so urgent? Why was it mentioned, if it wasn’t followed up with?

As I read the manuscript I knew that part would either have to be addressed (tied-up) or eliminated.

These loose-ends are things that will gnaw at the reader. They will finish the book feeling like something is missing. Again, this is a NO-NO.

So, there you have it.

While there is more involved in writing good fiction, these five are at the top of the ‘good fiction story’ list.


This article was originally published at:


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author. She runs a successful children’s ghostwriting, rewriting, and coaching business and welcomes working with new clients.

For tips on writing for children OR if you need help with your project, contact her at Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi.

And, check out Karen's The Adventures of Planetman picture book series and other books:



A Story Revision Checklist

Characters or Story Which Comes First?

Making Your Book Into a Classic


Create Believable Characters and Conflict In Your Children's Story

Writing in general is a tough craft, although many may not think so. The writer has to take individual words and craft them together to create: interest, suspense, romance, humor, grief, fantasy, other worlds . . . the list goes on and on. And, it must be done with clarity and engagment.

While there is an abundance of information about writing and writing for children, it can easily become overwhelming, and even confusing. But, getting down to the nitty-gritty, there are two basic elements or rules to writing fiction for children you need to be aware of: creating believable characters and having conflict.

Characters Need to be Believable
Your characters, especially your protagonist, need to create a bond or connection with the reader. In order to create that connection you will need to care about your characters. If you don’t, you’ll never get a reader to care. Make your characters believable and interesting.

In addition to this, you need to know your characters and remember their traits, physical characteristics, temperament, and so on. I’m sure there are instances, if you’re writing by the seat-of-your-pants rather than from an outline, where your character may do something you didn’t plan, but usually it’s a good idea to know what makes him tick.

Even the choices your protagonist makes will help define him, and create a deeper bond with the reader. Does he take the high road to reach his goals, or does he sneak in under the wire? Does he create options to choose from, or is he sweep along by the current of the story, grabbing at lifelines for survival? Are his choices a struggle? 

You can keep track of your characters’ quirky telltale marks, expressions, behavior patterns, and physical features by noting them on a character sheet as these traits become unveiled.

You can also create a character interview for each character. The answers to the questions will help unveil each character’s personality, traits, history, family, and so on.

Conflict is a must

A story’s conflict is like a detour or obstacle in the road from point A to point B. The protagonist must figure out a way over, around, under, or through it.

Conflict will drive your story forward and give the reader a reason to stay involved. Conflict is basically an obstacle between your protagonist and her wants or needs. It may be a crisis, a desire, a relationship, a move, or other. It can be caused by internal or external factors. Does overcoming one obstacle/conflict lead to another? Does she have help, or are others thwarting her efforts?

Along with this, there should be more than one conflict. In writing fiction for children, there may be two or three conflicts; as one is overcome another takes its place. A good rule is to think in threes: three characters, three problems, and three solutions.

This is only the beginning and most basic of the tips that new writers of children’s fiction should be aware of. There are many more that we touch on at Writers on the Move.

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author. She runs a successful children’s ghostwriting and rewriting business and welcomes working with new clients.

For tips on writing for children OR if you need help with your project, contact her at Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi.

You can follow Karen at:

Check out Karen's newly revised How to Write a Children's Fiction Book.


Writing Perfection - Is There Such a Thing?

Begin Stories with Your Character

3 Most Important Components for Publishing eBooks


Want to Self-Publish a Rhyming Children’s Book? Read This First

As a children's ghostwriter I deal with lots of new ‘authors.’ One scenario I come across now and then is when someone sends me a story with rhyme in it. And, it seems lately I'm getting more clients who try to rhyme their drafts.

When this happens, it’s never done right and it’s my job to guide these authors.

I recently received two such manuscripts. One had rhyming here and there throughout the story. The other rhymed every other line.

Unfortunately, some of the rhyming words were forced. What this means is to make two words rhyme, the sentence is put together awkwardly (unnaturally) or one of the rhyming words is used unnaturally just to make it rhyme.

Two examples of awkward rhyme is:
Whenever I go to the park,
I run around and sing like a lark.

The forced rhyme below is from The Turtles’ “Happy Together” (1967):
"So happy together. And how is the weather?"

Notice the unnatural way these sentences sound.  They don’t make sense. It’s easy to see that they’re put together simply to rhyme the last two words. This causes the reader to pause. Pausing is never a good thing, especially in children’s books.

