Chapter 3 — Story Starters and Where to Get Ideas

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All story ideas are also story starters, of course, but not all story starters are story ideas.

Most of this chapter will talk about where to get story ideas, but I thought this was the most appropriate place to talk about story starters too.

First, the differences.

The story starter is any physical, emotional or mental stimulus that evokes a memory of something that happened or provides a catalyst to something that could happen. It’s only a trigger, nothing more.

The story idea is a character with a problem in a setting. It’s only a trigger, nothing more.

Both are only triggers, nothing more. The sole purpose of both is to get you to the keyboard.

The Story Starter

A story starter can be literally anything.

It can be a scent or a sound or the lighting or something seen or heard in a particular lighting.

For example, the aroma of a rosewood-scented candle might evoke a memory or a story. The same aroma in a dimly lighted room might evoke a completely different story. The same aroma wafting past on a beach will almost certainly evoke another completely different story.

The same goes for things seen or heard or smelled or tasted or felt, physically or emotionally, in various lighting situations and with various background noise types and combinations or various olfactory sensations and so on.

In other words, that same aroma of a rosewood-scented candle mixed with the predominant aroma of freshly baked bread with the sound of cars passing in the background would start another completely different story. And the same stimuli in a dimly lighted room might evoke a completely different story.

A story starter can be the single chirp of a bird. It can be a rock in a particular shape that you see as you’re walking down the road. It can be what she said the last time you saw her, or part of what she said. Or it can be the way she said it. Or both.

It can be a lyric or a line of dialogue or narrative. It can be a character name or a character type. It can be a flash from a scene, like a bull rising into the air as the chute gate is pulled open at a rodeo.

Any of those and anything else can be a story starter.

Any stimulus that can evoke a memory of your past can also evoke a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet (so a story).

What matters is what you do with it.

I should add here that some writers can turn a quick story starter straight into a story. And it happens so quickly that they practically skip over the “character with a problem in a setting” story idea stage.

Dean Wesley Smith collects pulp magazines. He keeps a list of titles from stories in those magazines. Then when he wants to write a story, he selects HALF of one story title and crashes it into HALF of another story title. The resulting title serves as his story starter.

So perhaps he sees a story titled “The Breath Formed” and another one titled “Mouth Watering.” He might crash those together to get “The Mouth Formed.” (Horror, anyone?)

He sits down, puts his fingers on the keyboard, and types in The Mouth Formed. Then he hits the Enter key a couple of times and writes whatever comes to him.

I do the same thing, although seldom with titles.

I collect professional grade photos to use as the basis for book covers. Occasionally I’ll glance through them. As I’m looking at a photo, a title or a line of dialogue or a character laughing will come to me and bam, I’m off and typing.

It really is that easy.

The hard part is sitting down and putting your fingers on the keyboard. Once you get over that horribly traumatic notion, the rest of it is a snap.

The Story Idea

As I wrote above, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. That’s it.

Many would-be writers say they can’t come up with ideas. Most often that’s because they don’t know what an idea is.

They believe, perhaps, that the story has to be born whole. That simply isn’t true.

A story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible.

Most would-be writers believe a story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible. But then a wizard shows up and tells him the ring is evil. Turns out the poor hobbit must travel a great distance, during which he encounters all manner of strange, wonderful and terrible creatures. He also must endure various misfortunes, danger and great hardships in order to destroy this thing he holds so precious.

That is not a story idea. That is a plot line.

Could you write that without infringing on The Lord of the Rings? Of course. You might want to change “hobbit” to “grelber” or something, but that’s pretty much the only problem.

But I could never write it, period. Why? Because there’s no room for the hobbit (or grelber) to exercise free will. He might as well be in chains. I know where he’s going, and I know why he’s going. End of story. Ugh. Writing it would just be boring.

So get over the notion that you have to get an entire story all at one time in order to start writing. You don’t. And if you do get that, I recommend you go get another idea. One that will allow you to drop into the story and enjoy it as the characters write it.

Again, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. And the problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. It just has to be a problem that this character has to solve in the immediate future. It’s just a trigger, something to get you to the keyboard, to get you started.

Here you go:

John is running a half-marathon. Within a mile of the finish, something sharp pokes him hard on the instep of his right foot. With every step it pokes him again. He can barely stand the pain, but his main rival is behind him only about a hundred yards. What does he do?

Sit down and write it.

Want a little more?

At the first poke, John grimaces. Me. Always me. Why is it always me?

At the first poke, John grins and shakes his head and points to the sky. “You and me, Lord. You and me.”

At the first poke, John winces. What in the world was— And crumples to the ground, dead.

Okay, now sit down and write it.

So Where Do You Get Ideas?

When a conference goer asked Harlan Ellison that, the famous writer replied, “I get all mine from a little shop in Schenectady.”

He said that because if he told the truth nobody would believe him.

The truth is, where do you NOT get ideas? They’re all over the place.

Again, a Character with a Problem in a Setting.

You’re out for a walk early in the morning on a dirt road. An SUV passes you. It doesn’t slow down, and when you glare at it you see a woman (the driver) apparently angry and gesturing toward the back seat.

If you’re a writer, probably you have two immediate thoughts.

The first one is, Frankly, I’m fortunate she didn’t run over me. Does she know me? And then you laugh. Maybe.

And your second thought is, Okay, her name is Jillian, her husband came home drunk and abusive one too many times and she’s headed for her mother’s house with the children. They’re in the back seat and wondering aloud why Daddy isn’t coming too.

Sit down. Write it.

Ways to Create Triggers (to Get You to the Keyboard) and Ideas

Select three words at random from the dictionary. Sparrow, hay, tornado.

Select two seemingly opposing ideas and crash them together (in my “The Compartmentalized Mantis,” a feminine personality in a man’s environmental suit / in “Saving the Baby,” the main character sees an artillery shell as an infant). More on this technique in the first exercise.

Select a setting, put a character in it, give him a problem and write.

Select a character, give him a problem, put him in a setting and write.

Select a problem, slap it on a character in a setting and write.

Collect titles, lines of dialogue, settings, characters, problems/situations. Put them in a list and browse it occasionally.

Collect photos. (When you need a story idea, glance over the photos. I have a few hundred from CanStock, BigStock, iStock, ShutterStock, et al but photos from any source will work for ideas. Just don’t use them for covers unless you have permission.)

Shrug. And whatever else you can think of.

Notes on Story Ideas

Inspiration is wonderful. Take it when it comes, but professional writers never wait for it. At the bottom of my emails is this signature: “Like Peter DeVries, I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 3 a.m.”

Lose the notion that ideas are gold. They aren’t. If you lose one, get another one.

Remember, practice coming up with ideas. The ability to come up with an idea is a muscle. The more you use it, the more natural using it will become.

Observe everything and everyone. Make up stories about people you see in waiting rooms, in malls. Make up stories about storefronts you see as you’re driving by, or people who are driving by you.

The ability to convert an idea into a story also is a muscle. Remember, an idea is nothing more than a trigger to get you to the keyboard. So when you get an idea, get to the keyboard right now, sit down and write it.

Lose the notion that all ideas will work. Most will, but some won’t. You might even go through a period during which some will work and most won’t.

Next up: Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening

‘Til next time, happy writing!


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here. I am a professional writer, folks. This is my living.

If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 2 — Determining Your Role in the Story

This will be a difficult concept for many of you to grasp.

Why? Simply because of all of the myths that have been drummed into us during our entire lives. The big myth here is that your appropriate role as the writer is Almighty Writer on High. (Hear the angelic chorus?)

But if you grasp this concept, it will start you along the path to Freedom as a writer and more fun than you’ve ever had at a keyboard.

And you CAN do what you want. Understand? YOU are the writer. YOU are the boss of you.

You may choose between two roles as you write fiction. Those two roles are Almighty Writer on High and the Recorder. In the interest of full disclosure, these are my terms.

Let me explain both roles.

Then you have to choose.

The Almighty Writer on High

As Almighty (ahem, control freak) Writer on High, you control everything. You carefully outline pretty much every step your characters will take, from the overall goal of the hero to which stumbling blocks the evil adversary tosses into his path and when.

