Archive for category Writer basics 101

Pace and story structure: a blueprint for keeping the reader gripped

seattle_bway_mambo_01I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:

Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?

There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.

In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.

First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?

This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.

Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.

More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.

So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?

This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.

This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)

strucWhere to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion

And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).

The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.

Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?

Yes and no.

Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.

Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.

Why no, again? Because all stories need change.

Thanks for the pic Joe Mabel

nyn3 2ndThere’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.




NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies

So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here.  Follow this link and go to Facebook.


Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.

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Doing NaNoWriMo? Nail it with this resource kit

nanoI can’t believe it’s already October. And that means it’s just a month until NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, it’s a worldwide writing lockdown where scribblers of all levels undertake to write a 50,000-word draft in just 30 days.

So here’s a list of NaNoWriMo resources I’ve written on this blog and further afield.

1 NaNoWriMo – should you? No, you can’t write a publishable novel in one month – or very few of us can. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. And you can use NaNoWriMo to get a proper, publishable manuscript up and running. Here’s a post about that.


2 So how do you do it? Preparation is key. Yes, it’s allowed. Here’s a work plan I wrote for Writers & Artists.


3. Most outlines focus on the story. Is that too constricting for you? Would you rather just write and see what happens? Here’s another angle. Plan your characters, wing the plot. As demonstrated at Romance University. (But suitable for the staunchly unromantic too.)

nano14. Yes, but HOW DO YOU DO IT? Three old hands share their NaNoWriMo tips.



5. A little book. Allow me to discreetly mention Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. Use it to guide your research, firm up your story and road-test your plot. While you’re writing it will give you strategies to keep you focussed, creative and confident. And when you collapse on a pile of words at the other end, it will hold your hand as you sort out what to do next.


6. So much to read! I should be planning my book!  NaNo advice can come to you in your headphones. In this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell, we discuss all things NaNo.

Back tomorrow with a proper post. R x



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An exercise in character and story development – guest spot at Triskele Books

trisIf you’re exploring characters for your story, this exercise might help. Triskele Books is holding a creative writing summer school and I’ve contributed this snippet to uncover  interesting tensions that make a scene sizzle. And once you’re there, you’ll find several other storybending assignments from seasoned fictioneers. Step this way.

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How to find your author voice – interview with Joanna Penn

author voiceHello! I’m slightly late posting this week because I knew I had this waiting. Joanna Penn invited me back to her podcast to thrash out a thorny topic – how to find your author voice.

We discuss what voice is, how to develop it, how character dialogue differs from narrative voice, how authors might adapt their style for different kinds of book, voice considerations for non-fiction, the value of experimenting and – that perennial favourite – why literary fiction might take so darn long to write. Plus side helpings of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, so bring a picnic.

You can get it on video, audio download or written transcript – it’s all here.

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Conflict in every scene? Disasters in every act? Yes and no

15517166590_fabb8e02ee_oI’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.

I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?

That’s a good question with a lot of answers.

So let’s take it apart.

‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’

I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.

In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.

creative pennThe change in a scene might be major – a secret uncovered, a betrayal. Or it might be lower key – perhaps deepening the reader’s understanding of a problem, or weaving an ominous atmosphere.

So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.

But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.

Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.

Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong.  And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.

Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.

So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.

And now to part 2 of the question:

structureShould each part of the story contain a disaster? 

First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.

And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.

Ben’s question

So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.

Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.

Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr

Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?




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The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours?

Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.

writing bookshelf

But which was the first writing book you ever read?

For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.

Dianne Doubtfire Nail Your NovelI flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.

To begin at the beginning…

I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.

Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.

Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.

3 nynsPsst … Speaking of writing books, and flashing forwards many moons and scrumpled drafts, I’ve been jazzing up the Nail Your Novel covers. Take a peek here…

Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?

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Masterclass snapshots: how to write several narrators and make them sound distinct

guardian classHere’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…

characters sound distinct Nail Your Novel

How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct

One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.

Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.

Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.

Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.

Where the differences really lie

If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.

jason uvIf you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.

Two characters …. two tenses?

Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.

I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.

But then she said something that was rather interesting.

She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.

The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.

Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.

Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.


Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?