Along with causing the young reader to pause, 'bad' rhyme can even cause confusion
When a child gets the rhyme hook, she will be anticipating that rhythm and pattern throughout the story. At the first spot when it’s not there, you’ve caused a PAUSE. And, if you’ve got rhyme awkwardly here and there, you’ve lost the focus of the story. You’ve lost the message you were trying to convey.

You never-ever want to cause a pause or confusion in a story, especially a children’s story.

But, what if you REALLY want to rhyme?

Below is a slightly more natural way to do this:

Now it’s time to close your eyes my dear. (8 syllables)
Beside you lies your favorite bear. (8 syllables if you if you say favorite as fav-rit)
(Taken from “Days End Lullaby.”)

Keep in mind that even this verse has its problems. For one thing, ‘favorite’ is used with two syllables in that verse: fav rit. Technically, ‘favorite’ has three syllables: fav or ite.

So, you can see that while getting two words to rhyme isn’t that difficult, there’s lots more involved in rhyming ‘right.’

The bare-bottom elements of children’s rhyme:

•    Each sentence needs to be relevant to the story and move the story forward.
•    There needs to be a continuing rhythm or beat to the sentences. This has to do with the stressed and unstressed syllables of each word used.
•    There needs to be a pattern throughout the story.
•    It should be written without forcing words – without using unnatural sounding sentences or unnatural meanings.
•    And, it should all be wrapped up in a great story.

Bottom line.

Taking all this into account, if you’re thinking of writing a rhyming children’s book, read lots and lots of traditionally published rhyming books. And, read those from the major publishers. Analyze how they’re written. Break them down.

You might even take an offline or online course on rhyming for children.

You can also check out Dori Chaconas’ website. She has an example of a syllable template you can use. Find it at: Icing the Cake (it’s at the bottom of the page).

Rhyming can be fun and kids LOVE it, but please take care to do it right.


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children's author and children’s ghostwriter as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move. You can find out more about writing for children and her services at: Karen Cioffi Writing for Children.

And, get your copy of Walking Through Walls (a middle-grade fantasy adventure set in 16th century China. Honored with the Children’s Literary Classics Silver Award.


Keeping Our Spirits Up for the Good of Our Writing Careers

Writing Secret to Getting Ahead

Writing Tips on Revisions - Do a Verb and Word Check

Don't Let Your Reader Get Disengaged

As an author it’s your job to create an engaging, compelling, suspenseful, intriguing, romantic, or other type of story content that will lure readers in and keep them turning the pages. But the key word for a successful story is ‘engaging.’

Engagement, according to, means to have an emotional involvement or commitment. Based on this, no matter what genre you write in the story must hold or engage the reader.

In an article in the Writer's Digest January 2011 issue, Steven James takes a look at aspects of “great storytelling.”

The first rule to a successful story is, according to James, “cause and effect.” In children’s writing this is the same as an obstacle and its solution - there must be a circumstance that leads the protagonist to an action in an effort to find a solution. I do like the wording James uses though, because it’s more in line with multiple writing genres.

In its simplest form, something happens (the cause) that creates or motivates an action or reaction (the effect).

James goes on to explain that along with cause and effect, the order in which an event unfolds or how it’s written will also make a difference between keeping a reader engaged and allowing for disengagement.

“As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story,” explains James. If the sequence of an event causes the reader to stop and wonder why something is happening, even if just for a moment, you’ve left room for disengagement.

As an example, suppose you write:

She fell to her knees, dropped her head, and wept uncontrollably. Her husband was dead.

While in just eight words, the reader learns why the woman is crying, it could very well leave enough time for her to pause and wonder: Why did she fall to her knees?

This can lead to disengagement.

To create a cause and effect scenario that keeps the reader in the loop, you might write:

Her husband was dead; the words echoed through the room. She fell to her knees, dropped her head, and wept uncontrollably.

The second aspect of writing James touches upon is creating and maintaining a believable story. Even if writing a fantasy or science fiction, consistency is needed, along with believable actions, reactions, observations, conclusions, and so on within the boundaries of the story.

A basic example of this might be if you write about a character with brown eyes, then somewhere within the story you accidently mention the eyes are blue. This little slip creates a believability gap.

Any gap in the believability of the story or its characters has the potential to cause the reader to pause, question, and very possibly become disengaged.

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children's author and children’s ghostwriter as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move. You can find out more about writing for children and her services at: Karen Cioffi Writing for Children.

Check out the DIY Page!

And, get your copy of Walking Through Walls (a middle-grade fantasy adventure set in 16th century China. Honored with the Children’s Literary Classics Silver Award).


How to Write More, Sell More, and Make Money Writing

Writing Fun 101

Creating Character Names - Ol'Whatshisname!