Those stumbling blocks and whatever the hero does to overcome them become the conflicts. Of course, on your outline, you know exactly where they will occur in the story and exactly how he will overcome them. And you know exactly how overcoming each conflict will enable the hero to advance toward his goal.

You know how and where and under what circumstances the great Final Conflict will occur, and you know how the book will conclude.

Goodness. I’m bored just writing about this.

I mean seriously, if a trusted friend tells you about an excellent new book in your favorite genre, you might want to buy it and read it, right?

But what if he tells you every major plot point, every conflict, the climax and then how the book ends?

Still want to buy it? Of course not.

So how can you force yourself to write a story that you’ve already outlined to death?

If you already know every major plot point, every conflict, the climax and how the book ends, where’s the fun and excitement of filling in the details of the story?

Just sayin’. Ever wonder why so many would-be writers think of writing as drudgery?

Of course, I’m talking about those who REALLY see the process as drudgery.

I’m not talking about those who circulate about the release party with one forearm flung dramatically over their brow and a glass of wine in their other hand, pinkie finger raised appropriately.

You know, the ones who are looking for someone, anyone, who will understand (and be impressed with) the terrible suffering they must endure for their art.

Those gentle souls who, despite the fact that they detest the absolute drudgery of writing, simply must shoulder the heady responsibility that has been thrust upon them and blah blah blah.

But I digress.

If you see your role as the Almighty Writer on High, probably you also make certain not to repeat the same sentence structure too many times in a row. (You probably make no allowances for the valuable and intentional use of repetition.)

You probably also count the number of times you use “that” and “which.” If you do not understand the difference between them (there is a huge difference) you even consider alternating them, using one and then the other as you progress through your manuscript.

If you’ve listened to people who have no clue what they’re talking about (i.e., they haven’t published a LOT of novels and stories) you probably also check for the number of times you use “had” and the state-of-being verbs and the “ing words” (gerunds) because you’re laboring under the false assumption that those words create passive voice.

Of course, as you can tell from my tone, they do not.

I could go on. And on. And on.

But the point here is that as the Almighty Writer on High you’re controlling every aspect of the book. You are totally the General Manager of your characters’ universe, and they will say or do NOTHING without your approval.

That’s one way to do it. But let me tell you this:

No good creative writing EVER came from the conscious, critical mind.

As Ray Bradbury said, if you don’t surprise yourself, how can you ever hope to surprise the reader?

And chances are, you know, if you’ve outlined the story? And you know every conflict and every plot point? And you know, like, in advance, how everything’s going to turn out?

Umm, so does the reader. Almost from word one.

And that sound you will hear is your book being slapped shut so the reader can find something more fun to do. Like poking himself in the eye with a stick.

So how do you surprise yourself when you’re the writer? After all, you have to know the story to write it, right?

The short answer is No.

In fact, if I already know a story, I refuse to write it. Writing a story I already know would be zero fun for me. And I’m a writer first and foremost to entertain myself. Or rather, to allow my characters to entertain me.

I’m not the Almighty Blah Blah. I’m the other kind of writer. I’m the Recorder, AKA The Frien’ with a Pen. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

The Recorder (or Friend with a Pen)

When anyone asks me about my writing process, I tell them the truth. I have a two-step process. Ready?

  1. I follow the characters around.
  2. I write down what they say and do.

In other words, I let the characters tell the story they want to tell. After all, they know it much better than I do. They’re actually living it.

As the Almighty Writer on High, you DIRECT your characters to say and do exactly what YOU tell them to say and do.

As the Recorder or the Note Taker or the Friend with a Pen, you control nada.

  • You don’t worry about where the characters or story are going.
  • You don’t worry about what your character will say next.
  • You don’t worry about who the character used to be and who he will grow into.

Your subconscious mind knows all of that stuff is necessary. It will plug in all of that when and where it’s time.

And you? You’re just the conduit. You are the fingers on the keyboard.

You are no more important to the story or the characters than the mechanic is important to your car or yourself.

The mechanic provides the parts and skill to keep your car is running so you have a safe, fun vacation. But he doesn’t tell you where to go and what to do, right? (If he does, seriously, fire him.)

The writer provides the fingertips through which the characters tell a story. That’s it.

When Bradbury was asked how he wrote Dandelion Wine, he said the same way he wrote everything else. He got up in the morning and poured a cup of coffee. Then he sat down at the typewriter (later, computer), put his fingers on the keyboard, and wrote whatever came.

I can hear you saying, “But that’s Ray Bradbury.” The fact is, he wrote that way from before he was Ray Bradbury, when he was around 12 years old.

When you’re the Recorder, you don’t control anything. You resign as General Manager of the Universe. You abdicate the throne of responsibility for (and control of) your characters.

And you get down in the trenches and run through the story WITH them. How could anything be more fun than that?

Instead of suffering the unbearable drudgery of having to figure out how this sentence connects to the next one or how his paragraph leads to the next one or whether and where the current scene will fit in the overall story — You. Just. Write.

Next up, Chapter 3 — Story Starters and Where to Get Story Ideas

‘Til then, happy writing!


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

How It Feels To Be Water

How It Feels 180The target was a rebel headquarters, a three-story rock house set back fifty meters from the edge of a bluff that towered a good six hundred meters above a rocky shoreline. Electromagnetic interference had precluded the surveillance and targeting of the house, but it hadn’t precluded the insertion of Captain Jim Schofield and a two-man team.

A Reardon plane set them down in the vicinity, pointed them in the right direction, and promised to see them in a day or two. During the almost twelve kilometer walk to the target they set up a string of communications relays. On the way in, it kept them moving toward the center of the blackout zone. Later it would serve to relay messages to and from the base.

After a long night of moving through woods and sometimes heavy foliage in their fire-proof Frizalone envirosuits, they located the house. Schofield deployed his men and they settled into surveillance mode.

The day was grey, overcast and with a slight drizzle. Despite the drab background, they had spotted zero activity at the house.

Late in the afternoon, Schofield himself transmitted that message back to base. Then he awaited a response.

It came only a few minutes later. “Close it before nightfall. Reardon on the bluff, 1820 your local.”

The Reardon plane would hover into place on the bluff about ten minutes after darkness fell.

Schofield and his men entered the building just before sunset. Night would settle a little less than a half-hour later.

The house was exactly like the mockup where they had rehearsed a dozen times. Well, except for the hidden basements inside the house and the deep chasms outside.

The brass thought the basements must be there, but they hadn’t been verified until today. And they were loaded with stolen munitions. Taking down this house would set the rebels back at least a year.

The chasms were a different matter. Schofield had spotted them during their initial surveillance. One led from the east side of the house to the edge of the cliff. The other arced west-southwest away from the west side of the house to the south edge of the same cliff. It was as if the house was a massive staple that was holding the bluff to the interior land mass.

Schofield, Sims Rodan and Ron Tresper moved expertly through the house. Per Schofield’s instruction, they set the charges for 1819 local time. They would see the place go up, then get on the Reardon and get the hell out of there. With any luck, the crew of the Reardon would be able to record the initial destruction of the headquarters.

When they were finished, they gathered south of the house on the bluff to wait for retrieval. They took off their helmets, and were grinning and chatting as they enjoyed the cool breeze.

But the rendezvous time came and went. The Reardon plane didn’t show.

The initial charges caused the ledge to rumble beneath them. A moment after that, the whole mountain seemed to rock under the secondary charges. Soon heat and fumes began radiating from the house.

Schofield looked at Rodan and Tresper. “Okay, helmets. And Sims, would you mind? Signal the base every twenty seconds or so. Find out what’s going on.” He put on his own combination mask and helmet and secured it with a quarter-turn to the right.

When Rodan had secured his helmet, he used his chin to key his mic. There was a click and a slight buzz. “Got it, Cap. Every twenty seconds.”

Schofield nodded. “Good.” He gestured with his arms for the others to crouch. Probably the Reardon was just a little late. They might as well be comfortable.

They waited.

Sims continued to signal the base every twenty seconds. One time he caught what he thought might be the edge of a response, and raised his hand to signal the captain. Then he lowered his hand and shook his head. Click. Buzz. “Only static, Cap. I’ll keep trying.”

