Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part IV: Masterful Plot

your novel's plot is like a painting. it has layers.


Plot: it’s what most writers I work with struggle with more than anything else. If you’re like a lot of them, your book idea might be built around one central intriguing event. So you’ve got a bold/clever/exciting event: now how do you build all of the scenes around it to create a whole novel? For me, it’s a little like a painting: there are a lot of layers and more complexity than you see at first glance.

1.Think in terms of decisions. Your character must take action: don’t simply create events that happen to her. She must make decisions that either alleviate trouble or create more of it. (And we all know that when you solve one problem you have to create a new one—otherwise you have a dull story. So don’t let your heroine get too comfortable.) It’s easy to fall into the pattern of describing events that happen to your character; instead, compose events that she creates based on her behaviors. For example: if your heroine’s dog is hit by a car, that’s sad, but boring. If her dog is run over by her neighbor because the neighbor suspects your heroine is having an affair with her husband, then that’s plot development. (See also: Creating Tension. Lucy Atkins has some great advice about how to create tension, even when you don’t have extreme drama happening.)

2. Decisions must lead to consequences, which lead to more decisions and more consequences. This is how you create escalating drama and build tension. When crafting a story, you are creating a chain of events—they aren’t all necessarily related on the surface, but they are connected because of your character’s fears, values, and desires. For example: the neighbor runs over your heroine’s dog. Your heroine confronts the neighbor lady (because she’s hot tempered) and they get into an altercation. The neighbor calls the heroine’s husband and tells him his wife is cheating on him. He drinks himself into a stupor, confronts his wife, then storms out and crashes his car into a tree. Your heroine is wracked with guilt because this all happened as a result of her confronting the neighbor, because of her tendency to act before thinking. Create chain reactions based on your character’s flaws and your story almost writes itself.

3. Look to your friend the playwright. You hear this one all the time: raise the stakes. Novels, like plays, can often be broken down into three acts. If you’re a structure person, this idea can help you build plot. Remember Euripides? In Act One, you put your character up a tree. In Act Two, throw rocks at him and see what he’s made of. In Act Three, get him down from the tree. When I was in graduate school, I took a playwriting class as an elective. It helped me tremendously in terms of writing scenes with real action, creating structure, and upping the ante to keep momentum in the story. Your novel is a series of scenes: each scene needs to reveal something about the character or move the story forward. I still look to The Playwright’s Guidebook to this day (and you should do yourself a favor and get a copy), but for some quick tips on writing revealing scenes, check out Jane Friedman’s website. She has helpful exercises to get you started. Holly Lisle defines scenes based on change, and has some great tips on writing with that pattern in mind.

4. Create an overarching plot based on your Big Important Question, and then create subplots. Your Big Important Question is the key question you set up in the very beginning of your novel. This is the question that keeps the reader turning the page; this is the question you must resolve at the end of your book. In Bayou My Love, I set up the BIQ in the first chapter: Will Enza flip this house she inherited and prove herself to her father? But we lead complicated lives. You need more than one burning question. So: subplots! I knew from the beginning that Bayou My Love was a love story. (Can Jack win Enza over? Will she fall in love with him? Will Enza sell the house or stay in the bayou?) I also wanted it to have suspenseful elements. (Who is setting fires all over town and putting Enza in danger? Who is taunting her and Jack with voodoo? Will this person be found? Will Enza find her estranged mother?) Each question creates a subplot, but they are all connected based on Enza’s fears, desires, strengths, and flaws. Complexity leaves you, the writer, more room for decisions and consequences, and that creates more action and drama. This setup easily allows you to tackle one problem and then create another one, leaving your character up a tree for a long enough time that readers see what he’s made of. Then you earn your ending.

5. And speaking of endings, how do you know when you get there? At a reading recently, someone asked me this very question. The answer? Easy. You’ve arrived at the end when your character either gets what she wants or loses it. You’re there when you’ve answered the Big Important Question. Naturally, there are quiet endings and loud endings, but the best ones are memorable because they touch something that resonates within us. Nancy Kress discusses a variety of styles of endings, but points out that we should always avoid the anticlimactic. The best endings are a little surprising, but always inevitable. After all, your character has a certain trajectory based on the fears and desires you’ve given them. They make choices that expose their weaknesses and build their strengths, so the outcome should reflect their growth or decay. There’s a fine line between predictable and inevitable, but the thing that separates them is finesse. The qualities that make your character unique can be your way into a surprising yet inevitable ending. I’m thinking of Jojo Moyes, Tana French, Mary Gaitskill, and Janet Fitch. If you create multi-faceted characters and build plots with high emotional stakes, you’ve set yourself up for a masterful ending—one that will meet the Two Big Criteria of being (1) unavoidable and (2) unpredictable.

Crafting an engaging plot might not be easy, but it’s totally do-able. It’s a matter of finesse. You got this.


This post was previously published on in 2017. Look for the fifth and final part of this quick-fix series next week. Happy writing, Friends!

Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part III: Dynamic Dialogue


Writing dialogue is tricky. It needs to sound realistic, but it can’t be too realistic. We all want our characters to sound like real people, but when people talk, there are a lot of unnecessary words tossed around. As writers, we have to carefully craft what our characters say so that the words seems effortless, but yet serve a purpose (like all of our other words, right? Right.).

So how do you create killer dialogue that seems effortless and does its job? Read on.

1.Let dialogue propel your story. Too often we fall into the mire of backstory and lose the reader. Break up those huge passages of exposition and let your active scene reveal the same information through character interaction. For example: instead of writing pages and pages about your heroine’s recollection of a pivotal event in her childhood, have her argue about that event with her sister, revealing what happened through their dialogue. Bonus: you’ll also reveal something about the sister.

2. Train your ears with TV shows, movies, and plays. The best thing I ever did for my fiction writing was to take a scriptwriting class. Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook will change your life. This will teach you to make every word count, and to use dialogue the same way you use exposition: to reveal character, create drama, and keep moving the story forward. Some TV shows I love for their dialogue: Gilmore Girls, the Newsroom, Justified, and yeah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s super easy to get copies of plays, like Closer and How I Learned to Drive, for less than $5. Check out contemporary award-winning plays as a starting point.

3. Pay attention to the way people talk. I mean really pay attention. Listen for little idiosyncrasies that make a person’s speech unique. Do they speak in clipped, short sentences? Do they ramble and use ten-dollar words? Do they answer you with questions? One of the hardest things to overcome is the tendency to make all of your characters talk the way you do. You may be sharp and sarcastic, but if ALL of your characters speak that way, then your writing becomes unrealistic and boring. You need variety, and for that you need to develop an ear for differences in people’s speech.

4. Remember that people rarely speak in well-crafted sentences. You can always have a character that is super-eloquent and that’s part of their speech and personality, but for most of us, our dialogue is clipped and messy. In real life, people talk over each other, they interrupt, and they shorten phrases. “Doing ok today?” “Yeah, you?” As you revise, cut the unnecessary words from your dialogue to keep the story moving.

5. Use dialect and slang spelling sparingly. While it may seem accurate to you, the writer, it can be jarring to readers. I’ve tossed a lot of books aside simply because there was too much dialect forced on me—too much “lotsa,” “somethin’,” and “nuttin.” Instead of having your southern character drop the ‘g’ in every single word, write a line of exposition that describes his Carolina lilt and limit his shortened words to only “darlin’.” Nail that regionalism in one good line of description, and that’s all your readers need to hear him the way that you intend. Trust your reader not to need words spelled out phonetically to comprehend what an accent sounds like. Saying something like, “When she said my name, it sounded like Crease,” is enough to get your point across.

6. Read your dialogue aloud. Better yet, get a couple of your friends to read the dialogue in your scene as if it were a scene in a play. Have them only read speech, with no narrative. Listen for #1-5 above. Do your characters sound different from one another? Do they have distinct voices? Eccentricities? Does it sound like a real conversation, or does it sound over-written? If you struggle with dialogue, it makes a world of difference to hear it spoken rather than simply read it over and over as you revise.

7. What’s not being said in a scene is equally important to what is being said. Subtext is a valuable tool in your writerly arsenal. What is omitted in a conversation can be extremely important to character and plot, and a good writer of dialogue knows what needs to be said and what does not in order to create tension and suspense.

As an exercise, go back to one of your favorite books and turn to a scene that is heavy with dialogue. Look at it in terms of the list above. How does the author make the characters’ voices distinct? How is the dialogue used to move the story forward? Is the dialogue conveying information that might have been told in exposition? One of the best ways to learn to write good dialogue is to read good dialogue—so get out there and start picking those scenes apart. The more you study, the easier it will be to see what works and what doesn’t. The surest way to write dynamic dialogue is to practice until you hear the characters talking in your head—that’s when you know you’ve leveled up. 


This article was originally published by underground Books Reviews in 2017. Come back for Part IV of my five-part series next week. Happy New Year, Friends! 

Best No-Nonsense Novel-Writing Tips, Part II: Propel Your Novel Forward

Note to readers: This month, after speaking with a client about his novel-in-progress, I’m re-posting a five-part series full of writing tips that originally appeared on In these articles, I offer some advice that I’ve shared with my writing clients and students over the years. If you have a topic you’d like some advice on, shoot me an email. 


road map for writing


What we need here is a road map. 

As a writer, I’m torn. I enjoy the discovery that happens while writing, as many of us do. I delight in letting characters develop organically, based on decisions they make and conflicts they create. Part of the joy of writing for me is having surprises happen along the way.

But sometimes that’s the hardest way to write.

Sometimes that means staring at the page, waiting for ideas to collide in my brain, the way atoms collide during fission. Sometimes the waiting is a fun part of the process: I drink coffee, re-watch episodes of Lost, draw goofy animal drawings in between writing scenes. Some days that’s okay.

Some days though, I really need to make progress, burn through some pages, and feel like I’m making headway and getting closer to the end.

My solution? Make a map. It’s a kind of outline, but don’t worry—this is not a boring outline that details every action in the book, leaving no room for surprises along the way. Here’s the way it works for me:

1.Make a map of major events you know will happen in the book. You don’t have to know every single one, and you don’t have to know the ending. Consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as an example. Upon starting, your outline might have looked like this:

a. Indy learns his mentor is missing and the Nazis are searching for him.

b. Indy realizes the Nazis are looking for the Ark.

c. Indy goes to find his mentor, find mentor’s daughter Marion instead.

d. Indy and Marion go to Cairo to find another friend of Indy’s and stop the Nazis.

e. Marion is kidnapped, but Indy thinks she’s dead.

f. Indy locates the Nazis’ dig site; confrontations ensue.

g. Indy finds Marion.

h. Indy finds the real location of the ark.

i. The Nazis find Indy and the ark.

Each of these events are pivotal points in the story: they are potential crossroads moments where the protagonist has to make a decision, creating more conflicts to be resolved later.

2. Remember my previous post about crafting plotPart of what you’re doing with an outline is creating a map of chain reactions. You’re mapping decisions at these pivot points to create action and develop scenes.

Take (c) for example. Indy travels to Nepal, looking for his mentor Abner. Instead, he finds Marion, Abner’s daughter, in her tavern. She tells Indy that Abner is dead; she won’t give him the artifact he’s looking for. Nazi thugs come into the tavern, pick a fight, and the tavern catches fire. Marion then insists on going with Indy in search of the ark because of this debt he now owes her.

Indy’s making decisions here. He makes the decision to look for Abner. Then he tries to buy the artifact from Marion. Then he gets in a brawl with the thugs. Then he agrees to take Marion with him. Each move that happens in that scene escalates the action and the tension. It moves the story forward. One decision/action leads to the next.

3. Flesh out the scene based on the decisions being made. Here’s where the discovery happens for me. If this were me writing Raiders (and oh boy, I wish I had), I might have planned everything above, but when I was writing, I’d decide that Indy and Marion have a history: a romance that ended badly. That’s why she doesn’t want to sell him the artifact he wants from her. But maybe she still has feelings for him, which is why she insists on going with him when the tavern burns down. Now she’s going with Indy for two different reasons, and that leads to complexity and tension down the road—especially if those two desires are in opposition to each other.

4. Use the outline to sketch out character bios. Jot down some major strengths and flaws of each one. Write down what each character wants, what each one fears. This will be useful later, when you’re fleshing out scenes and connecting dots between those events you created. What makes a novel strong on an emotional and psychological level is to have believable motivations for your characters (and to create conflicting motivations). To have believable motivations, you need to know what everyone fears and desires. This is how you keep your protagonist in hot water, and keep up momentum in your story. Ruthanne Reid has a helpful post about some ways to keep your hero on her toes.

I didn’t map much out for my first novel, Bayou My Love. Writing it was hard and slow-going because I had a general trajectory, but not actual plans for scenes. I wasn’t thinking in terms of chain reactions. When I wrote the sequel, Bayou Whispers, I mapped it out. I used Scrivener (which I can’t rave about enough) and did each of the four things above. Creating a road map for my novel meant that I could calculate pacing as I filled in the gaps. It was easier to write one scene that led into the next because I had direction. I could sit down on any given day, look at my map, and see the next point in the story I was writing toward.

The best part of all this? My writer’s block dissolved. I was problem-solving, which was fun, and I was able to keep my hero in trouble because I was constantly thinking of each action leading to another problem. No blocks meant I was less tense, and less tension meant I could loosen up, have more fun as I wrote those scenes and filled in the gaps. The logical part of my brain was appeased, so it relaxed and my creative part could take the reins and allow those moments of surprise and delight to come onto the page.

Happy writing, Friends. Look for Part 3 of this five-part series next week.


This post was previously published at Underground Book Reviews, October 2016. Image is courtesy of 

Best No-Nonsense Novel-Writing Tips, Part I: Jump-start Your Novel

After speaking with a client this week about his novel-in-progress, I’m re-posting some articles chock full of writing tips that originally appeared on In this five-part series of my Best No-Nonsense Novel-Writing Tips, I’ll share some of the most helpful tips and exercises I’ve learned over the years to get through those hard writing days. I share these with my writing clients and students, so this Christmas I’m sharing them with YOU. If you have a topic you’d like some advice on, shoot me an email. Happy writing, friends!


True confessions time: Most of the time, the first chapter is the hardest for me to write. By far. We’ve all been there: you have this great idea for a book, and then you sit down to start it and your fingers freeze, and your brain is going in a dozen directi
ons, and the next thing you know, you’ve blown a fuse and it’s been an hour, and you’ve deleted the first line forty times, and you’ve typed three words. Not even a whole sentence.

Sometimes this happens because I’ve got an idea of what needs to happen in the story, but I psych myself out trying not to write a “warm-up”—you know, that whole chapter you write to get into the groove where nothing really happens and you describe what a place looks like, or what a person looks like and you have to delete the whole thing in your rewrite because NOTHING IS HAPPENING.

Anne Lamott might say, “Just keep writing. It’s the Shitty First Draft.”

I love Anne Lamott, but I hate wasting that time on the chapter that I know I’ll delete later. I need a little more efficiency in my life right now. I need to have momentum, and I’ve learned two tactics that help me create momentum and keep it going through a draft to the end.

1. If you’re having trouble starting (and feel like you’re in boring expository land), start in the middle of the action. Pick a scene that you know your protagonist must endure, and start writing her into trouble. (This is not a ground-breaking idea, for sure. It’s one I heard a long time ago as an exercise in writing, but one that I clearly forgot about for a while. So this is me remembering it and reminding you.)

I’m always willing to be the guinea pig, so I tried it last week, stumped over how to start my next novel. I answered a call to be part of an anthology that asked for “rom-com novellas involving dogs.” This intrigued me because (1) it was a chance to join forces with some other writers and (2) write a comedy and (3) I like a challenge. The deadline is fast approaching, and I didn’t have any work-in-progress that fit the editor’s needs. To get out of my writerly funk I needed a kick in the pants and some motivation to get past page one of my next book.

Sometimes when I get stuck, I need some parameters and a deadline. My brain just needs the pressure, I guess. So I joined this group, thinking that the eight-week deadline would be enough to force me to start my next Bayou story. I had an idea of what I wanted my protagonist to do, and had a trajectory for her (more on that later), but didn’t know where this story needed to start.

And that not knowing was crippling me.

So I started mid-scene. Chaos in the kitchen. With a dog. My protagonist wants something and the dog stops her from getting it. (Remember that thing Kurt Vonnegut said, about how “Every character wants something, even if it’s just a glass of water”?) Our job as a writer is to stop our protagonist from getting what she wants. Repeatedly. So I started the scene, stopped her from getting what she wanted, and ramped up the action. The next time I looked, I had 1200 words. Curse broken. Now she’s on the path to comedic romance and the story is moving along nicely.

2. Create a trajectory for your character based on her decisions and their consequences. I’ve become one of those people who writes out a basic story map. I don’t plan every single thing that will happen in my book, but I do plan a series of events that are set into motion based on my protagonist’s choices. My writing partner and I were talking about this one day, discussing how we needed our heroines to make decisions and deal with the outcomes. Instead of having things happen to them, we needed to make our heroines make decisions that set other events in motion. In short, they needed to cause things to happen. After all, that’s what reveals depth of character and creates plot.

It’s like billiard balls on a table. When one ball is struck with the cue, it strikes another ball and sets off another event, another collision. To be an active engaging character, your protagonist needs to do the same. Her actions need to create consequences that she must then deal with (and then the cycle repeats, and you raise the stakes). 

Often times, this difference between active and passive action is the difference between a mediocre story and a compelling one. A compelling character needs to act and choose, rather than simply react to what befalls her. (If you need a homework assignment, look at a protagonist from one of your favorite novels: are things just happening to this person, or is that character causing events to happen? The most compelling stories have active characters steering their own lives. The drama unfolds as they make good decisions and god-awful ones.)

Sometimes I know exactly where I need to start a story—but more often I don’t. And lately, I find myself stalling when I don’t have a clear idea of an event I’m writing toward. Thinking in terms of my character’s decisions and the fallout from her actions has helped me gather the momentum I need to get deep into the story, where the magic really starts to happen and the heart of the story is revealed. And as a bonus, the reason your characters make their decisions will often lead you to the crux of your story, making it resonate deeper with your readers.

Tune in next time for Part II, when we propel you novel forward.


This post was originally published with Underground Book Reviews in March of 2017. Update: that above scene that happened in the kitchen? It turned into my latest novella, JUST THE TROUBLE I NEEDED, which you can see more about here