When I define myself, I don't call myself a writer. I call myself a storyteller (in point of fact I like the term raconteur.) The distinction, to me, is an important one. As a writer, my entire world is the written word, fiction or non-fiction, novel-length or short subject. As a storyteller, I embrace all forms of fiction, not just written. I read, yes, but I also watch TV unabashed, enthusiastically rush to the movie theater, and even admire some television commercials. And it doesn't stop there: I love live theater (yes even musical theater, I know and can sing many show tunes from memory,) I get a major kick out of old-timey radio shows, I can even sit for hours watching the extemporaneous play of children. Many of my dreams are cinematic in nature, quite dramatic, with beginning, middle, and end. Some music, notably country music, is an entire master class on tight and concise plotting in a single two-to-three minute song (Tie a Yellow Ribbon, The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, The Coward of The Country, Ode to Billy Joe, etc. ad infinitum.)

As a raconteur I have learned so much from embracing all of these forms of storytelling. But recently I have been exposed to a unique form of storytelling that has absolutely astounded me with it's surprising depth, complexity, and ability to draw one in and thoroughly entertain. Please bear with me, here, I think you might find these insights worthwhile.


When is the last time you played a video game? I'm not talking about Pacman or Super Mario Brothers. Recently I bought myself a top of the line gaming console and a few of the most popular games: Disney Infinity, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto V. To be honest I was a little intimidated by modern gaming consoles, assuming as I suspect many adults assume, that they require hours and hours of valuable time to master, and besides are really rather silly and juvenile. I had so many better things to do.

Well, I was not prepared for the experience. First, let me get the misunderstandings about modern gaming out of the way. These games are not difficult to master, for the most part. The controllers are designed in such a way as to make interaction with the games easier, not harder. While you will have to exercise concentration and develop some hand-eye coordination that may have gone rusty, the games give you unlimited tries to get it right, and you will find yourself adapting and mastering the controls much quicker than you think. Second, most games are episodic in nature, broken up into vignettes (in some games referred to as missions), between which you can save your progress and walk away. So you are not obliged to play for hours on end. You might feel compelled to, but with a little self-discipline you can limit yourself to only an hour a day, or a couple of hours a weekend. It need not become the giant time-suck you fear.

You may suspect that modern games have better graphics than the last time you tangled with Donkey Kong and you'd be right. But baby, you have no idea! The detail and realism of the worlds these games open up to you is something beyond anything you could ever imagine. One of the most impressive is Grand Theft Auto V (GTA for short.) This game takes place on a vast island fashioned after Los Angeles, and I cannot express to you the detail of the world they've built, and the realism. It really is every bit as if Los Santos is a real place that you've stepped into. Call of Duty the same. There are still cartoonish games such as Disney Infinity but even these are well rendered and engaging.>/p>

But on to the most compelling part. The storytelling. For many of these games, you follow a plot through the game. These stories are every bit as well written, well-acted as a Hollywood production. Call of Duty centers around a veteran soldier sidelined by the amputation of his arm, who finds new employment with the private security firm owned by the father of his best friend, who was killed in battle. He is given a bionic arm and a chance to fight to defend the defenseless again, but soon he and his new friends begin to suspect a more nefarious motive behind the missions they are being assigned. While these games necessarily involve action, combat, explosions and the like, they are character-driven stories, compelling and engaging, with wonderful build-ups, conflict, and climactic conclusions.

In Grand Theft Auto V you alternate between the POV of three characters: a retired gangster in witness protection contending with boredom and a family who no longer has any respect for him, a street hustler looking to take a step up in the underworld and take part in bigger and more lucrative heists, and a psychopathic killer with anger-management issues. Together these three find themselves athwart some very powerful criminal and law enforcement types and must navigate a dangerous world, to somehow come out alive on the other side. This one is heavy on shooting and crime but the stories are still very well developed, character driven, and enthralling.