Almost five minutes later, with darkness descending, Schofield moved his chin to open his mic. “Okay. Sims, tell them we’re going back through the house. We’ll be on the north side in the woods somewhere. Oh, and set that to repeat. Just in case.”

Click. Buzz. “Got it, Cap.”

Schofield nodded. “Well, let’s go.” He stood.

Click. Something dragged a nail across a rock. Static from Tresper’s mic. “You sure, Cap? We’re far enough from the house here that—”

Schofield shook his head and keyed his mic. “That one basement room, the one on the north side—” He took a breath. “If that one goes big, this whole bluff could drop off.” He took another breath. “I’d rather be in the woods watching than over here riding it down.”

Click. Scratch. Tresper laughed. “Deal. That’s why you make the big bucks.”

Smoke already was rolling skyward through the skeleton of the roof in thick, angry black and grey clouds. In no more than a couple of hours, rebel forces would arrive to search the remains. They would be disappointed. The entire building and everything in it would be burned or melted and fused.

But “everything in it” wasn’t supposed to include the firemen. Finding them would be a bonus for the rebels.

And that’s exactly what would happen if the Reardon plane didn’t show up soon.

* * *

The fire raged all around the three men. Schofield was in the lead, followed by Sims and then Ron Tresper.

In a guttural, eager, eardrum shattering wind, hot dark reds flickered and licked among scalding yellows and whirling spirals of grey smoke. Knots in wooden beams randomly exploded in hissing, sizzling pops, accompanied by the screech and moan of expanding metal. The cacophony echoed off itself, reverberating even through the mask and ear buds of Schofield’s envirosuit.

He scrutinized the scene, keeping the panic down. Maybe Tresper was right. Maybe they should have chanced staying outside. But he was convinced the same chasms that kept them from moving around the west or east side of the house to the relative safety of the woods would release the massive rock on which the house was sitting to the river below.

He scanned slowly, left to right, searching for a way out. The door he had seen earlier, while he was setting charges. It should lay ahead, slightly to the right. Shouldn’t it? But the interior walls were gone or skeletal. It skewed the perspective.

There were three broad rooms— No, four. Four broad rooms and a hallway between where they had come in and the nearest exit on the north side of the house. And with all the smoke he probably wouldn’t find the doorway until he stumbled through it. At least they were crossing the width of the house instead of the length.

Maybe he looked too fast. There was always a way out. The smoke would show the way. There was always one path that was less undesirable than the others. Look again.

His right arm twitched, wanting to reach up to wipe the sweat tickling his brow. But his brow was behind the mask.

Even there, trapped behind his mask, water just flowed in its simplicity.

On their way to the mission, they flew over a waterfall. It cascaded from a river into a pool some three hundred meters below.

Sims tapped on the window of the plane to get his attention. Then he gestured toward the waterfall. “Check it out, Cap. We know fire inside and out. If flows too, but it’s frantic, always working against itself.” He glanced out the window again. More quietly, he said, “Maybe that’s why it’s so loud. Like it’s always in conflict.”

Then he turned back to his captain. “Wonder how it would feel to be water? You know, with the whole thing happy and calm, everything flowing in the same direction.” He glanced through the window again. “Even falling a thousand feet, it looks calm. Even the roar at the bottom is calm I’ll bet.”

Schofield immediately thought of the flash flood he had witnessed as a boy. How violent it was, crashing along, boulders and cars and his younger brother caught up in the flow. How violent and how hateful. But he kept that to himself. “You’re probably right.”

Tresper had maintained silence, but he watched the waterfall even longer than Rodan did.

The noise certainly wasn’t calm here. It was deafening. Maybe there was something to Sims’s ramblings. And the heat— The heat was so intense, without the suit they wouldn’t even burn. They would vaporize.

Panic pulsed at the base of his spine, began to edge up.

To push it down, he thought of his men. Jim and Sims and Ron. Just three guys out for a Sunday stroll. Through an inferno.

For a moment he almost smiled. He moved his chin inside the mask, pressed the button that activated the mic. “Sims? You back there?” His own warm breath rebounded across his lips from the mask.

A click, then a faint buzzing in the captain’s earpiece. Sims’s transmitter was a bit messed up. “Right here, Cap. Where else am I gonna be?” A half-breath scuffed through the mic, followed by a terminal click.

That brought another almost smile. He continued to scan the depth of the flames as well as their breadth.

He figured they had come roughly halfway through the house and he was still confused. He studied each flickering then disappearing dark avenue. He compared density with density, smoke with smoke. Somewhere it didn’t quite mix. Somewhere the slightest hint of a draft in the smoke would show him the way.

He took a breath, keyed his mic. “I’m not seeing much in the way of an exit.” He took another breath. “But it’s there. We’ll be there soon.” Another breath. “Anymore from the base about the Reard—”

There was an intrusion of soft laughter, so out of place as to seem for a moment imaginary. Then Ron’s voice, but soft. “I— I have to go now, Cap. Sorry.”

What? That didn’t make sense. He has to go now?

Schofield frowned. Had he led them in the wrong direction? He keyed his mic. “Ron? You find an exit?”

Click. Buzz. “Ron? Hey Ron, where you goin’?” A breath scuffed across Sims’s microphone. “Hey Ron, c’mere man.”

The laughter came again. “Can’t do that. Sorry, Sims.”

Schofield frowned and tried again. “Ron, you find a way out?” He turned around, but slowly, careful not to let the wind blow him off balance. “Where—”

Click. Buzz. “Aw damn! Ron, don’t do that! Ron!”

A massive roaring filled Schofield’s helmet. Instinctively, his hands twitched, wanting to cover his ears to block the sound. Then it was gone.

Click. Buzz. “Oh! Oh my god! Oh my god! He burned himself up! Cap!”

Schofield keyed his mic. “Ron?” He paused. “Tresper?”

Click. Buzz. Nothing. Sims must’ve changed his mind.

Schofield frowned, keyed his mic again. He looked at the ghostly form of Sims Rodan, flickering some ten feet away through the roiling flames and smoke. The sharp lines of black-edged cinders glowed all around him. “Sims?”

Click. Buzz. Sims raised his right arm, pointed to the side. “Over there, Cap. He walked over there.” A long, quivering breath scuffed across his mic. “Like— Like he was back on base. He just walked over there and—”

Schofield nodded. “Okay. Okay.”

He had to think. Then it hit him. The roaring that had filled his helmet. Oh damn. Tresper had removed his helmet. He walked into a wall of flames, and then he reached up, jerked his helmet a quarter-turn to the left, and flashed to ash. God.

Schofield looked at Sims. He keyed his mic. “Follow me, Sims.” He took a breath as he began turning around. “Can you do that? Just follow me.”

Click. Buzz. “Sure. Sure, Cap.” A half-breath scuffed across the mic before it fell silent.

Schofield went back to scanning the depth of the fire. Looking at the surface would do no good. It changed too quickly. By the time the human brain realized what was there, it was gone. So he watched the depth, looked for patterns that remained.

As a child, he was intrigued by the flickering flames of a campfire. A flame was physical, yet it lasted less than an instant. And even while it was there, it was constantly changing, as if reaching for the other side.

It came to life, existed, and disappeared into eternity, all in less than an instant. The flame must be the closest thing possible to both the concrete and the abstract, both the real and the imaginary. As such it could ensure life or bring death, also in less than an instant.

It was a living thing, fire. And it was fickle. It seemed to choose arbitrarily whether to support life or dispense death. It was only a game to the fire, an illusion passed on from flame to flame. No single flame was able to see the game through, yet all screamed as eagerly for the win.

The only stabilizing factor was the will of the other player in any given situation.

In this case, that was him.

He and Sims would succumb or they would not. They would be consumed by this creature that lived and died millions of times a second or they would parry its every thrust and make it through.

The secret to survival was to keep his head.

He had to help Sims keep his too.

Schofield keyed his mic. “Sims, the Reardon plane. Have you heard from them yet?”

