The Nitty Gritty of Character Arcs

For this month’s #WritingwithRae we will explore CHARACTER ARCS: What are they? What are the types? Are they necessary? And what are some tips and tricks?

How do we define a character arc? First, it’s important we breakdown its role in the lives of your novel’s characters. To do this, we must know what it is our characters want or need. This is their objective. Conflict arises when obstacles get in our characters paths. How each character reacts to these obstacles creates his or her arc. No one wants to read a story about a character who reaches out her hand and gets her heart’s desire. Readers want characters to deserve it. Characters must struggle; only then will they value what they have gained.

It is essential writers decide what, if any, type of arc their characters(s) will have within the story. And while writers can take inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight “Shapes of Stories,” I tend to side with the three-arcs-camp: static, positive, or negative.

First let’s examine the STATIC character. Often writers overlook such characters, believing arcs are necessary for a dynamic story. But static characters are not flat characters. Flat characters have no depth, but when a static character is crafted with purpose, he or she can still be engaging. In fact, many static characters can take the leading role in a story.  Think of Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES (Collins), Sherlock Holmes (Doyle), Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lee), or even Alice from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (Carroll). These characters may not make a dramatic transformation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t grow.

Often though, static characters are used to contrast a more dynamic character (Joe vs. Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Dickens)). At times, characters who hold their ground may cause the people and world around them to transform. Other times, a static character is resistant to change due to moral standards. Static characters may be able to adapt easily to the obstacles thrown their way. No matter their impact, the world view of these characters is the same at the end of the story as it is at the beginning.

Now that we know not all characters must endure a transformation, let’s examine the most common arc in literature: the POSITIVE character arc. In the standard Hero’s Journey the protagonist overcomes both external and internal obstacles. With the positive arc, the character goes from “man” to “superman,” an ideal version of themselves. Typically the positive arc begins with a character’s misconception about themselves or the world around him or her. Often times this manifests as a flaw that thwarts the character’s efforts in obtaining their objective.

Along the character’s journey he or she is faced with a crisis and confronted with the truth about the lie they believe or the flaws they possess. If the character’s reaction is to embrace the truth, the result is a positive arc. They have found the chain holding them back or the key to achieving what they need. In some cases the objective may change altogether. Either way, the character has reached an inner strength/self-awareness. They are “more” and equipped to handle their new reality.

I recommend examining the positive arcs of the multitude of characters in novels such as LES MISERABLE (Hugo) or A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE (Martin). You can get the most bang for your buck with an ensemble cast. Taking the time to think critically about each character’s arc and comparing and contrasting these arcs with the others will be a great exercise.

Sometimes characters are bested by the trials and tribulations they suffer. This too can be quite compelling to witness. For these characters, their arc ends on a NEGATIVE note. Negative and positive arcs have similar beginnings: the character struggles to obtain his/her want or need. However, for these characters the misconception they have about themselves or the world around them does not encumber their goal. Instead it drives them.

Characters on a negative arc path do not suspect their arc will end any other way than positive. Where the path deviates from a positive arc is when the character embraces the lie instead of the truth. The acceptance of the lie may result from corruption, disillusionment, or a fall from grace. Often times, the character does so unknowingly, simple because their misconception is validated by the world surrounding them. Ultimately the chosen path leads to a character’s self-destruction. It doesn’t matter if the original objective was for good or ill intent. The result is a downward spiral.

Some of the most powerful character arcs with negative impacts are those where the character doesn’t just discover the “truth,” but has always known the truth. Despite knowing better, the character goes down the opposite path, maintaining all the while they are capable of not getting mixed up, whether it’s morally, legally, or emotionally. Unfortunately, the character is forced to compromise over and over until they are so far in, they have no choice but to accept the lie. This ultimately concludes with their defeat.

Examples of character with negative arcs include Nick Carraway in THE GREAT GATSBY (Fitzgerald), Frank Wheeler in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Yates), and Michael from THE GODFATHER (Puzo).

Lastly, let me leave you with a few closing thoughts all writers should keep in mind when crafting character arcs.

Whether your character’s arc is flat or a personal transformation, it’s crucial writers examine their characters’ arcs so the cause-and-effect of the plot can move to the forefront. This will also anchor your characters within the story.

When facing obstacles, a character’s strengths & weaknesses are tested and stretched beyond the point of elasticity, causing whatever state the character began in to be permanently changed. It is at the climax of the story your character must make his or her choice. Will they embrace the truth about themselves? Will they adapt to the way the world is truly? Or will they discover they were right all along and remain static? How much growth does he or she obtain on this journey?