Now of course, as an action/thriller writer, I chose games heavy on action, and those are primarily the games one hears about the most. But there are other sorts of games for those who like more mystery and intrigue than shoot-em-up. For example, <em>Never Alone</em> features a little Inuit  (Eskimo) girl and her little arctic fox friend who must embark on a perilous quest across many dangerous obstacles to save her tribe from extinction. Along the way she encounters spirits, some of which she can enlist to help her, and others who wish to oppose her. The dialog is entirely in authentic Inuit - a soft, almost hypnotic language - with subtitles. This is a visually beautiful game, some of it looking more like an ethereal painting than a video game.

Look, I'm no gamer. But as a storyteller, these and other games I have played have caught my imagination every bit as much as reading Harry Potter or attending a performance of The Mikado, with the added dynamic of being interactive. No, I would not put them in the same category as Dickens or Hemingway, but in their own way they deal with very similar human dramas in an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining way. I would encourage those of you who embrace storytelling in all its forms to make these games a part of your research and inspiration. I think you will be blown away by just how satisfying they can be.

Rocky Mountain Writer #28

J.D. Dudycha & Sitting Dead Red


The podcast today is with J.D. Dudycha, who has ten years of experience in baseball at the collegiate level. He retired from the sport shortly after the birth of his son. Since his retirement, he developed a love for writing, an outlet he so desperately needed in the absence of playing the game.

His first novel, Paint The Black was published last summer on Amazon and his second, Sitting Dead Red, comes out in February just as pitchers and catchers are getting ready to report for Spring Training.

Jon Dudycha

Deb Hall

Intro music courtesy of Moby Gratis
Outro music courtesy of Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

How to Get Away with Murder (Non-TV Show Edition)

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

From the title you’d guess that I was about to tell you how to murder someone. But I’m not. At least not really. This post is about reality in fiction.

No, really dear NSA (who can still read my meta data, or is that my mind thanks to the Patriot Act renewal). I’m not plotting to kill anyone.

I promise *wink, wink*

Anyway…. I recently asked my facebook writer friends, which I truly hope you are one of (if not, why not? I don’t smell that bad and I can be fun. No really. Ask anyone. If you’d like to become one, please do so at www.facebook.com/JulieAKazimer), about using a fictional fact in a story.

More to the point, I wanted to lie about something. Something insignificant but what appeared factual in this story. Basically, I planned on saying Washington DC had the third most surveillance cameras in the world. This is a lie. They’re not even close. In fact, the third most cameras belongs to…drum roll…Chicago. Not surprising with the amount of Bears there. Number two is London, and number one is Beijing in case you ever need to know, which goes back to the title. Damn, I guess I was offering advice on how to avoid a murder charge.

I was surprised by the response of my fellow writers. Many said, hey, it’s fiction so do what you want. This was my thinking at the time. But a far greater number of writers responded with, “WHAT?! ARE YOU CRAZY?” To which I said, “Maybe, but what’s your point?”

And boy did they have a point.

As a reader, I sometimes believe and then tell others ‘facts’ I read in a novel. Now I’m not talking about story ‘facts’ but little bits of research-y (yes, I just made up my own word. It’s my blog post, so there) ones like how everybody on a white, sandy beach gets their own cabaña boy.

Oh, how I long for a cabana boy.

But that’s another post for another day.

So what’s your opinion? Can I lie about the amount of cameras? Or would I be leading my flock (that’s what I’d love for all of you to start calling yourself. No. Really. That would make my year) astray? Where’s the line between fiction and reality in fiction? Or the reverse, how much fiction can you put in non-fiction or memoir?

Oh, and if you murder anyone in Chicago because of my advice, let’s just call that ‘our’ little secret.

J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story and FROGGY STYLE as well as the forthcoming book, The Assassin’s Heart. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator. For more about Julie, visit her website.