Behind him, Sims shrugged. The captain must not have heard him earlier. Just before Ron— well, just before Ron was killed. A moment later the click sounded, and the faint buzzing came again. This time there was some static, then, “—on their way.” A pause. “You copy, Cap? I think there was static.”

Schofield nodded. Then he keyed his mic. “Got it. On their way. How long?”

Click. Buzz. No static this time. “They said five minutes.” He scuffed a half-breath before the buzzing shut off.

Okay. But when had they contacted him? Schofield keyed his mic, but managed to keep the frustration out of his voice. “When was that?”

Sims checked the heads-up display in his mask. The last time he had checked it was when Ron left. That was eight minutes ago. He’d been gone only eight minutes and the entire world was changed.

He reached with his chin, activated his mic. The buzzing permeated a half-breath. “Nine minutes ago.” He took a breath. “Just before— just before Ron.”

Jim shook his head. How long have we been in here? Still, we must be nearly through the other side. The house wasn’t that wide from south to north. He frowned. But with a five-minute ETA nine minutes ago, where were they?

Or maybe they were there, outside, hovering over the bluff. They couldn’t go back. Surely they got Sims’s repeated message about going through the house.

There was a good sized space between the house and the woods. And Reardon could blast away a few trees if it needed to. They’d do what they had to do. Wouldn’t they?

Without activating his mic, he muttered, “Damn it.” He continued to edge forward, still scanning for a difference in the density of the smoke and light.

He keyed his mic. “Sims, did they ever respond to your—” He took a breath. “Transmission about us going through the house.”

Click. Buzz. “Don’t know, Cap. All I heard was five minutes.” A breath scuffed across his mic. “Think maybe they’re waiting?”

Something sizzled and spat hot sparks above Schofield and to the right front. He stopped, keyed his mic. “I hope.”

He rotated his head up just as a heavy beam cracked. Sparks cascaded down, blinking out in twos and threes and tens and hundreds.

He held out his right arm, his palm facing backward. He took a step back. Then another.

Sims was far enough back that the warning was not necessary.

That heavy beam— That beamed ceiling was in the first room across the hallway from the door. The second and third story were above the rooms behind them.

With a screech and a groan, the beam wrenched one end of itself free from the ceiling.

The world slowed.

The beam swung broadly down, trailing curls of cinder-laden smoke down across his path and to his left front. It held there as if stuck in time, then swung broadly back to the right, a deadly pendulum hanging by a thread.

Click. Buzz. “Cap!”

Schofield wagged his right hand, which was still extended out to his side. He was okay.

Hanging by a thread.

His father loomed over him for a moment. “You’re just hangin’ by a thread, y’little smartass! You really think you’re gonna outgrow your upbringin’? Go to that fancy-ass school? Hell, even if you make it you’ll just be another piss-ant fireman. Bein’ in space won’t make no differ’nce.

“I’m tryin’ to save you from disappointment, boy. You ain’t nothin’ special. You got that? An’ if you think you are, well, then you just got another thing comin’.”

Despite the envirosuit and mask, the right side of Jim’s face was getting hot.

The memory, the old man. It was all inside. It was all past. All just stuff.

In his slow-motion world he closed his eyes, opened them, looked at the dissipating column of flame. Poor dad. Poor, stupid dad. Didn’t even know it was another think, not another thing.

He shook his head slightly to clear the memory, then shifted his attention back to the pendulum. It swung back to the left.

When it dropped, it would show him the way out. That’s how things work. You’re forced to go in the right direction despite yourself.

Poor dad. Maybe I am a smartass. Better than being a moron. Maybe.

His father’s smoky face shifted into a billowing rage. It glared at him for a moment, then was swept up huge and towered over him. It drew back a fist and—

A gust of wind swept it into the hungry fire. Nothing left but a sparkling red and yellow vortex, spinning into itself. It vanished as quickly as it had come.

The fire. How alive it was! It wasn’t really destruction. And maybe it wasn’t fickle after all. Maybe it didn’t choose trickery over substance.

Maybe it was just a new kind of life, excited, joyful, dancing. Alive and happy to be alive. When a guy dies young they say he burned too brightly. This must be what they mean. Was this why so many opted for cremation? Maybe they want to live one frantic, flashing moment longer.

The massive, fiery beam swung back to the right, lifted itself. And it paused, suspended.

He had almost forgotten it. But how?

Then it creaked again, then released a long, drawn-out groan, complaining against gravity—

And gave up. It snapped loose in yet another tangled shower of sparks.

And dropped straight down. A broad wisp of smoke, red and white and yellow cinders swirling through it, trailed the beam to the floor.

On its way down, time compressed, centered on an instant of intense compaction. The sparks, the smoke, the cinders— everything but the beam itself imploded, as if sucked back into a glowing point at the bottom of the beam.

Time and space compressed. It pulsed. It held.

Again his arm twitched, wanting to wipe his eyes, his forehead. It was impossible to see. Difficult even to think.

But there was the focus. The beam. The point of the beam. Focus on the beam.

And it hit.

The beam exploded, flashing like the beginning of another universe. Billions of new worlds flew apart, each just ahead of this same major cataclysm, repeated a trillion times. The fire roared all around. The smoky, fiery reds and yellows and blacks shifted through endless shapes in the background.

The beam slammed a gash into the trembling floor, a massive black thumb crashing into cracked charcoal before pirouetting a half-turn and dying in a lateral volcano of still more sparks.

The smoke. Watch the sparks and the smoke. Jim concentrated, forced himself to watch closely.

Sweat stung his eyes and he closed them tightly to squeegee the saltwater out.

Opened them.

Watch the sparks. The small ones before they disappear. Which way are they being driven? And the smoke. Which way—

The sweat again. Damnit.

Water. Flowing. But rolling salt along with it. A tiny flash flood in his eyes. Stripping his vision when he needed it most.

Closed his eyes tightly, opened them.

No, not driven, drawn. Which way are they being drawn? They have to be going some—

Sims grasped the captain’s left shoulder from behind.

Despite himself, Schofield started.

Click, buzz. “Jesus H. Christ!” Sims coughed, his mask beginning to clog. A long breath scuffed through the microphone. He cleared his throat, calmed himself. “Sure glad that missed you, Cap!” A half-breath. Click.

Schofield keyed his mic, still squinting through the cloudy water in his eyes, still trying to watch. “It’s all right, Sims.” Pause, a breath. “It’s gonna be all right.”

Click. Buzz. A hint of panic around the edge of Sims’s voice. “How can you be so sure, Cap?” Click.

Schofield looked, but the sparks were gone. He didn’t see which way they went.

He turned slightly to face Sims and keyed his mic. “The way out. It’s just ahead.” He took a breath and gestured loosely over his left shoulder. “Just up there on the right.”

Schofield wanted to see whether Sims was buying it but he couldn’t see his face. The fire shone in the reflective shield, as if the helmet itself were filled with fire.

But Sims moved his head the slightest bit. He was looking past Schofield for the exit. He wouldn’t find it.

Change the subject. Anything else. Anything. “Hey, you gonna go for cremation?” He took a breath. Well, that wasn’t much of a change. Still, “You know, I mean when it’s time?”

A click, then hesitation. Then another click, a buzz. A cough. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so, Cap.”

The captain glanced around again. No sparks. Probably they weren’t drawn away. Probably they didn’t go anywhere. Probably they just settled into the background. Just settled there.

He shook his head slightly.

Ron flashed through his mind in a human to ash transformation. That’s what Ron did in the end. Just settled there.

A few wisps of smoke were still swirling in the density. He closed his eyes hard, then opened them. He squinted.

And just as if they had been waiting for him to watch, the smoke particles shifted. They slipped in among their brethren, disappeared. No pattern to it. Nothing.

His daughters had done that one time. They had run into his office, excited, wanting to show off a new skit for him.

He had made them wait. His attention was on something that seemed more important at the time. Now he couldn’t even remember what it was.

But he would never forget the look on his daughters’ faces.

When finally he turned back to them. When finally he deigned to give them his second-hand time, they hesitated.

Just as if they had been waiting for him to look. And then they shifted, slipped in among each other and raced through his door.

Three days later they and his wife were killed in a rebel attack.

