Appendix C—Rules for Writers and Writing

I’m not going to spew a bunch of extra stuff here. It should go without saying that I believe the “rules” in this appendix are good ones to follow. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have included them.

One note—please don’t be so closed minded that you see (for example) Robert Heinlein’s name and automatically assume the rules that follow apply only to science fiction. They don’t.

I’m not joking.

Seriously, if that’s who you are, please put down this book NOW and back away slowly so you don’t get a paper cut. Yes, even if you’re reading it on your computer or as an ebook.

All right. Without further ado, here are Rules for Writers and Writing from people who know: long-term professional fiction writers.

Heinlein’s Business Rules of Writing

These were originally published almost as an afterthought in an essay in 1948 when what we think of today as “traditional publishing” was just beginning to come into its own.

I have updated these for the new world of self-publishing. What follows each rule is my addendum.

1. You must write.

Writers write. Thinking about writing is not writing. Revising, critiquing, rewriting, researching, and attending conferences or seminars is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Only putting new words on the page is writing. Writers write.

2. You must finish what you write.

This doesn’t mean you have to go back and dig up all those things you started and didn’t finish. But it DOES mean beginning today, Finish What You Write.

3. You must not rewrite.

Period. After you’ve finished a story or novel, follow your process. I recommend giving it to a trusted First Reader (trusted meaning s/he will tell you the truth) and ask that person to read naturally and point out anything that distracts him or her. Again, when you get it back, correct any distractions and then send it out (submit, publish, etc.). Then write the next story (see Rule 1).

4. You must publish your work so readers can buy it.

This actually goes to marketing. The cover and opening of your story sells that story. The ending of you story sells your next story. The best thing you can do to market your work is write another story. Then write another one. Then another one.

5. You must keep your work published so more readers can buy it.

If you need to update the cover as you become more adept at cover design, that’s fine. But once a story is published, leave it up.

Ray Bradbury’s 7 Rules for Writers

  1. Write with gusto.
  2. In quickness is truth.
  3. Write who you are.
  4. Don’t write for money or fame.
  5. Feed the muse daily.
  6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic.
  7. Surprise yourself.

Ernest Hemingway’s Rules for Writers

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

There are exceptions to all rules (except, in my opinion, Heinlein’s). Hemingway’s short story “After the Storm” begins with this, in direct violation of Rules 1, 2 & 4:

It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose.

The point is, Write.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

And just like that, we’re at the end of the book. Thanks for coming along on this ride. I hope you picked up some things you can use.

No, that isn’t right. I KNOW there are things here you can use. Let me rephrase that.

I hope you have picked up some things you WILL use.

I hope you will become a Heinlein’s Rules adherent as I and so many others are. Nothing can match the joy of making stuff up for a living. Seriously.

‘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. 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 7 — Writing the Ending

Many writers believe the ending of the story is the big, massive climax.

  • The former Texas Ranger transports the body of his friend and colleague from Wyoming back to the southern tip of Texas because he gave his word, and his word actually means something.
  • A magic ring is returned inadvertently to its rightful owner, who had agonized for years over its loss, as both he and the ring plunge into the fires of Mordor, effectively ending a war.
  • The Death Star explodes because someone forgot to install a screen over what amounts to a vent that just happens to run directly to the reactor core. Or something.

Those are all big climaxes. But none of those is the ending.

The ending comes after the climax. It’s what many call the resolution or the validation.

  • It’s the former Texas Ranger dismissing a reporter because there’s no possible way the reporter could ever understand.
  • It’s the Ring Bearer accompanying others as they board boats to pass from Middle Earth forever because their time is now past.
  • It’s a walking shag rug and others, amidst much cheering, being rewarded medals and money during a grand celebration, the whole of which takes place on the steps out front. Because seriously, who wants a walking shag rug inside the palace.

The ending in a film is a satisfactory conclusion. It gives the viewers a warm fuzzy feeling and tells them the story is over. That it’s all right to get out of their chairs and go home.

The ending in a novel or short story is a satisfactory conclusion as well, one that subliminally signals to the reader the story has ended.

