All posts by Alex McGilvery

Testimonial from Rebekah Lee Jenkins

I hired Alex as an editor but it turned out that was the least of what he did! This morphed from an edit to a super detailed, custom designed writing course. At the end of the course/edit I have a book that my readers are raving about.

As a hairstylist, writing and publishing is not my field at all.  I needed a complete overhaul. I got it. I am thrilled with my book.
As writers, our voice/message is the biggest piece of our brand and you need an editor that gets that.
Alex will polish the book, push you to do better and leave you with a manuscript that sounds like you. Alex kept me true to my voice.
I can’t wait to do another book with Alex, I loved this process!
Here’s Rebekah’s book: The Night they came for Til

God: Character or Setting?

Is God a character in your story or part of the setting? Strange question, but bear with me here. If God is a character, then He needs to be treated in the same way as other characters; namely gradually revealed through the story. It’s unlikely God will have a character arc which changes Him, but a flat arc is very useful. The flat arc is for a catalyst character who doesn’t change during the story, but forces the people around her, especially the protagonist to change. Sound about right?

Brooklyn Museum-The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road, James Tissot

My experience is few books treat God as a character. One of my favourite examples is To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson. Achan has been struggling with God through the first book and To Darkness Fled, the second. He has good reason to be angry with God, though God keeps showing up to preserve him. In a scene toward the close of book two, Achan is in a beautiful old temple praying, wrestling with his faith. Finally he submits himself and his life to God. At that moment the Temple explodes leaving Achan sitting in the ruins with a warning from God that things are going to get really hairy from here on out.

There are a few points to consider here.

First, God and the characters interact through the story. Things change because of God; it doesn’t have to be miracles, it could be attitudes of the characters around, a change of heart in one of the villains. God is active and at least spiritually present.

Second, God has character traits which are revealed through the interactions. This seems like a no brainer, but if you are intending the book for anybody but a purely religious audience you need to show what God is like in this particular moment in this particular time. That is harder than it sounds. Are you showing the forgiveness of God? The Love? The Call to discipleship? Trying to do too much at once leaves the reader confused, or unsure which attribute is affecting the main character.

Finally, and this is an important one, while God is present at the climax of the book, God doesn’t resolve the plot. Greek Tragedy had a thing Deus ex Machina literally God in the Machine. At the end of the play, the Gods would step in and sort everything out, making the character’s journeys pointless. If the character is to come to the final revelation of what God wants them to learn, then they must be the focus of the final struggle, not God. So no last minute conversion making everything all right, no miracle to defeat the enemy, just what God is in most of the scripture stories, a present strength for the character to live righteously.

God as a part of the setting.

God doesn’t interact with the characters. The assumption is he is present, but nothing much changes because of that presence. He is there the same way a mountain is there. An example is Uneven Exchange by S.K. Derban where all the good guys pray constantly, about everything, but while they make a decision based on their prayer, it doesn’t change them as a character.

There is no slow revealing of God in the story. The Characters’ understanding of God is the same at the end as at the beginning. God’s relationship to them doesn’t alter any more than the air or the ground changes from start to finish of the book. (if it does it’s because it’s being acted on, not because it’s acting)

Lastly, God is not a substantial part of the conclusion. The assumption is God is present, but there is neither a deus ex machina ending, nor a God present giving strength to the character in a different way than at the beginning of the story. So the character will pray about the final battle, but it won’t be a changed prayer from what they spoke at the start of the story.

Both these situation are valid presentations of God in our story. You don’t have to have God as a character to have the story be an effective witness. Your main character may already have a strong faith, and it that faith you want to show. You may be writing in a time or place in which faith is understood to be universal, so to ignore it would damage the world you’ve carefully built.

What is important is that you think about what God is doing in your story and plan how to write about Him in a way which makes your story deeper.

Don’t Get Fighter’s Block

Many stories have fight scenes from Rocky’s bouts in the ring to the duel shown in the above picture from the Princess Bride. The scenes serve a variety of purposes as diverse as the stories they belong to. It would be hard to have a boxing movie with no boxing, but fights aren’t always physical and not all are fought with fists or swords. The first thing is to understand why you want a fight at this exact point in the story. You may have to show an aspect of your main character, or move the plot forward.

The duel in Princess Bride accomplishes a few purposes. It shows the Dread Pirate Roberts is not quite what he seems to be, it is a chance for humour, and most importantly it sets up the partnership between Roberts and the people he bests. The action is classic movie duel with them moving around a lot, talking a lot, gaining minor injuries and switching hands. Since the book and movie is a send up of the classics, this is done with wry wit and a wink at the standards.

If you are going to write a good fight scene you need to think it out carefully. They are, by their nature, high points in a story, so deserve to be solidly set in the plot. Once you know why you need the fight, the how is much easier. This is my methodology of writing strong fight scenes. I’ve picked the climactic scene to write, but the basic point made below need to be considered in more or less detail in any fight.

My way of writing a strong fight scene.

Language, please!

Before we start fighting we need to talk about language. Not the fighter’s language, but the language you use to describe the action. There is a range of options from being vague. He swung at  his opponent and missed. to extremely specific.  She threw a straight punch from her hip aiming at his solar plexus. He used a low block and slid to the left before attacking with a snap kick from his right leg.  You probably want to be in the middle somewhere. If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about find a martial artist and explain what you’re doing and let her help you with how to succinctly describe the give and take of a fight. The more detailed and technical you get, the more likely some fight geek is going to spot a mistake.

What you want to avoid is things like ‘She punched him right in the face.’ You don’t need ‘right’. You will also want to have a broad collection of verbs to use so your fight isn’t weighed down by adverbs.