He never did get to see the skit.

He glanced at Sims again. What was the question? Oh, cremation as a passage of choice. And Sims had said yes. And Ron had said yes, graphically.

But early. Ron had settled into the background. Just like the rest of the fire.

So. Cremation. “Yeah,” he said. “You know, I mean me too.” He took a breath. “But see, Sims, it ain’t time yet.” Another breath. “Right now we stand out.” Another breath. “We ain’t ready to just—” He took a breath. “Settle into the background.” Pause. “Know what I mean?”

Click. Buzz. “Yeah, maybe.” Another cough.

He wasn’t buying it. Try again.

He moved his chin, keyed his mic. “Look Sims, somebody has to feed the flames.”

He heard it as it came out of his mouth. Out of breath, inside his mask, he frowned.

The fire was loud, endlessly roaring. It was voracious, eating everything around him. The noise itself seemed to jumble his thoughts. It was confusing.

He took a great breath and keyed his mic again. “Fan, Sims.” He calmed himself for a moment, curbed the frustration. “Somebody has to fan the flames.”

Hell, Sims would know what he meant anyway. He laughed, then took a breath. “That’s you and me.” Another breath scuffed across his mic. “You and me. Fanning the flames. Just—” He took a breath, not wanting to risk being all-out again. “Just follow me. We’re all right. It’s okay.”

He paused. He wanted to say more but he had nothing left to add. He hoped this thoughts had worked to calm Sims.

He turned away. Ah, what did it matter. At least he tried. If he didn’t get through, he didn’t get through. Sims was a fireman, same as he was. He signed up, same as I did.

A step. Two steps. Three steps.

Click. Buzz. “Yeah. Thanks Cap.”

The floor. The pressure. Each new point on the floor seemed familiar.

The pressure of each step was comforting. Almost comforting.

Another step. Pleasure.

Another step. Maybe it was the pleasure of freedom being near.

The flames ahead of him seemed dimmer, maybe less frantic, maybe—

The door. The open door was there.

Another step. Only a few more to the door.

Another step. The pressure. The floor was more intact nearer the wall. Still strong.

Another step and— He frowned. Was that pressure different?

Nah. We’re home free now. He keyed his mic. “Almost there, Sims. We’re almost—”

A metallic snap sounded as he lifted his left foot.

He was still reaching with his right, straining for the door as his eyebrows began to press toward the center in a frown.

Something grasped him just below the shoulders of his envirosuit. Something shoved him forward and left. Something—

In his mind, his instructor said, “Pressure release mechanism. Most often just inside the door.”

Oh god. Oh my—

And the world exploded.

He landed hard on his face and something heavy crushed him, then was gone.

His mind screamed and his brain yelled for Sims. The roaring was distant. They were out of the fire. Something blew them out of the fire.

His eyes closed.

How things work. Forced to go in the right direction. Despite yourself.

Sometime later— a minute, an hour, a day— he took inventory.

Still breathing. What about Sims?

He moved his chin, reached to key his mic. The switch wasn’t there. “Sims?”

What a fire. Sims must’ve hated that one.

He thought again about Sims and the waterfall, about how it flowed. How water flowed as opposed to how fire flows.

Schofield thought he smiled at the memory.

He thought to nod. Did he nod? He pulled in a breath, tried to push it out again with a laugh attached. He reached again with his chin to key his mic, but it still wasn’t there.

No matter. “Hey, Sims?”

A dazzling sparkling hesitation lasted a second, or maybe an hour.

His mind gave him a click, a buzz. “It’s okay, Cap.”

Good. Good. Sims was okay. He sounded good. “Hey,” he said. “Now we know—” He paused for a breath even as he realized he didn’t need to. “Now we know, right? I mean, how it feels to be water. Right?”

He frowned. What was he doing? Water?

Oh. Calming Sims. “You know, I mean ‘cause we flowed the same way, right? Out of the fire.”

He looked to the left. Sims’s voice came from the left didn’t it? But it was too dark to make out anything.

He didn’t bother trying to key his mic. “Sims?”

Did I get up? I feel like I’m up.

He flexed his feet. Nothing beneath them.

Well, something, but not the ground. He tensed his stomach muscles to sit up. If he was already standing, he’d fall forward. But then at least he’d know what—

Someone yelled, “Clear!”

Sudden pressure against his chest, his back. Through the suit? He frowned. But how—

Something slashed through his body. From the inside out. Tremors shuddered through him, then warmth.

All right. Okay. What’s going on?

He was standing up, right? That would place Sims right behind him.

He tensed again, tried to turn around.

His left shoulder contacted something he couldn’t see.

He relaxed, tensed his abdomen, twisted again. Harder.

Something pressed down against his shoulder.

Down? “Sims? Hey, Sims, say something! You back there?”

He wanted to blink, clear his vision. But his eyes were already closed.

You have to start a blink with your eyes open. Everybody knows that. Even his dumbass father knew that.

So open. He needed to open them.

Closed, open.

That’s how it should go.

He didn’t have to close them first. They were already closed. He had to open them so he could close them quick and blink. Where the hell was Sims?

Open. Closed, open. Closed, op—

And he was moving. No, something was moving him. He was being moved. How? The distant roaring faded to a spot, then blinked out of existence. Silence. Darkness.

Then someone was talking. Murmuring maybe. Humming?

All around. Everywhere in layers. Near, mid-range, distant.

Sims had to be in that mix somewhere. “Sims?”

God, I gotta open my eyes. Maybe my lips didn’t open either. Did my lips move? He yelled, “Sims?” This is ridiculous. “Hey Sims, my eyes won’t—”

“Yeah. Hey buddy. Hey Captain Schofield, it’s all right.”

Captain? That doesn’t sound like Sims.

A quick whispering something faded in. “—called him Cap, I think. Try that.”

I hate it when other people barge into a conversation. “Sims— Hey, now we know how water feels, eh? Remember?”

“Right, water. It’s all right, Captain. I mean Cap. It’s all right now.”

Close, open. No, they’re still closed. Damnit, open! “I mean how it feels to be water. Right, Sims? Right?”

“Right, Cap.”

Schofield frowned. “You ain’t Sims.”

“Sims isn’t here right now. But you’re okay, Cap. That’s what matters right now.”

A pin prick on his shoulder. Waves of something washed through his mind. Water? Sims, is this how it feels to be—

* * * * * * *


Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

Folks, Before I give you Chapter 1, a shout out to an excellent writer, Sara Therese and her most recent blog post, which I hereby declare Required Reading for anyone who enjoys good, strong, emotional writing or Love. You can find it here.

Okay, here’s Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

Staple it to the inside of your eyeballs, folks: All good fiction is character-driven.

No matter the genre, fiction isn’t about the science or the problem or the threat. It isn’t about betrayal or addiction or solving a crime.

No matter how perfect the science, the story is about how the characters REACT to the science. No matter how massive the problem, no matter how dark the threat, the story is about how the characters REACT to the problem or the threat.

Perhaps there’s an unexpected betrayal, a devastating addiction, a horribly heinous crime. The story is about how the characters REACT to the betrayal, the addiction, the crime.

Fiction is about how the characters react and what happens as a result of that reaction.

Let’s play genre by genre.

Writing a romance? In every case, the story is about the characters’ reactions to the problems that are keeping them apart. It’s about how the characters overcome those problems. And it’s about how the WAY they overcome those problems affects themselves and each other.

It’s also about their individual and collective resolve to be together and how that resolve affects themselves, each other, and maybe even their family members. Because maybe the family members are going to appear as the leads in the next novel in the series.

Writing mystery? It isn’t about the body you dropped on page one. In most mysteries, the body and the murder itself is only the catalyst that brings together the characters. But the story is about how the various characters react to the crime, to each other, and to each other’s efforts to resolve it.

Writing science fiction? It isn’t about the science, though readers of “hard” SF are sticklers for the science. But the story is about how the human and/or alien characters react to the science, both when it goes right and when it goes wrong.

