Monday, April 23, 2018

How To Craft High Impact Scenes For Your Stories (Part Two)

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Last week, I talked about crafting high impact scenes and how as writers we tend to ask, "What is going to happen in this next scene?" when the better questions are:

  • Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?
  • What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene?
  • What obstacle stands in my character's way? How is their expectation foiled?
  • What decision does my character make as a result?
  • What is the outcome of my character's decision?

But we don’t want our stories to be action, action, action. Even if your genre is thriller or adventure, you still need to build in moments where your character has time to react to what is happening around them.

You may have heard this taught, as I have, as writing in “Scenes and Sequels,” with scenes being the action part and sequels being the slow-down-and-react part. I’ve always found this teaching very confusing.

What does work for my brain is to think about providing opportunities for my character to process the decision they just made. Usually, the amount of processing time corresponds with how big the obstacle or decision was in the last scene.

The next question going on our list is, “Does my character need time to process what has just happened?”

Going back to my example from Within These Lines, Evalina made a gutsy decision by deciding to go uninvited to Taichi’s hometown. Neither of their families know about the true nature of their relationship. Evalina has never been to his home, nor has she ever called him, for fear that they would be found out.

This is a very big decision that she made, and I chose for some of her processing to happen offstage. It’s implied in the opening of her next scene that she spent the ferry ride over thinking through what to do now.

I could have chosen to show that, but one thing about these kinds of reaction/processing scenes is that a little goes a long way. Hanging out with Evalina while she’s sitting on a ferry and contemplating the possible ripple effects her decision might have can get boring fast, so I chose to show none of it.

In Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel, and in all the workshops he teaches, he rails against “In the kitchen drinking tea” scenes, which is what these kinds of processing moments can too often turn into. He says:
“They are a pause, a marking of time, if not a waste of time. They do not do anything. They do not take us anywhere. They do not raise questions or make us tense or worried. No wonder they do not hold my attention.”
There are many ways we can have our characters “sit around and drink tea,” and it felt to me like to have a scene where Evalina sits on a ferry and stresses out would be one of them. So instead I have her on the phone with a friend:

“Evalina, you have flipped your wig.” But Gia sounds admiring, not admonishing. “I knew when you finally fell for a boy, you would fall hard, but you seriously took a ferry to Alameda?”
“What else was I supposed to do? He wasn’t at the market this morning, plus these articles in the paper …” I swallow. “I thought maybe his family had been taken.”
“You are so dramatic sometimes. They’re not going to be taken. It’s all voluntary.”
“I don’t think so, Gia.” I twist the cord of the pay phone around my finger. “I think they’ll all be made to go.”
“I still can’t believe you took a ferry to Alameda. What are you going to tell your parents?”
“Hopefully they’ll never know. You’ll cover for me if they call or stop by, right?”
“Of course. I’m meeting Lorenzo for lunch, but I’ll just say you were with us.”
Imaginary lunches with Gia’s on-again off-again boyfriend are the only kind I can tolerate. “Thank you, Gia. I’ll let you know when I’m home.”

In this moment, readers are able to see what kind of thought Evalina has put into this decision. Even though there's movement in the seasonEvalina is on the phone, as opposed to just sitting and thinkingit still feels like a beat of rest for the audience.

There is a great example of this in the movie Tangled. After Rapunzel has sung with the thugs that she has a dream, and the palace guards have come for Flynn, Rapunzel and Flynn escape into the tunnel underneath the Snuggly Duckling. While they are in a tunnel, we have about a minute in which they process what happened.

This slowing down from the action gives us a moment to breathe, and it gives them a moment to bond. To process what happened until learn a bit more about the other. (A few years ago, I wrote a post about How To Build A Romance Thread In Your Story, Tangled Style, if that's something you're interested in.)

So you’ve given your character a moment—whether it’s a paragraph or pages—to process what has happened, survey all their choices and various consequences, and feel all the feels.

The next question is basically, What now? What decision is born out of the reaction time?

Sometimes it’s a deepening in the relationships, like Evalina. She chooses to trust Gia with what she’s really doing, partly because she needs a cover story.

In Tangled, during the processing scene, after seeing how Rapunzel held her ground in the Snuggly Duckling, Flynn has a greater respect for her and has become interested in who she is. He chooses to ask her questions.

Sometimes reaction moments take up an entire scene, particularly in heist novels or movies. A heist will go awry, and then we’ll have a scene where the whole crew is sitting in a room debating the various choices and consequences.

Regardless of how long your reaction sequence is, this is a great opportunity for you to show your reader what your character is motivated by, and why they are making this particular decision.

This also leads beautifully into the next plan of action or scene goal, because after the reflection, they’ll be making a new decision.