Tips from Lisa Cron's Book, Story Genius

Forty-three note cards for forty-three chapters completed the template from Cron's book
As SCBWI meetings, critique group sessions, and so much more offered by our local New Mexico chapter go, the subjects at two recent meetings couldn’t have been more helpful. This month’s post offers highlights from a meeting that presented and discussed Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere. Have you been there? This author must confess that I have, in spades. Next month, watch for highlights from a workshop on Author Visits, presented by Caroline Starr Rose, author of  May B., Blue Birds, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, Ride On, Will Cody! and more.

The Third Rail
Cron begins in the Introduction, by explaining what it takes for a ms to succeed and why so many fail.

“The reason that the majority of ms’s are rejected—either by publishers or readers—is because they do not have a third rail . . . And so they write and rewrite and polish an impressive stack of pages in which a bunch of things happen, but none of it really matters because that’s all it is—a bunch of external things that the reader has no particular reason to care about.

Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one. It’s about what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the problem that the external plot poses.”

The Third Rail drives your story, and the presenters at the meeting stressed, can save you lots of drafts. Some major Third Rail points:
  • The point of your book comes from the protagonist’s struggle—why it matters to him/her.
  • The protagonist pursues a difficult goal—how does this pursuit change her internally? What’s the point? Your book must come from this.
  • Each scene has to hit the third rail.
  • Nail your point—what do you want the reader to walk away with?

Two Weeks Well Spent
My WIP, a MG mystery and my first book, has been held up due to editing and revisions I've continued to make for over a year after I thought it was “ready.” This is after the ms had been reviewed by three professional editors, in various stages (I had a lot to learn). In past posts, I’ve emphasized making sure your ms is “ready” before submitting, and one way to make sure is to have a professional editor review it. So, when I made the acceptable changes suggested by my editors, the ms should have been ready. I had to go with my gut, though. I knew it wasn’t.

Fast forward to a year later—to NOW. When I went to the SCBWI meeting, I had planned to submit my ms that week. But after hearing what the presenters had to say about Cron’s book and taking a peek at my ms, I knew I had more work to do. It took two weeks.

My two-week revision started by using a handout provided by the presenters taken from the Story Genius book, "Plotting: Scene Card Template: What is the Point?" I made a copy of the template and stapled it onto a card, as it appears here:

On 3x5 cards, I made a note in each section of the template from each chapter, using the template as a guide. Conclusion? The story didn’t change, but my mc’s inner struggle strengthened, which made the story richer, explained the plot better, and helped clarify vague parts.

Worth the Time and Effort
Story Genius offers much more than could be covered in this post. I plan to use the ideas offered to begin writing Book Two in my MG mystery series and believe it will save months of edits and revisions. I recommend this book as an important addition to your bookshelf.

My writing buddies, Sweet Pea & Peanut
Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she has completed her first book, a mystery/ghost story for children 7-11 years old, and is hard at work on Book Two in the series.  Follow Linda at

Where does your story really start?

I recently went to a writing program where the instructor, writer Amy K Nichols, talked about her first book. She polished and polished the first chapter, as we all do. She got an agent, then sold the book. But after the editor started working on it, she told Amy, "You know, I think your story starts in Chapter 8."

Since then, she's noticed that many people don't start in the right place. Often it's not as drastic as 8 chapters too early. Sometimes it's only a couple of paragraphs.

Now Nichols does a workshop where people get up and read their first couple of pages aloud and the listeners decide where the story should really start. They try to cut out backstory and get right into the meat--or to a killer hook line.

The workshop was really interesting. It made me re-evaluate a short story I wrote that I really like, that I think is better than some the stories I've sold to magazines, yet I just can't find a taker. And you know what? I think Nichols was right. I think the real beginning is about three paragraphs down.

I challenge you to take your current work in progress and read it aloud--to a group of trusted critiquers, to friends who like to read and will be honest, or even just to yourself. This works with non-fiction too. As one travel magazine said in its general guidelines, your article doesn't start the moment you wake up to go to the airport.

Melinda Brasher can't resist photos of teddy bears, animals, and small children reading books (who were perhaps hooked because the author started the story in the right place).  

Her most recent sale is a twist on Rumpelstiltskin, appearing in Timeless Tales. You can also find her fiction in NousElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others. If you're dreaming about traveling to Alaska, check out her guide book, Cruising Alaska on a Budget; a Cruise and Port Guide. Visit her online at

5 Top Fiction Writing No-Nos

Fiction writers who are good at what they do, enjoy what they do. They like creating something from nothing . . . well from an idea. They enjoy the craft and the process – heck, they love it!