Conflict requires action and affects characters internally. As characters react to the obstacles set before them they are progressing through an emotional/spiritual crossing. This internal crossing is just as important as the external crossing

Secondary characters have arcs as well, but it’s important writers do not let those arcs upstage that of the main character, unless, of course, you’re dealing with an ensemble cast. For example, Javert’s arc is just as compelling as Jean Valjean’s; Cossette’s as much as Eponine’s; Marius as much as Enjolras in LES MISERABLE (Hugo).

While there is a ton of advice on crafting character arcs, there is no right or wrong way. Pick the approach that works for the character and plot you are implementing in your novel. Many times, your character’s arc develops naturally once you have established what is preventing him or her from obtaining their objective.

Which are your favorite character arcs? Can you come up with examples of static, positive, and negative arcs? If you plotted your own arc, what would it look like?

Thanks for joining me again for this month’s #WritingwithRae. As always, if you found this information helpful be sure to pass it on to other writerly friends. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae blog posts. Join me on Twitter for #WritingwithRae threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month) and on Instagram for announcements. See you next month!

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The Unreliable Narrator

It’s me, Rae! Or is it? The stories we tell are filtered through the narrator of the story. But what happens when that narrator’s viewpoint is compromised? This month’s #WritingwithRae explores the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR. Thanks to @akejones for the great topic suggestion.

I recently read THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware. Although I did find it particularly a great book, I really appreciated how Ware turned the idea of an unreliable narrator on its head. Instead of bring us to the conclusion our narrator isn’t telling the truth, we suspect her because everyone else suspects her. She has been the victim of a crime, drinks to excess, and has been battling anxiety since a teenager. Even she’s aware of how others view her, but is adamant she is telling the truth. Another recent read, NINE PERFECT STRANGERS  by Liane Moriarty, is filled with characters with questionable motives and suspicious accounts of the events unfolding. But do these novels count as examples of unreliable narrators? To answer this question, we need to examine the purpose and employment of this device.

The term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book THE RHETORIC OF FICTION, but authors have used the concept for many years prior. An unreliable narrator does not tell the truth & lacks credibility. They may be blatant liars, hide the truth, or misjudge their circumstances. While almost always done in first person, there are a variety of types and an assortment of ways in which an author reveals unreliability.

At times the unreliable narrator device is used to keep a reader turning the pages, as they do not know what to expect. Other times an unreliable narrator is used to draw the reader into making his or her own conclusions. Either way, when done well, an unreliable narrator is a puzzle the reader wants to decipher—the truth is a mystery waiting to be discovered. This is why this device is especially helpful in crime & mystery novels where the author reveals information in a precise & purposeful way. Horror & supernatural stories also do well with unreliable narrators, especially when an author needs to blur the lines between fantasy & reality.

Writers must take care when employing this type of narrator; it breaks the unspoken trust between reader & writer. Your unreliable narrator’s purpose will be clear to the reader and you will avoid burning that trust to the ground. To do so successfully, writers must provide moments within the story where the reader will second guess or question the narrator’s version and search the pages for the underlying truth.

There are several ways to categorize unreliable narrators and it’s important writers are aware of the major types. The first type are LIARS. One might even argue that by definition all unreliable narrators fall into this first category. This character may lie by omission, contradict him or herself throughout the story verbally or through actions, or admit to being a liar from the get-go.

Characters who are deliberately dishonest may be the most difficult to sustain throughout a novel. The character’s motivations are in question—they take no responsibility for their deception. They have your attention and can tell the story however they wish. It’s a challenge to get your reader to connect with a confessed liar; they probably won’t even like your narrator. The character’s nature is deceitful and they are incapable of telling their story objectively. This character is deliberately being tricky. But authors must provide either common ground with or a way for the reader to relate to the narrator—a reason to hear the character’s version of the story. An unreliable narrator that falls into this category must be compelling enough for the reader to stay throughout the entire book.

Some examples of the LIAR include Briony Tallis in ATONEMENT (McEwan), Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Burgess), Dr. Sheppard in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Christie), Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (Salinger), Paul Lohman in THE DINNER (Koch), Christopher Boone in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Haddon), Rosemary in WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES (Fowler), Frank Cauldhame in THE WASP FACTORY (Banks), and John Dowell in THE GOOD SOLDIER (Dowell).