So here is a compiled list of all the questions:

  • Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?
  • What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene?
  • What obstacle stands in my character's way? How is their expectation of what will happen foiled?
  • What decision does my character make as a result?
  • What is the outcome of my character's decision?
  • Does my character need time to process and react to what has happened?
  • If so, what is the decision born out of his processing time?

What’s really fun is that once you understand these natural pattern, then you are able to mix and match how you put together your scenes.

Scene one could be your character setting out to achieve a goal, and it might end with their expectation being foiled.

Scene two could show the decision they make and the outcome of that decision.

Scene three could be processing, making a decision, and pursuing a new scene goal.

Scene four could be pursuing the new scene goal, having their expectations foiled, and then trying to process this new obstacle.

See how it's all happening in order, just being split in different ways? Arranging the structure of your scenes is like arranging your individual sentences. If you use the exact same sentence structure every time, your prose becomes very boring. Beautiful writing comes from sentences being arranged in all different kinds of ways, and the same is true for building your scenes. If every scene begins with the character having a plan, the plan getting spoiled, and them making a resulting decision, your story will quickly take on a mechanical feel.

What is your favorite scene in your manuscript? Tell us about it!

Friday, April 20, 2018

How to Identify and Correct Info Dumps

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

For a writer, beginning a new story is magical. You have all these ideas assaulting your imagination. Ideas about the storyworld and this fantastic new magic system you're designing. Ideas about your characters, their personalities, and the events that happened long ago that have shaped who they are now.

At the beginning of the process, your energy is high and the information you have to share with your reader is plentiful. These are good things, but be careful.

Readers want a story that will whisk them away to another time and place. A story that will challenge them and entertain. Characters who will inspire and enrage. Readers are trusting you to be a skilled conductor, introducing new melodies at the appropriate time and weaving in depth and history and context with restraint. Readers do not want a bunch of information dumped onto their laps.

So, let's talk about it.

An info dump is a hefty dose of information presented to the reader all at once. Info dumps can show up in both narration and dialogue and are super easy to spot. Here, I'll show you:


Maxwell isn't an ordinary boy. He's seven feet tall and instead of the standard buck teeth most children his age have, he has a pair of neon green fangs. His favorite movie is the Goonies, which would be perfectly normal if he didn't prefer to watch it in reverse order. He cuts the toes off the front of his boots so his toes have room to breathe. It's a trick he learned from his father who is just an inch or two taller than Max but has red hair and gray eyes.


"This is Maxwell," Dad said, tousling his red hair as his gray eyes sparkled. "He likes the Goonies too, but it's the darndest thing. He likes to watch the movie in reverse order. And watch out for his feet. He wouldn't thank you for stepping on those bare toes of his. He has to cut the toes off his shoes to give his little piggies room to breathe."

Now, in certain contexts this information might be entertaining. It might even work in a middle grade novel where younger readers need a bit more telling to set the scene, but as a way to share information with a reader, it falls into the category of DUMPY.

Info dumps aren't entirely bad and they can be a handy tool in your tool box if you use them sparingly. But most of the time, they signify lazy writing. In the example above, wouldn't it be much more interesting to show the reader a scene with Maxwell cutting the toes off his new shoes? Maybe bumping his head on a doorway as he goes in search of the movie Goonies? Wouldn't it accomplish more to paint a picture of Maxwell as a scene moves the story forward?

Of course it would!

Here are some tips for weaving important information into your story:

1. Less is more. If you're looking to slip a little info to your reader, stick with just a sentence or two. Any more and you're venturing close to dumpy. Any more and you risk boring your reader.

2. Voice matters. Certain voices can get away with info dumps, especially if the info dump serves more than one purpose. If it reveals traits about your character that the reader desperately wants, you might have some leeway, but so much comes down to the voice of your narrator. Consider the nasally voice of Ben Stein. It's hilarious in small doses, but if we had to listen to him explain the politics of a storyworld, we might just fall asleep. That is NOT what we want readers to be doing when they open our books.

3. Spread things out. Just because you, the author, came up with all this information at the beginning of the writing process, does not mean your reader needs all of it at the beginning of his reading experience. Info dumps are particularly dangerous early on in your story. The reader is not invested in the characters or the adventure. You risk losing them before they get to the fun stuff if you're not careful.

4. Consider relevance. Ask yourself, "Does this bit of info matter?" And then ask yourself, "Does it matter right now?" We have a tendency to dump everything about a certain topic into one big paragraph or section. Instead, give the reader only what they need in order to make sense of the action. Information should almost always be learned as a scene plays itself out.

