Category Archives: Story

Why do we read…or write?

Image from Wikipedia

Fiction, stories, books, novels, that is.

Why do we read stories?  What is it about this form of communication that draws us in and absorbs our attention and focus until the words The End?  What do we seek from reading?  What do we receive from reading?

Conversely, why do some of us write stories?  What are our goals or intent?  Why do we do it?

Rather than go into all the many ideas I have about either of these I am including two polls below.  One for readers and one for writers.

All you writers out there should also be readers and should answer both polls. 🙂

Mark all that apply and then add a comment below to keep the discussion going.

Readers Poll

Writers Poll

First, thank you for answering the polls and discussing more detailed thoughts.  For me, the answers to the above poll questions are evidenced in the creation of the questions themselves.  In effect, I created polls that closely reflect my own motivations for both reading and writing.

The only exception may be my desire to be famous.  I would rather not be famous, actually, and would prefer to be successful and relatively anonymous.

So, let’s discuss.  Why do we read and write, really?

Who is willing to go first?


Lost in the story middle?

Once upon a time I was a pantser*, I had no problem coming up with great story ideas, interesting (I thought) characters, especially the antagonist, and was able to dive right into the first draft.

Alas, that inertia was like a ball rolled up an incline.  The ball rolled as far as my initial throw, but then part way up the slope, the ball would apex and start rolling backwards.  This happened to me on three consecutive novel projects.  My initial momentum slowed and then stopped, and then my first draft progress started backsliding as I began rethinking or reworking the first act of the story.  I was unable to move forward, feeling compelled to fix what I’d written before I could continue.

The problem of course was that I hadn’t thought through the entire story.  I wanted to discover the story as I went along.  I wanted to be both the writer and the first reader of the story.  I wanted to be surprised by what the characters did and what happened.  I didn’t want to write the story, I wanted the characters to write the story for me.  This is the way Stephen King does it, so why shouldn’t I emulate one of the masters?

Upon reflection and analysis–although I didn’t figure this out until much later–I discovered one main problem with this approach.  In essence, I didn’t really know the main characters well enough to know what they would do in the setting I created with the story premise/idea I had.  Where/when would they really become involved in the story problem?  What was their life like before the inciting incident?  How would they react to sudden changes?  What inner demons do they struggle with?  What goals would they put aside to solve the story problem?  And perhaps the biggest question, how would the inner and outer goals of all the main characters oppose each other and what conflict would result?

If the characters have the proper dimension and depth for the type and genre of story you intend to tell, the answers to most if not all of the questions above would be answered.  Knowing the characters is really the main way to maintain story inertia.  When you know the characters well enough, it’s easier to decide what they’ll do in each scene, how they’ll react to situations and the actions/reactions of other characters.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

So what are ways to better understand your characters, and thus the entire story?

First, I suggest getting over the hangup I had about trying to keep the unfolding events of the story a surprise to you the writer.  You are the writer, not the first reader.  Most of us simply cannot tell a proper story without knowing the entire story from beginning to end.  How else will you properly foreshadow, plant story seeds that bloom later, flashback or reveal mysteries, expand on motivations, introduce subplots and red herrings, and have a proper character arc for your protagonist if you don’t know the details of your plot?  If you can do this without any planning, stellar.  I cannot.

Second, know your characters better than you know anyone else.  The writer must know the characters’ deepest secrets, worst fears, fragile hopes, emotional scars, fervent desires, social needs, hidden and obvious talents, attitudes, biases, opinions, childhood traumas, moments of joy, and anything else that creates characters readers want to spend time with.  How you do this as a writer is up to you.  Interview the character, write a biography page or two, use a character profile sheet or tool, write a series of journal entries in first person from the character’s POV, or simply write down everything you know about yourself that would be needed in a story and change it all to match each main character.  By main characters, I mean the viewpoint characters, protagonist, antagonist, and any prominent character whose actions in the story drive change.  Secondary characters do not need as much depth, but you should know them at least as well as you know members of your family or your friends, so you can predict their behavior and attitudes in each scene.

Third, write an outline.  I’ve posted about this previously here and a follow-up here.  An outline is a roadmap for your story.  Use whatever level of detail you wish.  Some writers, write a single page to describe the main events of the story.  Others write a hundred page detailed scene by scene breakdown.  I’m still experimenting with my outline style, but suffice it to say, I use both synopsis style narrative outlines, spreadsheet style scene lists, and plot timeline charts.  An outline will help you know the full story, help you see the pace and rhythm of events, and will help you see where the characters are acting on the story problem and where they are reacting to the story problem or other characters.

Fourth, and this is a lesson I’ve learned this past month, don’t be a slave to either character profiles or your initial outline.  Treat these planning materials as first drafts.

These past two months, I’ve been stalled on my current novel project, The Order of X, Book One of my epic fantasy series.  I had used The Snowflake Method to design the story and characters.  Additionally, I completed five-page character profiles for each main character and abbreviated profiles for secondary characters.  I had more planning and preparation references that I’d ever used before, and STILL I got stuck at the end of the first act of the story, about 30,000 words in.

My initial characters ideas were flawed.  One viewpoint character was so unique and against type, she was unlikable.  The protagonist had no emotional depth and reaction to serious events in the story.  The initial obstacles were tough, but got too easy and predictable after they got through them.  I didn’t have enough suspense or conflict with the antagonist.

My story inertia had stalled and I could feel that ball hitting an apex and starting to roll backwards.  Rather than give up and switch projects, like I’ve done so often in the past, I went back to my character profiles, outline, and scene list and revisited it all, spending most of the past month making changes.  Predictably, I found several story gaps that require entire new scenes and chapters.

After all, I know the characters better now that before I started the draft.  I also know what story path follows the least resistance and therefore is the least interesting.

For me, the way to get unstuck was to be willing to change my initial planning documents to get to a better, fuller, more complete story, and I’m much happier with the story now.

I wrote the first new scene in over a month last night.

I’m now unstuck and the ball is again rolling uphill.  This time, however, I’ll stay with the ball and keep nudging it so it maintains momentum until the story is concluded and I can write “The End.”

What strategies have you used to navigate the vast maze of the middle of a story?

* a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, just winging the story by pure inspiration and/or force of will with little or no planning or preparation.

Hooked a Reader…Now What?

Recently, I wrote about the importance of hooking a reader with a great first line or paragraph in your story.  The goal is to entice the reader to keep reading.

So after you’ve written a killer first sentence or paragraph, what comes next?  How do you keep the reader engaged where they feel compelled to keep turning pages?

Fantasy author Michael Sullivan posted on this topic recently and rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point you to his post, “Writing Advice 17 – A Reason to Read.”

Sullivan focuses on several key areas to improve the quality of the storytelling that keeps a reader on the proverbial hook.

  • Add layers of mystery to your story.  Parallel or overlapping story questions keep the readers intrigued.
  • Add or increase conflict, a key requirement.  Stories are really about characters in conflict.
  • Add or increase tension and suspense.  Tension creates the emotion of anticipation where the reader expects something important to happen.

I highly recommend this quick refresher on the elements of story that will keep your readers engaged in your stories and eager for the next ones.

Has anyone discovered or used any other techniques to keep readers turning pages?

How to Make a Scene

Often as writers we get lost navigating the forest of our stories because once we enter the woods, we don’t know which direction to go or we have our eye so firmly focused on the distant exit that we can’t see the trees right in front of us.

Yes, this is tired metaphor, but let’s compare these trees to scenes in a story.  The ideal and most interesting path from the beginning of the forest to the end will be lined with trees.  Just like the ideal story will be composed from beginning to end with the appropriate and most interesting scenes.

Sure the forest is full of many other trees that could be followed, but they will lead you away from the ideal story road onto diverse paths that may seem intriguing, but ultimately lead to dead ends.

So, how does one stay on the proper story path?  How do you know which scene trees to follow?

At its most basic, a story is a series of connected scenes, like pearls on a string or trees along a path.  Each scene is a self-contained unit of action that advances the plot, reveals character, creates questions or provides answers, and layers in theme.  A good scene offers one of more of these traits.  A great scene offers all four.

Like the overall story, a scene should have a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning of the scene should establish the setting (time and place), introduce the characters involved (especially the viewpoint character), and identify a problem, conflict, or question that must be faced.

The middle of the scene should show the characters attempting to resolve the problem, conflict, or question.  They should make progress, have setbacks, move forward, slide backwards, and ultimately things seem to get worse, or at least more complicated.  The characters are tested and stressed in a way that fits the genre, theme and story arc.  Often the middle ends with a dark moment, or crux, where the situation presented at the beginning of the scene has gotten so bad it seems impossible to resolve.

The end of the scene is the resolution.  The characters find a course of action using their unique talents, skills, experiences, or via cooperation to either solve the problem, or fail to solve it.  They either discover something new, or the answer eludes them.  Either way, the building suspense of the scene problem is over as the action concludes.

Obviously, a scene is more complex than simply thinking in terms of beginning, middle, and end.  However, by structuring a scene in such a way and building transitions between scenes to connect them, you create a continuous story that flows naturally from beginning to end.

And what more do readers want than a great story that compels them to keep reading to the satisfying conclusion?

I recommend a great book that opened my eyes to the importance of writing complete and effective scenes.  Check out Make A Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld.  Click the image for a link to Amazon.

When you know which scene trees to follow along the forest path, you’ll arrive at the end of a satisfying story journey.

What tricks have you learned about scene writing?

Outlines are still for Wimps

Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.

The courage has paid off and although I didn’t finish the outline process in January as planned (I finished March 31, actually) I am very pleased with the process. I expect the next time I outline it will go much faster.

How did a discovery writer, like me, even attempt an outline when my only previous attempts at outlining were for college essays? A co-worker—who also happens to be a published writer—introduced me to a writing guru named Randy Ingermanson. His fiction writing web site is here.

Randy advocates his “Snowflake Method” of story design, or in other words, a method for outlining. So, I read the free article on his site. You can read it here.

The short version of the process is simple. You start with a single sentence description of your story and build on it in deliberate steps until you have a four-page story synopsis, a full scene and chapter list, and full-page character synopsis/description for each major character and a ½-page synopsis for secondary characters.

This process can take a month or more, and for me it took two. However, the results were worth it, because I now have well-defined characters, core story, and a plot that flows consistently and builds gradually from beginning to end. I even tamed the typically vast wasteland of the middle of the book by a careful outline detailing the scenes and goals for the characters in that section of the story.

Now that I’ve invested energy up front in what amounts to story planning, I expect the process of writing the first draft will be smoother and more consistent than for my previous works. I don’t expect to be stuck anywhere along the way wondering how I painted my characters and myself into the proverbial corner. There are no corners at this point, only smooth curves ahead.

What about the siren’s song of discovery writing? What of the joy some writers derive from experiencing the story as it unfolds along with the characters? Well, I had that satisfaction while I developed the outline. I conjured the important high level events and determined the path and obstacles the characters would face.

The Snowflake Method has a built-in revision process so that after each of the ten steps are achieved, you go back and update earlier design elements so that everything is in harmony. For example, you have written a one page story synopsis which describes the beginning middle and end of the story with key events and outcomes. In the next step, you do a more detailed character description and you discover that your character would do things a little differently than you first thought and so the outcome of one event would be different. You like the new idea better so you update the earlier story synopsis to match.

This is part of why this process talks a little longer because you are evolving the story/plot in parallel with the characters and cross-pollinating ideas and revising both to stay in sync. When I finished, in essence, the scene list combined with the four page story synopsis (and major character synopses) became a mini first draft and I see the whole story now with all its core elements. The discovery part that remains is how the characters will navigate this path. How will they react? What will they say and do? Will they decide to veer of course and cause me to change my outline? It may. I have already given myself permission now to change the outline. It is, after all, my outline and as the writer, I should not hold myself to any structure that gets in the way of telling the story in the best possible way.

To me, discovery writing is like riding a raw wave of creativity. It is exciting while it lasts, but eventually the tide turns and you are left with still waters.

Creativity in a raw form is also like a bare light bulb shining in all directions, bright and diffuse and illuminating everything. However, we can’t look at everything at once. Our binocular field of vision is ~140 degrees. So, by focusing that creativity via planning or outlining, we are in effect putting that light bulb into a cylinder with a lens and a reflector. Now we have a means to focus and aim that light to help us find the best path forward. A focused light also helps us see further down the path than we could otherwise see with an unfocused exposed light.

Creativity needs focus to produce results. Outlining provides focus for writers.

This may not work for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with the middle of stories or novels, or sustaining a plot through the full length of your WIP, you may find that investing some bandwidth in story design is a possible solution.

The process so far has been successful for me. I am very pleased with the results. I’ll revisit this topic down the road to see if I still feel the same about the value of outlines when I’m deep in the middle of The Lost Tower first draft.

Has anyone else had any outlining success stories or learned any new tips or tricks since the beginning of the year?

Why we need more conflict…

…or what we really need from a story.

I read the other day that many aspiring and novice writers tend to avoid the very thing that makes a story interesting.  When these moments, the moments where characters at cross purposes cross paths, are what we read for.

The conflict.  The tension.  The argument.  The fight.  The physical war.  The silent war.

We read for the exchange of glares and stares with set jaw, thin lips, narrowed eyes, boiling blood, red face, quickened pulse, and perspiring palms.  What will happen next?  We must know because the characters we like are struggling with what  they need versus what they have.

We read for the break up and reconciliation.  We read for the beginning and end of a battle.  We read for a naive character gaining wisdom.  We read for the prideful character finding humility.  We read for the pursuit, loss, and rediscovery of love.  We read for the saving of the world or the saving of a family.  We read for the hero to triumph and the villain to fall.  We read for small victories and great victories.  We read for things to change.

We don’t want to read about happy characters making a great living where their boss and co-workers idolize them.  We don’t want to read about characters with loving and supportive spouses and high-achieving and obedient children living the dream in the suburbs with the annual vacation to the timeshare in Lake Tahoe.  We don’t want to read about the well-adjusted character who was raised by kind, wise, and affectionate parents, who provided everything and the character lacked for nothing and faced no adversity in their childhood.

As much as we want and aspire to some of these things in our lives, why wouldn’t we want to read about characters that have it all and can just cruise through life without any ill winds blowing their way?

Because it’s boring.

Stories are not meant to lull us into a false sense of the ideal life around us.  A story is a window into a setting where characters struggle for what they want and fight for what they need.  Story is drama. defines drama as “…a story involving conflict or contrast of character…”

Think back to your favorites books or even movies.  What happened?  Did someone just cruise through a perfect life with no problems?  Or did things go wrong from the beginning and the entire story was about trying to set it right or at least to achieve some form of equilibrium?

So, when a writer tries to tell a story by emulating what we want in real life, he misses the whole point of telling a story.  There must be a difficult and challenging path for the characters and it is the writer’s job to provide those obstacles and really push the characters to overcome.  Because it through that process of overcoming that we as readers truly identify with the characters we like most.  We share their journey through the ups and downs and can experience the highs and lows we may not normally find in real life.

Very few of us will sneak through an orc encampment in the heart of an evil nation to toss a ring into a molten lake inside a mountain like Frodo did in Lord of the Rings.  But, we were right there with his every faltering step, his every burden, his struggle against Gollum, and the weight of the ring itself on his soul.  We won’t do that in life, but we did it through a story.

So, next time you read a story, relish the conflict, the drama, the tension.  The author worked hard to make life difficult for the characters so that they could learn and grow from their experiences.

And if the writer does his job well, and you as reader identify with a particular character and a particular struggle, then you may just learn a little bit about yourself.

And isn’t that really why we read stories?

“Time Soldier” – first published story

Photo courtesy of Suat Eman

Below is the entire version of my only published work to date (errors and all). It appeared in the Fall 1991 edition of “Philae,” a tiny literary journal based in Colorado. The story is short, about 1500 words or three single spaced pages.

Content explanation: This is an early attempt at contemporary fantasy/time travel. If the core story concept holds interest, I have considered expanding this into a novel at some point. So, your feedback on the story idea or concept is very welcome.

Time Soldier by Mark Taylor

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze. He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks. A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

He heard voices and saw some college kids tossing a frisbee and laughing. Didn’t they know?, he thought. Of course not. They never knew. They never even suspected.

He stood up slowly and wiped the dirt and leaves from his uniform with absent swipes of his calloused and grimy hands. His thoughts went back to where he was before he had passed out.

War. With M-16 rifle in hand and body in a foxhole, he waited. There was always waiting. He remembered the thunder of artillery fire and the hail of mortar shells all around him. He couldn’t recall who they were fighting, or whose side he was on. He just knew he was scared. A cold, mind-numbing terror.

“Hey, hey you, toss us the frisbee will you?” Somewhere outside his head, a voice called out. He ignored it. Now he heard his sergeant and saw his face as clearly as if holding a photograph. The sergeant with the scar that stretched from his left ear to the corner of his mouth stood in front of him. He was close enough to see perspiration running along the ridge of that hideous scar.

“We got no room for pussies in the army. You listening to me, private? I have a feeling you’re going to be a private for a hell of a long time.” How right he was. “Now get yer thumb out of yer mouth and fight like a man.”

The soldier closed his eyes and wept silently.

“Hey, army dude, are you deaf? Throw us the frisbee.” An insistent voice said, closer.

This is my last chance, he thought. The last war this world will ever face started in a few hours, and he had to fight in it. He had fought in every war since the American revolution. He was a coward and a deserter even then. But, they found him. They always found him. That was when he met Luke. Luke was to supervise his “rehabilitation,” and through some incomprehensible power, Luke cursed him to fight in every war until the last. This would be the last. The world would go up in nuclear ashes.

He had only a vague recollection of past wars. Mostly just images and sensations of déjà vu and neverending fear. He had no idea what happened to him between wars, but he hadn’t aged physically. He was still a lanky 21 year-old with ratty brown hair and the shadow of a beard on his sunken cheeks. He didn’t care to wonder why he always survived to fight again. He only knew that he would be free from the curse if he displayed some form of unselfish bravery.

He blinked and his eyes focused on a well-built kid wearing a blue fraternity sweatshirt with yellow letters picking up a white frisbee not five feet from where he stood.

“What’s your problem? Are you some kind of whacked out Vietnam vet?”

The soldier just stared past him into the creamy blue sky.

“Hey, I’m talking to you, punk.” The college boy took a step forward. The soldier flicked his eyes to the figure in front of him and spoke.

“What is the year?”

“What? Where have you been? It’s 1992. What year did you think it was?” He smiled absurdly.

“I don’t know.”

“Sheesh, man, you’re whacked out.” He turned to walk off.

“Are you prepared to die?” The soldier said with such melancholy and surety that the college boy turned around.


“I said, ‘Are you ready for the last great war?'”

“Now you’re talkin’ crazy, man.” He said as he clenched his fists. A pretty girl in blue and gold sweats jogged up and eyed the stranger sympathetically.

“What’s going on, Todd?”

“This lunatic is mouthin’ about some war and everybody dying.”

The soldier looked down at his feet long enough to cause the others to fidget impatiently. When he looked up a tear welled up in his right eye. When it broke loose, it cascaded down his scruffy cheek, carved a trail in the dirt and disappeared in the stubble. He met the girl’s gaze. “It is true. You must prepare. We haven’t but a few hours before the whole world goes up in flames like the sun itself.”

“Are you okay?” She said sweetly. “You look hurt.”

The soldier felt something inside that made him forget for an instant his torment. He tried to smile, but it had been too long. Instead, he looked into the pretty girl’s eyes and was mesmerized by the life and light they possessed.

“You better keep those crazy ideas to yourself, army dude, or they’ll lock you up like a stray dog. Let’s go, Amanda.”

“But Todd, he’s hurt—” she started, but was cut off when the college boy grabbed her arm and led her away. He was laughing and mocking him just like people always did. Their clothes were slightly different and their dialects were varied, but their disbelief was always the same. They thought America too powerful to be harmed. Too late to warn them. That would be a waste of time. But the girl, Amanda, had a shine of hope and a love of life in her expressions. Too bad it would never be realized by her college boy.

He sighed deeply and painfully and trudged across the grass to the lavatories. He washed his face and hands and thought back to his first war.

The colonies had been victorious when Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown in the fall of 1781. Washington was praised and the colonists were ecstatic, but one young soldier wept bitterly as a man known only as Luke pronounced an inhuman curse upon his head. Luke held pity in his eyes, but his judgement was swift and the young soldier’s damnation complete.

“You’ll benefit far greater from quick reform than from drawn out lamentation, my friend.” He had said like a disappointed father. How utter his punishment had been. Dozens of wars later, he was still a ‘whiteliver’. His self-deprecation had become more and more pronounced until he had become a shell of a man. He was filled with an empty regret that had eaten up his mind like acid and left nothing but the base instinct of survival and desperation.

Luke would come soon, he thought as he left the washroom and looked out beyond the railroad. He watched intently as a form in the distance moved toward him. As it approached, he could make out the unmistakable features of an old man in a gray robe walking laboriously with a withered staff for support. The soldier waited until Luke came up to him.

“Greetings, young one, the time has come.”

“I know, Luke.”

“And are you ready to free yourself? I can hear the wailing of your imprisoned soul. It pains me deeply.”

“Not nearly as much as it pains me.”

“Yes, yes. You know the consequences of failure on this your last chance, do you not?”

“I do. I’ll be banished to the dawn of time and must repeat the cycle from the first war to this, the last.”

“There will be no relief from your suffering. You cannot die. This you know.”

“I understand. And if I succeed?”

“Hello, what have we here? You have never queried about that before. What stroke of fate have we witnessed?”

“What if I succeed, Luke?” The soldier was amazed at his own insistence.

“You may go back home, to the place and time where we first met.”

“May I take someone with me?” He felt his bitterness and despair fall away like dead leaves and in its place the buds of faith began to sprout.

“What happened to you, my young friend? You look as if you’ve been smitten by Cupid’s arrows.”

“I’m not sure about that. But for the first time in ages, I have forgotten about my self. And it felt edifying. Am I going mad?”

“No my friend, you are perfectly sane. There is truly hope for you yet.”

“May I take her if I overcome my cowardice?”

“I have a feeling that you may do just that.”

“Thank you, Luke. Now, if you’ll pardon me I have a girl to save and a bomb shelter to find.

The old man smiled broadly and watched the young soldier sprint across the park and out of sight. He will not only save someone else, but he will save his own soul.

He’ll be home in no time.

The End

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