Make Your Readers Worry, And They Will Be Loyal

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Readers like to worry about characters in crisis. They want to tremble about what’s around the next corner (whether it’s emotional or physical). If a reader knows what’s coming, and then it does in fact come, the worry factor is blown. Your novel no longer conveys a fictive dream but a dull ride down familiar streets.

The fix is simple: Put something unexpected in every scene. Doing this one thing keeps the reader on edge.

So how do you come up with the unexpected? Try making lists. Pause and ask yourself what might happen next, and list the possibilities, centering on three primary areas: description, action and dialogue. For each one, don’t choose the first thing that comes to mind (which usually amounts to cliches). Force yourself to list at least five alternatives.

Description: Dump generic details for ones unique to the character’s perceptions. How might he see a room where someone died? What’s one surprising thing about the wallpaper? The bed? The closet?

Action: 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.

Dialogue: Don’t always use “on-the-nose” exchanges. How might characters say things that put other characters (and thus, readers) off balance? Consider Clarice Starling’s first conversation with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice begins:

“I think you’ve been destructive. For me it’s the same thing.”

“Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s just that simple. And we have fire, and then there’s hail. Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.’”


“I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily?”

You can make these lists in your planning stages, just before writing a scene, and/or when you revise. Either way, the unexpected elements that result will perceptibly elevate the quality of your story.”

For more tips on writing from , click here.

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Describe In Short

[found on; by CHARLIE JANE ANDERS]

“World-building should be quick and merciless.

In a novel, you can spend ten pages explaining how the 29th Galactic Congress established a Peacekeeping Force to regulate the use of interstitial jumpgates, and this Peacekeeping Force evolved over the course of a century to include A.I.s in its command structure, etc. etc.

In a short story, you really need to hang your scenery as fast as possible. My friend and mentor d.g.k. goldberg always cited the Heinlein line: “The door dilated,” which tells you a lot about the surroundings in three words. Little oblique references to stuff your characters take for granted can go a long way.

Make us believe there’s a world beyond your characters’ surroundings.

Even though you can’t spend tons of time on world-building, you have to include enough little touches to make us believe there’s stuff we’re not seeing. It’s like the difference between the fake house-fronts in a cowboy movie and actual houses. We should glimpse little bits of your universe, that don’t necessarily relate to your characters’ obsessions.”

For more writing tips from Charlie Jane Anders, click here.

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Who Are You Talking About?

[found on; by Tyler Lehmann]

“The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible.” — Mark Twain

“A good writer knows his characters better than he does his closest friends. Oh, that sounds nuts, you say? Yep, probably.

But the reality is, no one will give a rip about your characters if you don’t make them come alive, as good ol’ Twain points out above. Humans are infinitely complex, and if your characters don’t mimic that complexity, the illusion that is reading is lost.

    1. Gender
    2. Age
    3. Ethnicity
    4. Body type
    5. Hair color and style
    6. Eyewear
    7. Facial hair
    8. Clothing style
    9. Tattoos and piercings
    10. Scars and birthmarks…”

For more tips on writing, and the complete list of traits from Tyler Lehmann, click here.

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Dialogue Your Characters

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“It’s never too soon to start thinking about what your characters will say and how they’ll say it. Giving each of your characters a distinct voice is key to writing great fiction.

The goal of Worksheet 9 is to encourage you to think about your characters’ individual speech patterns and specific word choices. Your characters will probably reveal these distinctions as your story progresses, but thinking about it early will make you more receptive to such revelations.

For each of your major characters, record information about individual speech patterns and any catchphrases they may use.

With this information in place on a dialogue sheet, you’ll know exactly what a given character will say and how he/she will say it. You can also use this worksheet during the final edit and polish of the manuscript to double-check speech patterns.”

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Enter, and Resolve Thyself

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“Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.”
— Michael Moorcock

To see the rest of the tips from iUniverse, click here.

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Name That Face

[found on; by Elizabeth Sims]

There are many different styles of naming your characters, one is the ironic choice.

“Ironic Names

Large chunks of Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling 44 Scotland Street series concern the difficult life of Bertie Pollock, an Edinburgh schoolboy. Two of his schoolmates are lads named Larch and Tofu. Though minor characters, they’re there for a distinct purpose.

The names interact with a savory irony. Tofu and Larch’s names obviously have been bestowed by parents with finely tuned ideals. Political correctness abounds: One boy’s name is a legume paste, the other a tree. Yet the characters, we learn from their actions and words, are as shallow and phony-hearted as their names are sophisticated.