In both cases, the keyword is “satisfactory.”

Just as a valid climax should cause the reader to slap himself on the forehead and say, “Of course!” so should the ending (resolution, validation) make the reader feel good about the protagonist or the situation or both.

And a satisfactory ending isn’t important just to keep the reader from throwing things.

Remember, the hook and opening sell the reader on the current book.

But the ending of the current book sells the reader on the next book. That’s how important it is.

Tricks for Endings

One common technique is to jump ahead to a new scene after the climax.

The Lonesome Dove series resolution above obviously took place at least a few days later when Captain Call had time to rest and clean up and heal from his injuries and exhaustion. Notice we feel a kinship with Captain Call despite his flaws.

The Lord of the Rings wrap-up likewise took place a few days or perhaps even weeks later. It’s difficult to tell, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we feel the passing of the age as strongly as the characters do.

And in the Star Wars resolution, again it might be a week or longer. We assume they needed time to bury their dead (the ones who weren’t vaporized) and maybe to clear the chunks of buildings out of the streets.

But whatever the reason for the jump, it’s all right. We don’t wonder what happened during the missing time. We simply accept it and go on.

So you don’t have to provide a reason for the gap when you jump ahead. Again, just write a quick scene to tie up any final loose ends and close things out.

If you do feel a need to provide an explanation for the gap, do so with a very brief narrative or a brief bit of dialogue between characters.

Sometimes writers will maintain a single POV character throughout the story. If you do that, be sure to use the same POV character in the resolution. In other words, don’t switch POV after the jump ahead unless it’s a multiple POV story.

Watch Your Pacing

In the big climax, sentences and paragraphs generally are shorter and more terse. Things happen quickly. Narrative is sparse and even any dialogue is short and tense. Everything is frantic.

When you jump to the ending, slow things down. Use neater sentences, calmer syntax and words. In other words, you want to write a much more relaxed scene. That’s how you ease the reader out of the story after the high-tension climax..

Finally, you want to be sure you bring the story full circle. In a stand-alone story, be sure you don’t have any unwrapped threads still out there. Make sure you resolve all open matters that were not resolved earlier in the story.

Watch for the Ending

Most often, even in a novel, you can feel it coming when you’re within a few thousand words.

When that happens, just keep writing. Keep letting the story happen.

But if the writing begins to grind to a halt, there’s a chance you’ve written past the ending.

I first heard of this from Dean Wesley Smith, but it’s happened to me a couple of times too.

In my first novel, I sensed the ending was coming up. I just kept writing the next sentence, writing the next sentence, and suddenly there were no more sentences to write. That didn’t feel right. I knew there wasn’t another scene yet to go.

So I backtracked. Sure enough, I had written past the ending by about 200 words. That wound up being the first book in a nine-book series, but the “extra” I wrote beyond the ending of the first book didn’t make it into the second one.

If that happens to you, it’s all right. Just backtrack and look for the great line or situation that ends the story satisfactorily. Then allow the characters to talk through the resolution.

What Makes a Good Ending?

It seems appropriate to end a book titled Writing the Character-Driven Story with this.

Good endings are always endings about the character. They leave the reader feeling good about the protagonist.

A good ending might contain an air of nostalgia. For an excellent example, see the end of Lonesome Dove with the images of fallen comrades filing by as Captain Call said, bitterly and with sarcasm, “Yeah. One hell of a vision.”

It often contains an emotional attachment to another character or characters. This emotional attachment might be one-sided. You’ll see this in almost any western in which the hero rides off into the sunset alone while the wistful female lead watches him go.

The emotional attachment can also be mutual, whether a personal romantic attachment between characters or a professional bond among characters who have shared a unique experience in a team setting (especially combat).

And of course there are a host of others. Study endings in real life, and then adapt those in your books.

One example Dean used with me was a time jump to funeral. They didn’t show the actual funeral (remember, this is the ending, the validation) but used the funeral to set the mood for the scene. Then they showed the characters walking away from the funeral, talking about what’s coming next for each of them (a great lead-in to the next book in a series), getting on with life, and so on.