Writing fantasy? (Broadly, fantasy is defined as anything that’s outside the realm of physics as we know it.) The fantasy story isn’t about the magic or the fairy dust or the “beam” that can dissolve a human to the molecular level and reconstruct him elsewhere a few seconds later. It’s about the characters’ reactions to the magic or the fairy dust or that seems-like-science-but-isn’t-really stuff.

The Lord of the Rings wasn’t about a great quest. It wasn’t about dropping an all-powerful ring into a volcano. It was about how the quest revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. It was about the ability of the characters to react to whatever enemies they encountered along the way, even when the enemies they encountered were themselves.

Writing the Western? Again the story is about the characters, the good guys with their flaws and the bad guys with their beneficial qualities. In the Western more than in any other genre (in my opinion) whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy often depends on the setting and the circumstances.

For example, in the early part of my nine-book saga, The Wes Crowley Trilogy, a company of Texas Rangers is pitted against raiding Comanches in the Texas Panhandle. The Rangers, naturally, are the good guys. Right?

You might think so, until you see a great Comanche warrior kneeling over the grave of his only son. Or until you see a vaunted old Comanche war chief leading a group of braves into an ambush because that one time he was less than wary as he strived to get them home more quickly. Or until you hear a Ranger, with his final breath, admit to robbing a bank in years past.

Otherwise, in the western as in the other genres, the story is about why the characters do what they do and how they react to themselves and to each other.

Writing 5-flame erotica? It isn’t about the sex. It’s about how the characters perform the various acts of sex and how those performances and the sexual acts themselves affect each character mentally, physically and emotionally.

Writing psychological suspense? This is a really twisted one and my personal favorite. This is both a genre and a technique that you can use in pretty much any other genre on a scene by scene basis. And it’s great fun to write. In fact, as I post this, I’m writing my third psychological suspense novel (my thirteenth novel overall).

But part of the fun is in the details. I write these scenes “into the dark” like I wrote all my fiction. But with psychological suspense scenes, I cycle back over them at least once and sometimes two or three times. Each time I allow myself to peel back another layer on the character’s thought process.

The story in psychological suspense isn’t about the missing valuable object or the kidnap victim or the terrorist who’s about to set off a dirty bomb in Mall of America.

The story is about what’s going on in the mind of the thief of the valuable object and the detective who’s after him. It’s about what’s going on in the mind of the kidnap victim and the kidnapper and the would-be rescuer. It’s about what’s going on in the mind of the terrorist and the shoppers (if they know) and the people who are trying to stop the terrorist or disable the bomb or whatever.

In other words, it’s about what’s going on (the suspense) in each major character’s mind (both the good guys and the bad guys). It’s about how that character reacts to what’s going on in his mind. And it’s about what he or she suspects is going on in the other major character’s mind and how he reacts to that.

As I said, it’s a great deal of fun.

One caution on writing psychological suspense— When detailing the character’s thoughts, you have to go into enough depth so the reader goes along for the ride. The reader must experience the tension the character is experiencing.

But if you go overboard, if you write too many of the character’s thoughts or go into too much detail and the character’s thought process becomes tedious or unnecessarily muddled or unnecessarily repetitive, you will lose the reader.

The key word there is “unnecessarily.” If you want to indicate a character’s confused mental state, letting the reader share in some muddled thoughts is an excellent way to do it.

And repetition,when it is necessary and when it is used right, is a very valuable tool in writing these kinds of stories and scenes. But if it isn’t used right, that sound you hear will be books being slammed closed.

If your genre isn’t listed above, that’s all right. You probably can see the pattern. Apply it to your genre and see what you think. Stories in all genres are character-driven.

I’ve written novels, novellas and short stories on every genre listed above except Romance and Mystery. Although many of my novels and stories have a strong romance element, and many booksellers consider Psychological Suspense a subgenre of mystery (I do not).

Notice that all of the genres above (with the exception of Science Fiction) are also aspects of fiction. That is, they can be included in other genres. A Western can also have heavy elements of Romance, Psychological Suspense, Magical Realism (fantasy) and so on. The only aspect of fiction that trumps all others is Science Fiction. If a work has a strong SF element, it is an SF story.

What About Plot-Driven Fiction?

Yeah, that isn’t actually a thing. No, seriously.

I’ve heard some say a story is “plot driven.” But even if you want to give them that, what drives the plot? The characters.

Ray Bradbury, perhaps the greatest writer of all time, and certainly one of the great writers of all time, said plot is the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story. Get it?

Here, read it again. Plot is the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story.

Leave behind?


Plot isn’t something to be planned out and meticulously followed. What’s the fun in writing a story you already know?

When anyone asks me about my writing process, I tell them all I really do is follow the characters around. Then I write down what they say and do. I let the characters tell the story they want to tell.

After all, they know it much better than I. They’re living it.

Fiction is about characters.

Fiction is character driven.

That’s it for Chapter 1. If you believe there’s something missing, please comment in the comments section below. I’ll either add it or explain why I didn’t.

Next time, Chapter 2: Determining Your Role in the Story

‘Til then, happy writing!


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

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Writing the Character-Driven Story: Introduction

For these special posts, I’m providing only an excerpt via email. Please click Read More or Read On near the bottom of the email to read the entire post at the website.

Remember, you can get this and other of my works by subscription now at a substantial savings. To learn more about that, click the Subscribe to My Work tab on the website.

About the Blog Version

Writing the Character-Driven Story is going to be both an ebook and (probably) an online audio lecture. My publisher, StoneThread Publishing, probably will release it as a print book too.

But first I’m posting it as a series of chapters on the Pro Writers blog on my website. At any time until it’s published, you will be able to visit the tab that says Writing the Character-Driven Story and read the chapters free of charge.

You may also copy and paste the chapters into a document for your personal use if you want to.

However, please remember that all content on this blog is ©Harvey Stanbrough in the current year. I ask that you do not share what you copy from here with anyone except perhaps your significant other. And of course, if you quote from any of this material, please be sure to attribute authorship to me and to

As you read the chapters on the blog, I encourage you to leave comments in the comment section. I also encourage readers to read not only the chapters, but the comments as well. Often the comments will provide, or evoke from me, additional information that was not in the chapter originally.

One note— If you choose to comment below, you are granting me permission to use the essence or the whole of your comment in the ensuing b0ok(s) and/or audio course without monetary remuneration. I will not identify you by name.

If you want to leave a comment but you do NOT want me to use your comment, please put a sentence to that effect in the comment itself. I’ll be happy to omit it from the published version.

Introduction to the Actual Book

The very first thing you should know about this book, Writing the Character-Driven Story, is that the title is intentional. You’ll notice it isn’t called Writing the Character-Driven SHORT Story.

That’s because it’s equally effective for writing short stories, longer stories, or novels.

It’s great for flash fiction, which I always have defined as double-digit fiction, meaning it can be no longer than 99 words, not including the title.

It’s also great for short-short stories (the short-short), which is what many today are calling flash fiction or quick fiction or sudden fiction or whatever. Doesn’t matter. You can call a duck and eagle, but it will still be a duck. For me, the short-short is from 100 words up to 1,999 words.

And if you use the techniques in this book, you can effectively and more than efficiently write anything longer: the short story (2,000 to 6,999); the long short story or novelette (7,000 to 9,999); the novella (10,000 to 24,999); or the novel (short novel, 25,000 to 39,999; novel, 40,000 to 80,000; long novel, over 80,000).

Before you ask, these lengths are not “official” in any way. They are my own defined lengths. I use them only to determine approximately how much to charge for electronic and print editions of my own work.

But back to the techniques in this book. Will I guarantee they will work for you?

No. Not unless you’re asking me, for you and for your writing career, to be what a Personal Trainer is for a professional athlete. I mean, I can’t even guarantee that you’ll sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard, so I certainly can’t guarantee anything beyond that.

What I can tell you is that if you DO sit down at the keyboard and if you DO use the techniques in this book, you will have a great deal more fun than you’ve ever had with your clothes on. So that’s pretty good, right?


Different writers and different writing instructors sometimes use different terms for the same thing. For example, what others call a “narrative beat” I call a “tag line.” If you don’t know what those things are, chances are you would benefit from my book, Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction and/or my book, Punctuation for Writers, 2nd edition.