By Kevin Paul Tracy

I've spent the past three posts discussing elements of politics in fiction, somewhat focused on world-building, which is often considered an activity of the speculative fiction writer, but I submit is also a job for any crafter of mysteries, adventures, thrillers, etc. who wants to provide a solid plot line that fulfills and satisfies readers. It is time to move on from political intrigue, or spies and terrorists, to full-scale war in fiction.

waterlooMost of us have written the occasional (or frequent) action scene - fist fights, exchanges of gunfire, and various forms of chase scenes. But few have the occasion to relate a full scale battlefield clash between two forces numbering in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands. To some the task may seem daunting, but if you keep in mind that, in the end, even chapters about massive combat are still ultimately about characters the readers have, hopefully by this point, come to care about, the task becomes manageable, if no less complex.

The challenge is to relate the larger events of the battle, the strategy and tactics, the turn of advantage, the ebb and flow of victory and defeat, while still keeping the very small, individual, human element integral to the narrative. I suggest planning for the battle comes at the very beginning of story craft - in the outline phase for the entire book. If you know this book is going to have a large-scale battle in it, you have some elbow room to plan ahead. Introduce characters whose diverse occupations and roles are going to be useful in giving the reader insight into the various aspects of the conflict later. In a medieval setting, for example, introduce the Kings and Generals early in the story, but also perhaps a squire, perhaps a message runner, an infantryman or two, and perhaps a conscientious princess or lowly midwife who might become a nurse to the injured or a beacon of leadership to refugees, etc. These do not have to be major characters, and they do not necessarily have to hold the roles at the very beginning of the book, as long as they are in place when the conflict starts so that we can turn to them from time to time during the battle for their very personal, human dramas amidst the larger backdrop of war.

Characters in place now, the battle starts. A battle is kind of like a tide at the beach, it ebbs one way, flows another, breaks against hard forces such as rocks, then tumbles past soft forces like shells or seaweed. Think of writing your battle sequence like a tide. Start with a bird's-eye view, giving us the larger context, the state of war as it begins, then rush down into the midst of it and focus on the actions and consequences of one of the characters established earlier. At an appropriate point, preferably upon a cliff-hanger, zoom your storytelling camera back out to the thousand foot view again, tell us how the tide of battle has shifted, who is advancing and who retreating. Then, dive back down again, choose another character whose very personal story gives us a context-filled experience that affects us and keeps us engaged.

And so it should continue - wide-shot, then close-up, wide-shot, then close-up, keeping us apprised of the progress of the larger war at hand, while simultaneously keeping us engaged on a deeper, much more character-driven level. If done well, the reader comes away from your book with a fulsome sense of satisfaction, that they were able to follow the impact of the greater events at hand because they were also given the very personal, individual micro-view of how those larger events affected individuals they cared about.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow to be release 4/15/2015; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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Take A Little Trip

By Mark Stevens

Two random tidbits last week got me fired up.

The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.

The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.


Okay, let me back up a tad.

In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:

Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”

One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”

My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)

Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?

Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?

This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.

Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)

Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.

Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”

And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”

Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”

I’m not here with answers.

I’m not here with “ta da.”

I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.

If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.

And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.

So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.

Maybe I need to send them on a little trip.

kafka quote


By Kevin Paul Tracy

senateAfter writing last month’s column on infusing your fiction with real-world politics, I thought I’d address this month’s column to how to infuse fictional politics into your fictional world. In fiction it is often necessary to build a world as a stage on which the events of your novel or series will play. Most often this is done in Science Fiction or Fantasy, but it is done in other fiction as well. For example thrillers often create a world very close to our own, but different enough to avoid complaints by purists. In world building, the more complete your world the more real it becomes to your reader. Even if, like character back-story, much of it doesn't reach the page, readers can still sense the fulsomeness with which your world was built. The subtleties bleed through, even if you the very author are unaware of it. Politics can be a great way to add intrigue and urgency to your story lines.

The thing to remember about Geopolitics is that at the core of everything is money. Find any driver of international political conflict – oil, borders, religion – and you don’t have to dig much further to find the root financial drivers behind it. Now I’m going to use a dirty word, please don’t stop reading: that’s economics. Use the word economics in almost any context and people’s eye glaze over, but it doesn't have to be as dry and boring as the pundits on television make it seem. Let me explain how you can use basic economic concepts to build a realistic, engaging, and exciting geopolitical scaffolding around which to build your fictional world.