Our second category includes NAÏVE characters. This character is usually a child or a character who has experienced life in an unusual way than those currently around him or her. They may have little experience with the way of the world, lack understanding, or have an inability to cope with reality. This category can also include characters who have a learning disability, brain damage, or lower than average intelligence.

These narrators are not deliberately lying, but rather their account of events is unreliable due to innocence, simplicity, gullibility, or inexperience. Their interpretation of the events forces us to translate their tale from a more traditional perspective and follow the bread crumbs towards the truth of the matter.

Some examples of NAÏVE narrators include Jack in ROOM (Donoghue), Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lee), Huck from THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FYNN (Twain), Forrest in FORREST GUMP (Groom), the children in THE THREE (Lotz), Christopher in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Haddon), Edward in BIG FISH (Wallace), Bartholomew in THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW (Quick), and Piscine in THE LIFE OF PIE (Martel).

Our third category of unreliable narrators are what I call the MOONSTRUCK, and includes those characters with a variety of disorders, diseases, trauma, psychosis, etc. These are characters who may experience hallucinations, are under the influence, suffer flashbacks, amnesia, or PTSD. Their perspective is skewed due to mental illness or a personality disorder. Sometimes the lying is intentional, sometimes it’s not—it all depends on the specific way in which a character is written in the story.

Some examples of MOONSTRUCK narrators include Holden from CATCHER IN THE RYE (Salinger), Pat from THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Quick), Charlie in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (Chbosky), the unnamed narrator in FIGHT CLUB (Palahniuk), Rachel from THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Hawkins), Lia from WINTERGIRLS (Anderson), Chief Bromden in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (Kesey), Raoul Duke in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (Thompson), Barbara in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Heller), Humbert from LOLITA (Nabokov), The narrator in THE TELL-TALE HEART (Poe), Patrick in AMERICAN PSYCHO (Ellis), John in A BEAUTIFUL MIND (Nasar), Barney in BARNEY’S VERSION (Richler), Portnoy from PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (Roth), Teddy in SHUTTER ISLAND (Lehane),  and Charles in PALE FIRE (Nabokov).

Lastly, let’s consider the LAWLESS category of unreliable narrators. Lawless characters lie to cover up their crimes. They’re motivated by a need to justify their actions, blame other characters, exact revenge, set up another to take the fall, or any other way one attempts to save oneself from consequences. The Lawless narrator is being manipulative as an act of self-preservation, and may exaggerate or diminish what happened. They want you to understand a fabricated truth and deliberately steer readers away from certain information. Occasionally we find characters who are unaware of their distortions of the truth, and are doing so not so much as avoiding punishment, but more as a way of coping with the unbearable truth of what they have done.

Examples of LAWLESS unreliable narrators include Nick & Amy from GONE GIRL (Flynn), John in THE GOOD SOLDIER (Ford), Keyser Soze from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Larson), Nina & Isobel in TALKING TO THE DEAD (Bingham), Charles in PALE FIRE (Nabokov), & the narrator in THE END OF ALICE (Homes).

There are some types of unreliable narrators that are more difficult to categorize. For instance, some characters do not know the whole truth or misinterprets the truth. One such example is the narrator in REBECCA (du Maurier). She is not deliberately being deceitful; she simple does not understand and is therefore misled to what the truth is.

Some narrators tell their version of the story based on prejudices. Whether they were raised to believe a certain way or adopted a belief as an adult, bias, discrimination, bigotry, etc. can slant the narrative. Nelly from WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Brontë) and Invisible Man from INVISIBLE MAN (Ellision) are examples of this type of unreliable narrator. The narrator in REBECCA (du Maurier) would also fall into this category.

Lastly, some narrators are “Other.” These may be ghosts or otherworldly beings. Screwtape from THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS (Lewis) and the ghost in THE TURN OF THE SCREW (James) are examples of unreliable narrators who fall into the “other.”

So what are a few things authors need to consider when deliberating the use of an unreliable narrator? The first aspect to ponder is whether you, as an author, are oversimplifying the definition of an unreliable narrator. These characters are more than just liars. After all, we have just examined a number of unreliable narrator types and determined these characters can hide facets of the truth, withhold information, or misjudge circumstances.

The author must determine how the narrator relates information. This will depend on their perception of reality. Narrators consider the “audience” to which they are telling their story—their assessment of their narrative audience. Imagine telling a raunchy story to your best friend how that story might change in the telling if the audience was suddenly your grandmother. To the narrator, audience matters.