Smith gives us, by contrast, the simple, direct, honest Bertie. He is worth more than both Tofu and Larch put together. His is an ordinary, unpretentious name; his surname, Pollock, is a common fish. Bertie, then, is the humble everyman who must endure everybody else’s idiotic, self-serving vanities.

But for pure triumphal irony, can anything top the Veneering family, of Dickens’ classic Our Mutual Friend? Such a vaguely grand-seeming name for a vaguely grand family. Simultaneously, of course, their name clues us in that they are nothing but surface. And we enjoy watching them try—and fail—to live up to their banal aspirations.

Ironic names are easy to create: Just think of your character’s opposite qualities and brainstorm liberally. Let’s say you’ve got a clumsy guy who lives with his parents and aspires merely to avoid work and download porn. You could give him an ironic name like Thor or Victor or Christian or even Pilgrim. Or you could give him a first name that’s a family surname, like Powers or Strong.

Authors who want to use ironic character names should strictly limit themselves to one per story or novel.”

To see other options of name choice from Writer’s Digest, click here.

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Killing Your Characters

[found on; by Writers Relief Staff]

“If you’re considering killing off your main character, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Be somewhat realistic. It may be hard to swallow if your main character survives what no one should be able to. When a jumbo jet crashes in the desert but your hero, Jack, walks away unscathed thanks to his skill with a nail file and a soda can, you can practically hear your readers groan.
  2. Plot problems. Don’t kill the protagonist if you are having problems with the storyline and simply don’t know what to do next: The heroine finds herself between an enraged grizzly and a cliff—if you can’t figure out a plausible way to extricate her, this shouldn’t be the only reason to kill her off.
  3. Beware morality statements. Perhaps your main character’s death is a natural consequence of his fatal flaw. He is a functioning alcoholic and sometimes drinks and drives. Be very careful not to make this into a morality statement by waving it over your readers’ heads: This is what happens to drunk drivers! You want the story to be powerful, not your personal statement on drunk driving.
  4. Don’t kill the MC off in a trivial or anticlimactic way. In other words, unless it’s tied to the theme or plot in some significant way, Hattie Heroine should not die from an infected paper cut. If we’ve invested in her character, we need some tension building up to her death.
  5. Avoid resurrections. Please don’t be tempted to miraculously bring a main character back to life unless it’s an integral part of your plot or theme (like a medical thriller centered around a miraculous new drug that reverses death). What? It was actually Hattie Heroine’s twin sister who died of infection? Like an ending where the MC wakes up and realizes everything was just a dream, a miraculous resurrection can be a little cheesy—or an easy out.”
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Character Attributes [fill in the blank]

[found on; by Tina Morgan]

“A common trick employed by newer writers is to have a character stare into a mirror, so the reader can ‘see’ what the character is seeing. This approach often feels contrived and does not help the reader to ‘see’ your character at all.

You’ve made up your mind that the male lead of your story is average height, has brown eyes and caramel colored skin. He’s getting older, has thinning hair and a tiny bit of fat sticking out beyond his belt. He has wide shoulders and narrow hips. He’s a bit bowlegged like he’s been riding too many horses even though he’s never set foot outside the city limits. Now, how do you describe him in your story?

Bob was rapidly approaching middle age. His brown eyes didn’t focus as well as they used to and he was wearing reading glasses as he scanned the paper. His wide shoulders jutted beyond what was considered the proper amount of “personal” space at the diner counter. His closely cropped brown hair was thinning a bit on the top. 


Eye color
Hair color and type

Descriptions that read like grocery lists are boring. And what if your story is in first person? How would you start then?

My name is Bob, I’m a 49 year old accountant with thinning hair and reading glasses. I weigh 195 which is a bit much for my 5’8″ frame. Not that I’m fat mind you, just a little out of shape.

Again we have a list.

Hair type
Body condition.

So when does your character introduce him/herself? Do they walk into the bathroom and start listing their features in the mirror? This is a commonly overused ploy. (the same goes for still water in lakes, ponds and puddles. Also reflections in the bottom of cooking utensils.)

Working the description slowly into the story doesn’t disrupt the flow as much as the grocery list approach does. It allows for the reader to learn about your character as they go. The trick is to keep the reader interested in your characters and how they cope with the stories conflict. The reader doesn’t really need an in-depth description to get a feel for your character. They don’t need to know every wrinkle on the character’s face. It’s more fun to read about the wrinkles in their personality.”

For more excellent tips on writing from FictionFactor, click here.

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