Intellectual versus emotional inspiration in the creative writing process

Copyright © 2016 Jerry Dunne

I include here a definition of these two types of inspiration, offer a practical example of each from my own work and point out some pros and cons of the two approaches. Of course, inspiration may also come as a combination of both, but when this occurs we have the best of both worlds and this discussion becomes merely academic.

Whatever the source of intellectual inspiration, be it a snatch of conversation, a painting, a story, fable, poem, etc., we have immediately taken the first practical step on our journey toward the final draft. The inspiration is in and of itself practical, offering us a partial or even full storyline, perhaps some plot, perhaps the flickering of an image of the lead character, perhaps more, and perhaps a combination of any or all of these. Of course, an emotional arc rises here, too, but this ‘lesser’ emotional high is common in the creative process, anyway, invariably triggered whenever we think up something clever or imaginative that is soon to benefit us. It is more akin to feelings of delight and enthusiasm than to raw passion. It does not make us feel that we absolutely have to pursue a development on this initial inspiration. Its power does not haunt us and continue to do us for months, even years after our first experience of it. Our intellectual inspiration may even throw up better ideas than we have ever dreamt up but our enthusiasm for developing them rests almost exclusively on the practical side of storytelling.

Based on this purely intellectually inspired approach, I quickly evolved the basic characterization, storyline and plot arc of my latest psychological crime novel, A Deadman’s File. Once I imagined I had some clever plot twists worked out, my enthusiasm made me race in the writing of it; but, in turn, somewhere toward the end of the first draft I realised that the novel was missing something very important. It lacked thematic depth. I had been so busy focussing on plot that I had failed to see this obvious flaw. Because the novel lacked thematic depth it also lacked character depth. Despite still believing I had some clever plot twists in play, I now understood that the novel was rather shallow. I had failed to invest real emotional energy in the story, which is why theme and character depth were sorely lacking. So, to introduce strong theme (in particular concepts of justice and revenge) and character depth, I was forced to engage with the story at a deeper emotional level. After I had set about correcting the weaknesses, the novel really started to grow. Now it had emotional tone: theme flourished; characters became passionate and far more engaging, their reasons for their actions became more convincing; situations became more dramatic; and last, but certainly not least, the psychological side of the story deepened. But if not for two previous psychological crime novels I’d written, both with strong theme and character, books I had engaged with at a fairly deep emotional level, I would not have been able to measure the third one by them and so might never have realised that it was missing something fundamental. Here, I believe, is the biggest drawback in bouncing a story into play off the back of intellectual inspiration alone. We may be so intent on developing those clever plot twists, for example, that we forget our writing also needs emotional engagement in order to develop theme and character depth.

Raw emotional inspiration works more or less to the opposite effect of intellectual inspiration. It happens suddenly, jolting the emotional side of our artistic personality to a very high degree, giving us a powerful and overwhelming feeling that the movie, novel, article, documentary, photo or whatever it was that set us off in this way will definitely have repercussions for our own creative processes; but it achieves this without immediately offering us any of the practical aspects, such as a flicker of character, storyline or plot idea, that is the hallmark of the intellectual approach. In the short term, it may possibly offer us no solid foundation at all on which to build the creative process. However, we really do feel deeply that we will eventually be stirred into finding and developing great character, storyline and plot, great stuff indeed to match the powerful and overwhelming feelings that our initial inspiration encouraged in us. We believe that once we get this story together, it will take our writing to a whole new level. We may even believe that this powerful urge to create ‘a special work’ triggered by the inspiration relates to something very primal about our personalities, our lives and our writing. This sort of emotional passion can burn away in us for years, of course, and the longer it burns, in the true artist, at least, the brighter it burns. The thing to remember is that we have absolutely no idea yet of the working substance of it.

For my latest piece of writing, a play, Falling Molly Twist, the inspiration behind it arrived in raw emotional form. In the French novel A Sun for the Dying, a subplot involves a Bosnian woman, Mirjana, a victim of the civil war in which her family have been murdered, and who, now in France, has fled captivity as a sex slave. Still on the run from the slavers, she temporarily takes up with the protagonist. The only thing she has left of her past life is a book of poetry by the French poet Saint-John Perse and a dog-eared family photo with part of its right side cut off. The photo is cut for a reason which I won’t go into here. But it is this startling image of a person who has so little left from their previous and tragic life that struck me most forcefully. A book of poetry and a dog-eared family photo with part of its right side cut off! No sooner had I read about her than a raw emotional surge of inspiration gripped me. For weeks, maybe months, I had no or little idea what I would do with this inspiration, what I might write about off the back of it; but the inspiration’s energy had swept me up so completely and held me in such a vicelike grip that it eventually compelled me to dream up the beginnings of a story. By the age of twenty-three, with no friends left in her life, Molly Twist has slid into casual prostitution. She has nothing left of her past, except a copy of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which she has owned since the age of twelve. The book is stuffed with her notes, notes deemed very important at the time of writing, notes written between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. The play opens where fate is about to deal Molly a savage blow.

The main downside to bouncing a story into life off the back of emotional inspiration alone is that we may end up neglecting, at least in part, basic craftsmanship. Though the emotional inspiration behind Falling Molly Twist had been feverishly burning away in my mind for about two years, it was only when I started to write the play that I understood that some aspects of good storytelling were still lacking. Yes, strong character and theme quickly became of great importance in the development of the play but not necessarily storyline and especially not plot. Midway through the first draft, I realised that I needed more story and much more plot movement in which to control and nurture the emotional charge of the play. This is necessary, of course, in order to produce a continuously interesting and captivating story. No matter how much passion we have for our special story, our baby, how important we believe it to be, the reader or audience is still entitled to a well worked out piece of craftsmanship and entertainment. This is more or less the reverse attitude to the one I took with the psychological crime novel where plot development was at first of primary importance and character and theme depth of secondary importance.

