All posts by swanstuff

Writer, small business wannabe, pundit, philosopher, often hopelessly confused, and blessed by a gracious God beyond all imagining (the views expressed by this blogger do not necessarily reflect the Supreme Being, but this blogger hopes he doesn't embarrass the Big Guy too much).

Anatomy of a Story

My background is in playwrighting and screenwriting, so I tend to adopt liberally from their jargon. For example, the three-act structure serves both mediums very well. Let’s step through the anatomy of a story. I’ll put forth the elements in the traditional pattern, however, different storytelling techniques may arrange them in a different order or splice them up and salt them throughout the Acts.

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Story Anatomy isn’t Gross!

Act 0: Backstory. This is before the story; what has happened to build your characters into who they are at the rise of action? Was the conflict sown before the story? You may never include any of this in the story, but it does have influence.

Act 1: The Beginning. Start as late into the story as you can, pare off as much backstory as possible. Several things happen here:

  • Characters are established, and your main character or ensemble group is introduced.
  • Status Quo is established. What are the characters’ “normal” We have to know what this is to recognize disruption to it.
  • Motivations are established. What do your characters want? “Want” establishes conflict.
  • Establishes the starting point of the hero’s arc.
  • The inciting incident. What gets the action moving? Why can’t the hero simply refuse to participate? This is vitally important. Your hero has to be completely committed with no way out. The inciting incident disrupts the status quo. It segues into…

Act 2: The Middle. Sprinting through the desert at top speed, NEVER in a straight line. A lot can happen here:

  • Welcome Discoveries: Things needed to achieve the goal.
  • Unwelcome Discoveries: Hard things that shape the hero and further the arc of change.
  • Betrayals: What the hero thought was true wasn’t; other characters who fall or betray the hero (partially, permanently, or temporarily, testing the hero’s trust, faith, and commitment).
  • Defeats: In Indiana Jones, Indy fails time and time again. We love him because he keeps going.
  • Reversals: Snatching defeat from the jaws of success.

The bulk of the hero’s arc is created in act two. He/she is changed, and in fact, the change is required to win. Once the pieces are assembled:

Act 3: The End. The hero realizes he’s changed, and the arc is complete. Now the villain/conflict must be defeated/resolved (or the hero realizes during the final battle, or just after). A new status quo emerges or is implied (or a series is set up with a bit of unresolved conflict, making conflict the new normal).

In the first act, we meet the hero. In the second act, we try to kill him. In the third act, proving unkillable, the hero wins.

I cast this as a hero/villain story, but they all are, so if you think this doesn’t apply to you, it does. The choices you make within this structure is what makes your story compelling. Perhaps you want to jump over the cliff to open your story. Fine, at least some flashback or exposition covers the content of Act 1.

Does this fit your story? Why not?

Show Don’t Tell – Except When You Shouldn’t

I just finished a book that took forever to read. It had great characters, a compelling conflict, and clear writing, but the author must have believed in the sage writing advice, “Show Don’t Tell!”

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Except when you should!

Good advice but not always. There are times to tell and there are times to show.

In the referenced novel, the detective would do something, then in a few pages, he described what he had done to his friends, then to his partner, then to… you get the idea. We’d seen the blow-by-blow once, we didn’t need to hear it over and over again. Here, a simple, O’Brian recapped his day, then toasted his friends with a beer. “To life!”  That simple “tell” sentence would have saved pages of dialogue.

Rules of thumb for telling and not telling:

  • Don’t repeat a prior scene in detail. Shorthand it. We’ve seen it, no need to repeat it. If it’s necessary to recap it, be quick about it.
  • Show emotion; show conflict. There are so many better ways to show it than to say, “she was angry.” Paint a picture, don’t talk about feelings and don’t shortchange conflict.
  • Avoid stage direction. There is no need to detail Molly’s walk from the bedroom to the kitchen if nothing happens on the way. “Molly woke up and dug through the refrigerator for eggs.” We know she got dressed, went to the bathroom, walked down the hallway and entered the kitchen. Show the journey if something happens, though.
  • Show things that break the stereotype; tell things that don’t. In Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series, Spencer is boxer turned cop turned private eye. He’s a thug. But when he cooks, the spare-prosed Parker describes in detail the sautéing of onion, peppers, and things I’ve never heard of, because Spencer’s culinary arts breaks him out of thug mode. It’s perfectly ok to say, “Mom cooked an omelet.” Cooking is within the stereotype. You’d show it if she burns things and puts ketchup in the omelet (we all know ketchup only goes on scrambled eggs).
  • If it’s important, show it; if not, tell it. We need to visualize everything that must be assembled to picture the climax. You can tell anything that isn’t. Unless…
  • You know your audience – Tom Clancy is what I call a flipper novelist. He gets into technical detail ad nauseum, so I flip through a lot of pages. My dad, on the other hand, read every word. I’m pretty sure Pop could assemble an atomic bomb on a nuclear submarine in Russian waters if he had to. Clancy writes for the engineer and engineer wannabe. Your audience may want details. Tell away.

And then you have John Grisham, who raises telling to an art form. When you sell a few million books, and you can write your own rules about show and tell (wish-wish!)

Poppers, Crackers, Hisses, and Fizz

I love words. Not just the meaning behind the words, but the taste and feel of words.

Back before it was an illness, prose was referred to as a word salad and to make your salad palatable, you had to include croutons and garnishments. It gives the salad texture and crunch.

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Keepin’ it fresh

Linguists refer to these special words as Plosives, Fricatives, Sibilance, and Affricatives. That’s way too involved for me, so I call them Poppers, Crackers, Hisses, and Fizz.

Words that start or end with these are fun to say and read. Formed with the lips and glottal stops, they are active words.

Poppers and Crackers are the Plosives. Purple, puppies, cake, crack, and especially when several such words are in close proximity. “Sally smacked her husband smartly, making his cheek shine.” “The freaky few who feel forced to comply will fail.”

Hiss refers to sibilance or the “s” sound. Stifle, success, steal…

Fizz belongs to Fricatives and Affricatives, the “f” and “ph” sound. Fellow, follow, freak, and phonics.

While nailing the sound of these is the realm of the actor (go ahead and listen for them, especially with Shakespearean actors (Ian McClellan loves his plosives)), the writer originates them.

Good writing is all about finding the fewest, best words for your prose. Too many garnishes and your prose becomes purple and putrescent. With just the right measure, salt the following kinds of words into your writing:

  • Onomatopoeia – The word sounds like it’s meaning. Snap! Moist. Crack! Bang! Smooth. These are great words that can add texture to your sentences.
  • Crunchy words – Plosive (Poppers and Crackers). You’ll find most of our curse words are crunchy, that’s why they are successfully crude. Typically, these are short words that pop in your mouth.
  • Punch – You can give prose punch by using a short, strong sentence after using several long sentences.
  • Metaphors – Make a sentence vivid with metaphors; “Love is a battlefield” “His thoughts were a knife.” Simile, comparisons that throw in “like” or “as,” is less vivid because it draws the reader away. “Love is like a battlefield” loses immediacy.
  • Stay true to your running theme – At the beginning of this blog, I said, “Word Salad” and then continued to use food-themed words.
  • Adjectives – When you have to modify a word, you are not using the right word. There are thousands upon thousands of words. “Very hungry” is less visual than “starving” “famished” “tummy-growling.”

None of these should be used with a heavy hand or it will hurt your prose.

What are your crunchy words?

Titles Aren’t Just for Royalty

First impressions for books are the title and book cover. We’ll discuss covers in a future post and tackle titling here.

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Make it catchy!

When I was 11, I was casting around for something to read. I felt like something watery, and my parents kept a well-stocked library. It was either Robinson Crusoe (again), Kon-Tiki or Jaws.

Guess which I picked?

Great White, here I come!  But why?

My parents kept their books on shelves, like anyone else. All I saw were the spines and Jaws grabbed me. The title raised a question in my mind. Kon-Tiki did as well, but the word “jaws” was both common, crunchy (it feels good to say), and bizarre. I got to Kon-Tiki eventually, but not until Captain Brody killed himself a shark.

Ideally, you want your title to drop hooks in the reader’s mind that echoes for a while. Single-word titles are strong, especially if it’s powerfully linked to your story. Pilot Fish wouldn’t have been quite so catchy for Benchley’s book, but it might serve for a children’s book.