But, with that said, there are 5 top mistakes all fiction writers need to be aware of and avoid.

1. You make the beginning of your story all roses.

While we’d all love to live in a peaceful, happy land, readers need something to sink their teeth into, especially at the beginning of the story.

The beginning of your story is the hook. It’s where you GRAB the reader and make her have to turn the page and want to know what’s going to happen to the protagonist.

Here are a couple of examples of ‘hooking’ beginnings:

“I have noticed that teachers get exciting confused with boring a lot. But when my teacher said, ‘Class, we have an exciting project to talk about,’ I listened away.”
“The Talented Clementine” by Sara Pennypacker.

“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”
“Because of Winn-Dixie” by Kate DiCamillo

These two examples of children’s writing give you a good idea of what it takes to ‘hook’ the reader.

2. The dialog is weak, fluffy.

Having weak dialog can kill your story. You need your characters to have passion . . . to have life.

You want dialog that is strong and tight. You want the emotion (the conflict, the tension, the passion) to come through the words. And, you want to say it in as few words and as realistically as possible.

You want the reader to feel what the character is feeling at that moment.

If Bob is angry in the story, show it through his dialog:

“WHAT! Who said you could take that?!”
“Hey! What are you doing?!”
“No! You can’t. Now get lost.”
“Get your hands off of me!”

The tight, strong dialog goes for exchanges also:

“Hey! What are you doing?!” Bob yelled.

Gia spun around. “Oh, uh, nothing.” Her eyes darted to the door then back to Bob.

3. The story is predictable.

You’ve got to have some surprises in the story. If you don’t, it will make for a rather dull, predictable story.

For this aspect of your story, think questions.

- Why is the character in that situation?
- How did he get there?
- What must she be feeling, seeing?
- How can she get out of it?
- What might happen next?

Try to come up with four or five options as to what might happen next.

In an article at Writer’s Digest, the author advises to “Close your eyes and watch your scene unfold. Let the characters improvise. What are some outlandish things that could result? If something looks interesting, find a way to justify it.” (1)

Let your imagination run wild.

4. Your characters are one-dimensional.

For readers to become engaged in a story, they have to develop a connection with the protagonist and other characters. In order for this to happen, the characters must be multi-dimensional.

Characters need to be believable and unique. You don’t want them to be predictable or a stereotype.

According to “Breathing Life into Your Characters” by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D., “The essential components for creating successful characters with emotional and psychological depth—feelings, passion, desires, psychology, and vision—reside within [the writer].”

So, think about it. What conditions or characteristics does your character have?

- Is he stingy?
- Does she frighten easily?
- Is he a troublemaker of bully?

- Does he listen to good advice?
- Does she get along with others?
- Does he have a disorder such as ADHD?
- Does he have phobias?
- Is she dysfunctional?

- Is he musically inclined?
- Does she have an eating disorder?
- Is she materialistic?
- Is she a risk taker, fearless?

And, keep in mind that the more stressful an ‘inciting incident’ or event, the more reaction and/or adjustment there will be.

For example: If a child lost a pet, it wouldn’t be as severe as losing a parent.
If a woman separated from her husband, it wouldn’t be as severe as having her husband suddenly die.

So, using your experiences and innate characteristics, along with research, you can create multi-faceted characters.

5. You dump information into the story.

This is more of a mistake that new writers may make. I had a client who created the entire first paragraph of her story with ‘information dump.’

Having the protagonist tell another character his entire backstory, along with other details the author wants to convey to the reader is a no-no. Backstory needs to be layered or weaved into the story, not dumped in one big truck load.

You might also use a prologue to give backstory.

While there are other things to watch for in fiction writing, these are five of the top no-nos.

(1) 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes and Fixes

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author, children’s ghostwriter, and author/writer online platform instructor with WOW! Women on Writing. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move.

For more on writing, stop by Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi.
 Be sure to sign up for her newsletter and check out the DIY Page.

You can connect with Karen at:


Write What You Know
Writing – Wipe Out the “M” Word
Website Ranking - Basic Metrics (Elements)

4 Writing Tips on Using Descriptions

Using descriptions can be a powerful writing tool. The most important thing to keep in mind is to use your imagination. Close your eyes and picture what your character is doing. Picture what the scene looks like then paint it with words.

Below are four tips to help you get a handle on writing descriptions.

1. You’ve got to engage your readers.

How do you do this? By showing them what’s going on.

Let the reader:

- Smell what the character is smelling.
- Hear what the character is hearing.
- See what the character sees.
- Feel what the character is touching.
- Taste what the character is tasting.