Appendix B—The Two Most Important Writing Exercises You Will Ever Do

What follows are two of the more important writing exercises I have ever learned or taught. I hope you will take advantage of them.

First, an exercise to get you started actually writing.

1. On a sheet of paper, write down three character names. They can be full names or first names or last names or nicknames. Whatever comes to mind is fine.

But nothing else, just names. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

2. On the same sheet of paper, write down three problems. These can be any little problems.

For example,

  • maybe the character just realized he has a sticker in his foot or a hangnail, or
  • maybe he just remembered today is his anniversary, or
  • maybe he just remembered he was supposed to meet a friend ten minutes ago for dinner, or
  • maybe he just opened a bad email or letter, or
  • maybe his computer screen just went black, or
  • the elevator stopped between floors, or
  • he just realized the door he thought he propped open behind him s closed and locked.

This problem does not have to be important, and it does not have to be “the” problem or conflict of the story. This is just something for the character to solve to get you into the story.

So nothing else, just write three problems. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

3. On the same sheet of paper, write down three settings.

For example,

  • a haymow, or
  • the passenger seat of a ’57 Chevy, or
  • the first-class compartment aboard a jetliner, or
  • the interior of a freight car, or
  • the interior of an environmental suit, or
  • the bridge of a space ship, or
  • a cubicle in an office building, or
  • the top of a skyscraper.

Nothing else, just write three settings. Do that now. Don’t think about it, just write.

Now I’m going to show you how easy it is to be an actual writer.

To write an opening, you need only three things: a character, a problem, and a setting. Period. Nothing else. So do this.

  • Sit down at your computer.
  • Select a character name from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.
  • Select a problem from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.
  • Select a setting from those you wrote down earlier, or a new one.

Now put your fingers on the keyboard and write whatever comes to mind regarding your character and his or her problem in the setting you chose.

Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. That really is all there is to it.

Some Notes

As you do this exercise, Don’t Worry about where the story is going. Don’t Worry about what will happen next. It’s just a character with a problem in a setting. That’s all.

This is no big deal. It’s nothing earth shakingly important. You’re just telling a story. That’s all.

Whatever the character does and says to solve or alleviate the problem will flow out through your fingers.

Whatever comes through your fingertips and the keyboard onto the page is the character speaking.

The character is the one who is in the story. The character is the one who is living it. He or she knows what’s going on in the story.

  • Don’t edit what the character wants to say or do, no matter what it is.
  • Don’t allow your conscious mind try to “fix” anything.
  • Don’t try to think it through and figure it out.
  • Just write it. You’re a writer. Just write it.

The idea here is to practice trusting your subconscious to tell the story. This is how Bradbury wrote. This is how most long-term professional fiction writers wrote back in the day, and this is how most of them write today.

When you’ve done this exercise a few times, you will come to realize how truly freeing this technique is.

You will learn to release the need to be the “almighty writer on high,” and the responsibility for directing everything that happens.

You will learn instead to drop down into the story with the characters and just have fun.

Instead of planning every move from some lofty perch above the story, you will learn to run through the story with the characters—your friends—and simply write down what they say and do.

Now for the Five Senses Exercise, with my personal thanks to Jack Williamson, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, each of whom helped enhance my understanding of this exercise and its importance.

The Five Senses Exercise

In this exercise, you’ll write five separate paragraphs. Each paragraph should stand on its own. In other words, no one paragraph should be related or attached in any way to any other paragraph. Each should be a few sentences in length.

To get the most out of this exercise, I suggest you do it once wherever you happen to be right now. Then move to a new location and do it again. Then move again to a new location and repeat the exercise. I suggest you continue until you feel comfortable with it.

If you’re in your office, do it there. Then walk into the back yard and do it there. Then go into your kitchen and do it there. Go to the local coffee shop and do it there. Go sit in your car and do it there. You get the idea.

Remember that the goal here isn’t to describe the place. The goal is to describe a moment in time from your perspective. It might include the place or it might not. It certainly should include your opinions.

For example, if an aroma of roses wafts past your nose and you enjoy that, you might mention you caught the scent or aroma of roses. If you don’t like it, you might say you were unable to avoid the stench of roses. Opinions matter.