The big lesson we can draw from the above examples is that neither emotional nor intellectual inspiration on their own are going to give us a good story. Whichever type prompts or propels us to write, we are now aware it may be limiting us unconsciously. We must always remember that a good story relies on both intellectual and emotional investment: strong character and thematic depth on the one hand and strong storyline and plot on the other.

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Women protagonists/antagonists in the psychological crime story

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

Why write psychological crime? explains the category of psychological crime referred to in this post.

For female characters to engage in leading roles in our subgenre of psychological crime, it will undoubtedly mean that they are up for the odd murder or two, whether directly or through proxy. Statistically, women are far less likely than men to indulge in a good murder, but women do still murder in the real world and sometimes in all sorts of skilful, imaginative and horrific ways. Besides, considering only a tiny handful out of the overall male population actually commit any type of very violent crime, and the male personalities committing murder in our subgenre of crime tales arise mostly from the socio-economic class least likely to be incarcerated for any sort of offense, it is hardly stretching credibility then to envisage ‘talented’ women at least as capable of killing as most of these latter type of men.  Yes, of course higher socio-economic classes of women are the least likely of all to commit murder, or for that matter to be a victim of it, but this doesn’t mean that no talent or desire exists amongst this demographic pool to carry out the act. And let’s not beat about the bush here but wholeheartedly add that the fact that they are least likely to do so in real life only adds an extra thrilling and interesting layer to the story.

It must be stressed that absolutely no evidence exists to contradict the assertion that some women are able to perform at the highest levels of skill, intuition and creativity regarding the exciting activity of murder. Emotionally and psychologically, females are as capable and are often found to be as committed to the task as are men. It is only a lack of social and cultural conditioning that have hindered them at all up to the present date and therefore kept their contributions low in the overall statistical tables. But thank God that is all rapidly changing!  And yes… yes… I know what you’re thinking! Doesn’t the physical difference between the sexes factor into this at all? Yes, it does; of course, it does; though not as much as you might imagine. If the heart is in it then the hand is willing and a willing hand will transform itself into a more than capable hand. This is really the core of the matter. Muscle mass is not anywhere near as relevant as attitude. And one might even argue that muscle mass is a red herring. A sudden bullet in the heart, an unexpected slip of the knife between the ribs or the odd enthusiastic push off a cliff edge, all these gestures have a lot more to do with attitude than they do with muscle mass. Long gone are the days when a woman was expected to perform murder only through a subtle poison. With women’s horizons greatly broadened, their knowledge and skills base deepened and their growth in abundant resourcefulness and confidence a given, there is no longer any reason why this should not be reflected in much more active and powerful roles in our type of story, including more diverse and skilful ways of achieving the coup de grace. Surely no one in their right mind could disagree with this point, particularly as we now see governments (in the western world, at least), opening up frontline (killing) roles for women in the military, which means that those who are experts in the various fields of military professionalism are super confident of women accomplishing the arduous task of slaughter with as much talent, skill, enthusiasm and daring-do as our leading men.

Just as within the context of military life, so, too, in our area of concern, the potential for murder is all about context. Given the right set of circumstances, which includes personality type, motivation and opportunity, few of us would not be capable of rising to the challenge of carrying out such an act. The psychological crime story is a wonderful environment for all of us to explore and develop the darker side of our personality. So the author should have no problem convincing the reader that a woman can do any amount of murderous chores. Our characters are mostly ordinary people on the surface (like all of us, no doubt), so it is with the undercurrents of the personality that we concern ourselves the most. Here is where the author must strive to convince the reader that this ‘ordinary’ personality will really commit this act of murder. Have the emotional and psychological inner workings been explored and developed sufficiently to convince the reader of this? It shouldn’t matter how they appear physically (man or woman, big or small) or that they are a successful author and clinical psychologist or a corporate manager, or whatever; what matters is what is hidden in the heart. This is where the road to murder begins.  Of course, the physical side of the story is not without importance. You must certainly convince the reader that the crime can be realistically executed. But much of the tension, suspense and conflict in the story take place inside the depths of the personality.

This post isn’t some sort of macabre call for affirmative action in an attempt to push women up the corporate killing ladder and bring statistics for women’s murder convictions on a par with those of men, and all just so we can pat ourselves on the back and boast how we have done something against discrimination in this area. Women protagonists who take a much more lively and active role in pushing the plot forward will inevitably dirty their hands through their participation in the odd murder or two, as already stated in the first sentence. And this enables the author to create fresh and exciting dynamics in the relationships between characters and even within the storylines. Below are two examples of how this works, and, ironically, both examples use as their inspiration two very old storylines.

In the psychologist, the novel’s first half is inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, except the gender roles are reversed. Amanda, the protagonist of the story, plays Iago to her husband’s lover, Gabby, her antagonist, who plays Othello here.  Using another identity, Amanda befriends Gabby with the sole intention of destroying her relationship with her husband. But after learning that her husband wants to divorce her and take half of everything that she has worked hard for over the years of her career and use it to feather the nest of his new relationship, and also after discovering that Gabby’s psychiatric history (one of violence toward past lovers based on a condition of irrational jealousy), Amanda’s handling of Gabby takes on a much darker tone. Amanda, a clinical psychologist, knows how to manipulate Gabby’s psychiatric condition with professional ease, and she skilfully goads her into killing her husband. So the role of Desdemona falls to Alfie, the husband. Iago and Othello’s roles could only be played by women in this story as two men (straight men, anyway) would not become so intensely intimate with one another and certainly not so quickly in the way the two women do. The story is about the power struggle between the two women, which becomes increasingly complex as the story progresses, ending in another tragedy. Alfie, the man, plays a passive role in the plot, and a victim in the story itself. Not surprisingly, despite the traditional inspiration behind the story, the role reversals have thrown up completely fresh perspectives on character and storyline and none of it appears contrived which may not realistically have been the case if the novel had been written eighty (maybe even thirty or forty) years ago.