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Should writers tackle environmental issues instead of playing make-believe? Guest spot at Howlarium

I’m taking a short blogging break to finish a big project before Easter, but in the meantime I can leave you with some slightly unusual bloggery.

Look at the question in the header. When I received it in my email, I thought I’d quietly pass. howlI don’t really see my fiction as a cudgel for issues. But I followed the link and found Howlarium, a thoughtful discussion blog by short story writer Jason Howell. And by then, I was itching to answer. So today I find myself on his blog, with a few other thoughtful types who have plenty to say about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ write.

If you’ve got an opinion about that too, argue it here in the comments. Back soon!


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How to write a gripping, unforgettable plot – video podcast guest spot with Lorna Faith

lorna3Think of all the kinds of novels we might write … from a sensitive character study to a sprawling epic to a nailbiting thriller … are there any common factors they all have?

There are. They’re my secret.

Actually, they’re not a secret at all. The 4 Cs of a great plot is one of the questions I discuss with Lorna Faith on her writing podcast (which also has a visual, handwaving, grinning version, see right).

Lorna quizzes me about the ins and outs of a good plot and we grapple with many storytelling essentials, including structure, turning points and where plots come from. Step this way.

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1 Comment

Three diagrams to make your plot a page-turner

Nail Your Novel unexpected plot developmentsI’ve had this question from Elizabeth Lord: I have just finished your book Nail Your Novel and found it extremely helpful for the rewrite phase of my novel. You mention graphs as a way to see where plots are plodding and character arcs intertwine – do you have any examples?

What a good question! Diagrams coming up.

First, though, a bit of explanation. Readers get bored if the plot appears to be predictable – ie the characters start with a goal and proceed doggedly towards it, step by step by step. This is a linear plot and it looks dead dull, like reading the syllabus for an education course, not a story. So when the characters have a clear goal at the start, we try to introduce developments that upset expectations. They’re going on the Orient Express? Great. Make one of them miss the train. Now everyone has a new problem that matters far more.

The major changes diagram
So your first drawing exercise is to go through the plot looking for points where you throw in a development that changes the characters’ priorities in a significant way. Make a ‘didn’t expect that’ diagram.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 001

You want several of these developments, BTW, and they’ll probably be the main turning points in the story. Note also that they’re emotional. They’re about changing the characters’ goals – the things they want, the things that matter to them. So early in the story, they’re trying to catch a murderer. By the end of the story, they’re trying to stop the murderer killing their wife. Or murderer and detective are embroiled in a towering love affair.

The highs and lows diagram
Another helpful diagram might look at the main characters’ emotional state throughout the book. You want them to feel increasingly pressured and troubled, and you want their worst moment to be the climax of the book. So try a diagram where you look at their levels of joy and achievement versus despair. The joy part isn’t so important, although you want to give your characters a few breaks so that the disasters are more agonising – and also to show what matters to them. Make sure the despair increases in magnitude as the story proceeds.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 003

The un-convenience diagram
You can look for smaller reversals too. You might not realise you’ve made everything too easy for your characters. Every time they need to accomplish something, make it harder than they expect. Or make it backfire. You can check on this by going through your manuscript and drawing a little circle whenever you’ve thwarted your characters.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 002

If you have a lot of little circles, you’ll probably keep your reader gripped. If you haven’t, you know to throw some spanners into their spokes.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 004

Compare your plot strands at a glance
If you have several plot strands or main characters, you could combine them on one diagram and use different colours. Thus you will see, at a glance, how your character arcs intertwine and if you like the harmony of their highs and lows. Or you might spot a general lull where several characters seem to be having a successful run – in that case, it might be good to rework the story and introduce a setback or twist. If you’re the kind of person who has music manuscript paper lying around (how stylish of you), you could draw your diagrams on the staves, like lines for different instruments.

X-ray your plot
The serious point is this: these exercises are ways to extract and visualise important plot mechanisms that might otherwise be invisible to you, and help you fix problems with the structure and pacing. Have fun!

Elizabeth’s question was inspired by a section in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. There’s also a lot more about plot and structure in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Do you draw diagrams to assess your plot – or any other aspect of your book? Share them here!

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