Let the reader feel like she’s there. Use your character’s senses to describe (show) what’s going on.

2. Use descriptions in action scenes.

Using an excerpt from Walking Through Walls, I could have said just said it was hot. But that wouldn’t show how hot it was for the protagonist, Wang.

The sun beat down on the field. Sweat poured from the back of his neck drenching the cotton shirt he wore. I hate doing this work. He hurled the bundles on a cart.

I used description to show the action scene. This helps engage the reader.

3. Use description to emphasis the scene.

While you should write tight, sometimes it’s powerful to use description to bring the reader into the scene. In the excerpt below, the protagonist of Walking Through Walls is on a path that could change his life forever:

Deep in thought Wang did not notice the black cat that crossed his path, or the black raven that swooped and almost landed on his head. He did not even notice the silver snake with the purple tail that slithered along beside him on the road. Wang only noticed that each step took him closer to the merchant’s home and the beginning of the road leading to his destiny.

I could have simply used a version of the last sentence to say he didn’t notice anything. But, this wouldn’t allow the reader to know what was going on around him - how absorbed he was in fulfilling his dream. It wouldn’t bring the reader into the scene.

In addition, the description used for that scene is brought up later in the story. So, it’s also helping move the story forward.

4. Don’t use description dumps.
While it’s essential to use descriptions in your writing, you don’t want to overdo it. And, you don’t want to give description dumps.

What this means is avoid going beyond what is needed to engage. Yes, authors did it years ago – they’d elaborate on descriptions for sometimes pages. And, I would think it gave the writer a sense of freedom to be able to describe in full what she was imagining - not having to worry about tight writing. But, it won’t fly today.

Today it’s about writing ‘lean and mean.’ It’s about thinking carefully about your word choices, your descriptions, and your character’s backstory. If you can say it effectively in two words rather than six, do it in two.

It’s about making sure everything thing in your story is moving the story forward. No sidetracking for a beautiful description. No sidetracking for over elaborating.

Weigh what will work and what is too much. Use balance in writing descriptions in your story.

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author, children’s ghostwriter, and author/writer online platform instructor with WOW! Women on Writing. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move.

For more on writing, stop by Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi.
Be sure to sign up for her newsletter and check out the DIY Page.

You can connect with Karen at:


Writing the World Around You
Twitter Chats 101
Once You Have Social Network Followers, Then What?

Setting: It's Not Just Background

Winter Landscape, Photo by Linda Wilson

Creating a setting for your story is easy, right? According to Taylor, a member of the Men with Pens team, in his article, "Special Fiction Writing Week: Creating a Setting," creating a setting is easier than creating a character. I agree. But, giving your setting authenticity and weaving it into the action through insights of your POV character requires special consideration.

The setting helps make your character come alive. Mere description won't achieve this. According to the article, "Author's Craft--Narrative Elements: Setting," on the Universal Design for Learning website, "Setting is not just factual information, but an essential part of a story's mood and emotional input. Careful portrayal of setting can convey meaning through interaction with the characters and the plot."

What is the mood of your story? Romantic? Mysterious? Humorous? Your opening needs to establish what type of story it is and stick with the mood throughout the book. Your reader will then be prepared to laugh, cry, seek adventure, etc., and will be emotionally engaged to continue reading. In her book, Writing for Children & Teenagers, Lee Wyndam writes "All story effects must be preplanned for that overall effect you want. Nothing can be left to chance, not even the weather."

Three Types of Setting
  • A Real Setting: The setting is in a place that can be found on a map, with the buildings, streets, stores, etc. intact. The time is close to the present. The best part is that nothing has to be made up. The tricky part is that you must be accurate. Taylor suggests picking a place you know well, especially if you've actually lived there awhile.
  • A Setting Created from the Real World: The setting is made up but fashioned from the real world. A Bed & Breakfast is the setting for one of my stories, a place down the street from where I lived for five years. My first visit there actually gave me the idea for my book. After moving away I stayed there during a visit while working on my book in order to experience it. Yet despite the area's familiarity, I still researched the kinds of trees, plants, wildlife, weather, etc., to make the setting as accurate as possible.
  • A Fantasy Setting: The creation of a make-believe world is not simply imagining how it looks and feels. It also needs to have a history. The danger with this type of setting is to be careful not to get lost in this new world you've created, but to stick to your plot and how your characters relate to their world.
Creating a Setting that Works
Utmost is creating a setting so vivid that your readers feel immersed in it. At the beginning of each chapter, provide brief information of the time and place to help ground your reader; use descriptive language, invoke the senses and any other sensations you can think of.