The Troubled Househusband is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Role reversals occur here up to a degree but still enough to throw up fresh dynamics in the relationship between the main characters. Danny, the househusband of the title, an ex-amateur boxer, is living the ideal middle-class life with his wife, Carol, and their three children. That is, until her personality undergoes a dramatic shift and she is soon busy undermining his role as a stay-at-home dad. Eventually, he discovers that workplace bullying is the cause of the change in her behaviour. She works as a senior and aspiring manager in the corporate world but the bullying is affecting her career and therefore the family’s future economy as she is the sole breadwinner. Determined to get her career back on track, she pressures Danny into helping her out with her work-based problems. As a consequence of him doing so, two people end up dead and another crippled.  Carol plays Lady Macbeth but also a little bit of Macbeth, as it is she who is both pushing him into action but also doing it for her own career’s sake.  Although Danny is called on to do the dirty work (so he is also playing Macbeth to an extent), it is Carol who forcefully moves the plot onward and it is Carol who is always ready to lend her moral and logistical support, and she even plans in detail their only deliberate attempt at murder. In many respects, Danny is the hapless pawn between Carol and her enemies; he moves reluctantly to the extremes she pushes him toward, and really only does so because she makes him feel completely undermined as a father, a husband, and a man, while also convincing him that their family is finally under threat and a refusal on his part to act on her plans would spell doom for them. Throughout the story, Danny sees himself as increasingly powerless within a morally decaying environment.  The role reversal for Danny, where he is playing a progressive role of househusband, but now is also being forced by real threats into playing a traditional role as family protector (by brutally attacking those who threaten his wife and so by implication his family life), gives us fresh perspectives on character and storyline that could never have occurred had Danny been the main breadwinner and Carol a stay at home mum.

The complete role-reversal in the first novel and the partial role reversal approach in the second story have certainly produced a much more interesting set of dynamics than a simple update of inspiration and plot direction from the old plays without any role reversal whatsoever. They are a good example of how promoting women in our ever-changing society to a more active role in the psychological crime novel can help create a whole fresh set of tensions, conflicts and dramatic angles.

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Why write psychological crime?

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

I have just finished writing my second psychological crime novel, and here I’m happy to explain what I mean by this category of crime writing and why I choose to write in it as opposed to any of the other crime genres.

The crime novel includes sub-genres such as classic detective, police procedural, cosy crime, hard-boiled, standard private eye, thrillers, the historical whodunnit, the legal thriller, courtroom, the spy novel, the crime caper and the psychological angle. Some of these categories have further sub-categories of their own and some cross-pollinating is also going on.

Psychological crime itself can certainly be broken down into sub-categories – at least in my mind. For instance, there is the standard serial killer story where the expertise of our forensic psychologist is used to help catch the crazy. This category may also cross over into another crime category. There is (I speak cynically here) that other type of psychological crime where the plot seems incredibly slow moving to the point where you wonder if there is one at all, and where the reader spends an awful lot of time soaking up a great deal of information about the main characters but ends up wondering what was the point of it, and in fact, what was the point in reading the book in the first place as one is left feeling indifferent or totally bored by the entire story.  I will not name names either of author or book title because of course all books (even the most boring ones) have their fans and I do not want to upset anyone here.  But these types of stories are what put a lot of people off from attempting a second or a third psychological crime story. I’m afraid I don’t actually have a technical definition for this type but am certainly fully aware I have one on my hands before the first chapter is over.

But a third type of psychological crime story (the one that I believe is not just far more interesting than the other psychological crime categories but also of any of the other general crime categories), can trace its lineage back to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, in my opinion. This novel has certainly been a great inspiration for me. If I had never read the story, it is probable that I would never have felt any interest in writing psychological crime stories at all.

Strangers on a Train is fascinating for its portrayal of an ordinary and well-socialised man who once dragged down into the darker side of his personality commits the extraordinary act of murder. In this original story, both the inner and outer personality of Guy Haines, the protagonist, is fully developed and dissected with skilful precision; both sides are laid out clearly for our observation. This occurs within a well-structured plot which offers the reader direction and pace right from early on; the plot throws up convincing and unexpected twists to keep our attention fixed eagerly on the story. The deep psychological and emotional aspects of the story never become a drag in reading, simply because Highsmith adeptly balances plot development between the inner and outer world. This is what impresses me most about the novel: it is deep but lively, informative but also greatly entertaining.

Ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances and struggling to deal with their new reality is generally what fascinates us most with a story. The ordinariness of the main characters enable us to identity with them and therefore cheer for them; we can easily follow their line of reasoning based on their social and moral anchors as we share these anchors – until, of course, the darker side of their personality begins to emerge. Then we watch spellbound as they begin to unravel, detach themselves from their social and moral environment and descend into the dark void.

These types of characters are indeed very familiar to us. They are members of our family, our relatives, our close friends, casual friends and work colleagues. They are the neighbour next door. They are you and I. This is what gives these stories their real frisson. We are usually able to make very close and direct comparisons between ourselves and these characters. So, even though we feel a little squeamish about it, we persist in identifying with them as their descent into the darkness continues.  We then bewitch ourselves with these questions: Could this have been me? Would my mind have been played with in this way? Would the fear and stress have also twisted me into psychological knots? Would a darker side of my personality have emerged to help me deal with this new reality? Would I have done this crime under the same set of circumstances? These stories challenge us to ask questions about ourselves in a way other crime stories cannot because they are peopled with earthy, quite domestic characters that are similar to ourselves and who find themselves in situations that some of us might possibly also find ourselves in one day.