5. Embrace your art. Your goal shouldn't be to simply inform the reader. You are creating a piece of art. So, do it well. Work at your craft. Important details should be woven into scenes, one thread at a time. Don't just chuck the ball of yarn at your readers. They won't have a clue which threads are important or how they fit together. YOU ARE THIS STORY'S CREATOR. If there are important details that the reader must know, take the time to sculpt a scene to show off those vital facets of your world or character. Do the work of a committed artist.

TIP: Oftentimes when I'm participating in word sprints or simply writing to discover what my story's about, I end up with some sizeable info dumps. When I return to these sections, if I like the concepts presented, I use these very TELLING paragraphs as writing prompts. In early drafts, certainly in your first draft of a novel, info dumps are perfectly acceptable ways to tell yourself the story. But, upon reflection, you must find a way to integrate the ideas you've developed into scenes that move the story forward. That's what a reader will expect.

Tell me, do you struggle with info dumps? What kind of information to you have a tendency to dump on the reader? Have you come up with any fixes for this problem? Share them with us!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How Do You Define Your Reader?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Part of putting together a pitch for a story means knowing who that story is for. You can narrow this down by genre, age group, and sometimes even by gender. I'd like to recommend that you get even more specific.

When I write a book, there is usually at least one real person I'm writing it for--whether or not that person ever reads it. This is a person who might have inspired the story in some way or someone I think would really like it. Here is a Storyworld Short video I made to talk more about this topic.

The imaginary readers I talked about I also blogged about on Go Teen Writers several years ago in a post titled "Who is Your Target Reader?" Here is a link to that post if you want to take a closer look.

How about you? How do you define your target reader? Do you have a broad idea of who you are writing for or someone particular in mind?

Share in the comments.

Monday, April 16, 2018

How To Craft High Impact Scenes for Your Stories (Part One)

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Two pieces of exciting news! The first is that Go Teen Writers was included in Writer's Digest's list of 101 Best Websites for Writers! 

This is the second year that we've made this list, and we are so delighted by that honor. We also know it's really YOU GUYS and the community that you've worked to build here and on Facebook that have made Go Teen Writers what it is. So, thank you!

The other exciting news is that in about a month (May 15th) we're going to hold another 100-for-100 writing challenge! Many of you have been asking for us to host another of these, and I wanted you to have time to put it on your calendar. If you're not familiar with it, the 100-for-100 is a challenge to write 100 words a day for 100 days. More details will be coming!

Let's get going on our topic of the day, which is scenes! (I'll try to stop speaking in exclamation marks now.)

When you write a novel, scenes are your building blocks. There is no one-size-fits-all for scenes. Some might be 500 words and others 2,500. You might have three scenes within a chapter. You might have one in a chapter.

Some writers like to start a scene in the present, jump back to the past for a bit to catch up the reader, and then return to the present. Sarah Dessen does this quite masterfully. Some start with dialogue, and others with description, almost like an establishing shot in a movie. You'll hear writing teachers say that all scenes need a beginning, middle, and ending, or that every scene needs a hook.

All these different styles and suggestions can make the question, "How do I write great scenes?" a bit confusing. 

I will go ahead and say now then I often write my scenes by instinct rather than planning out the structure ahead of time. Even so, I still make a lot of decisions about my scenes, whether I'm actively thinking about them or not. I bet you are too.

Let's examine what some of those decisions are. If you're the charting, outliney sort of writer, you can use this list to brainstorm scenes before you write them. Sometimes that's what I do. But you can also use this as a checklist of sorts when you are editing, which is what I more often do. A way to kick the tires and make sure everything is as it should be.

Often the misguided question we asked as writers is, "What is going to happen in this next scene?" 

Writing a story using this question will likely give you a book that feels more like a list of things that happen than an actual, cohesive story. Another symptom of asking this question is your characters decisions might feel "off" or mismatched from their motivations.

The question that I think is better is, "Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?"

If we want our characters to come across as thinking, feeling, logically motivated people, then this is the much better question. The story's progression will feel more organic when you use the, "Because of this, now that," approach to your scenes.

There is also an implied question here, of, "Whose point of view should this scene be told in?"

If you are writing a single point of view story, then this is an easy one! But if you are writing a story from multiple points of view, then this is a good one to ask.

Typically, we want to write our scenes from the perspective of the character who has the most at stake. Who is the most vulnerable in this scene? Who could lose the most? Who could gain the most? These are the kinds of questions you want to ask if you are trying to figure out who gets to tell this scene.

Going back to our, "Because of this, now that" question, in a multiple perspective book we may not be speaking literally about the last scene. If this point of view character knows nothing of what just happened, then we need to think from the perspective of the last scene this character was in.

The next question I think we should ask is, "What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene? What are they trying to make happen?"