Setting the Stage

The first thing in any fight is to know where your combatants are going to duke it out. A fight in a boxing ring will be very different from a brawl in an alleyway or a tussles in a Victorian parlour. Not only you need to know the setting, but your reader does. This does not mean you give an exhaustive detailed description of the setting, but you lay the ground work for what’s going to show up later. We’re going to write a fight scene set in the Edzell Castle about where the words ‘West Range’ appear. Look around, what would be the immediate things the POV character would see? How do they enter the space? Let’s have our hero enter from the Garden, We’ll call her Sir Glancelot. The villain of the piece will enter through the entrance. We’ll call him the Black Smirk.

Next we need to think about what they’re wearing. It’s a medieval style combat so some kind of armour. Chain mail – lighter but less effective in protecting against blows, but is lighter and allows a bit more free movement. Plate armour – the full clanking suit which will stop most medieval weaponry but is much heavier and clumsier and is usually worn on horse back. Since we don’t have horses, we’ll put both of them in chain, but the Black Smirk has bracers (extra armour on the forearms) Sir Glancelot doesn’t. We’ll have them duel with sabre, an edged sword which can also be used to thrust if needed. They are relatively light and would have been common. Unless they are in armour, the huge two handed swords are unlikely as they are too slow.

Plans published in Simpson, W. Douglas (1930). Edzell Castle. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. LXV. Retrieved on 2008-04-23., and Simpson, W. Douglas, and Tabraham, Chris. (2007) Edzell Castle 2nd edition. Historic Scotland. ISBN 9781904966340.


Sir Glancelot crept through the narrow gate from the Garden into courtyard. The tower loomed over her on her left. She almost stumbled over the broken rock of the fallen stables. The courtyard was empty but for a unhitched wagon on the north side. At the corner of the wall Sir Glancelot peered carefully around the corner, no telling what the dastardly Black Smirk would do. Nothing. Boots thumping on flagstones, she walked out into the space, disappointed. He’d run away again.

A flash in the corner of her eye made her spin. She barely blocked the thrown knife with her arm. It clattered into the rocks behind her. The Black Smirk charged from the wide entry, sabre in hand.


Act One

A fight scene, like every scene is a mini three-act story, with its own plot and end-goal. It’s no good writing a fantastic fight if it doesn’t matter to the plot. The hero must start in one place and as a result of the fight end up in a different place. The goals of a fight will vary depending on where they are in the story and what you need to do with the character. Not only the goals are important but the motivation for the fight. Why are they fighting instead of running away? Who’s going to win? This last question isn’t as obvious as it seems. Of course the hero wins, right? Except at some point in the story, the hero needs to lose a fight and take some lumps. If you want any suspense at all in your fights, the reader needs to believe the hero could lose. The only way to do that is have the hero lose at least once. Lastly you need to know how long the fight is going to last. As a general rule, the more important the fight, the longer it should be. I edited a book by a writer who wasn’t really comfortable with fights though she was writing about knights and warfare. It wasn’t a problem until it got to the climactic fight at the end of the book, which she finished up in a paragraph. By the time we were done, it was closer to being an entire chapter. The flip side of the length of the fight is the weight it has in the story and the payoff at the end. Weight is how important it is to the plot. A longer fight will move things further than a short one. The payoff is the emotional release at the close. Relief, sorrow, joy, the more important the fight the more complex the emotions need to be.

We’re going to just write the opening section of act one. This is the final battle between Sir Glancelot and the Black Smirk. The Smirk is holding the Prince captive somewhere in the castle. She needs to get past the Smirk to find the Prince. If she loses, the Kingdom will fall into evil and ruin. Each time they’ve met, Sir Glancelot has barely escaped with her life, if not her honour, intact.


Sir Glancealot whipped her father’s sword from the sheath making the air hum. Deep breath, don’t panic. Their weapons clashed echoing from the broken walls. Before she could blink, he’d disengaged and slashed at her face. Her feet tangled as she threw herself back and she fell hard to the pavement. The Smirk sneered at her and jumped forward to finish her off.

“Should have stayed with your needlework.”

Don’t be in a rush to get up.  Sir Caldwell’s voice spoke in her head. She parried his strikes and waited her chance. The Smirk stepped in close to send a slash toward her throat. Her sword held his, ringing like a bell. In the second before he recovered for another attack she struck out with her foot, connecting with the Black Smirk’s leg belong the knee. He stumbled back…


Dialogue and Paragraphing

A lot of fights in books and movies have the characters engaging in a long dialogue while they fight. Imagine dancing to a fast song a club, and engaging in a deep meaningful conversation at the same time. Not so easy. Keep dialogue short and punchy during the action. Keep longer speeches for natural breaks in the action.

There are a few ways to paragraph fights. One is to use a new paragraph for each character’s action. So Sir Glancelot would have her paragraph, the Black Smirk would have his. This is great for large battle scenes where you need time and space to set up each move, but in the above section almost every sentence would be its own paragraph.

In duels I like to use a paragraph for each exchange. So in the example above, she’s lying on the ground, he’s attacking, she’s blocking, he steps in close, she kicks him and so on. When that bit of action is complete, I’ll start a new paragraph.

As in the larger scene, each paragraph has its own beginning, conflict, resolution.

Act Two

Here’s where things get dicey for our heroine. In book this is the low point in a character’s life. Everything is falling apart. In a fight it is where the antagonist begins to get the upper hand. What I don’t mean is they chase the hero around beating the everliving snerf out of the hero. Too many movies/books have the hero at the point of death in this section. They are beat, just not dead, then they pop up as if they aren’t battered, bruised and bleeding to death from a ruptured spleen and win the day. You want the reader to believe the hero can lose the fight, but you also need to make the victory plausible.

At this point there should have been a few minor wounds, now things get more serious. Injuries which could threaten the hero’s ability to fight happen, but the villain has taken some lumps too.

What is more important than the physical danger is the emotional danger. This is where the heroine doubts herself. She’d never beat him before, she can’t beat him now. She’s going to die, the Prince will die, the Kingdom will fall into ruin. There won’t be much dialogue in this section as both combatants will be exhausted, but you can use internal thought to great advantage in showing state of mind.

Don’t neglect the physical effects of the fight, pain, anger, humiliation. Where are they located in the hero’s body, how do they affect her ability to fight?


Sir Glancelot gasped for air. Blood running down her arm made the grip on her sword slippery. She blocked a blow from the Smirk and almost lost her sword.

The Smirk had stopped smirking now. He limped forward slashing at her as if his arms were iron instead of flesh. His sabre ground across her chain mail, screeching like a banshee. She gave up on elegance and punched him with the hilt of her sword.

She retreated away until her back hit the wagon. Her sword hand trembled. Her heart pounded painfully. The sting of the cuts he’d given her didn’t hurt as much as her failure. The duel had descended from an honourable fight to a brawl. A knight doesn’t brawl, they fight with and for honour, no matter what the enemy does. Sir Cadwell’s instructions to the squires the first day they assembled condemned her.

She’d lost, the Black Smirk’s eyes burned as he stalked toward her told her he knew it too.


Act Three

Unless we’re writing the equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. The hero needs to win the fight to have a positive outcome to the plot. Everything has pointed toward this moment, but we’ve all but convinced the reader the fight is lost. Now we need to turn things around, but in a way which doesn’t ignore all that’s gone before.

At the beginning of Act Three, the antagonist has the upper hand, not necessarily because of serious wounds, but because of the emotional space the hero is in. Before we can turn the fight around, we need to turn the hero’s thinking around. You’ll have been dropping hints for this moment throughout the book. You haven’t, go back and do it, I’ll wait.

Those hints will be a counterpoint to the emotional thinking which led the hero to this place and time. In Sir Glancelot’s example, she’s been trained to fight honourably, no matter the circumstance. Anything less diminishes her and shames her knightly order. To counter that you need to have someone who talks about honour being great, but not much use if she’s dead. Perhaps a knight whose fallen into cynicism, perhaps an encounter with someone who never cared about honour. Doesn’t matter, only that you have at least three occasions on which she is presented with the pragmatic alternative to dying honourably.

The next thing is to focus the heroine on the goal of the fight. It’s bigger than her. The entire Kingdom will suffer, will they care that she died honourably?

The combination of those two things will shift the heroine’s stance and bring to bear a new weapon or skill which she’s refrained from using because it would stain her reputation. Again you’ll want to have set this up long before we get to this fight. Make it clear using this skill/weapon has been frowned upon, even forbidden. It is important you bring something new to the fight, because what’s she’s been doing hasn’t worked.


Sir Glancelot dropped the broken sword, and stood waiting for the death blow. The Black Smirk lifted his sabre.

“I’ll be sure to tell everyone how you failed.”

The Prince, the Kingdom, they’d get along without her. If they survive this. Tears stung at the back of her eyes. She hadn’t thought her heart could break any further. The Smirk had taken everything from her, father, his sword, her honour as a knight and now…

The slash came toward her throat. Her knees collapsed and she rolled to the side. The sabre clanged against the stone. You’re no good to anyone dead. Not Sir Caldwell’s voice. Cameron’s before he wrapped her hand with cloth and set her punching a board. All the while telling her how to strike to hurt a man worst.

The Smirk came at her again, smirking at this new opportunity to torture her.

“Maybe I won’t make it quick, there’s lots of fun to be had with a girl, even one as ugly as you.”

Fire climbed up from her gut. She expected her mail to melt from the heat. The Smirk’s leer grew wider, thinking the heat came from shame.Emily had grown up being shamed, for her looks, for her actions. Shame had been her life’s companion. Emily laughed.

The Smirk paused a brief second. Emily balled her fists and leaped to the attack. Her first blow hit his collarbone, not hard enough to break it through the mail, but it made his arm spasm. Her left hand hammered on his wrist and his sword fell.

She hated everything this sneering worm stood for. Emily let the fire loose to power her fists….



Of course, it won’t be quite as simple as all that, but the desperation is reversed, now the villain is fighting for his life. Remember that knife he threw at the start? Yup, that one. But in spite of the knife she wins.

Now comes the point at which you wrap up the emotional cost of victory. She’s not the same person who started. Sir Glancelot began the fight, the shameless Emily finished it. What price does she pay? Make sure there is a cost, but also a reward. The scene ends as a transformative moment, here is where she embraces the truth of her life and finally lets go of the lie which has been driving her through the story.

If you don’t work the aftermath, the battle loses its power to move the reader. This, as much as the fight itself, is the climax of the story.

In smaller fights, there will still be an aftermath, but it points the hero in the right or wrong direction depending on the needs of the plot. Here is where you show why the fight mattered. A word of warning. Don’t do a voice over explanation of everything she’s learned. When I started writing as a kid, I always felt I needed to explain to the reader what they’d just finished reading. I still fall into the trap and savagely cut it out of the manuscript.


Emily picked up the hilt of her father’s sword. He’d have died of shame if he known how she’d defeated the Black Smirk. Her eyes watered, and she let both her tears and the hilt fall. If he hadn’t been so stubborn, he’d have been here with her.

Falling to her knees, her anger and grief over his dead burst out of her and her cry echoed off the walls like a wild creature. It left her empty and oddly at peace. No longer did she have to pretend to be a knight, to fight against the stares and murmurs. It didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. The Kingdom would be at peace.

That was worth the cost.

Boots clanged across the stone, familiar voices argued until the Prince’s boot stood in front of her. Not polished or immaculate. They looked as torn and dirty as her heart. He’d have to get a new pair.

“Sir Glancelot.” The prince extended his hand.

“Emily, Sire.” She refused to take his hand. “Just Emily. You should have no trouble rounding up the remainder of his troops.”

“Sir Emily Glancelot,” the prince’s voice sounded annoyed. Nothing new there. He knelt down in front of her. Gasps sounded around her, then clanks and grunts as the rest of the knight fell to their knees. “I watched you fight. He’d tied me at a window so I could see your defeat. You had me worried for a bit.”

“I had me worried.” Emily kept her eyes pinned to the ground, just in front of his knee, scraped and bloody through a tear in his trousers.

His hand lifted her chin up until she had no choice but to look in his eyes. She saw something she’d never expected. Respect….


So there you have it. The fight is a story encapsulated. Whether you get technical or stay away from exact descriptions, it will the emotions which will have the biggest impact. Especially for the closing battle. In a way each fight is a summary of what the character has learned so far, either rightly or wrongly.

A couple of suggestions to finish off. I made a point of how the setting affects the fight. I found the castle map on the web and used it as inspiration. The surroundings are important throughout the encounter. The rubble, the wagon. You could go Douglas Fairbanks and have them on the stairs. In order to keep track of where they are in relation to each other and the setting I’ve been known to print out the map and use coins to move the people around. That way I don’t have someone teleporting across a large distance or running through the wagon. Blocking out the fight physically is very useful. If you have a large room, moving yourself through the fight physically is a great way to check for impossibilities.

Lastly, as I said at the start. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Experts enjoy the chance to teach what they know.

One more point. Very similar principles are involved in writing strong romantic encounters.

Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction.

Character – More than a great head of hair

I dream I’m walking through the grocery store. Look there’s a sale on Mean Girls! Jocks are buy one, get one free. Someone’s come out with a brand new product. It’s the Talent Show with a Sad Backstory and it comes in two flavours. I’m still trying to decide whether to risk it when I wake up.

It would certainly be easier if we could buy our characters ready made and needing just a bit of a warm up to be ready for our story. But if our characters are pre-cut and wrapped for us, what is left for us to do? There’s no room for them to grow. A Mean Girl #4 with the option to repent at the end of the story will only do what she is programmed to do.

There are sites on the web that help you get to know your characters. You can fill out questionnaires about them. What do they like? What’s their hair colour? What’s the size of their…oops better leave that one out it’s going to be a G rated story so it’s not like they’re going to get to use it. This is useful as a first introduction to your character. Kind of for characters and writers. But it only goes so far and then the age old question makes itself heard. Where do we go from here?

So we have a Biker who has blue eyes, red hair, listens to Paul Anka and cries during Little House on the Prairie reruns. But how is he going to react when you spill your latte grande on his leather pants? Even harder, what kind of dialogue can he have with the Emo girl who listens to Evanescence, has blue hair and red eyes and laughs all the way through Nightmare on Elm Street?

Let’s leave the quiz for a moment. Think about your best friend. What’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll bet you that it is not their hair colour/eye colour, what they wear, or how big their… oops still G rated. The first thing you thing of is probably a story. Maybe about the time you water ballooned your brother, or you got lost in the mall. When we think about people we know. We attach more importance to shared experience than we do to physical attributes. Sure we might be able to describe them to the police if they’re still lost in the mall, but when we’re talking about them with other friends, it is the stories that we tell.

So, back to the characters in the stories that we are writing. If we only think of them in terms of their physical characteristics and personality traits, they will come out flat and uninteresting. Creating a character is about more than following a recipe. We need to hear their stories. Why does Biker dude like Paul Anka? What the reason for the tears during reruns? Why is Emo girl hiding behind those red contacts? If we want them to talk we need to create a reason for them to have a conversation. We create a story that they will tell about each other. As their relationship develops the collection of common stories grows. We don’t have to put them all in our writing, but we need to know that they are there.

The funny thing is once we start listening to the stories behind our stories, characters become pretty easy. They become organic and rounded. They do odd things and go in strange directions. People who read our stories don’t feel that the characters are just pieces being moved on a board. They get interested in what is happening to these people. They root for them and they want them to succeed. Once you have your reader fully engaged with your characters, you have them hooked.

Character development is the next logical step. They learn from their experiences, just like we do. Ask yourself what you would learn if you went through what your characters had to. Then apply that insight to the way the character acts, talks and thinks. Now, not only are your characters three dimensional, but they grow.

So if the dream at the start was your character’s, why are they dreaming about cardboard people? What is going on that put them in that dream and not a different one? What are they going to learn from this dream.

And if this is a grocery store, where are the mangos?

Series vs Serial

A lot of people will tell you the only way to make money as a author these days is to write a series. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve neither made much money nor written a series. The concept is sound – pull people into your world and keep them there, buying book after book. Before you go out to become the next George RR Martin, there is something you need to know.

What a series is and isn’t.

A series is a collection of books which string together to make a greater whole. Whether it’s Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, each book builds on the ones before, making the reader wait anxiously for the chance to spend money on the next book. But there is something else they did brilliantly, they create a comfortable space for the reader to wait. Each book, especially the Harry Potter books wraps up the action for that particular book. Voldemort is foiled (or not) and the characters leave the school. Each book begins with preparation for Hogwarts, and closes with the end of term.

Think of a series as pearls on a string – each is distinct and self contained, but they are connected by an over-arching thread. The plot of the book is concluded, but the series is still open, questions unanswered.

There are two reasons why this self-contained plot is important. The first is in the nature of story arcs. They don’t rise up in a straight line of ever building excitement. Even within a book there are peaks and hollows in the arc, so the overall direction is to greater tension and higher risks, there are moments when the characters relax and get to be human, just a little bit before the next crisis. In your series the overall plot is even more essential, and those bits of reflection are of vital importance.

Think of the ending of Twin Towers by JRR Tolkien, where Peregrin is riding with Gandalf toward Gondor. He imagines they are standing still while the world turns beneath them. It is a wonderful image and it bridges the second and third book for us.

A good series will use those moments of ephemeral peace to create a conclusion for each book, which brings me to the second reason why the self contained plot of each book is vital.

You need to prove to your readers you know how to write a conclusion. I’ve read more than my share of books which left me staring in dismay as the closing words left me feeling cheated. It is bad enough to have read a book for that sinking feeling of ‘That’s it?”, but imagine working through five or six or more books to arrive there.

I often get the feeling the author didn’t know how to finish their story, so they just quit. Other times they are trying to be avant garde and show the futility of conclusions. Neither is satisfactory as a reader. If you are going to get readers invested in your series, you’d better show you can write a humdinger ending to make their loyalty pay off. The longer the series, the bigger the pay off should be.


There is something which disguises itself as a series, but is very different in execution. That is the serialization of a novel. Where a series has a number of stories strong together with an over-arcing plot, the serialization has one story and just takes a whole lot of books to finish it. Where the series wraps up the minor plot and points to the remaining questions of the major plot, the serial stops in a place which appears disastrous for the characters. A serial is one long wire with no distinction between one book and the next.

This is the cliff-hanger ending. Cliff-hangers come from the old serial westerns, when more often than not, the hero literally hung off the edge of a cliff. The idea was to entice the reader to buy the next magazine to learn what happens next. Now in case you think a cliff-hanger is easy, just stopping while the hero is in peril, it isn’t. There are a few things you must keep in mind if you are going to pull off a good cliff-hanger.

The first is that the peril must be real. If your character is hanging out an airplane door, fighting to hold on, you’d better not reveal in the next book that it hadn’t taken off yet and he’s in no real danger.

The second is a continuation of the first. The hero must be alone in their danger, or if their sidekick is present, they must share the same level of danger. Think of the old Adam West Batman programs. Robin could be in danger without Batman, but never the reverse.

Even if the side kick isn’t right beside the hero, there needs to some peril or problem which is keeping them away. Part of the real peril is nobody is standing off stage to immediately resolve the issue.

A good ending deserves a good beginning.

Just as series and serials have different ways of concluding each book, they have different ways of beginning the next installment too. In a series you are picking up the untied threads from the last book. One great way to do that is to show the cost of the previous book’s conclusion. What has changed for the characters? Now you’ve not only reintroduced your characters, but you’ve begun the work of building tension for this book. Unfinished business is not just for ghosts.

But as each book has a distinct ending, you want each book to have a distinct beginning. So while you pick up those threads, you add new ones which will be the plot for this book in your series. While this particular book may be number two or three or whatever in the series, you want to be able to bring new readers on board without sending them to buy the earlier books. You will write such a good story they will want to, but if they feel forced, they may just put the book down. As a reviewer, I read a lot of books in the middle of series, and the ones which impress me are those which pull me into the world of the characters, without feeling I’m on the outside of a clique telling inside jokes.

A serial novel starts differently, just as it ends differently. You have that cliff-hanger to resolve right? Only you don’t start with the resolution of the cliff-hanger. The cliff-hanger ending builds a lot of dramatic tension, you don’t want to let it all go right at the beginning. So you have a couple of options.

One is to go back to the cliff-hanger and instead of resolving it, you ramp up the tension further. Instead of the hero dangling by her fingertips out the door of an airplane, her hands slip and she has to grab the landing gear or fall.

The other is to resolve whatever issue is holding up the sidekick first. We see them get out of their relatively minor jam, while we’re dying to find out how the hero is doing. If you take option one, you go to the sidekick before you resolve the issue with the hero.

Now just as setting up a cliff-hanger takes planning and care, getting them out of the situation does too. Back to Batman, remember how he always had the solution to their problem in his utility belt? That’s called Deus ex Machina, which is a latin phrase meaning the author cheated. Remember I said the peril needs to be real? If your hero had a parachute in her fanny pack all along, the peril isn’t real.

So how do you get him off that airplane? You should have thought of that before you put him there. There are two possibilities.

The first is a mistake on the part of the villain. A thug is sent out to dislodge the hero and make it possible for the hero to get into the plane or off safely. Let’s say not only is the hero handing on by her finely manicure fingernails, but there is a bomb on board and the autopilot is taking the plane to its target. After the villain sets the autopilot, he jumps out of the plane. Our hero climbs into the plane resets the autopilot for a harmless destination then jumps out of the plane after the villain. Cue mid-air fist fight.

The second is the ingenuity of the hero. He does something which will force the airplane to land, or is able to signal for help from the now free sidekick. Again the resolution needs to be real and not easy.

All the element of the escape need to be set up ahead of time. Not pointed out to the reader with flashing arrows, but slipped in so the reader has an ‘aha’ moment, not a ‘what?’ moment.

A quick summary, series is a collection of stories which build on each other to come to a final conclusion, but the stories are distinct and have their own beginnings and endings. It should be possible to pick up any book in a series and enjoy it without having read all the previous books, though if you’ve done your work right, they’ll want to.

A serialization is one story spread over any number of books. They may or may not use cliff-hangers, but there will be less of a conclusion at the close of each book and less introduction of character and world at the beginning of later books. It really is better to read a serialization from the beginning.

Description, more than just a pretty place.

Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it is likely that the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and atmosphere. Now I know everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end can be a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.

A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil rich and fertile with crops ready to harvest. Only one town occupied the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:

Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them. The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but something she couldn’t name kept her eyes lifting to the mountains towering on all sides and dreaming about what was on the other side. At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. Weightless and delicate in her hand – she could see the tiny veins that ran through it, already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne spun to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew that change had found her.

Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.

Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.)  None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”

Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.

The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.

John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. Night was coming quickly and the streetlights lit up as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. He didn’t care that he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life that he could love, and he messed it up. John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.

 While description is essential to your story, don’t over do it. You want to avoid purple prose – writing which is so full of description it goes over the top and pushes the reader out of the story. Read Dickens, he got paid by the word, so lots of description.

The other thing you want to avoid with description is putting it in the wrong place. The time to describe the alley is not after the fight begins. Description will freeze the action and you don’t want to do that. Describe the setting at the start of a scene, use beats in dialogue to show more of it. Better yet have the character interact with the setting.

Instead of standing in the door cataloguing the paint colour and furniture in a room, have your character walk through it, bumping into things, sitting in chairs, wincing at the colour. In this way you have description, but you also have character. The settings which become almost a character in their own right are the ones which affect the people in the story directly.

Have a look at Character Assassination for tips on describing characters.

Suspense – what keeps the pages turning

All stories involve suspense. In a Romance, it is whether the girl and guy will make the relationship work, in a quest, will the heroes make it, and who will live or die? In a mystery, well it’s obvious.

One way to create suspense is a time limit. The problem must be solved within a certain time or the world will end. Or they may wish it had. That puts pressure on the character to make choices and it makes the wrong choices more poignant. It is important for you character to experience failure because that makes it believable that they might not succeed. The previous failure adds to the suspense of this attempt. Think of a pole vaulter trying for a world record. People are much more intent if they’ve already missed twice. Do not artificially try to pump up the suspense. Having a character debate at ten seconds on the clock whether to cut the red or the blue wire is a sure fire way to lose your reader. If I were a mad bomber I’d make all my wires hot pink and it wouldn’t matter. The colour is not important, it is the path the wire takes. The same goes for last minute remedies from poison etc.

Another way to create suspense is through secrets. One character knows more that the other, or the reader knows more than the character.  The secret needs to be something that will significantly change the dynamics of the plot. Hating pizza is one thing, Admitting that you’re a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy is quite a different thing. The more difference between what some people know and what others do will build suspense. One note about secrets. They have to significant to the plot. If you have a spy novel and the big secret is that one of the characters is a double agent, at some point it needs to come out and create a huge mess. If it doesn’t your reader will wonder why you bothered.

What is less obvious but even more important is the difference between what the character thinks they want, and what they will want at the end of the book. Those two should almost never be the same thing. Usually even the reader won’t know what the end might be until close to the conclusion though they will know that the character is getting it wrong.. That is what keeps the pages turning. It is this dissonance that fascinates the reader. If you balance it right you will have them up all night to find out what your character learns.

Suspense is about both character and plot. You need to pace your plot so that suspense builds gradually and occasionally lessens. Even the most intense thriller needs some relief. But all that careful plotting won’t matter if the reader isn’t cheering the character on and hoping that they figure out the puzzle before it is too late.

Suspense is also created when what the reader knows is different than what the characters know. If there is a bomb under the table (wired all in hot pink) the reader knows it’s there because they saw the colour blind bomber put it there. But the characters don’t know it’s there. They bumble about pouring tea, dropping spoons, getting close to discovering the bomb until the reader wants to shout at them. When it is discovered, the tension is already at a high enough point you don’t need artificial suspense to add to it. This dichotomy between the reader’s knowledge and the characters is not only about individual scenes, but can carry through the entire story.

Like everything else, suspense needs to serve the story. If the object of suspense doesn’t matter in the end, there is no pay off and the reader will be disappointed. If you don’t work on building up the tension around an object, it won’t carry the weight it needs at the climax.

Use suspense and tension to create an ebb and flow in the story. Edge of your seat moments and relaxed interludes. Also use it to reveal character and the inhabitants of your story work through the plot. Your reader will thank you for it.

Head Hopping and POV

The person that you write your story in will have a big effect on your Point of View. Person is whether you tell the story as if it were happening to you – I pulled up my gun and yelled “This is a stick up!” The advantage of first person is the immediacy. The reader is right there with the character and knows everything the character knows. Though sometimes the narrator is untrustworthy and withholds information. The challenge with first person is the character can’t read minds or know what is going on in the next county, so you have to use a lot of dialogue and other tricks to show the story in its fullest to the reader. While there are a few first person novels that switch POV to another first person narrator, they are few and far between. The ones that do it well are even fewer. If you are going to change into a different first person POV, you not only have to change the POV, but you need to change the voice of the narrator so it doesn’t read like one character with two different names. It is possible to mix first person and third person, but again, voice is essential as is making clear whose head the reader is inhabiting.

Third person is when we sit back a bit further and use ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’ – Jim Bob ran into the bank waving his gun and yelled. “This is a stick up!” You have to work a little harder with third person to achieve immediacy because the reader is at greater distance from the character. The advantage is that you have a wider field of view. You can have the bank guard pull his gun to shoot Jim Bob in the back, and Jim Bob doesn’t know it. You can’t do that in first person.

There are a range of options in third person stories. You can stay pretty close to ol’ Jim Bob and just describe the action in the bank. Or you can pull back and watch the bank robbery in progress, but also comment on the action further away. The danger is that you lose even more connection with your character. There is also a style that is even further back called the omniscient narrator. In that case the narrator knows everything including what is going on in other people’s heads. Omni POV is the subject of great debates on critiquing boards everywhere. Done well, it is transparent as any other POV, done badly and it keeps the reader from engaging in the story.

There is no right POV to write in. You will use what is comfortable, or what your story demands.

So now we’ve defined the different persons a story can be written in, and some of the varieties of POV. Let’s look at that bank robbery and see what head hopping does.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention.

Frank was cleaning his nails when the idiot ran into the bank yelling about a stick up. Somebody high on something. He didn’t even have a gun. Then the idiot pulled his gun and blew a hole in the ceiling. Plaster dust wafted down on the screaming customers. Frank pulled his gun and took careful aim at the bank robber’s back before pulling the trigger.

Marion was counting hundred dollar bills for Mr. Smythe when she heard a shot, but she felt a sharp pain in her chest before she could push the alarm. Her legs gave way and she fell to the floor.

Mr. Smythe didn’t know what to do. Was the money on the counter still the bank’s, and thus insured, or was it his and not covered? He felt the hot steel of a gun barrel poke the back of his neck and decided that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.

Jim Bob grabbed the rich dude and spun him around to be a shield between him and the bank guard. He fired two shots at the guard.

Mr. Smythe’s ears rang. He might be permanently deaf from the noise.

Frank forced his shaking hand to be still and fired back.

Dang it, Mr. Smythe thought, that’s going to ruin my suit. Then he fell dead to the floor.

Jim Bob put both hands on his gun and emptied it at the blasted guard.

Frank knelt on the floor and steadied his hands before emptying his gun at the robber.

“Freeze,” shouted Sheriff Jones as he ran into the bank followed by his deputies. The bank robber and some old geezer in a guard uniform were pointing guns at each other and pulling the triggers though only the clicks of a dry fired gun sounded.

It was Deputy Bill’s first day on the job and he was pumped that they were responding to a bank robbery. That is until he saw the bloody corpses of employees and customers sprawled on the floor. He staggered outside to lose his donuts in the bushes.

I got confused about what was happening and I was writing the scene. That’s an extreme example, but even if you had several paragraphs for each POV it would be hard to follow. The problem is that we aren’t inside someone’s head long enough to empathize with them. If you re-wrote the scene all from one character’s POV you could create some emotional connection. The way I have it, it is more like telling than showing, even without the usual markers for telling. You can get much more out of the story that way. I’ll show you what I mean.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention. The customers were screaming and running around in a panic. He was THE MAN. There was a teller counting out bills for a guy in a suit. They looked like hundreds. He wanted some of them.

Jim Bob pushed his way to the counter. He heard a shot from behind him and the teller made this funny gasp as red blood stained her blouse. As she slipped from sight, Jim Bob grabbed hold of the guy in the suit who looked like he was dithering over the money. The guy would be a good hostage. Jim Bob poked him with the barrel of his gun, then spun around.

There! An old geezer in a uniform was pointing a gun at them. Jim Bob fired a couple of rounds at the old guy. This gun thing was harder than it looked. He missed the old guy completely though a customer that was hiding behind the guard swore softly and fell to the floor. The old guy fired back and the suit grunted and fell to the floor. Jim Bob had nowhere to hide. He had to take this guy out. He put both hands on his gun like they did on the shows and pulled the trigger.

The sound of his shots and the old guy’s were deafening. But he couldn’t stop. It was kill or be killed. He was still pulling the trigger when the Sherriff barrelled in through the door and shouted.


Jim Bob stopped pulling the trigger. He didn’t know how long his gun had been just clicking instead of banging. The bank looked like a battle zone. Dead and injured people lay on the floor and he could smell the blood, and other things. One deputy went white and ran out the door faster than he came in.

It is possible to write a good story with quick multiple POV, but it is a challenge. Check this story for an example:  The Drive Past Devil’s Butte

Nobody likes a Passive Hero

This article represented a colossal mistake on my part, and now I am fixing the mistake. Gooshy tomatoes are available at the end of the article for tossing at me for my failure.

Was + verb does not automatically count as a passive voice sentence. Dive in and let me explain what passive voice really is. Why you still should avoid ‘was’. And when you want to use the dreaded passive voice.

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets. I was looking for trouble and didn’t have to look too hard. I saw a mugging in progress. One of the thugs saw me and soon bullets were whizzing past my head.

Sounds exciting, right? So why are my eyelids drooping and my hand tossing the book on the floor? Take another look at our hero. He doesn’t do anything. Stuff happens around him. Try this version.

The city slept, her snoring kept me awake. Foetid air rose from grates as the subway passed. I grew up on these streets. I know the sounds they make, also when the space between the sounds means trouble. Some sap was making a gift of his wallet and gold watch to a pair of thugs. I stayed on my side of the street. The sap looked like he could afford a donation. Then the gun came out. Who pulls a gun after they mug someone? I pulled my own gun-not as big, but I knew exactly how to use it. Thug one took a bead on me, so I hit the pavement. The bullets made sure some body shop would be working overtime. I checked the window to get a location on Thug One. Our eyes met, his beady ones with my tired peepers. I shot out the window and the alarm shrieked. Funny how shots got my juices flowing, but alarms just gave me headaches. Thug Two showed up on my side of the street. He had me cold, so I followed my bullets through the window. I felt the brush of death as a bullet tugged at my coat. I kept going deeper into the store. Maybe I’d find a back door.

Now the second paragraph is longer. It usually takes more words to show the action than to tell about it. The advantage is that all those words do double duty. The action holds the reader’s attention, but they are also learning about the character of the hero.  A lot of the time the writer knows exactly what the story is about. They tell us the story and when you tell the story it is easy to slip into passive voice. It becomes about what happens to the character instead of what the character does. You do need things to happen to the character, but if you can attach those actions to something or someone it will be a stronger story.

The form of the verb ‘to be’ with a gerund after it creates a static situation. This is happening and continues to happen. There is no change. You want your characters to be actively shaping the world around them. Action is one of the triumvirate that reveals character. If you write with ‘was’ too often, you are muzzling your character. It will distance the character from the reader. It feels like the character is being moved instead of moving themselves.

Another problem with gerunds is that we try to load too many of them into a sentence.

Standing, wiggling his eyebrows and juggling watermelons, Bozo the clown waited his turn to pay for his groceries.

Poor Bozo is standing, wiggling, juggling and waiting all at once. That’s impressive, but we don’t learn much about Bozo from all that. The standing, wiggling and juggling aren’t really part of the action. It’s hard to imagine him doing all that simultaneously. Let’s get active and see what happens.

Bozo stood in line at the grocery check out. The child in the cart ahead of him looked very cranky so Bozo wiggled his eyebrows. Was that a smile? He picked up the two tiny watermelons and a squash. He started to juggle them. Everything went well until the child’s mother turned, saw Bozo and let out a piercing shriek. The child clapped its hands and laughed.

The two sentences give the same information, but the second one pulls you in and makes you feel like you’re a part of the action. Each of the verbs has it’s own object and subject. The gerund as an extra sneaky helping of verb is really one useful if the actions are all happening at the same time.

“I’m sorry,” Bozo said, wiping watermelon juice from his eyes, “It must be hard to be a coulrophobic,”

I can see him talking while he is wiping juice from his face. Using too many gerunds is another way of telling rather than showing the action. Try to give each action its own sentence. It will help to keep things straight and the reader will be able to follow the story better.

The goal of the writer is to entice the reader to enter the story’s world. That requires active characters who participate fully in the story. There are so many good words to use, so many interesting verbs. Let’s put them to work.

But ‘was + verbing’ is not passive. I made a mistake in the original article and am finally getting around to fixing the problem. My apologies.

Now on to when you do want to use the was + verbing. This construction is for when action is interrupted. I was walking down the street when the shooting started. The sentence begins with one action and ends with another. The other use for was + verbing is for action which continues through a scene. The birds were chirping in the woods. It made the place sound much too cheerful for a murder scene.

The passive voice is when things are being done to the subject of the sentence instead of the subject acting. Sound confusing? Yup, guess why I goofed up. A great many writers (and readers) think that any construction with ‘was’ is in passive voice.

But the first sentence in my example:

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets.

is not passive voice. The city is acting, I am walking. Boring, yes, passive, no.

Try this one

The city streets were walked by hordes of zombie clowns.

That is passive voice. The city is not acting. It is being acted upon by the horde of zombie clowns.

This sentence gives us the simplest test of whether your sentence is passive or active voice. Believe it or not it is called the zombie test. (Google it, I did not make it up.) Very simply you add ‘by zombies’ after your sentence. If the sentence makes sense, you are writing in passive voice. If it doesn’t it is not.

The city was sleeping by zombies. Does not make sense, thus not passive voice.

So, when do you want to use passive voice? Because if it were truly the ultimate evil in language, we wouldn’t have it.

You use passive when the object of the action is more important than the subject. In the passive voice example above, the hordes of zombie clowns is more interesting and probably more important to the story than the city streets. You want passive voice here.

When you are using a character as the passive subject it is trickier. Your character is important. Most of the time you want them acting, not sitting passively around being acted upon. Where passive voice comes in useful is to accentuate situations when your character, for whatever reason, is unable to act. They are tied up, unconscious, dead or whatever.

So there you have it folks, the real goods on passive voice.

Character Assassination

I need a character for a story. Lets call him Fred. Fred is 5’11”, weighs 185 lbs and has blond hair and blue eyes. Do you love him yet? What if I tell you he has a six pack? No? Neither do I really. I mean who names their character Fred, you’d always be waiting for him to yell “Wilmaaaa”. (Sorry, old guy joke,)

Lets make Fred a vampire, nope, that’s been done, maybe a… nope. Let’s see, what kind of story I am putting him in? Let’s go for a good slasher horror story. So Fred’s a mechanic. He’ll be able to whip up any kind of machine to slaughter bad guys by the dozens.

So Fred, the mechanic goes out to slaughter bad guys. He meets Wilma, neither of them have seen the Flintstones, so it’s OK. What isn’t OK is that they have nothing to talk about. She’s a hairdresser and he’s a mechanic. He does have nice hair, but there only so many times a girl can run her hand through even the best head of hair.

So I’m going to give Wilma a secret passion for muscle cars. Now she can talk shop with Fred and they’ll be deliriously happy. My readers, not so much. Maybe Fred needs a hobby. He knits sweaters. His grandmother taught him. But he’s embarrassed about it. What bad guy slaying mechanic wants to admit that he knits. Only they get chased into a wool shop by the bad guys. Fred needs a disguise in a hurry. What better disguise than a toque? (It’s a Canadian winter hat.) Wilma is delighted and impressed. She’s even more impressed when he stabs a bad guy in the eye with the knitting needle.

All this killing is working up an appetite. So Wilma whips up a steak that would make you weep, only Fred’s a vegetarian. Big problem …

Now Fred is starting to become interesting. He’s developed layers. So has Wilma. In fact it would be a good thing to give everyone a layer or two. Characters with depth are much more likely to make for a strong story. If you start hitting the doldrums, you can fall back on your characters minor traits for a plot device. Create some conflict between the kind of things that we take for granted, but only the best writers put into their books.

Next time you are looking at your characters, think about what they do in their spare time. How can you use that to create more interest in your story? People will follow characters they are attached to even when the plot feels thin. Yet even the best plot in the world won’t save you if your characters are cardboard cutouts.

I’ve seen much discussion about how much to describe those characters we’ve just given birth to. Some authors want to describe everything about the character down to what colour toe nail polish they’re wearing. Others hardly describe the character at all. When you read books, watch for how the characters are introduced. Does the story stop while the reader is given what I fondly refer to as the missing person’s description? Maybe all right if things aren’t moving quickly, but if you’re in a fight scene, you don’t want to stop for nail polish.

Personally I’m a bit on the sparse side. I get readers asking for more, so I came up with a standard to describe a character. I give two traits and a quirk. So they may be fat, smelly and talk like they’re breathing helium. Maybe they have red hair, they’re short, and have a vicious sarcasm addiction. You can always build on it later as the characters interact.

A lot of places offer detailed character creation checklists. You, the author need to know all that information, but the reader doesn’t, not all at once. Build your characters up in layers, give them quirks, flaws, and the rest. Your reader will love you for it.