Murder is hardly something the average person enters into lightly. That is why this type of novel creates vast amounts of tension and suspense on the psychological level. Will she, won’t see? How will she go about it? Will she lose her nerve at the last moment? Then how will she eventually justify her crime, at least to herself? Compare our sort of story to one about a hardened killer who is intent on committing another murder. Psychologically and emotionally we have no distance to travel with this other character. We are unlikely to sympathise with them to begin with, anyway, but that is not the big point.  Killing to them is normal and they don’t have to undergo some inner metamorphosis to achieve it. There is no moral conflict involved here, so there is no psychological struggle, no inner challenge to overcome. All inner conflict is already resolved. The killer has already crossed that bridge. As readers we are only witness to the killer’s challenges involving the technical and logistical aspects of his plans. Of course, the story will still be exciting, but we have far less of an emotional connection to make with this character. We don’t feel pulled into it on a personal level because we feel disconnected to the inner psychological and emotional world of the casual killer. There is no inner story burning through the pages that belongs to us as much as to the main character.

In our Highsmith story, we have so much at stake, not only for the protagonist but also for society.  Once the deed is done, Guy Haines, the ordinary and well-socialised man, has lost his innocence, an innocence he can never regain. He is now a murderer, and that status can never be thrown away. And, yes, in the story Guy certainly feels this loss of innocence. He knows he can never again lay claim to his old pre-murder personality. His dark side has won. But not only Guy is shocked and disturbed here by his own actions. Society is also disturbed; the social order has been shaken. Ordinary man, our next door neighbour, our brother, our father, the university educated, the successful architect, has carried out a brutal murder of an innocent man. Now he is a cold-blooded killer! We as a society are shocked and shaken by it in ways we would not be if it had been a gangland murder – because he is one of us and therefore he is bold proof of what we might also become if we were dropped into a similar set of circumstances as his own.

This is what truly disturbs us about Guy Haines and his type of story. If not under his set of circumstances then surely it’s only a matter of which set of circumstances would be needed to bring out our darker side. Ultimately, these types of novels are teasing us in a macabre way. They are saying that we might think we would never end up committing such an act, that we might think we know ourselves too well for that outcome, that we might believe we would always come up with an alternative and more virtuous way of dealing with our predicament other than turning our hand to murder, but that in fact we can really only believe such a thing from the comfort zone of our naïve psychological armchairs; and that, finally, if it came down to it, we would quite shock ourselves with the discovery of how willingly we’d run to embrace our darker side – it is only a matter of the right set of circumstances presenting itself in order to achieve that end.

These are the reasons why this type of psychological crime story is more fascinating and entertaining both to read and write than any of the other crime categories.


You may also like to read Women protagonists/antagonists in the psychological crime story

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A few thoughts on the inspiration behind character development

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

Character does not arise in some pure form out of the writer’s imagination. The creative mind is influenced by a myriad of sources that gather in quantity and quality over a whole lifetime and arrives on the page either consciously or unconsciously. For instance, sources may make up any combination of the following: a close, casual or one-off acquaintance; the writer’s own personality; fiction such as films, novels and plays; non-fiction such as biographies, historical sources, documentaries and nowadays internet forums. It will certainly be the case that the personal experience of strong character (good or bad) will have impacted upon the writer emotionally as well as intellectually and that these types are the most likely to find themselves filtered on to the creative page at some point.

For the beginner writer, it is probable that the initial source used for character inspiration will not extend beyond the early stages of the story, especially if the character is going to be the protagonist. The reason for this is simple: character will have to change throughout the story due to the circumstances and pressures of the plot, and therefore our original limited inspiration will soon run out of steam. Who doesn’t reconfigure their emotional level and attitude and therefore physical behaviour when undergoing trying circumstances? This happens even in a short story. When the character refuses to grow in a developing plot, the character will feel stubbornly two-dimensional or unrealistic. This, of course, will irritate intelligent readers. The protagonist must not only undergo a physical journey throughout the story, but also an emotional one. There must be some inner change.

There may be one or two exceptions where the original source of ideas for character definition and development provides all the necessary attributes to carry the protagonist through the entire plot. But this can only happen if the original character has gone through all the exact same circumstances of the plot in another medium and the writer has a record of their inner (emotional) journey. An example might be a crime writer planning a novel inspired by a gangster’s autobiography. The writer wants to model his protagonist on the real-life gangster and use some of the big details of the gangster’s life story for his story’s main-plot points. Fine. But few writers will actually stick faithfully to the biographical source, because as creative writers they will be eager to develop some storyline originality in their work. And, once they decide to do this, they have to reach outside of the framework of the autobiography and start to play a guessing game regarding how their fictional character will think, feel and act because the autobiographical character can no longer show them. Of course, they will have to be consistent with the character already partly formed, but now they must also search for inspiration from other sources in order to keep the character growing throughout the plot. This is often something not done consciously, as mentioned earlier, and involves the writer drawing on character attributes from a myriad of sources which are stored in the writer’s memory bank.

However, it may also be done consciously. In our example, though the autobiography will offer the opportunity to take chunks of inspiration for character development up to a point, supposing the writer wants to write a novel about a gangster who attempts to turn over a new leaf but is thwarted at every turn and this takes a considerable detour from the autobiographical line of inspiration? Now the writer may deliberately look for character inspiration from other specific book sources to help him out.

In general, an initial and single source of inspiration is useful for defining a character and giving that character a shove into the body of the story. But as the plot starts to throw up challenge after challenge, the writer starts to realise that what looked like a good bet for a strong character in the inspiration and planning stages of the story now looks a lot less of a sure thing. Soon the writer understands that they simply don’t have enough character to work with; they wonder how the character is going to respond to the next big challenge. Often, they find themselves unable to make their character react in a reasonable and consistent way. They may well have written down lots of physical and emotional descriptions about the character based on the original inspiration, but now they see that this is simply not enough as the growth of the plot is stretching their character beyond the initial usefulness of the notes. The writer must now look elsewhere in order to help develop the character further.