If you would rather listen to me blather on about such things, you can sign up for some of my Audio Lectures over at The courses are not expensive, and once you purchase one (or more) you may listen to them at your leisure, as many times as you like, as often as you like. You can also get those through subscription. Oh, and the Writing Realistic Dialogue course (Course 1) includes Punctuation for Writers. Okay, end of advertisement.

But here and now, just to be sure we’re on the same page, are my definitions for the following terms.

Story Starter — This is a catalyst to get you to an idea. It can be an idea born whole (a character with a problem in a setting) or it can be only a character or a problem or the setting. It also can be a lyric from a song or a line of dialogue or a sound or a smell or another physical stimulus.

Idea — This is a catalyst to get you to the keyboard. Nothing more, nothing less. An idea typically consist of a character with a problem in a setting.

Hook — This is the first striking sentence or paragraph. This is the first bit that forces the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next.

Opening — This is the introductory scene, in which the reader is introduced to a character with a problem in a setting. That’s it. And the problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story.

Beginning — This is the first roughly one-quarter of the story. The beginning leads up to the first try-fail sequence. (Note that the beginning and the opening are not the same thing, although in a story of the right length they could be.)

Middle — This is the second two quarters (the middle half) of the story. This is the series of try-fail sequences.

End — This is the final one-quarter of the story. This is the final big try-fail or try-succeed scene and the big climax.

Validation (Resolution/Dénouement) — This is a few sentences or paragraphs or pages that serve to wrap up any loose ends. This is the part of the story that tells the reader it’s all right to close the book.

Setting — This is the locale in which the scene takes place.

Scene — This is what happens within a setting.

That’s the intro. If you believe there’s something missing, please comment in the comments section below. I’ll either add it or explain why I didn’t.

Next time, Chapter 1: What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

‘Til then, happy writing!


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you enjoy my work, I hope you’ll also consider subscribing. For info, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Announcing a New Subscription Service

Hi Folks,

This is a revised post from earlier.

First, if you’ve ever felt you’re starting too late in life as a writer, please visit Dean Wesley Smith’s post on the topic. You’ll be glad you did.

Second, the next post in Pro Writers, probably around the end of this week, will be the Introduction and maybe the first chapter of my new nonfiction title, Writing the Character-Driven Story.

I will post successive chapters here, free, on my blog until the whole thing is finished and ready to be compiled and published. Until then and for a short time longer, you’ll be able to access it at the self-named tab on my website.

Afterward it will be available in ebook and probably print over at StoneThread Publishing and through your favorite vendor. So stay tuned for that. It will also be available through my new subscription service. (grin)

I make part of my living as a professional fiction writer and part as a nonfiction writer. In this Pro Writers blog and in The Daily Journal over on, I do my best to pass along what I know and what I learn about writing as I go along.

I enjoy sharing that knowledge, and both blogs will be forever free of charge for as long as I keep writing them. However, for those who want more, today I’m announcing a new subscription service.

To see the subscription levels, please visit Subscribe to My Work. Clicking this link will open a new page.

If you have any questions about this new subscription service, please ask in the comments section below.

Otherwise I’ll be back in a few days with the first installment of Writing the Character-Driven Story.

‘Til then, happy writing.


Something New

Hi Folks,

I’m about to try something I’ve never tried before.

One of my goals this year is to write at least six nonfiction books on writing or publishing.

To help me achieve that goal, I’m going to publish them right here first, on this blog, one chapter at a time and free of charge.

I will announce each book here when I start it. Then, each time I finish a chapter of the book, I’ll post it here, free, for everyone to see.

I welcome your comments on each chapter.

I also welcome you to copy and paste each chapter and the comments if you want, into a document for your own use. However, please remember that all content on this blog is ©Harvey Stanbrough 2016. I ask that you do not share what you copy from here with anyone except perhaps your significant other. And of course, if you quote from any of this material, please be sure to attribute authorship to me and to

When I’ve posted all the chapters and get the book back from my copyeditor, I’ll take those posts down. After that you’ll be able to buy the ebook and the print book at all the usual outlets.

But again, you can read it all free before that. All you have to do is show up. (grin) And of course, if you want to drop something in the kitty on your way out the door, donations are always welcome.

(Actually, I’ll have a pretty exciting announcement regarding donations soon as well. Stay tuned.)

The first nonfiction book in my lineup this year is Writing the Character-Driven Story.

I presented a whirlwind one-hour session on this in Green Valley sometime last year. Of course, I couldn’t begin to cover everything I wanted to cover or everything the attendees needed to hear.

Well, now I’m going to correct that oversight.

I’ll begin posting the chapters for Writing the Character-Driven Story right here sometime in the next few days. I suggest you watch for them. (grin)

While I’m posting the chapters of this book, I will not be posting my normal posts on the 1st, 11th, and 21st. But I suspect you won’t miss them once you start reading the chapters.

Hey listen, if you have friends who are not yet subscribers to this blog, NOW would be a great time for them to sign up. Lots of good free stuff coming your way. (grin)

That’s it for this time.

See you next time with the Introduction and maybe Chapter 1.

Happy writing,


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out or just click If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

My appreciation to Dean Wesley Smith, from whom I flat stole the idea of putting up chapters of my nonfiction books here as I write them. Thanks, Dean.

Stopping Points

Hi Folks,

Okay, first, wishing you a Happy New Year. May it be everything you want it to be.

As I write this, I recently visited Dean Wesley Smith’s website (link below) and read some of the comments there. The comments are almost always as informative as the posts themselves. In fact, I regularly pass along tidbits from his site over on my Daily Journal. (Subscription info below.)

To sign up for my diary of a professional writer’s journey and learn by osmosis, click The Daily Journal. Today all the numbers reset to zero. Come along and watch them grow as I head for my goal of one-million published words of fiction in one year.

In one comment, the writer asked whether there was some workshop she could take to get her over places where her writing grinds to a halt: a sticking point.

But let me start at the beginning.

One massive sticking point that is common to almost every writer and almost every novel is the 1/3 point in the novel. That’s where the new and shiny has worn off. That’s also where the critical voice starts to creep in. The writing feels and looks like crap. It’s horrible. Nothing the novelist does seems to work. And on and on and on.

Many, many novels die at this point. This is the point where the writer puts the unfinished story in a folder for “later.” But most often there is no “later.” Most often, the story just dies.

And the writer has just taught his subconscious that what he wants to do is write 1/3 of a novel and then stop.

Most writers also believe this was only a fluke, that it will go more smoothly next time. So they come up with another bright, shiny, new idea and off they go, fingers flying over the keyboard.

Then they get to the 1/3 point. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I experience the same thing in every novel I write. I also experienced it at the 1/3 point through the 9-book series I wrote over the past year. As I wrote above, this is a common sticking point.

The commenter on Dean’s post wrote that at that point she wanted to go to the beach, build a bonfire, beat her computer to a pulp and toss it in. The one thing she didn’t mention was Writing.

I’ve discovered only one way to get over that sticking point. First, forget the beach, the bonfire and all the other stuff.

Sit down at your computer and put your fingers on the keyboard.

Read back a little way in the story to get back in touch with it. If you see something you want to change, a word here and there, do it as you read forward. (Caution: don’t allow your conscious mind to have you check for sentence structure, how many times you use “that” in a paragraph, etc. That’s all stuff to make you stop writing.)

And when you come to the place where you stalled, Just Write the Next Sentence.

Now the secret is to write whatever comes. Don’t think about it or analyze it. Just Write It. Don’t wonder where it’s going. Just Write It.

Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. Before you know it, the story will be flashing past and your fingers will be moving over the keyboard almost faster than you can think.

You will be surprising yourself with characters, situations, and more that probably you never would have thought of with your conscious, critical mind.

My other personal big sticking point is when I realize I’m boring myself to death as I’m writing.If you get bored while you’re writing, read on. I have a fix for that too, not that you’ll like it. (grin)

When I get bored with the story as I’m writing it, IN EVERY CASE that has been because somewhere back in the story, I let my conscious mind tell me “Hey, you need to put in this character type or you need to insert this situation.” It’s always a character type or a type of situation that I’ve written before, so I’m comfortable with it.