In the following excerpt from The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, Cormier reveals a great deal about his character Jerry's present situation with Jerry's observations of his surroundings:

Out at the bus stop, Jerry leaned against a telephone pole, body weary, echoing the assault of the football practices. For three days his body had absorbed punishment. But he was still on the roster, luckily. Idly, he watched the people in the Common across the street. He saw them every day. They were not part of the scenery like the Civil War Cannon and the World War Monuments, the flagpole. Hippies. Flower Children. Street People. Drifters. Drop-Outs.. . . [He]  . . . sometimes envied their old clothes, their sloppiness, the way they didn't seem to give a damn about anything. Trinity was one of the last schools to retain a dress code--shirt and tie. He watched a cloud of smoke swirl around a girl in a floppy hat. Grass? He didn't know. A lot of things he didn't know.

In one paragraph, the reader learns that Jerry:
  • Goes to high school and is a football player.
  • Is sore from three days of practice, implying that football season just started, a subtle way to place the story in early fall.
  • Feels like a marginal player on the team, feeling lucky that he's still made the roster.
  • Recognizes traits in the people he observes in the Common, contrasts them with people the war memorials there represent, but is impressed that these people don't have to follow a dress code like he does. But, he recognizes that he has a lot to learn.
While creating your setting ask yourself  these questions:
  • Where is it?   At the bus stop near a park.
  • When is it?    After school.
  • What is the weather like?  Probably a warm day in the fall.
  • What are the social conditions?  Jerry wishes he could be as carefree as the "hippies" he observes lounging in the Common, but he has to wear a uniform to school. He's never smoked pot before.
  • What is the landscape or environment like? His bus most likely picks him up from the center of town. 
  • What special details make the setting vivid? The names hippies, flower children, street people drifters, all conjure up a picture of what these people look like. The park holds war memorials, which show a well organized and thoughtful town. Pot smoking contrasts with Jerry, who seems straight-laced in his school uniform, and how different the street people are from the people who fought in the wars.     
More Tips on Creating Setting
  • Wherever you go, take "setting notes." Note unusual details, how each of your senses is affected, and "record textures and small 'markers.'" (Jan Fields, my first writing instructor during a short story course at the Institute of Children's Literature, W. Redding, Connecticut.)
  • Setting can include geographical location, historical era, social conditions, weather, immediate surroundings and time of day. Often an overall setting is established in the beginning of a novel and then within it, scenes occur in different specific places (at the inn itself, at Abi's new friend's house). (Taylor from the Men with Pens article mentions J.R.R. Tolkien's and Ursula LeGuin's novels, such as A Wizard of Earthsea, as masters of "making up whole new worlds.")
  • At there is a terrific list of fictional towns, villages and cities, separated by categories such as comics, films, television, etc.
  • In a Children's Writer article by Veda Boyd Jones, Christopher Paul Curtis's Newbery Medal Award winner, Bud, Not Buddy, is mentioned because Jones uses this book as an example: "What makes a setting work is its full development." Jones also discusses the importance of the fictional name of a place, and points out author Vicki Grove's novel, The Starplace. "The place Grove created, Quiver, Oklahoma, is not real. The name, meant to be literal and ironic, is also a function of setting. Quiver is an Indian word and a description of some of the fear-ruled people in the town."
  • A helpful article, "The Fundamental Elements of Setting," can be found at, by Courtney Carpenter.
Setting can not only be a subtle way to bring out your character's personality and motives, it can also be challenging and fun to create. The part I enjoy the most is immersing myself in places I love even after I've left, and learning things about them that I didn't know while living or visiting there. Your love of "place" will shine through, too, and can be an effective way to make your character come alive.

Sources:; Please note that the self-check idea came from this UDL article.

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for adults and children and six short stories for children. Recently she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on  Facebook.

Travel for Writing Inspiration

Dívčí Kámen, Czech Republic
Great inspiration for my current historic novel
All photos by Melinda Brasher
Many people resolve every year to travel more.  It's not just fun, interesting, and mind-broadening.  It also provides grist for your writing mill.  Article writers, of course, already know this.  But you can also find a wealth of inspiration for your fiction.  Here are some tips to use travel to enrich your writing.

1)  Steal from History.  This isn't only for historical fiction or academic articles.  History--told well--is one long story.  Visit museums, read informational plaques, take walking tours.  You'll find fascinating details of history's crazy characters and its dark and bright moments.  Take elements from here and there and twist them into your own story.  When I was in Znojmo, Czech Republic, the history of the catacombs there fascinated me.  I later incorporated them--in my own style, with many details changed--into my novel, Far-Knowing.