The definition of economics is stated in a single sentence: economics is the management of finite resources. Period. That’s it. Simple, right? Resources can be anything from food, to water, to grazing land, to narcotics, to oil, ad infinitum. In economics a resource has at least two properties: demand (how many people want it and in what quantity) and supply (how much of it is available or how difficult is it to come by). The value of any resource increases as demand increases and/or supply diminishes. So, likewise, it’s value decreases as demand goes down and/or supply increases.

dune_frank_herbertYou can use this simple idea to infuse a whole lot of ecopolitics into your world. Consider Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. In this science fiction epic, the resource in greatest demand in the universe is the spice known only as Melange. Melange extends life. Additionally, two of the most powerful political organizations in the universe need it: the Spacers Guild need it to enable their pilots to fold space and traverse the galaxy, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood uses it extensively as a part of their rituals and ceremonies. In order to make use of the services these two organizations offer, every other political body in the universe, from the Emperor himself to the lowliest royal house, must deal in Melange. If that demand alone weren’t enough to make Melange the most valuable resource in the universe, there is this one fact: Melange is only available in one place in the entire universe – the planet Arrakis, aka Dune.

So you have a commodity, the spice Melange, in high demand by very powerful entities, and in very rare supply. You can imagine the intrigues and alliances and betrayals and, yes, even battles that emerge out of the conflict introduced by this economic stress. (Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, your can read the books by Frank Herbert, who got enough mileage out of this political tension to fill six books.) Now your book doesn't have to center around this economic tension, but it can add all sorts of color and richness as a backdrop to larger epics and themes. Dune itself is more about prophesies and myths and the emergence of a super-being or god who will bring peace to the universe.

The point is, if you feel the world you’re building is thin or lacking in richness and opportunities for conflict, don’t forget that politics is a great way to introduce grander themes and wider scope to a novel or epic series. And that the core to all politics, eventually, comes down to economics. Of which now you know just enough to build upon.

Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow,” and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

Follow Kevin at:
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By Kevin Paul Tracy

I’ve recently been inundated with fiction manuscripts to critique that contain a fair amount of political commentary. I’m not referring to the kind of politics you find in Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time or TV’s Defiance – those are internal, fictional intrigues that apply only to the fiction milieu in which they are portrayed (though admittedly often they are thinly-veiled allegories for real-world politics.) I’m referring to issues, social and geopolitical, that we face today, in the real world.

Pro-flagMy knee jerk reaction to too great an infusion of real-world politics into modern fiction is to recoil. It pulls me out of the story and leaves a greasy taste in my figurative intellectual mouth. Even if I agree with the assertion being made, it irritates me, much like a lecture from my epically long-winded father would. I resent the author telling me what I ought to think, or, worse yet, giving me, the reader, a rhetorical wink-wink as if there is no question but that we agree on a particular issue. I reject such assumptions and my resentment for the work I’m reading and, by extension, its author grows from that point on with every turned page.

In today’s political climate, as polarized and often toxic a political environment as I’ve ever seen before, you are rarely assured of more than 33% of the population of the US alone agreeing with you. Extend that to international sales and, quite frankly, the numbers become even less predictable. You are guaranteed to alienate at least a third of your audience by infusing too much politics into your fiction.

Con-flagGranted, there are those who deliberately buy books that oppose their points of view merely to be challenged and to see what all the fuss is about, but those folks are quite few when counted among the greater number of readers who read fiction only to be entertained and nothing more. These readers tend to read for relaxation and comfort, and are unlikely to buy more books by an author who has offended or insulted them and their beliefs.

Even political satire in fiction is a delicate thing. An author must take care to be smart and subtle and, above all, funny to diffuse any tension that might be raised by your treatment of those whose politics you oppose. Some good examples of good political satire in fiction are books like Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, Terry Pratchett’s & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, and the eminent graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

My advice is, unless you plan to give both sides of the issue fair representation, and are confident in your skill as a writer to do so, steer clear of real-world politics in your fiction. There are social issues you need not avoid: you can feel relatively assured that giving food to a starving child is a good thing, and rescuing a dog from a kill shelter is preferable to leaving him there. On more weighty matters, such as abortion, capital punishment, and immigration reform, tread lightly. You risk alienating as much as two-thirds of your potential fan-base out there, and which of us can afford to do that?

Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow,” and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

Follow Kevin at:
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The Perils of First Person

by Katriena Knights

Many beginning authors start their writing adventures with first person. To many beginners, it feels more natural, more immediate, and even easier. But writing in first person carries a number of stumbling blocks and dangers that aren’t as obvious in third person.

So what’s the big deal? Write in first person, and your reader will feel like they’re right in the middle of the action, right? In fact, this leads to the first peril of first person writing—keeping your protagonist in the middle of the action. Which isn’t always as easy as it might seem.

If you decide to write your story in first person, you can’t recount any events that happen while your protagonist is absent. This can cause all kinds of problems, especially with a more complex story. You should take this into account when you’re plotting your story, and be sure your main character participates fully in any major plot twists. In Twilight, Stephenie Meyer commits a major faux pas in this regard by having Bella fall unconscious during a critical moment of the story’s climax. It’s a really good way to lose your reader. Apparently this didn’t bother her jillions of readers, but it bugged the heck out of me.

Another question to ask is particularly important if you plan to write a series. Can you sustain a first-person narrative over the course of your series? This approach is common in the YA and Urban Fantasy genre, but keep it in mind as you’re constructing your initial plans and proposals.

In the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon manages to make it through nearly two massive tomes without deviating from the POV of her main character, Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser. But it’s not long before her story outgrows this POV, and Gabaldon starts dealing with the shortcomings of first person by using third person in various scenes. At first, she frames this as Jamie relating stories to Claire. But then she also needs to tell Bree and Roger’s story, and that’s when the first-person train goes completely off the rails. The bulk of Gabaldon’s epic series is told in alternating first and third person, with the only first-person sections being those told from Claire’s POV. I’m not saying it doesn’t work—it works very well in these books. But it’s a tricky thing to balance, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach.

Another fairly common approach to first-person narrative is to alternate the POV characters, telling each section from a first-person perspective. This can be an effective way to explore more than one character, but there are some pitfalls here, as well. Don’t try to use too many characters—your reader is likely to get confused about whose POV she’s in. Also, it’s very important to vary the narrative voice. I’ve read some alternating first-person POV stories where the voices of the characters were virtually identical, even though one was female and one was male. This made it very difficult for me to orient myself, since there were few proper names to let me know whose head I was in.

I’m not one of those readers who’ll flat-out refuse to read a book if it’s in first person—although they do exist—but like any reader I can be pulled out of a story if the technique falls short. So when you’re considering the structure and plot for your first-person story, think about addressing some of these possible problems so you can head them off at the pass.

(By the way, this post is brought to you by my laboring over my recent WIP, the sequel to Necromancing Nim, which is written in—you guessed it—first person.)

Emotional Barrier in Fiction: After You Cross It, What’s Next? (Part Two)

Today Tiffany Lawson Inman is continuing the discussion of the emotional barrier in fiction. If you missed Part One from last month, click here. 

Tiffany Lawson Inman, headshotby Tiffany Lawson Inman

Hello again!

We learned in Part One of this post, that the emotional barrier is VERY IMPORTANT, and very hard to break down without completely collapsing in on ourselves. We are all afraid of icky gooey stuff that seeps out when we are alone, and it takes skill to use the memories and gut-wrench that is on the other side, right?


And comedians like Louis C.K. have the ability to rip truths out of the air and make them tangible, right?


And you all are going to do whatever you can to:

  • allow yourselves emotional release.
  • learn how to cross your emotional barrier.
  • learn how to use the emotions you can reach.
  • be fearless and vulnerable when using your own emotions.
  • realize that emotions are one of the most important factors in fiction.
  • unplug from technology every so often to reconnect with yourself, people, and life.
  • write truthful human emotions and create a strong connection between your readers and characters.