The point is to be aware of your physical senses and your surroundings, and to extend your senses consciously. In other words, you want to notice things that you normally wouldn’t notice. If you do this exercise in your office or your home or your car, you probably are used to the space. But the character isn’t and the reader isn’t.

As you go through these exercises, try not to use the words see, hear, smell, taste or feel or any of their derivatives (saw, could see, heard, could hear, smelled, could smell, etc.). Remember to extend yourself through your senses.

To help you along with the first one, I’ve provided an example of what I might write for the paragraph about what I see here in my office.

One: Write a paragraph about what you see. (A bright yellow baseball cap is dangling from a hook on the wall. On the front of the cap is an embroidered red Zia sun symbol. The wall is a burnt orange and the hook is brushed chrome. To the left, a dark-maple bookshelf dominates the wall. The top shelf is filled with various multicolored bottles of spirits. To the right is the open door. The opening is not trimmed and reminds me of a lipless creature.)

Two: Write a paragraph about what you smell.

Three: Write a paragraph about what you taste.

Four: Write a paragraph about what you feel, physically.

Five: Write a paragraph about what you hear. You should notice and include any ambient sounds you normally would take for granted.

Now write a sixth paragraph. Use one sentence from each of the previous five to create a sensory experience for the reader.

Most professional writers suggest you include this sort of sensory information in your writing at least in every scene, or as every major character enters a scene. This is what brings your writing to life for the reader. The sensory information comes from inside the POV of the character.

Most writers use only the sense of sight. That’s why much writing lacks the verisimilitude, the layering on of intimate detail, that gives it depth and lends it a sense of reality.

Go back to a story or chapter you’ve written and use this technique. See whether it improves the scene.

Best of all, like most of the techniques I teach, now that you are aware of it, you’ll have to think consciously about this only a few times before it becomes part of your subconscious.

That’s it for this time. Up next, Chapter 7: Writing the Ending.

‘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.

Appendix A: Examples of Hooks

All of the following hooks are from published short stories or novels. The first thirty-some are mine. The others are from a few professional writer friends.

My sincere thanks to the writers who allowed me to use excerpts (hooks) from their works. Each of them have many more stories and novels than those I have listed here. I hope you will find their works and purchase them.

Some are calm hooks, those that set a quiet or serene scene and/or mood. They are what I think of as the “once upon a time” variety. I find them useful for more humorous or tongue-in-cheek or satirical stories. They’re also very good for magic realism stories.

Some are more frantic. Those are the ones that are designed to snatch the reader into the middle of the action.

Regardless of the kind of hook you use, it’s always a good idea to include as many of the physical senses as possible.

First I’ll provide a generous sampling of my own better hooks. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. Then I’ll provide the hooks my friends offered for me to use.

From My Private Stash of Hooks

The Clearing (novel)

The night was dark, the air heavy. A foghorn sounded in the bay down below the coastal hills and was driven flat in the pattering rain.

Confessions of a Professional Psychopath (novel)

Of the three wingback chairs in my library, only one is upholstered in human skin. There’s a reason for that.

Body Language (novel)

The dark Louisiana night draped heavily over the swamp, absorbing sounds and collecting scents. It smelled of ancient things and evil things and people and purposes long forgotten.

Comanche Fire (novel)

Jade Talbot spurred his horse into a gallop. He leaned forward in the saddle as he drew his Remington .44 caliber revolver. And the realization washed over him that he was a dead man.

Wes Crowley, Texas Ranger (novel)

A loud knock came on the door of Corporal Wes Crowley’s room at the Amarillo Inn. “Crowley, I know you’re in there. C’mon out.”

Leaving Amarillo (novel)

Wes Crowley leaned forward and poked at an ember that had popped out of the campfire a moment earlier. “Been a long trail this time, boys.”

Longing for Mexico (novel)

Someone tapped lightly on the door to Texas Ranger Otis McFadden’s room in the Amarillo Inn. The door opened slightly. “Mac? I saw the others were back. I heard what happened. You are all right?”