Volunteering at a village school in Guatemala
Seeing different ways of life is good for my writing.
2)  Meet People.  Talk to locals in trains, shops, and restaurants.  Get their stories.  See things through their eyes.  Stay in hostels and meet international travellers with backgrounds and experiences enough to fill hundreds of novels.  If you have time, organize a volunteer vacation to really interact with people.  Of course, you don't want to violate anyone's privacy or steal entire life stories, but let people's tales serve as the seeds of your own work.  On a train to Budapest, I met two Brits who told me a story about having to get off a train once in the middle of nowhere and walk to the nearest station with all the other passengers.  And that's what happens in "On the Train to Warsaw," my first published short story.  All the details and the internal conflict are my own, but I still owe the external conflict to those friendly travellers.

Hah!  The perfect place to drop my poor miserable characters
3)  Explore Nature.  Get out there in the elements, especially in climates and landscapes you're not used to.  Pay attention to the plants, the smells, the feel of it all.  Then plunk your characters down in the harshness or beauty or crazy variety of nature you've discovered and see what they do.  One scene from the novel I'm working on now came from my own scary experience in a Slovakian forest.

4)  Visit Libraries.  Depending on where you travel, libraries may serve as cultural or historic centers.  If you speak the language, ask for their local section of books and see what you find.  In El Salvador once, tired of "sights," I spent the morning in the library, reading local folktales.  One inspired me to write "A Learned Man."

Znojmo, Czech Republic
Which served as inspiration for a setting
 in my novel, Far-Knowing
5)  Imagine your Characters at the Sights you See.  While you're strolling the grounds of a castle or taking in the hum of a modern metropolis, imagine characters there with you.  What kind of people are they?  What are they doing here? How do they react to what they see?  What do they want that they can't have?  What problems lurk for them around the corner?

Record it!
Whenever you travel, carry a little notebook with you to write down these ideas and story kernels.  Then, even if you don't use something right away, you can go back to this idea bank for later inspiration.  Good travels!

Melinda Brasher loves to travel and has filled numerous notebooks with the things she sees on her journeys.  She's also lived abroad in Spain, Poland, Mexico, and the Czech Republic.  To read some of the work inspired by her travels, click the links above or check out Leaving Home, a collection of travel narratives and short stories, many of which were written on buses up mountain roads, in foreign town squares, or sitting in castle windows.  Visit her online at

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 2: Dialogue

Commas and Periods in Dialogue

We all love dialogue in books, but your readers will love it less if it’s punctuated awkwardly. Here is the solution to a common error in dialogue punctuation.

First, make the distinction between what I call “dialogue tags” and “action tags.”

A dialogue tag uses said or another similar speaking word.  For example, “he said,” “I asked,” or “she whispered.”  As long as you don’t get carried away with attention-grabbing synonyms like ordered, commiserated, murmured, contradicted, these dialogue tags are good because they’re short and almost invisible.  They let the reader focus on the dialogue itself.  However, you don’t want to use them with every line of dialogue, or you’ll sound repetitive and choppy.

An action tag does not contain a synonym for said.  Instead, it’s simply an action the character performs before, during, or while speaking.  Example: “Magda slammed her fist on the table,” or “Simon carefully untangled the knotted rope.”  These are great because they break up the dialogue while giving either a better insight into the character or a better image of the scene as a whole.  When using an action tag, you don’t have to put in the dialogue tag—and usually should’t—because the reader understands that the person doing the action is the same person speaking.

Magda slammed her fist on the table.  “I’m not going to ignore this any longer.”
“So, you think I’m manipulating you.”  Simon carefully untangled the knotted rope.

In good writing, you use both dialogue and action tags.  But in good writing, you also remember to punctuate them correctly.     

Rule #1:  Use a comma with dialogue tags.

“I love you,” she whispered.
He said, “That’s unfortunate.”

Rule #2:  Use a period with action tags.

“I love you.”  She twined her fingers through his.
He coughed.  “That’s unfortunate.”

Miscellaneous Rules: 

When combining the two types of tags, you’ll usually need the comma.

He rose to his feet and shouted, “Not guilty!”
“Order in the court,” the judge demanded, slamming down his gavel.

If your dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, capitalize as if it were a comma.

“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Absolutely not!” he yelled.

Don’t be fooled by words like smile.

Incorrect:  He smiled, “Welcome to your worst nightmare.” 
Correct:  He smiled.  “Welcome to your worst nightmare.”