So, instead of examining literary theory and introducing you to Peter J Rabinowitz , Tamar Yacobi, Ansgar Nünning, & Greta Olson, who provide criticism and insight into unreliable narrators, I will touch on the reader’s ability to believe or not believe the character.

Readers use certain cognitive strategies in determining a narrator’s reliability and it is those strategies authors can exploit. Suspecting a narrator as being unreliable goes beyond intuition. Readers come to the table with preexisting concepts of normalcy and it is this difference between the narrator’s norms that clue the reader into the narrator’s reliability. After all, if your worldview is similar to the narrator’s you may be less likely to suspect the narrator of not being trustworthy. If the opposite is true, then you may see warning signals far earlier in the story.

Ultimately authors must contemplate on how a reader reconciles discrepancies in the narrator’s account. There is a scale that shifts back and forth as the reader follows the narration–trustworthy on one end and unreliable on the other. A crafty author learns how to signal to the reader where and when to move the slider on that scale. A signal may include a character contradicting him or herself, having spotty memory, or lying to another character. Another signal may involve the narrator challenging the reader’s understanding of the world or confirming an impossibility (i.e. “I see dead people.”). Having awareness of how the reader interprets the narration is key to having a successful unreliable narrator.

Another consideration is the reader’s comprehension of literary devices, genres, stock characters, and conventions and how these can affect a reader’s strategy in determining a narrator’s reliability. A reader who is aware of the author’s employment of the braggart soldier character may identify that character’s contradictions faster than a reader who does not. A writer cannot know an individual reader’s awareness, but nevertheless should keep such things in mind.

There are several tips writers can engage to give their unreliable narrator purpose realization. The first is understanding that every narrator is, in essence, unreliable to some degree. It’s been called the Rashomon Effect. Memory is faulty and subjective, situations can be misconstrued, and perspectives are skewed. Each narrator relates a different version, even though the story is the same. Some aspects of each account are true and some are false.

Second is knowing our characters are reflections of real life. As we are flawed, so are they. Characters should be layered with blind spots, individual opinions, & insights, giving them a unique “voice.” Partial unreliability adds to those layers & portrays a narrator as “human.” However, when an author uses the device of an unreliable narrator, the unreliability does more than add a layer to making a believable character. It has purpose and justification, driving the plot forward. When using this device, the writer’s job is to place the question in the reader’s mind: who is this narrator really? When done correctly, readers continue to turn the page to find the answer. They need to find know.

Third, writers must consider the reader’s connection to the character. The reader is giving the writer unearned trust. It’s called the Suspension of Disbelief—the reader stays his or her doubt or criticism for the sake of the story’s enjoyment. If an author is not deliberate in the use of an unreliable narrator, if the author goes too far and too fast, that trust has not been respected and the reader’s connection with the character is broken. Poorly crafted unreliable narrator can feel manipulative, confusing, or pretentious. The trick is to give just enough doubt for the reader to suspect something is amiss.

A fourth tip writers can utilize is creating a narrator whose motives are unclear. When your narrator’s drives differ from or mindset conflicts with other characters, readers begin to question the reliability of the narrator’s version of the story. Nora from THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS (Messud) is a great example of how this can be done successfully.

Sometimes writers can paint their narrator as innocent or the victim of some wrong doing. It is only later when the narrator’s duplicity is revealed. When done with precision, readers can easily recall all the clues left by the author throughout the story & experience a dual feeling of respect & revulsion for the cunning character. We were fooled by their veil of virtue, when all the while it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nick and Amy from GONE GIRL (Flynn) and the narrators of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (Semple) are great example of how authors can surprise a reader with sly unreliable narrators.

Authors can drop hints as to the unreliability of their character in a variety of other ways. For example, using secondary characters to catch your narrator in a lie (as in Koch’s THE DINNER with the character Serge). One may also have a predictable narrator suddenly do something so far off from what is expected your reader’s head is liable to spin (as in Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES with the character Nora).

What’s important is that the reader believes it. Having your narrator be a sociopath like Patrick in AMERICAN PSYCHO (Ellis) is all well and good, but when readers sympathize with a complex character who is revealed to be unreliable, it’s gold.

Whether they are trying to protect others or themselves, an unreliable narrator’s justifications are relatable. The reader is left asking, “Would I do the same in their shoes? Independent to when the unreliable narrator is revealed (straight away, gradually, plot twist), the use of the device should leave the readers questioning their interpretation of the story & reexamining the trustworthiness of the character’s version of events.