If you need a reminder, or didn’t get to read Part One, head on back to Wednesday’s post, Part One: Emotional Barrier in Fiction. Why is it so important for you to learn how to cross it? and we will see you back here in a sec.

Moving on to the meat.

Let’s assume that you have all either gone to a psychotherapist, been on stage, or have taken my class, From MADNESS to Method: Using acting techniques to invigorate your story and make each moment Oscar worthy! and can cross the emotional barrier with ease. *wink wink* And what you have found on the other side is absolutely amazing and totally usable for your fiction and you are raring to jump to the BIG emotional scenes in your novel and write write write!

No. I won’t let you. Not yet.

muppetAwww…come on!

First, we have to make sure your characters have a solid emotional base to jump off of, emotions to fly by, emotional places to visit, and an emotional crash pad. Donald Maass calls this an emotional landscape in Chapter Three of Writing 21st Century Fiction:

“To foster reader involvement it is first critical to map an emotional landscape which readers will travel. Readers must feel that they are on a journey, one with felt significance and a destination that we can sum up as change.”

Yes, your character has to start somewhere emotionally in order to have a journey. You can’t just plop them on the page and start writing events, plot points, outer conflict, and black moments without having an inner conflict jumping off point.  Starting with action is fun. Starting with dialogue, also fun.  But watch out, if the reader doesn’t know where your character is emotionally in the first few pages, their need to read on wanes. And if you, the writer doesn’t start out by mapping this emotional landscape, then you might end up writing the wrong level and wrong angle of emotion in those BIG scenes.

Let’s see how Lisa Unger starts her emotional landscape in Darkness, My Old Friend:


Failure wasn’t a feeling; it was a taste in his mouth, an ache at the base of his neck. It was a frantic hum in his head. The reflection of failure resided in his wife’s tight, fake smile when he came home at the end of the day. He felt the creeping grip of it in her cold embrace. She didn’t even know the worst of it. No one did. But they could all smell it, couldn’t they? It was like booze on his breath.


Wow, this guy is in a really good place in his life right now…. Sorry, couldn’t resist the sarcasm because it is painfully obvious he is on the wrong side of the happy-go-round.

Lisa Unger gives us one heck of an emotional base for this character:

  • Failure that leaves a taste in your mouth. That’s not a little failure, this, is a lot.
  • He can physically feel this emotion in his neck and head.
  • His wife fakes a smile at him.
  • Cold embrace means there is a lack of love and affection between them.
  • He tells us that all of this isn’t the worst of it, which means, this man has a BIG BAD secret.

All of this in the very first paragraph of the novel.

Unger used emotive words like:

  • Failure
  • Ache
  • Frantic
  • Tight
  • Fake
  • Creeping
  • Grip
  • Cold
  • Worst
  • Smell
  • Booze

We don’t have to hear the sirens to know the lights are flashing in this character’s future meltdown.  We know this character is bad news and we want to see how bad it gets. How many other characters can he take down with him? Or, will there be a surprise? Reader interest is definitely sparked and it’s because she started with emotion.

What if she had written:

Kevin felt like a failure. It made his neck tense and his head hurt. When he went home to his wife, she pretended she was happy he was home. They didn’t have much sex anymore. Probably for the best because he had a secret he hadn’t told anyone and it would probably affect their relationship.

Blah blah blah! My version opened the door for an emotional base, but it didn’t really let the reader in. Not a good way to start a book.

Okay okay, some of you think I cheated by showing the prologue, am I right? Because the prologue is supposed to be thick with emotion?  I agree. But I couldn’t not show you that, because I just think it’s a tasty start to a story.

Unger brings the emotional jack-hammer in Chapter One as well. Here you go:

Chapter One

Jones Cooper feared death. The dread of it woke him at night, sat him bolt upright and drew all the breath from his lungs, narrowed his esophagus, had him rasping in the dark. It turned all the normal shadows of the bedroom that he shared with his wife into a legion of ghouls and intruders waiting with silent and malicious intent. When? How? Heart attack. Cancer. Freak accident. Would it come for him quickly? Would it slowly waste and dehumanize him?  What, if anything, would await him?