The Marshal of Agua Perlado (novel)

In the Fisherman’s Wharf Cantina on the bay at Agua Perlado, Wes Crowley and Miguel Martinez touched their mugs and quietly concluded a private toast.

The Scent of Acacias (novel)

Wes Crowley reined in and dismounted. He whipped Charley’s reins around the hitching post, and crossed the front porch.

A Little Time (novella)

The Blue Goose Café & Truck Stop looked as if it had been crammed into the roadside cutout in the piney woods just outside Florentine, Alabama.

“The Oldest Debt”

The ambulance screamed into the yard, its siren winding down. The revolving lights drew streaks across the dust cloud that hovered. They traced one after the other across Raphael’s worn, weathered face, up the brick wall and across the windows, and back to streak the dust cloud again.

“Requiem for a Bard”

On a cloudy, dreary day in a very small town in Italy, in a room much larger than it had ever been before, Serafín hunched over his timeworn mahogany desk, laboring over a promised eulogy. His desk chair complained against the stained oak floor. He leaned back, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks.

“Soft as a Breeze”

It’s been twenty-six years since the world imploded and those scratching sounds crept back into my head.

“The Well”

Shortly before 11 p.m. in a drizzly rain, Robert got out of his car. As he walked to the back, the muddy roadside sucking at his boots, he carefully counted his steps. The air was thick and warm despite the drizzle. The odor of rotting trees and sour moss on rocks permeated the air. Seven steps. He unlocked the trunk. The first seven steps of any journey are the hardest.

“Coffee? Perhaps Tea?”

Sometime in the past, Mr. Wilson had misplaced his mind.

“The Cycle of Ramón”

The world had been sad for three days. The sky wept steadily, softly, the water drip, dripping from limbs and leaves of trees and eaves of houses. It trickled into rivulets and streams that whispered their way east, back to the sea.

“The Baby”

The baby lay abandoned in the grass toward the end of the rest area. A pool of dim, filthy light from the streetlamp overhead slashed through the pouring rain and across the child’s left knee. The light was absorbed in the soaked, cheap motel bath towel on which the baby was lying.


The southwest desert on a clear night in December is cold, and the sun disappears quickly.

“The Unfortunate Case of Agatha Bitters”

Agatha Demon Bitters was an angry woman, and not because of her name.

“The Breath Formed”

He was eating. Picking tender shoots of new grass from early November snow.


Mr. Orlando cut a striking figure in his trim suit and his bowler hat. Especially against the bland background that seemed to follow him everywhere he went.


His right foot still on the bar rail, Tommy leaned back and spread his arms for effect. His black hair, slicked back, glistened in the dim light of the bar. His dark grey pinstriped suit fit so well the action barely moved his lapels to the side. “I mean c’mon, Bobby, who gets treated like that, eh? Who?”

“Mrs. Featherberry”

When Mrs. Featherberry came to town, she walked directly down the middle of the street, skirts bustling, little sawed-off dust devils forming, swirling and dying in her wake. And for some reason everybody stayed up on the boardwalks.

“Finding Harold”

Mavis Harshbarger was not in a good mood. She bustled into the Riley Drug & Grocery Store in her small-print floral dress and her flat-soled dust-colored house slippers. She resembled a long, broad garden, albeit one built on odd, undulating hills.

“The Maid’s Pulse”

Eugene stood in only his underwear on the far side of the bed, his back against the wall, his hands clasped to his mouth.

“The Unfortunate Life of Thomas Mercer”

The Reverend Thomas Mercer staggered along the road, the palm of his right hand pressed hard against the gash in his abdomen.

“No Better Day”

Late in the day, to one side of a two-rut road, an old man sat alone on a rock.

“Paper Hearts”

At 3 a.m. the world is quiet as a grave.


At 3 a.m. dressed only in his boxers and a stained white t-shirt, the former pastor Bob Delaval stood at the bedroom window. A fringe of mostly grey hair ran from one temple around the back of his head to the other temple.

“Sordid and Organized”

In the dim basement, I moved from one stainless steel table to the next. I carried a small orange hose in one hand, a slick stainless steel spatula in the other.