Getting stuck this way isn’t inevitable. The experienced writer is aware of its possibility and so is ready for it. For the beginner writer it often comes as quite a shock to realise that they have no idea how their character will respond emotionally and possibly even physically to the next plot hurdle, and in a way which is consistent to the layer of character already installed in the earlier part of the tale.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that character must all be developed in the planning stage; that what we start off with we must finish with. This is quite a ridiculous idea. Many writers will develop character through draft writing and probably be researching it and certainly searching for inspiration for it continuously. With each draft the character comes into focus that bit clearer and stronger and some of the thought processes and actions allocated to him or her in the previous draft get shunned while fresh ones are encouraged into play. The point to note here is that the beginner writer needs to be aware that the early inspiration will soon run out, and when this happens, they must then be prepared to search farther and wider afield for other sources of inspiration.

Overall, the development of character in a story is a matter of blending. This is really what imagination is doing: it is not creating a totally new character out of thin air but rather gathering and blending various sources of inspiration together to create a plausible character which the reader can relate to and believe in.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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The struggle to finish that first novel

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

I get a fair few e-mails from people telling me they’re about to give up on trying to finish their first novel (or have already given up) and can I offer them any advice on how they might get going again. Their main trouble appears to be their inability to claw their way out of the middle part of the novel. Either they find they can’t write themselves out of this section, no matter how many words they put down on paper, or they simply can’t think of what to write next. But whether it’s this or something else that prevents them from progressing, they all become so frustrated over their trial that not only does physical and mental exhaustion eventually set in, but their morale also takes a nosedive.

Some will take a break of a few weeks or even months before returning to the struggle. However, frustration and exhaustion quickly overwhelm them again, and another dip in their morale follows. After several attempts of this, they start to believe they will forever remain stuck in the swamp of the middle section of the novel, or wherever else they are stuck. At some point along the road, and it may takes years to get there, but long-term exhaustion, lack of confidence and even boredom sets in, and they give up. Now they believe they were never cut out to be a novelist, after all, and they turn their back on writing altogether.

The reasons for their failure seem not to occur to them, which means that each time they make another attempt at the novel, they are simply setting themselves up for another round of failure. Even if the reasons for failure do occur to some, they choose to continue ploughing onward rather than reassessing and changing their overall writing strategy. They believe that writing in the way they are is in and of itself giving them plenty of experience. It is, of course, only not in the way they believe. In fact, this type of experience is generally destroying their potential writing career over the long run.

The amazing thing about these would-be novelists is that some of them spend years on and off working on their manuscript before turning their back on the game; some as much as four or five years working on the one always-unfinished book. Others will spend as much as ten or more years working on a solo novel, or up to three or four, or even five or six novels, but they are always ones that they will never finish. Everything will eventually be abandoned and the same reasons for abandonment (unknown to them) will haunt each manuscript. Yet, look at the will power and stamina it takes even to accomplish as much as they do! Such a shame it all goes to waste in the end. Such a shame they just don’t have enough resilience to finish a single novel.

So what’s missing with them? Why do they eventually throw in the towel?

These trainee novel writers all have something in common. They lack real knowledge, real skills and real experience of any kind of fiction writing. Several will have written only half a dozen short stories, usually no more than two or three thousand words in length previous to making an attempt on the novel. Others will have plunged straight into the novel with absolutely zero experience, skills and knowledge of fiction writing. Because they lack these basic and necessary elements, it also means they have not built up over time the necessary reservoir of stamina that is another necessary element required to write a competent novel. They have not gone through the steady training process that often ends in novel writing, but rarely starts with it, and for obvious reasons. Another way of saying this is that they have not been seasoned in any way to the art of fiction writing

These people have undertaken to become masters in a really difficult and competitive craft, and I find the way they have gone about doing this to be staggeringly naïve. I think the best way to explain what I mean and make my point crystal clear is by way of a sporting analogy. So let’s now step into the world of professional boxing.

Professional boxing is a very tough sport which takes a great deal of physical and psychological skill and endurance. Most pro boxers start as amateurs so even the beginner pro is often a knowledgeable, skilful and experienced fighter. He is already seasoned as a boxer. However, amateurs box only three three-minute rounds; pros go up to twelve three-minute rounds. For this reason alone, though there are many more, amateurs must become seasoned to the pro fight game. Their training regime becomes tougher and their early fights are only six two-minute rounds and with boxers of their own level of experience. The length of their fights and the toughness of the competition increases only with experience. This applies even to the most gifted amateur boxers. It is a massive jump from three rounds to twelve rounds and that is why even a seasoned amateur undergoes a further apprenticeship of several years as a pro before he starts taking on the best pro fighters in twelve-round fights. Allow me to emphasise that point: even the most seasoned and gifted amateur boxers undergo a professional apprenticeship.

If you threw a gifted and experienced amateur boxer at the very start of his pro career into the ring with a pro fighter of his equal ability at the pro level for a twelve three-minute round fight, the amateur would sink somewhere in the middle of the fight, if he even lasted that long. In other words, the pro boxer would destroy him. Now imagine doing this to the amateur four or five times in a row over several months. Yes, he is gaining experience but it is not the kind of experience in which he is learning anything. He is just struggling to survive in the ring. He is being destroyed as s fighter, not improved. He will lose every fight and his morale will desert him. Eventually, he will leave the fight game. And this is with someone who was already gifted and experienced at the sport! The great pro that he might have been if he had been taken along at his own pace by a good coach will now never emerge.

I see these so-called trainee novelists in this light. They are destroying their future potential as novelists because they have very little or even no seasoning at all in the game before they go straight to the toughest medium in fiction writing. It is not necessarily the trickiest to master, but it is definitely the toughest. They are setting themselves up for hiding after hiding and long-term failure if they go on as they are. Even the gifted amongst them will never realise what they might otherwise have been if only they had come along in smaller and slower steps. To write novels at the professional level involves a long apprenticeship in which you build up your knowledge, skill base and physical, mental and emotional endurance slowly and often painfully.

The best way for the beginner to develop as a novelist is actually to forget about the novel until they have mastered shorter fiction. Flash fiction or the short story is the most obvious place to begin. Start to hone your knowledge, skills and endurance at this word length. Finish lots of small pieces and see your confidence rise. Once you have finished one piece at two thousand words, you will finish another. Because you have done it once, you know you can repeat it. Then write short stories at various lengths of up to ten thousand words. Finish them all! It will build your confidence exponentially. If you have finished two five thousand word stories, you know you can finish a six thousand word one. Soon, you won’t even notice the stamina level needed in writing and finishing a ten thousand word story because you will have seasoned yourself to this level through your earlier work. And all the time, you will be honing your craft and your storytelling instinct.

The novella is seen as a long short story or a short novel. Its length is about twenty to forty thousand words. It is an excellent bridge between the short story and the novel for the trainee fiction writer to continue their seasoning process. It would do the apprentice no harm and a lot of good to attempt to write three novellas, one at twenty, one at thirty and one at forty thousand words. For each piece of writing, and, in fact, this applies right from the flash fiction up to the higher word count stories, the writer will also be discovering what story ideas work in each medium and what specific skills are required to develop them.

From the novella to the novel is but a small step. You can attempt to write a short novel of sixty thousand words now. Once, you have finished one novel at sixty thousand words you know you can finish another. And, then, of course, you can move up to an even higher word length and maybe end up writing that bestselling blockbuster.

By progressing in this manner, you are at least giving yourself a chance of discovering whether or not you have the talent to be a novelist. If you ever find that you want to cut corners in this very tough and competitive game, just remember the boxing ring analogy and how easy it is to destroy a potentially successful career by jumping into the twelve-round fight far too early on in the apprenticeship.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Pace the story

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Narrative pace concerns how fast or slow the plot movement feels to the reader as they make their way through the story. Good pace enables the narrative to offer a feeling of smooth and constant movement, with no feeling of sluggishness or anti-climax anywhere in the story. Good pace isn’t just about fast plot movement; sometimes the pace needs to slow. Pace will vary. A slower pace at certain points is crucial in a story. Variation in pace contributes to the plot’s overall rising tension and so helps prevent the reader from losing interest in the story.

Pacing is one of the toughest skills to develop because it is entangled up with other narrative skills, and until we have mastered them we will simply not have the necessary ability to pace our story well. So pace is best understood by describing how it works within aspects of the narrative.

Here we will examine its dynamics within plot structure in the children’s short story (for the middle reader). An argument can be made that the perspective shown here is of equal importance to any type of story, so this post should be useful for all types of fiction writer.

Plot structure is static. The pace flows through the different plot points like a cross country runner over a course. The course itself is like the static plot and determines how the runner will pace himself at different points over its terrain. Early on in the race, the runner must conserve his energy and not run off too quickly. At certain points on the course, he may get bogged down in muddy ground or be forced to run slower uphill. At other points, he may run faster and effortlessly; for instance, downhill or on flat, hard countryside; and near the end of the race he might be sprinting against the competition in a tight finish. A smart runner will study the course beforehand so that he knows the right pace he must use on different sections of the ground. Just as he will know his course in order to prepare his pacing plan, the writer must also know his own terrain, the plot structure, so that he can also plan his pacing. The writer, of course, has one big advantage over the runner: it is his own course he is studying.

In the plot arc structure, where we have the set-up and inciting incident in Act 1, plenty of conflict in Act 2 and the climax in Act 3, we will be linking all the scenes of conflict/action by non-action scenes that must also help the tension rise. For this to happen, they must be paced correctly, which means we have to work out which scenes will be faster and which ones slower and also make sure slower ones don’t directly follow each other.

If you are not familiar with the 3 act plot structure it might be a good idea to read that post before continuing with this one.

Our conflict/action scenes will actually be slower paced and the non-action scenes faster paced. These non-action scenes are where the protagonist is ‘licking her wounds’. She is dealing with the consequences of the last direct bit of conflict while working out what to do next to overcome her opponent, the antagonist. Because these scenes are a link between the conflict/action scenes they need to be brisk paced and full of tension. The reader knows that greater conflict and risk is coming (or should be), and uncertainty prevails as to its outcome, so if we write these non-action scenes properly, the tension will only rise considerably.

The idea of pace can be quite confusing, especially as it is linked to tension and tension only makes the reader more absorbed in the writing. If pace is not only about length, but also about being absorbed in the narrative then we might ask: why aren’t the action scenes also seen as fast paced? Well, action scenes are slower paced because they are generally longer in a children’s short story with much more description added. When the reading is highly absorbing, it will seem as though we get through long scenes quite quickly. In the faster-paced scenes, there is less writing, particularly description, and so the actual reading is done quicker. This is why we get a smooth feeling to our reading when both types of scene are done well. If our linking scene was pointlessly long (overly described, for example), it would corrupt the smooth pace of the story because it would become unnecessarily slower. It would cause a drag in the story.

Below is the plot outline of one of my children’s short stories Paddy’s Beard. Here we will look at it from a pacing perspective.

This first scene builds quickly with direct conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. The scene is longer and slower paced than the following one.

Scene 1. Set-up and inciting incident. Mr Scalppen starts at school, terrifies the class, tells them he hates hair, spots Paddy, pulls his beard, demands he gets rid of it.

The second scene is faster in pace. Here the protagonist is licking his wounds and uncertainty and tension hang in the air.

Scene 2. Small scene at home. Mum really annoyed. Paddy licking his wounds. What to do?

Next is a conflict scene with lots of dialogue, slower paced but with plenty of tension.

Scene 3. Head’s study. Mum and Paddy have it out with Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen wins argument over the beard but lies to get his way. Mr Scalppen doesn’t admit to wanting the beard gone because he hates hair: he says, the beard makes Paddy stick out and not conforming this way will have the other children doing their own thing and then the dress code will be shot to pieces (important plot point here: Mr Scalppen’s lie comes back to haunt him in the last scene). Paddy must get rid of his beard before the new term.

Now we have a faster-paced, short scene with tension.

Scene 4. We find out mum makes potions. Paddy had measles when young. Mum gave potion to help get rid of measles and beard started growing as she mixed potion too strong.

Next is a slower-paced, big conflict/action scene.

Scene 5. In classroom between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Ends in a draw.

Then we have a mid-paced scene, full of tension.

Scene 6. At home with mum. Lowest point for Paddy. Mr Scalppen has slipped something into his drink and made him go bald. Mum decides to fight fire with fire.

Then a faster-paced, tiny scene, full of tension.

Scene 7. Paddy brings lemonade to school with hair-growing potion in it. Still a low point for Paddy as things don’t go according to plan. Teacher won’t drink lemonade but lets the class drink it. End of term.

Finally, a slower-paced, conflict scene.

Scene 8. Start of new term. Last scene and final showdown between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen’s lies from Scene 3 come back to haunt him as he has to try and deal with an unexpected twist related to Paddy’s mum’s potion. Paddy’s classmates now have beards as the teacher gave them the hair-growing lemonade to drink. Now Paddy is the odd one out – he has no beard. So the head insists it’s only right and proper that Paddy should grow a beard so as not to stick out from the others. That was Mr Scalppen’s whole point and why the head gave in and told Paddy to get rid of the beard in the first place. The teacher has been caught out. Unable to take all this hairiness a moment longer, he flees the classroom never to return.

Here it is really condensed so we can’t possibly miss the pattern. The story is 4,550 words long and has 8 scenes. Note the difference in word length between the faster-paced scenes and the slower-paced ones.

Scene 1, (1,055 words) slower paced, action,

Scene 2, (206 words) faster paced, licking wounds

Scene 3, (649 words) slower paced, conflict

Scene 4, (225) faster paced, licking wounds

Scene 5, (715 words) slower paced, action

Scene 6, (446 words) mid paced, licking wounds

Scene 7, (141 words) faster paced

Scene 8, (1,106 words) slower paced, conflict

This switching between action and non-action scenes and their different and appropriate word lengths within the plot structure gives the plot movement a feeling of smoothness.

Let’s use an analogy with juggling to show how pace variation in these conflict and non-conflict scenes work in another medium. This will demonstrate why pace variation is necessary for the continual rise of tension. When the juggler is in the middle of a spectacular demonstration, things seem to slow down and work in slow motion due to the increased tension. In fact, a long time might pass but it is hardly noticed by the audience who are too busy marvelling at the spectacle. This is his slower-paced period because he is much more involved in his activity and is taking longer over it. Then, in between these exciting activities, he is still juggling a little but is really resting and preparing himself for the next highlight. This resting is his faster-paced period because it is much shorter in time and his juggling will be much less involved. This is a necessary interval in which both he and the audience can catch their breath and refocus their attention. But something else of great importance is happening here. Soon his body language indicates that he is getting ready to up the stakes and do something much more spectacular, thereby increasing the chances of dropping the skittles. The tension is rising now, and continues to rise during each resting period because he is always preparing to go on and do something even more spectacular and risky.

Now we know it is the same for the story. We crave the spectacle but we don’t just want continuous action. We just as much crave the build-up between the combative action scenes because that gives us a moment to savour the feelings of rising uncertainty and tension regarding what will follow next. Pace variation greatly helps to achieve this.

So remember: The pace moves through the plot structure like a cross-country runner moving over a course. The runner’s change of pace, faster or slower, will depend on the terrain on various points of the course. The flow of the pace in the story, faster or slower, will depend on the type of scene it is travelling through. We will have more description and therefore slower pacing in the action scenes, and faster pacing with far less description in the non-action scenes which are usually much shorter in length. Switching continuously between action and non-action scenes keeps the pace feeling smooth and lively.


This post is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 8, Pace the story, from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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Well-structured dialogue

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Dialogue is a powerful tool in the development of character, conflict, humour, drama, tension, suspense and pace. But dialogue must be handled skilfully in order to accomplish any of its objectives. Without a proper understanding of how this is done, a story will always suffer for it. In this blog post, we look at why well-structured dialogue is intrinsic to plot and scene structure.

Every dramatist will tell you that dialogue is a great skill unto itself. This makes sense when we realize that the play is structured from the spoken word. Setting, action, body language, tone of voice, these are obviously all relevant to the play but do not structure it. If the dialogue is poorly structured, the play pays a high price for it. Every word has a reason for existing in the play and it is always related to character and the overall plot arc. Although the dialogue in our story is embedded in the narrative, which obviously includes much more than dialogue, in some respects the dialogue in our story is very similar to the dialogue in the play.

Let’s try an experiment! When reading over part of a well-written story that is set indoors, has no inner monologue and is made up of about fifty per cent dialogue, let’s imagine that we are actually reading a play when reading the dialogue. Now, rather than see everything else outside of the dialogue as part of the narrative, instead we will imagine it as instructions for stage setting, props to be used and prompts for the actors to perform actions, body language and tone of voice. When we view the story from this angle, we can see the absolute necessity of having our dialogue structured properly because we see clearly how it is an integral and fundamental part of narrative structure.

Even though it often seems to ramble, real-life dialogue is also structured because it has purpose. The structure required of this type of dialogue will depend on situation and context. Even casual conversations between casual acquaintances in the street work this way: they are generally brief and the context is highly unlikely ever to encourage the talkers to divulge personal and intimate details about themselves.

Imagine saying to a casual acquaintance on a chance meeting in the street, “Hello. How are you?” and receiving for a reply a long list of their ailments with details thrown in regarding each one. This isn’t the response you would expect or you would never have asked the question. This is the type of response you offer a doctor. Socially, most people understand what is meant by “How are you?” and giving a long list of ailments as a reply would be an inappropriate and anti-social response.

Think of a job interview. Would we tell a prospective employer about the view from the window next to our desk on our present or last job? Would we tell them about the type of sandwiches we ate at work? Would we ramble on giving details about what others had for lunch? What about detailed descriptions of our work colleagues and their annoying habits? Of course, we wouldn’t say any of this. We are in a particular setting and have to abide by a set of protocols in our interview. There are a narrow range of subjects we will discuss and all our cues for discussion will come from the interviewer. She will set the subject matter and control the language, tone, rhythm, pace, and order and length of discussion on each subject. In other words, she will structure the interview’s dialogue. She will do this because there are only certain things she wants to know and find out about us. If we ignore her cues, her structure, and go off on our own tangent we will not be considered suitable material for employment in that company.

Imagine our reader is like our potential employer who is interviewing us. They expect certain things from our story. They expect a well-written and well-structured plot. Everything in the story must abide by that expectation. The reader doesn’t want rambling dialogue any more than rambling description of any kind. If we let them down on this point, they will very likely lose interest in our story, which, of course, is the equivalent of the interviewer dropping our job application in the bin.

How can we ensure that our efforts at writing dialogue make it an integral part of the plot structure? Well, let’s think of what the scenes in a story are actually trying to achieve. All the story’s scenes must fit together to make a continuum in which the plot develops smoothly and the tension is constantly rising. Because every scene must support the overall plot arc, we know that each scene must be structured accordingly to achieve this end. We know that each scene also has a beginning, middle and ending. It has a high point and an arc of rising tension. Therefore, whatever dialogue goes into the scene must support this structure.

Let’s analyse a scene to see how it actually works in practice. Below is a small scene from my children’s short story The Meanie in the Sweetshop. This is a good example as it is made up almost entirely of dialogue. The two boys, the two protagonists, are discussing the meanie with the other schoolchildren. Up to this point in the narrative, the reader only understands the meanie’s horrible behaviour through Dan’s and Bill’s experience. Now we discover that other children are just as exasperated with her. This is an important point to raise in the story as it explains why many children will go along with Dan’s plan in the last scene. The scene triggers the idea for Dan’s final plan. The scene is well-structured and sits as a link between two action scenes. It is short, quite fast-paced and with rising tension and excitement. Necessary information is passed across dramatically and it ends on a question the reader wants answered.

The meanie’s reputation had spread throughout the whole school and many were ready for a revolt.

  1. “The way she treats us boys,” one said. “You’d hardly believe it.”
  2. But a girl said, “Yesterday she told us we were like cockroaches swarming all over her shop. She said from now on no more than two of you inside at any one time. I said to her, ‘supposing it’s raining outside?’ She laughed, ‘then you girls get wet!’”
  3. “This is outrageous!” cried another boy. “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we can be treated this way. We’re not criminals. We’ve done nothing wrong. Our money’s as good as anyone’s.”
  4. “We could avoid the shop, but where else might we go? There’s nowhere else around. And we don’t have a shop here in our crummy old school.”
  5. A small boy with a shy face, who rarely ever spoke, now said, “We need to teach her a lesson. She seems to like counting. But would she like it so much if she had to do it all day?”
  6. Dan’s eyes swelled with excitement. “Yes, what if she had to count all day? And look how many of us can’t stand her. You’ve given me a great idea.” Later, he said to Bill, “We’ve been going about it all wrong. The monkey and the disguises weren’t going to do the trick. We need to really put the pressure on and make her so sick of working in the shop that she’ll never want to work there again.”
  7. “How will we do that?” asked Bill.

The scene is broken up with numbering for analytical purposes.

  1. We know already how badly boys are treated because of Dan’s and Bill’s experience and the meanie is always running down boys in general. But this declaration from the boy leads to …
  2. … the discovery that girls have been treated just as badly
  3. Here another child speaks with indignation for all children.
  4. Another child explains how stumped they all are for another sweetshop.
  5. Here a boy says something that leads to …
  6. … Dan getting a new idea in how to tackle the meanie.
  7. Here is the question the reader wants answered.

From 1 to 7, the scene, almost all dialogue, builds rapidly to a climax dealing quickly with important points along the way.

Of course, the scene could be expanded on to include lots more dialogue that is still relevant to the plot. However, we only need so much to make our point. We don’t needs lots of children expressing their opinion. There is no point and it slows down the pace and wastes valuable words. And when a character speaks, they only need to say what is necessary to make their point.

Let’s take part of the scene and think about expanding it.

But a girl said, “Yesterday she told us we were like cockroaches swarming all over her shop. She said from now on no more than two of you inside at any one time. I said to her, ‘supposing it’s raining outside?’ She laughed, ‘then you girls get wet!’”

The girl could have gone on to give other examples, but she gave what she considered to be the best example of the meanie’s rudeness. She doesn’t need to say more. She doesn’t need to start saying who was in the shop with her. We don’t need elaborate detail. Make the point succinctly and then move on. This way we keep the dialogue from rambling, we keep the scene tight and well-structured and we keep the tension high.

Dialogue has great immediacy and can bring a character to life quicker than description. But it is a very tricky part of the writing craft to master and we must always consider its structure in doing so. Dialogue exists for a purpose. Therefore, it must be structured correctly in order to effectively fulfil that purpose. Its structure must also conform to the rules of scene structure, as dialogue’s overall goal, like the scene itself, is to develop character and plot.


This post is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 7, Good, well-structured dialogue from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

Amazon co uk horizontal link

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