See! Told you. Lisa Unger rocks at setting up the emotional landscape.  I have NO doubt that she is a frequent traveler across her own emotional barrier.

Part of Cooper’s inner conflict that we can see right away:

  • Will he live the rest of his life being afraid, allowing it to affect every day until a coffin surrounds his body?
  • Will he surpass his fear and surprise us at every turn?

What if she had written:

Jones Cooper woke up most nights with an extreme fear of death.

My version doesn’t have the same rhythm, cadence, intensity, or emotional resonance does it?

LOL, nope.

*Ah, before I go on, if you didn’t know already, if you have a Kindle, or a Kindle app, you can download a sample of most books on Amazon. It’s usually the first two chapters. This is a great way to see (and afford to see) all of your favorite authors and how they emotionally hook you in those two chapters. Unfortunately when a writer is as good as Lisa Unger, there is really no point in just reading the first two chapters, you simply must read the whole book. So head on over and read the rest (after you are finished reading this blog, of course). The prologue alone is worth its weight in gold.

Up next, Markus Sakey and the first few paragraphs of The Two Deaths Of Daniel Hayes:

Marcus cover                  He was naked and cold, stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goose bumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater in to his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feat crawling like a child.

                  As the wave receded it drew pebbles rattling across one another like bones, like dice, like static. A seagull shrieked its loneliness.

                  His lungs burned, and he leaned on his elbows and retched, liquid pouring in ropes from his open mouth, salt water and stomach acid. A lot, and then less, and finally he could spit the last drops, suck in quick shallow lungfuls of air that smelled of rotting fish.

                  In. Cough it out. There. There.

                  His hands weren’t his. Paler than milk and trembling with panicky violence. He couldn’t make them stop. He’d never been so cold.

                  What was he doing here?


From a quick first glance it seems as though these are all physical issues Sakey is giving his character. But if you take your pulse before you started reading this and after, you would most definitely have a difference in tempo.  This character is half dead and struggling to survive. He gives us some great images and metaphors to show emotion here.

  • Crawling like a child.
  • Pebbles rattling like bones.
  • Seagull shrieking its loneliness.
  • Trembling with panicky violence
  • “Cough it out. There. There.” As if he’s consoling a child, or his mother is there consoling him.

Not to mention ALL of the power words he uses. I’m pretty sure you can point them out. Too many to list!

Part of this character’s initial inner conflict:

  • Will he struggle to crawl out of the ocean to face whatever put him there in the first place?
  • Will he give up and die?

Hmmm… . I keep talking about inner conflict, Donald Maass defines it as follows:

“…don’t confuse inner conflict with inner turmoil, a messy indecision, waffling, and weakness  that turns readers off. Inner conflict is dilemma. A debate that can’t be won, an unavoidable fork in a road that leads to two equally feared or desired destinations. It’s a predicament that’s powerfully human.”

I love that. “…powerfully human.” Lisa Unger and Markus Sakey have done a brilliant job of showing a well defined inner conflict, and they have both done it on the first page!

Do you have to show a defined inner conflict on the first page?


But if you are starting with deep POV, the emotion had better be there and inner conflict better be right around the corner (like on one of the next three pages.) If you are starting off with action and dialogue, then we should have a sense of your character’s beginning emotional state. Here’s a good example. I am currently reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Asher coverChapter One

                  “Sir?” she repeats. “How soon do you want it to get there?”

                  I rub two fingers, hard, over my left eyebrow. The throbbing has become intense. “It doesn’t matter,” I say.

                  The clerk takes the package. The same shoebox that sat on my porch less than twenty-four hours ago; rewrapped in a brown paper bag, sealed with clear packing tape, exactly as I had received it. But now addressed with a new name. The next name on Hannah Baker’s list.

                   “Baker’s dozen,” I mumble. Then I feel disgusted for even noticing it.

                  “Excuse me?”

                   I shake my head. “How much is it?”

                  She places the box on a rubber pad, then punches a sequence on her keypad.