At the same time, many words can work too, if they stand as a strong brand for the book. How to Swim with Sharks without Being Eaten Alive! was originally titled Better Management or something forgettable like that. I think “Alive” could have been dropped because it seems to add one too many beats, but this book flew off the shelves and still does. The title sizzles.

What works? Who knows, really, but some good ideas are:

  • One-word, crunchy titles. Jaws, Bold,
  • A few words that relate uniquely to your story. The Trouble with Bees, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
  • Names of People or Places – Peyton Place, Ben-Hur, Jurassic Park
  • Metaphors – These can be silly, like How to Swim… or more serious; So Many Mountains; Which Ones to Climb? Or more ethereal Gone with the Wind.
  • Questions that resonate – Do Angels Still Fall? If it’s a question that resonates, that makes a reader say, “Yeah, what about that?” then you’ve succeeded.
  • Stuffy titles – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or The Battle of Carbon Falls Creek Wherein Aliens Invade. They have a sense of whimsy about them.

Titles that don’t work (or just might anyway)

  • Unpronounceable words or names. Mahfwpufl, or Myxyzptlc
  • Titles with no link at all to the story.
  • Boring titles.

The goal is for it to be memorable, clever, funny/whimsical or serious (it should match the tone of the book), thought-provoking, and sticky.

If you have a series of books with a strong series name: The Dead of Night, then your title should be one or two words, Dragonfly or Leatherwings.

What about chapter titles? For most mainstream fiction, just numbers will do, but for non-fiction books or younger audiences, naming your chapters is a good idea. They should be predictive for non-fiction, and predictive and clever for other books.

Go to Amazon and look through the books. How many titles actually strike you? The title mixed with cover can be compelling but what about the title by itself?

Titling is an art you should master!

Bloggers in Print

If you’re a blogger, you’re a writer (I can’t attest to the skill, mind you). Just by blogging, you’re creating a volume of content. Have you ever thought about compiling them into a book to reach a different audience?

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I maintain several blogs.

  • Swanstuff – This is the lint trap of my mind. The topics are all over the place. I’d be hard-pressed to unify them into a coherent book. I began that blog to maintain my sanity. The only time I kept a journal, I was embarrassed to read it. Blogging fulfills my need for people to read what I write, even if it’s just a few readers. This is the first time I’ve publicized it, though. Not every post reflects what I believe now. Be warned.
  • Writes with Swans – Similar to the concept of Dances with Wolves, I write with my namesake. This was writing advise, articles, thoughts, and whatever struck me about the writing process. That blog has yielded to…
  • This blog – Why double the effort? My views on writing and publishing are recorded here.
  • Book blogs – I wanted a way to communicate with the kids who read my books. So far, none have visited. Not even worth the link but you can have it anyway.

I know several humor bloggers, Bonnie, Roxanne, and Doug to name three, the Walter’s marriage blog, a few artists and health nuts. Which blogs are suited to book compilations and what kind of blogs aren’t?


  • Humor blogs
  • Single topic blogs


  • Poorly written blogs (hey, everyone can improve)
  • Smorgasbord blogs like my Swanstuff blog that covers any and all topics with no sort of common thread.

What do you do, just copy and paste all your blogs into a book? Not quite.

Thanks to Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry, humor bloggers have it easy, but in all cases, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • A post does not necessarily equal a chapter. Group common thread posts together. Can they be turned into a longer, better chapter together? If not, is there a valuable order of posts? Chronological almost never works.
  • Not every blog post is a keeper. Everybody has an off day, so weed out yours or rework them to be better.
  • Consider voice. Ideally, your blog has a single voice across posts. Is it a good one? Might it be worth creating a new voice with some judicious rewrites?
  • Think about bridging your posts/chapters. This will probably require some new writing, perhaps a framing device.
  • Build – A good book has a beginning, middle, and end. Even though your book is likely episodic, you want to think about progressing the viewpoint to a natural conclusion. If you write a humor blog, read humor books and get a feel for them. Read books within your topic to see how they work. Your book doesn’t have to be the same but know what works in theirs, so it can work for you.
  • Length – You should be aiming for 150 – 200 pages, more if the topic demands it.
  • For topic blogs, perhaps you should use your content as a base and rewrite using your posts as a well from which to draw.

If you do maintain a quixotic blog like mine, look deeper. Are there groupings of individual topics? Many of my posts discuss politics, society, science, family, and weird stuff. With some work, I could combine similarly-themed posts in chapters.

What about your blog?

The Non-Fiction Dilemma

“My topic has been done to death!”

Well, most topics have been. Health, Wellness, Faith, all have been covered extensively. That doesn’t mean you’re in trouble.

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So get writing already!

Take Christianity, for example. Holy bananas, there are a lot of books out there. Volumes and libraries of nothing but books about Jesus. Fortunately, it’s a vast topic. Your non-fiction books don’t have to cover every aspect of a subject, you just have to tackle a corner of it.

Further, while Christology doesn’t change, interpretation does. Some of that interpretation is wrong, or heavy-handed, or off just a bit.

In Aron Osborne’s book, So Many Mountains; Which Ones to Climb?, Aron focus on the important stuff, and in doing so, gives a glorious picture of our loving God. If we tackle the important mountains, the rest falls into place.

My forthcoming book, Creativity Wears Boots, looks at an aspect of creativity and art that I haven’t seen written about anywhere before. What IS creativity? What IS art? What is its purpose and how do you develop it? Why is every human and artist whether they know it or not?

Plus, you have your unique take on the subject. It can be funny, anecdotal, technical, serious. If Bonnie Manning Anderson wrote a book on marriage, it would be hilarious and very different than Debi and Tom Walter’s book, Cherishing Us, a romantic look at marriage. Additionally, the Walter’s book is list-oriented, a romantic tip for each day of the year. I suspect Bonnie’s would be more essay-oriented. Yet another marriage book is by Steve and Cindy Wright, 7 Essentials to Grow Your Marriage, which is unique because Steve tackles each essential from the male perspective and Cindy from the female perspective (guys, when you read it, read both sides, it’s very eye-opening).

There’s also your audience to think about. You can direct your book to children, teens, young adults, adults, and us old folks.

Your topic may be old, but your take on it can be new a fresh. What you bring to your topic is YOU.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh MY!

Let’s look at Fear Fiction. The reader loves it because it scares them or mystifies them.

The category is, again, subdivided into smaller, distinct categories.

Thrillers: Action-based stories with lots of adrenaline, these works focus more on immediate reaction, jump scares, surprise, and blind fear. It’s situational, fast moving, and pants-wetting prose. Movie examples include Alien, Godzilla, and King Kong.

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This bear looks like he’s about to enter a thriller!

Suspense: More atmospheric than thrillers, these stories focus on psychological fear. They’re slower and tension builds like a gathering storm. Thrillers contain suspense but it’s often more dread of short duration while suspense is long duration, with hills and valleys that continually build to a climax. The suspense characters are changed profoundly; thriller characters are rarely deeply changed. More movie examples include Signs and most of M. Night Shymalan’s movies. I’d also put a lot of Stephen King’s books here.

Horror: True horror goes where the other subcategories rarely go. These trade in the obscene, sometimes with a supernatural aspect, sometimes with a psychological basis, but always with an offensive underpinning. These stories show a distorted nature of people and settings. Supernatural monsters like vampires and werewolves are an affront to nature and, you know, they eat people. Night of the Living Dead and stuff like that.

Mystery – Really its own animal, mystery is often brought up with thrillers and suspense because they can belong to these subcategories. Here, though, the main character has a mystery to solve as a cop, PI, or amateur sleuth. Tension and suspense should be a part of it, and the hero should be threatened, yet fear doesn’t have to be a part of it. In suspense, the main character doesn’t choose to be involved, they’re typically trapped. In mystery, the main character chooses to solve the mystery.

Adventure – Like mystery, this is more fun action than outright fear. Light suspense, fights that are almost comic in the fact that punches that should kill don’t even leave a bruise. Indiana Jones, all superhero movies (although, the possibly released New Mutants intends to go the horror trope route. Disney hasn’t said if they’ll release it as shot).

It seems like each of these should have the indicator stickers that hot sauce has at Tijuana Flats. Thrillers, Suspense, and Horror get the frowny face; Mystery the straight line face, and Adventure the happy face.

What appeals to you about this category?