Be careful with "said" when it has its own direct object.  That makes it its own sentence, and should be punctuated like an action tag.  
Incorrect:  "I'm tired," she said it with an apologetic smile.
Correct:  "I'm tired."  She said it with an apologetic smile.
OR:  "I'm tired," she said with an apologetic smile.

The Gray Area

There is room for debate here, on some verbs like laugh, sob, spit, etc., which involve the mouth or throat, but aren’t really speaking words.  For example, I think that you can sob out words, so I can use “sob” as a dialogue tag or an action tag.  I also think you can laugh and talk (rather unintelligibly) at the same time, so I sometimes use laugh as a dialogue tag.  When you’re really angry, I think you can spit words.  Others disagree.  I believe, however, that if you make the conscious decision on a gray-area verb, it’s a matter of style, not a mistake.


“I killed him,” she sobbed. (Sounds good to me, as if she’s crying and talking at the same time.)
“I killed him.” She sobbed.  (Sounds awkward to me, like she said it and only then started crying.)
“I killed him.” She sobbed into her bloody hands. (Sounds good.  If I want to use these gray verbs as action tags, adding a little extra detail usually gets rid of the choppiness.)

Punctuation is a guide for your readers.  Make it work for you and for them.

Join me next month for more about the exciting world of punctuation.

Note that these examples and rules are for Standard American English (SAE).  Punctuation in other regions may differ.  If you have any examples of difference, we'd love to see them in the comments below.  Thanks!

Read Melinda Brasher's free short story, "A Learned Man," on Electric Spec's current issue.   It's a bit of a ghost story based on a two-page folk tale she read in a library in small-town El Salvador.  Inspiration will sneak up and whack you on the head if you're not careful.  You can also find more of her work on 

Character Mapping for Juicy Characters

When you think of any great novel, what you usually remember is the characters. When they're done well, a powerful character will stay with the reader, as if they were a real person, and their story will be a story that resonates as universal -- one that readers identify with. Great fiction is almost always driven by the protagonists, and how they cope with the situations that they encounter through the plot. Every author needs to know how to create good characters. Great characters need to be real, engaging, and motivating; they need to keep the reader reading. They need to touch something in the reader; so that they are remembered.

So what, exactly, is characterisation? Put simply, characterisation is about peopling your story and fleshing out those people. Or better still, characterisation is about driving a story thorugh the response and development of your characters. By showing the reader your character in-situ, having conversations, responding to their environment and the changes they go through, and through other character's responses to them, the reader begins to visualise and understand them.

The term characterisation was introduced in 1894 as a literary term meaning a "description of essential features." Novelists like George Eliot, Flaubert and Balzac, and William Dean Howells were all writers who wrote stories where the plot was grown out character development: where character transitions or arcs were the focal point of the story. There are a range of methods that writers use to bring their characters to life. Some of these are as simple as giving them a relevant name, describing your characters, and having them perform in situations, in effect, illuminating your characters' outer life. Other techniques are much more subtle and complex and involve revealing, through action, reflection, psychology and impression, your characters' inner life.

Although whole books can, and have been written on this topic, creating a character map is a really good way to creating more juicy, interesting characters and thereby improving your stories:

If you're a visual person, why not cut out magazine pictures and paste them onto an A3 sheet, with a few details about each of your key characters. This might include not only what they look like, the clothing they wear, how they hold themselves, and the sorts of accessories or accoutrements they might gather around themselves. The resulting map could end up being quite a good visual cue for you to work with as your story develops. If you choose famous actors and actresses, you'll have a head start on the casting call for the movie which results from your book.

If you're not a visual person, then there are other good tools, including Excel, Mind Map, or just MS Word. I particularly like Mind Map (there are many open source mapping tools out there including:

The Brain:, and
Free Mind:

Whichever tool you use, you'll want to begin by creating a summary box or heading for each of your key protagonists, antagonists and the more prominent minor characters. Then under each of those headings, describe them, including things like what they look like, age, sex, hair, eye colour, scent, names and nicknames, politics, personality, etc.

After that you can go deeper into the internal life of your characters and the world they inhabit, teasing out their wants, needs and desires, intelligences, flaws, beliefs, motivations, history, etc, and how tht maps to the key points in your story - the character arc.

Whether you use tools, or just define your character with pen and paper, a thorough understanding of the characters and their journey in your story is the key to good fiction.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the  novels novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Asssessment, and in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a number of poetry books including the recently released Sublime Planet.  Find out more about Magdalena at  

Active vs. Passive Writing: Energize Your Prose!

 by Suzanne Lieurance Ever feel like your stories and articles are a bit slow-paced and wordy?   If so, that’s probably because you’re using...