For a deeper study into unreliable narrators, I highly recommend an examination of Eva Khatchadourian in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Shriver). This highly complicated unreliable narrator fits into several categories. Here we find a mother tackling both grief and shame after her son’s act of violence. As difficult as it is to answer why is also the question of how much responsibility does Eva bear? Closure is not conceivable without knowing the answer and she is consumed and tortured by her search and need for…what? Absolution? Pity? Or punishment?

Who is your favorite unreliable narrators or authors who frequently uses this device? What is the last novel you read where an author kept you guessing the narrator’s reliability to the end?

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae this month and I hope you found some helpful information to take your writing a step further. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae Twitter threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month). See you next month!

Romantic Subplots: Tips and Tricks

This month’s Writing with Rae is all about romance. While some of these pieces of advice apply to romance novels and subplots alike, we will focus primarily on romantic subplots within a novel of a different genre or mixed genre.

But before we dive any further, let’s discuss some of ISSUES IN ROMANCE that drive many readers crazy.

Lust at first sight happens, but characters who fall in love instantly is not realistic. Nor is it believable when characters fall in love after their first kiss or first sexual encounter.

Lovers can be assertive without being abusive. If a character says, “no,” and the other character forces him or herself, it’s rape. So many writers attempt to use this behavior to paint a “bad boy” image, when in fact these characters are abusers. Please stop trying to redeem abusers through love. It ain’t gonna happen.

And while we’re at it:  control and insane jealousy are frightening and dangerous, not romantic.

The most unrealistic trope, in my humble opinion, is the Adonis falling head-over-heels in love with the Ugly Duckling. I understand the appeal this can have, but most of the time the Ugly Duckling character is portrayed with extremely low self-esteem and only through the love of the hottest guy/girl in town can he or she realize their self-worth. Right. Okay.

Love triangles suck. How many love triangles have you experienced in your lifetime? Hmm? Can the real Slim Shade please stand up? Stringing two girls or two guys along through an entire subplot frustrates readers and takes your MC’s likability meter down several notches.  

One of my Twitter follows questioned this stance on love triangles, using Pride and Prejudice, The Hunger Games, and The Notebook as examples of successful love triangles. It’s important to note however that in these examples, the main character was not “stringing” two love interests along throughout the story. In the examples of Pride and Prejudice and The Notebook, circumstances kept the main character from being with their chosen romantic partner. The main character isn’t “torn between two lovers,” their situation has torn them apart from each other. In The Hunger Games, Katniss would certainly have gone on to have a romantic relationship with Gale had circumstances not bring her life as she knew it to a screeching halt. The time she spent between the two love interests was due to two things: 1) her desire to hang on to her own identity 2) her romantic relationship with Peeta began as a ruse. With that said, I still feel my point is upheld–Katniss did become a bit more unlikable in the love triangle situation.

What are some of the expectations readers have when it comes to romantic subplots?

READER’S EXPECT a romance to involve the relationship and love between characters. In romance novels, the story has a happy ending for the characters involved. Otherwise, it’s not a romance. When it comes to romantic subplots, the same principal applies, but there is more flexibility; subplots revolve around and are affected by the main plot, and that main plot is not romance.

Romance centers on love, not lust. It should not be confused with the erotica genre, which focuses primarily on the sex of the relationship. Romance does not require sex.

Romantic subplots include consensual characters engaging in a relationship of equality, respect, and love. They care about one another and value each other. They do not demean the other’s feelings and do not pass judgment.

This does not mean that your characters cannot or will not fight. Even healthy couples fight. But if you are including tactics such as physical harm, name-calling or verbal abuse, gaslighting, or manipulation within the fight, you are not writing a romantic subplot. You are writing a dysfunctional relationship that includes deal-breakers.

That’s not to say characters can’t make mistakes. Many people say things they don’t mean to their significant other. Most people have had moments of despicable behavior. The difference in a romance is how the relationship is mended. Does the character admit his or her mistake and take full ownership? Does their apology express remorse and does their behavior change in a way that warrants forgiveness? Does the character grow from this experience and make all efforts to not repeat their mistake?

Readers expect characters involved in a romantic subplot to be happy. This includes the ability and desire to communicate with one another. Don’t frustrate your reader with lengthy silent treatments or ridiculous plagues of miscommunication. 

We’ve examined lots of DON’Ts, so now let’s discuss some DOs. How can writers create realistic attraction between two romantic characters?

First thing’s first. Writers need multi-dimensional characters. They should be flawed, not perfect (this includes physically appearance too). I know it ruins the fantasy, but at least it’s real. Stop focusing on what is right about the romantic love interest, and consider instead what is wrong.

Writers should think about how the characters in a romantic subplot complement each other. A more timid character may not like the stubbornness of the other character, but can still admire that character’s determination when it comes to fighting for what is right. A character prone to anger may feel calmed by the other character’s ability to keep their head in stressful situations.

Find ways throughout the subplot where characters can be vulnerable with each other. Give them opportunities to build trust and experiences in which they can connect.  It is in these raw moments where the reader witnesses the relationship blossom. Discovering a person who appreciates you without judgment is something to be cherished. Make this happen and your readers will root for these romantic love interests with everything they have.

What are other ways writers can create BELIEVABLE ROMANCE within their subplot?

When introducing two characters who are intended love interests, it’s important writers allow the readers time to get to know each character. Readers want to invest in the relationship, so if you give it all from the start, not only is the romance presented falsely, but readers no longer have a reason to care.  Allow time for expectancy. Provide opportunities for the love interests to get to know each other; it’s how your reader will learn these two belong together.

With that said, realize slow burns that last too long may not succeed in leaving your reader on fire for the romance. Slow burns that go on forever are usually victims of miscommunication, which most readers find extremely frustrating. Slow burns are fine, as long as there’s a purpose.

One trope often used is that opposites attract. And sometimes this is true, BUT these subplots do not always ring true for several reasons. Often times the differences are there to create conflict between the characters, but conflict does not create attraction. Instead, writers should examine the character arcs to find ways in which these differences can lead to experiences where personal growth occurs.

Another way writers create believable romance is to keep the characters evenly matched. Many times we read about couples on opposite sides of the spectrum, and the character with more to offer has no reason to find the other attractive. Seriously. How many times do we see this in real life? I’m not saying the prince can’t fall for the pauper, but that pauper better have something to complement the prince. We need reason for the prince to find the pauper attractive. There must be a common ground where the characters can meet and bond. They must build a source of support for the each other if they are to be in a romantic relationship.

Lastly, if you want a believable romance your characters better darn well like each other. There must be more to their relationship besides conflict and miscommunication. Readers expect romance. The love interests should make each other happy, not miserable.

Let’s discuss some tips for kissing scenes.

Kissing scenes in novels require description, but many times writers make the details technical and sterile. Like fight scenes, readers are lost when play-by-plays diminish the visceral quality.

Instead, use the senses to describe the kiss: the feel of the lips, the sound and/or smell of the breath, the taste of the mouth, etc. Instead of describing the each move the body makes, writers should focus on how the body reacts. Does his heart begin to race? Do goosebumps spread across her neck? Does he begin to perspire? Is her breath warm? Do her cheeks burn?

More importantly, readers are interested in how the characters are feeling. What emotions are bubbling within? Are they nervous? Calm? Terrified? You should also include how the feelings shift throughout the scene. Does anxiety turn to calm when the kissing partner returns his or her affection with fervor? 

Now let’s channel  Salt-N-Pepa and talk about sex, baby.

First, please, for the love of romance get your facts straight. If you have not had sex, a certain type of sex, or understand how bodies react and work…ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS. Things like reaching orgasm simultaneously are rare, so writing about it for each sex scene won’t fool many readers. If you are a male writing from a female’s perspective—please talk to a female for accurate information.

Second, let me reiterate that romance does not require sex. Nor are you required to write a sex scene in your romantic subplot. Don’t feel pressured to do so. You can also do what is called a “fade to  black” or “offstage” sex scene that is understood or referenced to  within the story, but not described. It’s perfectly acceptable. This is a romantic subplot, NOT a romance novel.

If you have taken the advice from the week’s #WritingwithRae you will have a believable romance no matter if a sex scene is present or not. If you do want to include a sex scene, be sure it has a purpose beyond the characters hooking up.

Sex scenes in novels landing in the YA category should focus more on the emotions, not the body. Children do not need graphic descriptions or confusing metaphors. Most adult novels with romantic subplots should include sex scenes that focuses on both the body and the emotion. This will come across as realistic for your readers.

Do you know what kind of sex scenes do not feel genuine? Painful virgin sex, sex on the beach, sex against a wall, sex in a tub or shower. In reality, these things are usually not sexy, accurate, and just plain awkward.

Do you know what kind of sex scenes do feel genuine? