The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.


Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Writing Ballerina says:

    Great post!

    I didn’t do too hot on NaNoWriMo; I ended up with 31 648 words. But I still got a sizeable amount that I hope to continue.

    Hmm, questions… let’s see what I have..
    Oh, here’s one: how do you make yourself keep writing the first draft? I’m sure we can all agree that writing the first draft isn’t that pleasurable at times. How do you make yourself keep going when the story starts to drag? How do you make yourself write when you don’t want to?

    • future_famous_author says:

      If you write your first draft as some do, almost like you are just puking out ideas and writing stuff on the paper that isn’t really that good but still tells the story, trying writing it like a real book. Sure, you can still leave out detail in some places, but you can also write with more detail.
      Now, if you are like me and write the first draft well just because you write better that way or have more fun doing it that way, even though it takes more time, trying going the other way. Write a “vomit draft” as I have heard it called. Just get your ideas on the page, and then save the character personalities and details and all that for the later drafts.
      Hope this helps!

    • I struggle with this a lot too, but here are some methods I’ve worked out, both in regards to writing in general and writing the first draft specifically.

      In general:
      The biggest thing I used to struggle with was self-discipline. I’d always think “oh, I’ll write later when I feel like it or when inspiration strikes” and never do so, and when I did write, I’d frequently only get through a couple hundred words before getting distracted by other things. Then one evening in college I realized that I was never going to get anything done like this, so I told myself “Raina, you are going to go to the library and write, right now, and log the time to keep yourself accountable.” I created a time log spreadsheet with my beginning and ending times, beginning and ending word count, and time elapsed/words written, and I’ve been using it ever since. I think there’s something psychological about treating writing as a structured, scheduled event, like a class or job you have to show up to for x amount of time, even when you don’t want to, that really clicked for me. I used to write in bursts, with good days where I got a lot of writing done (usually during NaNoWriMo) and then long stretches of nothing at all, but having an accountability spreadsheet and set schedule was what made me settle down and be able to churn out words slowly but steadily. Of course, this is just my method and may not work for everyone, but it’s helped me a lot.

      The first draft specifically:
      It’s easy to get stuck on your first draft, and I’ve found that it helps to take a step back and ask yourself *why* you’re stuck, and then troubleshoot from there. Here are some common reasons that happen to me, and how I deal with them:

      1. I don’t want to write right now – sometimes I’m legitimately tired from classes and real life and I don’t have the energy or brain capacity to write. In that case, I show up at the library anyways and make myself try to write for 15-30 minutes. Sometimes when I start writing, I’ll get into a scene and I’ll actually feel more energized and I’ll want to keep writing. But if after that time, I still can’t write, I’ll let myself take a rest and return the next day when I’m fresh.

      2. I don’t know what to do next – this doesn’t happen that much to me since I’m a heavy plotter, but sometimes I’ll deviate from my outline and thus need to figure out where to go next from there. When this happens, I’ll always stop and re-plot, like a GPS recalculating its course. When I’m back on track and have a new outline, I’ll keep writing. This method might not work as well for pantsers, but others might have better suggestions.

      3. I don’t want to write *this specific scene* – In this case, I’ll always ask myself *why* I don’t want to write the scene, and why I think I *need* to write it.
      –> Is it boring? In which case, is it really necessary? If you don’t even want to write it, chances are readers won’t want to read it. Try to think of ways to make it something you’re excited about, or ways to get rid of it altogether.
      –> Is it overly long/dragging? Sometimes I’ll start a scene that I’m excited about, and lose interest as the scene goes on because it starts to slog. (This is a problem for me especially because I have a problem with overwriting in general. I’ve written 5,000-word scenes that I later had to cut down to 3,000) In this case, I’ll usually try to wrap things up as quickly as possible (usually by either cutting content or telling instead of showing) so I can move on, and then promise myself I’ll fix it in the next draft.
      –> Does it “suck”? (Nobody’s writing actually sucks. Ever. But first drafts can be messy.) Sometimes I’ll have moments where everything just feels horrible and I don’t want to look at it. At times like this, I’ll usually try to get the scene done with as fast as possible (see the above point), remind myself that it’s okay if it’s not perfect in the first draft, and that I can always fix it later. (There have been times I’ve left comments to myself in the document that says “this needs to be completely rewritten but I don’t want to deal with it right now”) The important thing is to get the story done. Sometimes in school I’ll turn in assignments that’s not my best work because I just want to get it over with. That’s my mentality for first drafts. The only difference is, you get unlimited revisions until you’re happy with the end result.

      4. Something is wrong with the story that I recognize on a gut level but don’t know how to fix – this one is more a feeling than anything, so it’s important to listen to your instincts. I still struggle with this a lot, but my advice is to stop, take a step back, and think about things. Make a list, take a walk, or whatever helps you make decisions. There have been times I’ve pushed on and dealt with things later. There have also been times I’ve backtracked and deleted entire scenes and started over from there. Usually, the deciding factor for me is when I ask myself: 1. Will doing this take the story down a path I don’t want? and 2. If I go down this path, will I be able to come back?
      For an example from my work, I wrote a scene near the beginning of the book that was waaay too dark and completely wrecked the fun, lighthearted, satirical mood of the story. I had a bad feeling while writing the scene but I pushed through, but at the end of it, but at the end of it, I looked at it again and realized that if I continued, I wouldn’t be able to get the story back on its happy original track without causing major mood whiplash. So I stopped and rewrote the scene to fit the tone better. Looking back, that was absolutely the right thing to do.

      Whew, long comment. Hope some of these tips help!

  2. Gail Carson Levine says:

    Thank you!

    Sounds like a lot of words to this tortoise. Congratulations!

    I’m adding your question to my poor, depleted list. Thank you!

  3. I ended with 60,000 words, yet still didn’t finish my novel. The first draft was 76,000 words in the end.
    Here’s a question: what about novel length? I like longer novels because I’m a fast reader, but I know that other people like shorter novels because they can finish them in a shorter amount of time. Does novel length have anything to do with genre or audience? I would imagine that middle grade novels are usually shorter.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I’m of middle grade age, and I prefer longer novels, but I’m more of a bookworm than average. A long book like LOTR or things like that are my heaven!! As such, I try to write what I’d like to read and thus aim for longer word counts.
      Yay me on making it hard for myself.

      • SkylatheSquirrel says:

        I have a problem –
        I like REALLY LONG NOVELS, and I try to emulate that in my writing and make stories the length and intelligence level that I like them, but friends say that my drafts are too long and complicated. Should I try to write something I wouldn’t like to read* or should I keep writing convoluted, long drafts?

        *As much. I’m a huge bookworm and pretty much devour any book I come across.

    • future_famous_author says:

      I have read Little Women (777 pages, but incredibly good for anyone middle grade and up) but I tend to stick to anything between 100 and 350. I know that’s a wide range, but a lot of middle grades book is written in that range. Also, there is information on the Internet about lengths for different genres. A trend I see right now though is that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are both really long and are both fantasies. I think (I may be wrong) that realistic fiction books are typically shorter than most.
      Hope this helps!

  4. It’s been a while, but I have a few questions! They’re all kind of on the big-picture side, so I get it if there are no simple answers. I’m not even sure of how to capture everything I mean in the questions, haha.

    1. How do you deal with writing burnout, and how can you tell if it’s really burnout or something different? I’m on my 5th draft of my story and at this point, part of me is thinking “I don’t want to look at this anymore” and part of me is thinking “I need to be disciplined and just get it done”. I do have a problem with self-discipline and procrastination, so I’m a little wary when I feel like I can’t/don’t want to write at a given moment. On the other hand, maybe I actually do need to take a break, but I honestly can’t tell if I actually need to take a step back from the book or if that’s just an excuse I’m giving to myself.

    On a similar note, is dealing with this different when writing is your job, as opposed to a hobby? Write now I can take a break (or even stop working on a book altogether) when I want, but a professional author writing under contract wouldn’t be able to do that.

  5. 2. How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?

  6. 3. What do you do when your story turns “deeper” than you originally intended, and a whole bunch of complicated (not bad or problematic, just…complicated) themes and messages crop up, and the story you find yourself writing is no longer the story you set out to tell? I’m really bad at explaining this one, it’s more like a gut feeling. To use some examples from my work, what was supposed to be a fun, lighthearted adventure romp about Santa turned into a story about revenge, power, grey morality, and social media mob mentality. In other words, thematically it basically went from Percy Jackson to Game of Thrones.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like dark, deep, serious, or morally complex books, or that I think that MG readers shouldn’t read these books. I love Game of Thrones and similar works *because* of the complicated characters and grey morality, and I think there should absolutely be books like that for MG readers. It’s not really a matter of a serious tone or “dark” content, either. (I asked a similar question a while back but I don’t think I phrased it well.) It’s more like as I write, the story is starting to ask difficult questions that I don’t know how to answer and am not sure I want to ask.

    And, of course, part two of the question is how do you know if this is actually an issue, and not just in your head? I have a tendency to overthink/overread into things (like the old joke where the English teacher goes on a long analysis about what blue curtains symbolize, while the writer just liked the color blue) and maybe I’m seeing things between the lines that normal readers would never notice.

    • And as a note, I know that some stories are *meant* to be serious, complicated works that force the reader to think deeply about the world and its issues. I like to read those and I sometimes write those, but my problem is when a book that *isn’t* supposed to be like that starts turning into that and I can’t control it. Sometimes I just want a fun, lighthearted adventure romp to stay a fun, lighthearted adventure romp.

      • I can sympathies. Real-life politics are trying to creep into the WIP, and I don’t want ’em there. Themes, sure. Moral issues, sure. But mot something I just saw on the news, only with serpent-demons. (Fortunately for the WIP, like’s simpler for serpent-demons. If somebody invades their territory, the demons just eat ’em. 😉 )

        • Yes! That is my problem exactly. I can deal with morally complex big-picture themes relatively easier than I can with smaller, specific ideas that may or may not be reminiscent of real-world issues (though neither are easy to deal with). Themes like power, morality, corruption, etc. have been around for millennia, both in fiction and in history, because humans are flawed, and I feel like I have comparatively more leeway to explore them from all angles because of that. They’re so common, and occur in so many different forms, that you can’t really pinpoint any specific event or issue that those themes correspond with.

          But what I’m really afraid of is writing something and have a reader think “this sounds like an analogy for a specific thing that’s going on in the real world, and this is what I think the author is trying to say about that real-world thing” when I wasn’t trying to say anything at all. I admire authors who use their medium to address real-world problems, and I think it can be done well, but sometimes I just want a story to be a story and I’m afraid people will read between the lines and find messages that I never meant to leave.

  7. Questions….let’s see…

    I write really slowly. Any tips on writing faster/spending less time chasing red herrings?

    The WIP has 2 POV characters. How can I balance out their timelines?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      About the first, I’m very slow too, and I chase red herrings, which sometimes turn out to be crucial. I’ll take a stab at this one from the standpoint of a fellow easily distracted writer.

      I’ve added this to my list, but are they together, interacting, or are they in different places?

      • In different places- and they’re essentially 2 versions of the same person. in different places, interacting with some of the same people, but at different times. They meet up once or twice in the course of the story, and at the end.

        My brain hurts just trying to explain it. 🙂

    • For the writing faster, this method helped me tremendously, and I’ll let the original author explain it much better than I ever could: thisblogisaploy [dot] blogspot [dot] com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html (I think the spam filter eats my comments when I add links, so just change the [dot] to actual dots when you copy and paste the url)

      The part that particularly changed my way of thinking was Side 1: Knowledge, or Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It. I use her method for outlining scenes before writing them for nearly everything I write now, and now the actual writing goes so much smoother. Of course, my scene summaries tend to be looong and take me a while to write so I don’t know if I’m actually saving time, but it feels so much easier and that alone is worth it for me.

      For timelines, I really like this NaNoWriMo blog post about plotting your story like a subway map: blog [dot] nanowrimo [dot] org/post/166302962291/nano-prep-outline-your-story-like-a-subway-map
      I’m a visual person who loves using number lines to visualize plotting and pacing, so this was right up my alley. Your results may vary, but it’s worth a look, especially for complicated/multiple plotlines.

      If you’re talking about in-story *time*, specifically, rather than narrative pacing, I found that a simple schedule helps, at least on a small scale. I planned out my MC’s day like an agenda (12 AM: arrival. 1-2 AM: getting settled in. 2:15 A.M.: visit another character) and it helped me keep track of timing and how long things should take. It also helps to remember that narrative pacing and in-story time can be very different; a 3,000-word scene that’s mostly dialogue can take place in less time than it actually takes to read, while a single paragraph of a character traveling can take place over hours or even days. It also helps me catch when I forget to make characters eat or sleep.

  8. Here’s a tricky one, along the lines of the whole “story going darker than you want it to” thing, but not quite the same. My MC has had a horrible, horrible life, and she’s been traumatized by it, but she’s still a nice person. How do I balance her inherent niceness, trust, and bravery with her learned cynicism, self-loathing, and fear? Also, how do I write about the horrible things that happen to her without delving into gore and depression? Essentially, how do I keep her and her story likeable? I don’t her to spend all her time dwelling on what’s happened to her, but it’s still a major part of her life. Hopefully, this makes sense. I can add more details if it doesn’t.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      It sounds like your character has gone through their own little arc of accepting and moving on from what happened to them before the story started. But this pre-story arc will not leave her perfect, it will just leave her in a good place to start again, if that makes sense. A way to balance it might be her not being always quite as trustful as she tries to be, you could slip in a few cynical remarks in there, etc etc. Basically just show the learning curve it will take her to go from that area in her life to more healthy mindset.
      As for writing it, I’m a fan of flashbacks (in which case you’d do little bits of the story at a time so the gore and depression wouldn’t be a huge infodump all at once), but if you aren’t then you can have certain things remind or trigger her (apologies to anyone if I’m using the word “trigger” wrong) before she has to calm herself down again. Through the course of the story you can reveal small bits so that the gore isn’t all at once and make the story dark. You can also have her tell someone bits too, or if she has a journal, etc etc.
      Hope this helped!

      • You’re close, but not quite there. The “moving on” bit happens over the course of her story. Her cynicism and distrust is the part of her most people see, because while she wants to trust people, she’s never quite sure that she can. So far, I’ve mostly gotten around the violence by having her tell the stories of what happened to her to other people, and I’m considering revealing more in her nightmares.

        • Writing Ballerina says:

          Oh, okay. I think my tips will still work, though.
          Also nightmares are a good idea! I hadn’t thought of that before.
          Good luck!

          • Nightmares are great are great for showing trauma! Like in The Hunger Games. Speaking of which, I just heard about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes! I can’t wait!!!

    • future_famous_author says:

      Your character’s background story doesn’t have to be what makes her likable. I know someone whose character accidentally killed her parents with her fire powers. That’s a terrible, terrible backstory, but once you meet the nice, loving character, you don’t hate her because she has a crazy story- you love her more because of that story since you feel bad for her.
      Hope this helps.

      • That’s what I’m trying to get across. I don’t want to turn her into “the character with the terrible childhood”, but at the same time, she really did have a terrible childhood, and I’m trying to figure out how to balance the two.

        • future_famous_author says:

          That is hard. Maybe if she isn’t really hurt by it? Like she’s stronger because of it. Then she is no longer just “the character with the terrible childhood,” but “the character who got past her terrible childhood and became a better person because of it.”

        • Have you read any of Charles DeLint’s Newford books? (I’m guessing HS and up?) His character Jilly Coppercorn has gone through some truly horrible stuff, but she literally sees the magic in the world around her.

  9. When you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, how do you make it have a real plot? I’m trying to write a mashup of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. I have my characters, and a good idea of the themes I want, but I don’t know what to have happen to make it a story worth reading. Can anyone help?

    • future_famous_author says:

      What I do when I don’t know what kind of story to write is that I just make a new document on my computer (or get a new page in a notebook) and use bullet points. Write what comes to your mind. One time when I was doing this I ended up with a really good story. One of the words that I wrote, though, was a llama, and I did not use that word. And maybe rereading the fairytales, if you haven’t already done that, would help you. Maybe think about how you want to start it and just start writing. I have done this often, where I don’t have a plot, just a character, and a beginning, and the story ends up really good.
      Hope this helps!!!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m adding the question to my list.

        Melissa Mead–Not a shameless plug. That was one of my questions when I wrote FAIREST.

    • If you’re talking about coming up with plots in general, Gail has a ton of great posts in the archives tagged “plot” or “plotting”. One thing that also really helped me was learning about story structure and beat sheets, such as the Save The Cat method, which is what I use. (You can find the book Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder at your local library, or google one of the free summaries online.)

      If you’re talking about fairy tale retellings specifically, I think a good thing to remember is that (generally) your story should be an original story first, and a retelling second. It can definitely borrow characters, events, and themes from the original, but your priority should be making sure that those characters, events, and themes all contribute to making YOUR story, rather than trying to make everything match up to the original. For me, the litmus test is when a retelling is able to stand on its own as an engaging story, even if the person has never read the original fairy tale. (Though of course, if they’ve read the original, they should enjoy it even more because they’ll be able to spot the parallels!)

      • Plus, the fun thing about fairy tales is that there are things about them that just about everybody knows, so you don’t have to spend a lot of words setting them up, and you can play with reader expectations. Ex, what if Little Red Riding Hood met the Big Bad Wolf, but the BBW was actually a shy, timid creature who hadn’t eaten in weeks because he can’t stand the sight of blood, so Red gives him all the goodies meant for Grandma…

        • future_famous_author says:

          In my version of Little Red Riding Hood, Red was actually friends with the wolves, and the “big bad wolf” was a man who was trying to kill the wolves and wore a wolf hide. I hardly followed the storyline of LRRH at all. I had some wolves, a girl with a red hood taking treats to her sick grandma at the beginning, and some bad guys who try and stop her.

      • At this point, I’m so lost I’m throwing all sorts of ideas around in my head. I’m questioning whether it even is a fairy tale retelling anymore. And that would be fine, it’s just not what I set out to write. Maybe this is better.

  10. future_famous_author says:

    How do you guys deal with being stuck? Like writers’ block, but you know where you want to go, you just don’t know how to get there?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I read a great blog post that summed up what writer’s block really is:
      (I’m following Raina’s lead and avoiding the spam filter here and replacing all “.” with “[dot]”. Change them back when you copy the url)

      If this doesn’t help, I’d also say to write the part that you know is going to happen, then go back and show how you got there. Writing the part might help you figure out how you’re going to get there.

  11. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I have a question:
    How do you write past the beginning? The farthest I’ve ever gotten in a novel was 15707 words. (Yes, I failed NaNoWriMo. After a little I hated my story so much, I had a hard time looking at it.) Once I’m done with the beginning, I tend to get stuck. Every time I think about it, I can only imagine the climax/falling action/ending. Everything between the Inciting Incident and climax is a blurry haze of no ideas and wanting to slam my head against a wall.
    Any suggestions?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically. Write whatever part excites you. Then you can go back later. Writing the climax and ending might actually make it easier for you to know where you’re going.
      It also might help for you to plan that part you get stuck very in depth so you always have a place to go.
      And if you’re having a really slow day, you can throw in some silly things like sea monsters nibbling apples, or a random cat into your scene to get things moving. I did this a couple times during Nano.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        This is really helpful! (I love cats, and when I was younger they were in my stories all the time) but I think my big problem is I’m not really sure what’s supposed to go in the “rising action” place. (I don’t know what else to call it, I’m going based off of what my English class has taught me) I think if I could figure out how to write something interesting that moves the plot forward without being so crazy and over the top it doesn’t make sense.

        • Writing Ballerina says:

          Plot is driven by tension more than action, so focus on events that will build the tension of the story.
          I really recommend the book Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He has lots of great tips on how to build tension, write plot twists, and a bunch of other stuff. You can probably get the book on your library, or even google excerpts.

    • future_famous_author says:

      You could skip the beginning, or you could just keep exciting things happening the whole time to keep you- and the reader -excited. My current WIP is about a princess, and she is eventually going to get captured, but I have to wait until I have about twice as many words as I have now to get to that part. So, while I wait, I try to keep the tension high. And, when there is a boring conversation, I try to throw in important information, or maybe even foreshadowing, so that it isn’t boring. Just because you haven’t reached the climax does not mean that there can’t be problems. My MC’s biggest problem will end up being that she gets kidnapped, but for now, there’s an awkward love triangle going on, and so she has to deal with that.
      Hope this helps!

  12. I usually start out with a great idea that I love and don’t think anyone has used before. Such as, I thought of these kids being trapped in a magical forest with flying sharks roaming the forest. But as I go on, I keep going more and more cliche. At least two of my characters have fainted, and with only three people in the woods I’m having a hard time keeping the story going.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Don’t worry about an original idea. Romantic love? Cliche. Sisterly/maternal/other love? Also cliche now because people are trying to avoid the romantic love cliche.
      Everyone tells a story differently. Your story is going to be original because you wrote it, not because you came up with a new idea.
      If you did come up with a new idea, great! But having cliches is inevitable.
      I saw this ad once and it was an author (Dan Brown) giving an online class on writing. He said “you don’t need big ideas, you need big hows.”

  13. Hey, y’all!

    I don’t remember if I asked this question before, so I apologize if I’m repeating.
    Do any of you have advice on how to write a horror novel, especially on how to make it scary? In movies, you can rely on camera angles, lighting, and sound, but how do you accomplish this in a book? Also, does anyone have any good horror/thriller book recs (I don’t do sexual content or excessive gore.) I was thinking about starting off with Edgar Allen Poe and Coraline.

    Also regarding the conversation on cliches, there’s a YouTuber I love, Merphy Napier, who released some videos on cliches and how they could be done differently. I found it very inspiring. I also would look at Mrs. Levine’s prompts for inspiration : )

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I can’t help much about horror, because I’m such a wimp I can’t watch it. Here’s one thought, though: Don’t reveal everything until near the end. Our imaginations do a lot of the work in scaring us–the villain half seen, the incantation half heard, the fright of bystanders.

      Anyone else?

    • I don’t generally read horror, but I enjoy thrillers. Some recommendations …
      – just about anything by Mary Higgans Clark. These are murder mystery thrillers intended for an adult audience, but they are pretty clean. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of them, but I don’t remember anything objectionable.
      – Alfred Hitchcock’s books. Actually, I’ve never read any of his, but some of my siblings have loved them. I’m pretty sure they’re clean too, because my mother kept a pretty good eye on what we read, and my brothers were reading them voraciously in their early teens.
      – Ted Dekker’s books. Some of these might get a little more into horror. I haven’t read very many if them, so I’d say read them with caution. I’ve read and enjoyed his Circle series (RED, BLACK, and WHITE), which flips back and forth between a real world thriller and a fantasy setting; and I’ve read and partly enjoyed Thr3e, (yes, it’s spelled like that) which I would call a phycological thriller.
      – Code of Silence, Back Before Dark, and Below the Surface, by Tim Shoemaker. These should probably be at the top of my list, since they are my favorites of these recommendations. And they don’t have objectionable content. They are intended for tweens and young adults, but I loved them as an adult, and so did my mom.

    • As for how to make books scary, I’d say it’s important to think of it on both the big picture level and the individual scene level.

      By big picture level, I mean that the story itself is set up with good and scary potential. The stakes should be high – life or death, fate of the world… You get the idea.

      Make bad stuff happen. Show what the villains are capable of and make the reader believe the villains will carry out their threats if they are not stopped. If a character actually dies, it can make the reader realize that nothing is stopping the author from killing off another character. (But kill characters carefully. There’s lots to think about to made it effective.)

      Consider having a “ticking clock,” or some deadline when something bad is going to happen.

      In short, make sure there’s always something to be afraid of.

      By individual scene level, I’m thinking more about how you can convey the feelings of fear or unease within a given scene.

      Your word choices can set the mood, and even sentence structure can make things feel more tense. You can think of this type of thing as the writing equivalent of the movie’s soundtrack. It’s creating a feeling on an almost subconscious level.

      Then there are details. Carefully choosing which details to include in a scene is like the lighting and camera angle. Think about weather. You can include details of the dark clouds looming, or play a bit of the irony game. Set the character’s unease against a perfect, cloudless spring day for contrast. Think about surroundings. Is there anything in the environment, or any other people near by that can add to the mood? Most importantly, probably, think about the characters. What are their redactions? Posture? Body language? What does it reveal about their thoughts?

      In short, make the reader feel the fear that the character is feeling (or should be feeling!).

      One more note. Gail, do you still need more questions? Because you could take Poppie’s question in a broader sense. A post on conveying the right tone for any type of story could be very interesting.

  14. A lot of people are asking about plot, so I just wanted to chime in with an insight from literary agent Janet Reid’s new post on Query Shark (a fantastic blog, as well as her agent blog jetreidliterary (dot) blogspot (dot) com). The post is here: She makes a bunch of great points, but the one that really stuck out to me was “plot is about choices”. I’m going to expand on that and say that plot is about CHOICES that MATTER, made by CHARACTERS we care about.

    Plot isn’t a list of things that happen, it’s not action, it’s not even character goals or tension or stakes (though of course those things are of course important). It’s about characters actively making a choice, and the audience following them through the process, seeing the consequences (good or bad) of that choice through their eyes. These choices should be difficult (though how much and in what way, is up to you), and their outcomes should matter; otherwise it’s not much of a choice at all.

    I recently watched a “movie” of all the cutscenes from the video game Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (I’m not a gamer at all, I just fell down a youtube/google rabbit hole after a SNL skit involving an actor in the game). It’s actually a really good story, and the parts with the most “plot”, the most tension, and the most emotional investment for me was NOT the major action scenes where the player just shoots stuff (aka the actual game part), which would seem like the most exciting, as they were just pure action. It was the choices (often difficult ones) that the characters made: to leave an ally behind so that everyone else can escape, to sacrifice your robot friend in order to destroy an enemy’s weapons site, to order your best friend to fire on your position in order to destroy the enemy base, even if it means sacrificing yourself. And even though I’m kind of sad with how it ended, the story has stuck in my head.

    So yeah, even though this is an example from an action-focused genre (it’s a first-person shooter video game, after all) I think this applies to all genres of storytelling: plot isn’t stuff happening to your characters. It’s about your characters choosing what, if anything, to do.

  15. Superb♥Girl says:

    I feel like my two main characters are too similar, and I want them to be foils to each other. ‘Yall have any advice for creating opposites?

    • In some ways, similarities in personality can create more interesting situations than different personalities. That being said, change the less prominent character more than the more prominent character, and only change one thing at a time. That way, you can asses each change individually.

    • I don’t know about creating foils- I’d like to learn how to do that better as well- but for making characters different, consider giving them defining quirks. For example, I have one character who’s very rational and thinks through everything she does logically, and then her friend wants to be a storyteller and thinks about things emotionally, plus has a very lyrical way of speakong and thinking.

      For foils- I lied, I do have advice- make their personalities very different (though they don’t have to be opposite) but their actions (Catra and Glimmer from She-Ra) or backstories (Mura and Rat from The Nameless City) very similar.

  16. How do you write long periods of character introspection/exposition on their backstory? When I do it, it tends to feel out of scene or ungrounded.

    • Yes, help, please! With my traumatized MC I mentioned above, she does a lot of relating her past to the present, and I have her telling other characters about her backstory (so I don’t actually have to write it as narrative, since there are long periods where almost nothing happens), and I don’t want the backstory to take over the main story. Essentially, I don’t want a frame tale, but I want her to think about her past a lot, and I’m stuck.

  17. future_famous_author says:

    How do you create a personality for your main character? For some odd reason, my main characters just see to be girls who like to read and who are outgoing, at least for the most part. The side characters all have very distinct personalities, for example, the very proper princess who likes everything to be perfect and can’t stand anything that makes her seem like a commoner. Another princess is a complete rebel- she’s the youngest of three, and both of her older siblings someday rule a kingdom, leaving her to be kind of forgotten.
    And then there’s my MC, who doesn’t have much personality. She’s pretty much every other girl.
    How can I make her more distinct and unique?

    • I’m a very plot-based writer as opposed to a character-based one (you know how some people come up with a story idea based on a character idea? That’s never been me. I always start with a premise) so straight-up character building isn’t my strong suit. But building a character based off the plot has always worked well for me. I generally start with a good idea of the plot events that I want to happen (at the very least the inciting incident or the events critical to the central premise) and work backwards from there to ask a) what kind of person would do the things that the plot requires (and then show them being that kind of person through their actions, big and small), b) how did they become that kind of person, and c) how does doing the things change them as a character and affect their future actions?

      For example, let’s take the fairy tale Snow White. The central plot event is her eating the poison apple. Why would she do that? (And how did she get tricked so many times?)

      Let’s assume she’s not dumb, but maybe she’s just naive and too trusting. In fact, maybe she knew all along that it was her stepmother, and her mistake wasn’t taking food from a random stranger, but rather hoping against hope that her stepmother had changed her mind and didn’t want to hurt her after all. What kind of person would it take to do something like this? Well, she’d be smart enough to recognize the trap, but still naive enough to charge into it headfirst anyways, hoping that this time it’ll be different. She’d be stubborn as heck (“yeah, I know my stepmother already tried to kill me twice, but I STILL believe in her and I’ll give her ONE MORE CHANCE”), maybe even to the point of being in denial. She’d also have to be pretty brave/reckless as well; she’s literally risking her life here. There’s also some degree of self-sacrifice as well (she’s putting her own life in danger to “save” the queen’s, by not fighting her) And maybe she also has some lingering loyalty/love for her stepmother, which is why she tries to assume the best of her. What concrete behaviors would these personality traits elicit? Maybe while she argues fiercely against the dwarves when they try to convince her that the queen is really evil (stubborness). Maybe when she’s in the woods, she charges blindly into a fight to save a forest critter (brave/reckless, with a side of selflessness). Maybe she keeps a memento of her stepmother’s, remembering happier memories with her(that may or may not be wishful thinking).

      How did she get like this? Well, maybe she never really got much parental affection growing up (her mother’s dead, her father isn’t really there in the tale) and so seeks it out from whatever source she can get, in unhealthy ways. Maybe she and her stepmother genuinely used to be close, before things changed. Maybe she was taught to always see the best in people, and has always lived out this guiding principle.

      How does this incident change her? Maybe she finally realizes that her stepmother is beyond redemption and finally resolves to take her down. Maybe she instead doubles down on her belief in the queen, to a Stockholm-syndrome degree. Maybe she becomes jaded and cynical after the final betrayal and decides to stop trusting people in general. Maybe she learns from her mistakes and becomes less naive, or maybe she learns nothing. Plot events, especially big ones, usually change characters, at least to some degree. If they DON’T change (in rare cases), the non-change should be addressed and explained. And of course changes to her personality will result in changes in behavior, which cycles us back to step 1.

      • Also, I recently got into tabletop roleplaying games (specifically Dungeons and Dragons), which challenges you to focus on characters more than plot because the plot is controlled by someone else, and the character-building system they suggest is really interesting. Even if you don’t play the game, you can still apply the ideas to your writing. You can read the details here:, but basically every character has 2 personality traits, an ideal (something they believe in that shows through in their actions), a bond (someone/something they care deeply about and affects their actions), and a flaw. They have tables of prewritten ideas you can choose from/randomly roll for based on your character’s background (in the “backgrounds” section of the same page) or you can make up your own. You could always borrow something from the tables if you need some inspiration.

    • Oh my gosh! I feel exactly like this sometimes! I mean, my MC has her quirks, such as being incredibly sarcastic, and using long words when she gets flustered or hurt, but sometimes I feel like it’s not enough. Like she’s still too much of a Mary Sue. When I think about it logically, however, I think it’s probably a result of spending too much time staring at her on the page, trying to edit.

      Are you sure your MC doesn’t have much of a personality? Could it just be too much time glaring at your story?

      My characters all spent a long time bouncing around in my head, being inserted into various books and movies and shows, before I ever started writing. I would suggest throwing your MC into a couple of your favorite stories, at whatever point you happen to be at when you think of it, and seeing what happens. How does she get into, say, Middle Earth or Hogwarts? How old is she? What do the original characters think of this?
      (I didn’t really write any of this character building down originally. I just bounced the ideas around to help me sleep, or whenever I was bored.)

      Hope something there helps!

  18. I’m writing a fairytale and I’ve planned out the whole thing. I’ve read my ideas for it so many times that it seems boring now. Now, any time I go to write it I get discouraged because it seems like an old idea. Then, I only end up writing a sentence or two. I’d like to stick with the main idea but make it more interesting than my original plan. Do you have any ideas?

  19. Whimsical Wordsmith says:

    Ms. Levine,
    I’ve been using this blog and your book ‘Writer to Writer’ for a while now, and it has gotten me out of a lot of writing blocks. I often refer to the posts when I’m in a fix, and I’ve found them very helpful (thank you!).

    I was wondering on how to keep stories short. I often come up with ideas for stories that I like and want to work on, and I dive right in. But the plots and subplots become more and more complex, and suddenly, I have a novel on my hands. I’m already in the process of writing a novel at the moment and can’t tackle another right now; how do I keep short stories short? Thank you!

    • What you can do (and what I have done several times) is write a single episode in the larger story. Novel chapters are usually pretty good lengths for short stories. I’m not so good at incorporating the right bits of backstory to make it make sense to other people, but it might work a bit better for you. If you still want to try to write the entire story, you could try writing it from a summarizing standpoint, like authors do when they recap what’s happened in earlier books. It would make it more formal, possibly too formal for your taste, but it might work.

      • Whimsical Wordsmith says:

        Thanks for the suggestion, that will definitely help. Maybe I didn’t word the rest of my question exactly right though:

        How do I make short stories that stay short, but still include the important details? I try to incorporate the backstory, but it comes off as the character just spilling information to the character for no exact reason (I’m used to information being revealed through events and little snippets, but it becomes a little to long and slow in a short story). How do I determine what and what doesn’t need to be known to the reader?

        • Sorry, I can’t help you with that because I have exactly the same problem. I took a creative writing class this semester, and one of the most consistent bits of feedback I got was that there wasn’t enough world building/backstory for people to understand what was going on. The stories were about a third of the length I was used to, and for a lot of it I was working with characters I was already familiar with, and so I ended up leaving out a lot of stuff that apparently needed to be explained.

        • So…I have one suggestion. You may think it’s pretty weird, though.

          Try writing OC-based fanfiction. Most fanfiction isn’t very long, and your reader will already know about the world and most characters. So you won’t have to do much backstory for anyone except your OC. Then, once you can get all her backstory in a short little fanfiction easily, do two OCs! Or move the existing characters to a world you created. You’ll need to give your OC’s backstory and explain the world. Tricky, but you can always make the fanfiction longer if you need to. Then just keep trying to write shorter ones, or edit that first one, until it’s down to your target length.

          Also…exactly how much do you need to know about the characters in a short story? If I’m reading a novel, I’d expect to be able to guess what the characters will do in the climax. But I was in a teen writing group a while back, and we wrote a bunch of really short stories. Like, one-page-short. As in, I wrote one wherein you never find out the MC’s name or gender, or anything else you’d normally expect to know. I know that’s really short, but you might be able to get away with less than novel backstory if you’re writing, say 10k words instead of 60k.

          Short story, long comment. 🙂

    • I think there are two ways to approach this issue: one is to recognize what story ideas are meant for short story form, and the second is to actually cut them down.

      Some ideas are better fit for novels than short stories, and that’s perfectly fine! Just be aware of that, and be ready to approach them from a different angle. Generally a sign is complex or multiple subplots, or too many main characters. For me, the general rule of thumb is if I can’t plan out all of the plot events, beginning to end, without having to write stuff down, then it’s not meant to be a short story. Number of scenes can also be an indicator; short stories generally focus on a small slice of life that tells a complete story in a few scenes, or in some rarer cases, a large “tapestry” that covers a lot of time but uses a lot of telling instead of showing and never zooms in (like classic fairy tales). But it sounds like you already recognize when a short story is turning into a novel. What I’d recommend is to let it become a novel (just because you have an idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have to work on it right away! It’s perfectly fine to write your ideas down and come back to actually write the book when you’ve cleared off your plate) or get rid of all the subplots to turn it back into a short story.

      As for how to cut your short story shorter: a good rule of thumb is that everything that does not relate to the central storyline in an important and unique way needs to go. And if you’ve gone through the steps above to make sure your story is a short story, your central storyline should be clear and relatively simple.

      I’m going to argue that unlike in novels, details such as backstory, character development, and worldbuilding only need to be there if they have a direct impact on the present action. And it only needs to be there once; if you already have a paragraph showing that a personality trait of your character, you don’t need to have a different paragraph showing that same trait in a different way, unless it contributes something significantly new and important. For example, look at the classic short shorty Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl (Upper middle school and up, link here:, which is about a housewife who murders her husband in a crime of passion and gets away with it by feeding the murder weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) to the unwitting detectives. The story is 3899 words and has approximately 3 scenes covering about an evening of real time. Notice what details Dahl leaves out: most of Mary’s relationship with her husband, including the actual details of the conversation that incites her to murder. If this was a novel, it would be great to show a lot of flashbacks to see the intricacies of the relationship between Mary and Patrick, or little details to show their individual personalities. But in a short story, that would be uncessecary, because the story isn’t about Mary and Patrick’s failing marriage; it’s about Mary getting away with murder with a clever scheme. Dahl tells us what we need to know in broad strokes. Mary’s pregnant (which is relevant because that’s her motivation for trying to get away with murder), she’s a doting housewife who adores her husband (which is why she’s so shocked and devastated when he asks to divorce her, and puts her in the midset for murder), and her husband just dumped her (which is what pushes her to murder). All of those directly relate to the central storyline, which is the murder and the subsequent cover-up.

  20. So… I’ve been having a problem lately.
    I’m kind of afraid to write again. After the epic failure that was NaNoWriMo, I’ve been having a very hard time getting myself to write. It’s not just that I failed, it’s that I feel like I failed so badly. I hate my story, I hate my characters, I hate the idea… but I used to love all of those things very much. I’ve always had a difficult time choosing ideas, but I was invested enough in my NaNoWriMo idea to want to finish it, and to think I actually could.
    And I know I asked a question about writing past the beginning, and I still need an answer to that, since I’ve always had that problem. But now I can’t even write anything without thinking I’m gonna fail, and end up ruining a really good story/world/characters.
    Any advice on how to get over my fear, and write even when I’m 99.9% sure I’ll fail?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’ve added your question to my list, but I won’t get to it for a while because of all the excellent questions above. In the meantime, please put your NaNoWriMo project away and don’t look at it for at least a month. At the end of the month, peek at it. If you still despise it, put it away for another month. Repeat. While you’re waiting, write small projects, like poems or letters to imaginary relatives. Treat your writing injury as would a sprained ankle. Go easy.

    • future_famous_author says:

      If it takes you so long to get back to your NaNoWriMo story that you want to start something new, that could be a good idea, too. And, if you don’t stick to that, try going back to your NaNoWriMo. Maybe all you need to do is get away from it for a little bit.

  21. I’m having some trouble with a story of mine, and am looking for some advice.

    I have had this story basically playing in my head since I was a kid. I’ve played it with little dolls, and still make up stories in my head about these characters. I’m trying to write it down because it’s spilling out of me somehow. But I’m having trouble setting it up. I don’t know what to do to make the reader love the characters like I already do. I already know the characters so well, and love each and every one of them, but I’m having trouble introducing them to the reader.
    Any thoughts?

    • I suggest saying everything you want to say about each one when they’re introduced. When you have an entire first draft, go back and edit. It’ll be easier to see what should go there in each character’s first scene. Edit the whole thing a couple times, and you should get it to where most of the information is getting in mostly the right places, in the right ways.

      All my first drafts have a ton of infodumping. It’s okay. You just need to make sure you’ve edited out the dumping by the time you go to publish. 😉

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