It's possible they have a goal completely unrelated to what happens in the actual scene. Maybe their goal is to take their dog for a quick walk around the block, but then on the walk they are robbed at gunpoint.

But most of your scenes should have your point of view character who has something they want, and they are actively trying to obtain it, but then something gets in the way.

Let's look at an example from my World War II era historical, Within These Lines.

Early in the book, Evalina goes to the farmer's market to see Taichi. That is her goal in this scene, only when she arrives, he's not there.

This is the obstacle, which is your next question, "What obstacle stands in my character's way?" Or another helpful way to think of it can be, "How is my character's expectation foiled? What surprises them along the way?"

So now that Evalina has seen Taichi is not where she expected him to be, she gets to make a decision, which is my favorite question to answer. "What decision does my character make as a result?"

They can act, or they can choose to not act, but them making a decision is critical to your scene working. (For more on this, read my post 2 Ways To Be Sure Your Scene Really Matters)

Going back to my example from Within These Lines, Evalina could have chosen to not act in several ways. She could have just gone home. She could have complained to a friend. She could have decided that she would ask Taichi about it the next time they saw each other.

Likewise, there were many options for how she could act. She could find a phone booth and call him, or ask around the market to see if any mutual friends knew where he was.

But because Evalina is a bold sort, and because she is very afraid for Taichi, I felt she needed to make a big, showy decision. I decided that she would get on a ferry and go to his house. Not only does it fit her, which is important, but it feels interesting. Which is rather critical in writing a compelling story.

While there are no official rules for what kind of decision your character should make, having them make an interesting decision will go a long way toward crafting an interesting scene. The decision should still be logical, and it should make sense for who the character is and the circumstances around them, but it needs to be interesting.

Lastly (for today, anyway) we need to ask, "What is the outcome of my character's decision?"

Sometimes we don't fully explore the outcome until the following scene, so it might be that you close your scene by hinting at the outcome or resulting disaster, but with just a sentence or two. With the scene from Within These Lines, I ended the scene with Evalina's decision after she has talked to several others at the market and found they don't know where Taichi's family is:

Mrs. Ling holds out a beautiful naval orange, round and bold. “Share this with your friend. May it bring you both good luck.”
The market doesn’t officially open for a few more minutes, but San Franciscans already mill about the rows of tables, haggling over prices of the first spring vegetables. The men who stole the Hamasakis’ spot chat with customers, and the sight makes my chest burn.
I put the orange in my basket and pedal along the street. The fog has thinned, but my thoughts are hazy with anger. 
At the ferry ticket booth, I pull coins from my handbag and place them on the counter. “When does the boat leave for Alameda?”

I cut the scene off there, which makes for a very easy way for me to know what scene should come next. The question becomes, "Because of Evalina impulsively deciding to take a ferry to Taichi's hometown, what will she choose next?"

If you are looking for ways to surprise readers or add plot twists, try examining the way your characters expectations are foiled and the resulting decisions that they make. If your character is making logical but surprising decisions, and they are having logical but surprising outcomes, then your reader will be surprised ... but not in a way that makes them doubt the plausibility..

Next Monday, I'm going to talk about slowing down the action for moment's of reaction, and the questions we need to ask when writing those scenes.

Take a look at an active scene you've written recently, and apply the questions raised today:

Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?
What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene?
What obstacle stands in my character's way? How is their expectation foiled?
What decision does my character make as a result?
What is the outcome of my character's decision?

Did your scene naturally have all those elements? What, if any, changes will you make?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Lost Girl of Astor Street ebook is just .99 today!

If you love books AND bargains, then today is a great day! My 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, is just .99! These flash sales never last long, so make sure to get your copy today.

and wherever else you can buy ebooks!

About The Lost Girl of Astor Street:

Lydia has vanished.

Lydia, who’s never broken any rules, except falling in love with the wrong boy. Lydia, who’s been Piper’s best friend since they were children. Lydia, who never even said good-bye.

Convinced the police are looking in all the wrong places, eighteen-year-old Piper Sail begins her own investigation in an attempt to solve the mystery of Lydia’s disappearance. With the reluctant help of a handsome young detective, Piper goes searching for answers in the dark underbelly of 1924 Chicago, determined to find Lydia at any cost.

When Piper discovers those answers might stem from the corruption strangling the city—and quite possibly lead back to the doors of her affluent neighborhood—she must decide how deep she’s willing to dig, how much she should reveal, and if she’s willing to risk her life of privilege for the sake of the truth.

From the glitzy homes of the elite to the mob-run streets of 1920s Chicago, Stephanie Morrill’s jazz-age mystery shows just how far a girl will go to save her friend.