“The Day They Came”

The day they came for us was a real mess. The sky was drizzling, and it had been for days. Like it couldn’t quite make up its mind to just let go and rain. The pit patter patter pit all but drove us nuts as we sat in the Quonset hut and waited.


Through a heavy silver mist, the old church was visible just behind the cemetery to the left. A dilapidated adobe ruin, the buttressed walls remained strong, but the roof had caved in. The top of the steeple was no more than fifteen feet off the ground, sitting atop what was left of the bell tower, which had set itself down behind the front wall.

From Steven Wedel, horror writer, novels and short fiction

“A Change of Clothes”

It was just after 10:30 p.m. and the clothes were coming to life.

“Digging Up the Past”

Levi pitched the shovel aside and stood up. He reached behind him with his right arm, his only arm, and held his back as he stretched to relieve the cramping.

“New Blood”

The basement door opened slowly, silently, on well-oiled hinges. A long-fingered pale hand reached through into the darkness. There came the sharp click of a switch and electric light exploded into the cellar. The seven naked people below lay unmoving on their cold steel tables.

“Like Dying”

Sam Davidson awoke with a start, thrown out of a sweaty sleep into the oily blackness of the night that had filled his bedroom. His heart was pounding and the blood rushed in his ears. His sweat-soaked pajamas clung to his body. The need was back. Insistent, demanding. He had to obey.

“Latent Lycanthropy”

The girl stood out like a ballerina in a morgue.

from Don Johnson, novelist

A Texas Elegy (novel)

Sometimes a man’s expectations come down to very little at the end. A few minutes’ relief from the pain. A few words of comfort from someone he trusts. The thought that, for a little while at least, he’ll be fondly remembered by someone.

from Alison Holt, novelist

Credo’s Hope (novel)

Blood smeared the mattress where Bibi O’Dell had fallen after she’d been shot. Given her occupation, hooker, and her drug of choice, meth, I wasn’t surprised when she told me to go stuff myself after I asked who’d pulled the trigger.

Credo’s Legacy (novel)

I sat across from a man who had a white smile painted on his face. White and red circles surrounded charcoal grey eyes that misted over as he vehemently denied kidnapping his ex-wife’s latest boyfriend. As he spoke, he fiddled with the curly orange clown wig he held in his lap.

from Dan Baldwin, novelist and ghost writer

Caldera (novel)

“Call me Bitter. I am 117 years old.” These were the first words of any significance the old man had spoken since I crawled into the adobe cavern that was his home.

Sparky and the King (novel)

“Fer Chrissakes, Jack, you’re getting blood on the customers!”

Bock’s Canyon (novel)

“You goin’ up against a .44 with just a pen knife, kid.”

“It’s all I got.”

“It ain’t enough.”

Trapp Canyon (novel)

“Rocks move.”

If a broken clock can be right two times a day, then a mind-numbed brute like Grat O’Brien might occasionally recognize his ass from a hole in the ground.

Vengeance (novel)

The old woman started screaming around 10 p.m., screams muted by the duct tape across her withered mouth and tightly twisted around her head.

Heresy (novel)

Professor Ashley “Ash” Hayes had no desire to commit heresy. She had no professional death wish, yet whenever a new trail through the history of Native Americans opened up, she could not help taking the path regardless of the personal danger.

Desecration (novel)

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem… dry bones?” Naw, that’s not it. The man with the red-lined eyes wiped a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth.

Vampire Bimbos On Spring Break (novel)

The vampire had one hell of an aching, hacking, coughing, itching, can’t sleep at night, snot-slinging head cold.”

* * *

I also strongly recommend almost any of the hooks used in any works by Ernest Hemingway or Ray Bradbury.

When you read anyone else’s work and feel yourself pulled into the story, consider the hook.

Does it make you want to find out what happens next? If so, how does it accomplish that?

I hope this gives you some good ideas for your own writing.

* * * * * * *

That’s it for this time. Next up, Chapter 6: Writing Setting and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part I

‘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. 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.

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.

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


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!


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