                  I set my cup of gas-station coffee on the counter and glance at the screen. I pull a few bills from my wallet, dig some coins out of pocket, and place my money on the counter.

                  “I don’t think the coffee’s kicked in yet,” she says. “You’re missing a dollar.”

                  I hand over the extra dollar, then rub the sleep from my eyes. The coffee’s lukewarm when I take a sip, making it harder to gulp down. But I need to wake up somehow.

                  Or maybe not. Maybe it’s best to get through the day half-asleep. Maybe that’s the only way to get through today.


While we don’t know exactly what his inner conflict is yet, we have a ton of emotional hits and can get a pretty clear idea of what his emotional state is on the first page.

  • Asher starts the character in the middle of…something, and the character isn’t even paying attention. His mind is obviously elsewhere.
  • He’s rubbing his brow. Hard. A sign of emotion when coupled with the fact that he is having a hard time paying attention.
  • Throbbing in the brain is never a sign of something good.
  • Character says he doesn’t care.
  • Character mumbling to self, disgusted at self.
  • Not paying attention again when he shortchanges her.
  • Rubbing sleep from eyes. Normal action when you are getting out of bed, but this guy is already at the store with coffee in hand. Sign that sleep didn’t come easy if at all the night before.
  • Thinking that the only way to get through this day is to do it half asleep. Another clue that something crappy is going on in his life and it occupying his thoughts.

Have you noticed that even though these aren’t the BIG emotional scenes (that I won’t let you write yet without supervision) they are still stuffed with emotion?  ALL of that work that you did to cross the emotional barrier and everything you brought back with you WILL BE USED. Some of it in slivers here and there to help guide the reader on the emotional journey, and some of it in the BIG scenes.

But you can’t afford to save the whole bundle for that one BIG turning point, it won’t matter to the reader how much is in that scene, if they don’t know where the emotional journey started.

In the online course I teach, I work with writers to infuse emotion into their little moments as well as the big ones. Because so much can be shown in a “simple” scene between husband and wife over breakfast,  getting dressed for the day,  a phone conversation with your best friend, getting into a taxi, giving someone a gift, etc. These little emotional hops, skips, and dips might seem tedious to the emotional beginner, or be viewed as mushy gushy bits of language that could slow pace or veer your scene into a ditch, but as you can see from the above examples, pacing is not dropped and there aren’t any ditches.

Their writing is active.

And their writing is good!


Thank you so much for reading today!  Stay tuned for Part Three!  Let me know if you have any questions. I won't be teaching again until next summer, so I apologize, I can't give any classes away today.

There are many MANY authors out there with the  ability to beat down emotional barriers with ease and skill.  Got a favorite?


Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online.

As an editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

5 Things You Should NEVER Do in Fiction

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

Writers are given a lot of rules when we first start writing: Don't change tense, don't head-hop, don't plagiarize the Bible... After awhile, we learn to pick and choose what rules are right for us and our work. But there are still some NEVER to be broken rules like those below:

5)  Kill a dog. Just don't do it. Other animals are questionable decisions at best, but whack Fluffy, and there's no coming back.

4)  Dare the reader to hate it. Yes, that's right. Never, ever, dare your reader to hate your book or to put it down. Guess what? I'm not 5 any longer and can see right through your lame ass attempt at reverse psychology.

3)  Stand on your pulpit. If your book calls for political and/or religious views, fine. That's well and good. Fiction is about what the book needs. But if you're writing a spy thriller and suddenly I'm forced to read a passage about your viewpoint on building a fence around illegal aliens and I'll stop reading right then. Never write to hear your own voice.

2)  Add characters to fulfill a quota. Unless that one armed, Jewish, lesbian sidekick is vital to the story, please don't throw her in. She has a hard enough time playing catcher in her softball league.

1)  Follow the rules. If you want to kill a one-pawed, Jewish, lesbian canine stuck behind a electric fence with the Taco Bell dog, go ahead. I dare you. There are no absolutes when it comes to writing. Good advice on what people hate, sure, but if you dare to write it, then get on it.

How do you feel about 'the rules'? Any no-no's you can think of?