Get it? My conscious mind is trying to protect me again. Writing this character type or situation is SAFE because I’ve done it before. It’s much safer than just trusting my subconscious and writing off into the dark.

Now notice that I’ve been practicing writing off into the dark (allowing my subconscious to tell the story) since April 2014. Yet I still have to guard against my conscious, critical mind horning in.

For me this sort of thing usually happens when I’ve hit the end of a scene where another character or two are planning a face-off with a bad guy and I don’t know who the bad guy is. Then I get worried and want to manufacture a bad guy. Again, wrong approach! That’s the conscious, critical mind.

This actually happened to me yesterday (as I write this) in my current novel. I was bored with what I was writing. Then I realized the symptom.

So I stopped and backed up until I found the place where I had allowed my conscious mind to force a particular character type on the story. I deleted everything from that point forward (a little over 4600 words). I had struggled through writing those words over two days. But “struggled” is the key word. I should have recognized the problem sooner.

Then I got up and took a short break.

When I came back, I put my fingers on the keyboard and wrote the first thing that came to mind. All I knew was that it had to be about a guy, the potential bad guy.

After that, over three sessions, I wrote just under 3,000 words and there’s no end in sight. And the character is a REAL bad guy and one I would never have come up with in my conscious mind. In fact, there might be a whole other novel waiting in the wings about this guy, or his type.

UPDATE: I had hoped to finish that novel by yesterday, December 31, but now it looks like the characters will close it out today or tomorrow. That’s fine. I love writing off into the dark. (grin) The characters and story constantly surprise me, and that means they/it will also surprise the reader. That’s what makes for return readers.

The entire key is learning (over and over again) to Trust yourself (your subconscious) to tell a story.

Now most of you reading this will come up with an excuse to justify NOT doing it. In fact, most of you won’t even try it.

That’s fine. Every writer is different, and being free of all the silly myths about writing is a truly frightening thing. Do what works for you. Seriously. This blog is worth precisely what you choose to pay for it, whether in time or money.

I’m just sayin’, what Dean’s preaching on his site really does work.

Until next time, happy writing.


Here is a direct link to Dean’s website. I recommend you check back every day. Seriously.

To receive a free short story every week in your email, click Story of the Week.

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of writing (and even Writing Off Into the Dark) from a valid source, check out my Audio Lectures.

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out or just click If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.


A Very Brief Post

Hi Folks,

A very brief post today.

First, I wish you a happy Christmas Eve, a Merry Christmas, a happy and prosperous New Year, and an overall happy holiday season.

I also invite you to check out my Journal for today. Anytime today, please visit This Link. I’ll be updating the post until around 3 p.m.

To make it more valuable to writers and the curious, from this day forward the Journal will contain

  • an introduction in which I will name the Topic of the Day so you’ll know up  front what’s coming
  • an Of Interest section that will contain links to other sources that I have already vetted
  • the Topic of the Day itself
  • a section called The Day in which I will detail my own writing process for that day, what worked and what didn’t. Some writers will find this section of value and some won’t. This is my laundry as a writer, clean and dirty mixed, drying on tight lines strung between T posts in my virtual back yard for all the world to see.

If you haven’t tried the Daily Journal yet, or if you tried it and didn’t care for it, I hope you’ll visit today’s post and see what you think. Then, if you would like to subscribe, simply click The Daily Journal link either here or in the header of either website. As always, it is free of charge.

All best,


Setting Goals — 2016 Is Almost Here

Hey Folks,

If you’re a human being with dreams and aspirations, this is a great time to be thinking about what you want to attain or achieve in 2016.

If you’re a writer, that means thinking about goals.

At the minimum I recommend setting a daily writing goal, one that automatically resets at the beginning of each time period. If your goal is to write 1000 words per day and you meet or exceed it, great. At the beginning of the next day, it resets to zero and your goal is to write 1000 words. See how many days in a row you can meet or exceed your goal.

One caution here— Set realistic goals. By “realistic” I mean goals that you know you can reach, but that make you stretch a bit. If you find yourself meeting your goal continually, you might want to raise it a bit. If your set your goal too high so that you very seldom reach it, and if that starts to become disheartening for you, lower it a bit.

I also recommend setting a mid-term goal. What do you plan to accomplish before January 1, 2017? It’s only a year away. And what about long-term goals? What do you plan to have accomplished by January 1, 2021? January 1, 2026? Those are only five and ten years away.

A Quick Discussion of Goals vs. Dreams

Beware of confusing these two.

A goal is something that is within your control, at least for the most part.

For example, writing a certain number of publishable words of fiction per day is within your control unless some sort of emergency derails you one day. And if it does, that’s all right because the goal resets the next day.

Writing a certain amount every week also is within your control, again, more or less. You could write a short story every week and see how long you can keep that streak alive. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. (grin)

A dream, on the other hand, is in no way, shape or form within your control.

A dream might be to hit the bestseller lists with your first novel, or to make a million dollars on your first novel. That’s a wonderful dream, and I hope you achieve it, but if you do it won’t be because you decided it would happen. Too many factors are not within your control.

So by all means, dream and enjoy it.

But in the meantime, set realistic goals. Setting goals is your best shot at realizing dreams.

My Goals

Before I do this, one disclaimer — Your goals don’t have to mimic mine. We lead different lives and have different priorities, and that’s fine. If you surpass me by a bunch, I’ll applaud and cheer you on. If you attain your goal of writing only one hour per day, four short stories and one novel per year, I’ll applaud and cheer you on.

If you are a writer, what matters is that you write.

My goals are based on writing approximately 1000 publishable words of fiction per hour. That’s only 17 words per minute. Leaves a lot of time for staring off into space.

So here are my personal writing goals. I know I can achieve them because I’ve achieve them before. But they’re big enough to make me stretch. If you’d like yo watch my progress (or hold my feet to the fire), Sign Up for my Daily Journal.


  • 3,200 new publishable words of fiction per day, plus whatever nonfiction (blog posts, articles) I write.
  • write at least 500 words of publishable words of fiction every day (Going for a streak here. Even if I miss my daily goal, the 500 words will keep the streak alive.)


  • At least one new short story every week. (This was recommended by Bradbury, and it’s a great deal of fun. My previous attempt resulted in a streak that lasted over 70 weeks and about 75 short stories.)
  • 22400 new publishable words of fiction per week (the daily goal x 7).


  • One new novel per month (in addition to the short stories and necessary nonfiction).


  • Write at least 12 novels during the year. I would like some of these to be in series.
  • Write at least 52 short stories during the year. I hope, this year, to write at least one story in every major genre except mystery. Mystery just ain’t my bag.
  • Write at least one million publishable words of fiction. If I meet my daily goal for at least 313 days I will exceed this goal by 1600 words.

Side Goals:

  • Create an ebook cover for each of the publications above, plus for the five- and ten-story collections I compile from the short stories (so covers for 12 novels, 52 short stories, and 15 collections—79 covers).
  • Format and publish all works as ebooks
  • Layout and publish all major works (novels, collections) as print booksAlso I will have compiled those short stories into 5 ten-story collections and maybe 10 five-story collections. (Giving readers an option.)

I haven’t set my mid-term or long-term goals yet.

Fiction Lengths

For the sake of full disclosure, and because it seems appropriate to this post, here are my personal definitions of the various lengths of literary genres. This is a brave new world in which we no longer have to worry about hitting a certain page count (a certain folio) for traditional publishing’s price points:

6 to 99 words — Flash Fiction
100 to 2,000 — Short Short Story
2,000 to 6,999 — Short Story
7,000 to 9,999 — Long Short Story (or Novelette)
10,000 to 29,999 — Novella
30,000 to 39,999 — Short Novel
40,000 to 69,999 — Novel
70,000 — Long Novel

Okay, looks like that’s it for this time. See you on January 1 with a new post of interest to professional writers and aspirants.

‘Til then, happy writing!


Remember, to sign up for my mad diary of a professional writer’s journey and learn by osmosis what to do and what not to do, click The Daily Journal.

To receive a free short story every week in your email, click Story of the Week.

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out or just click If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.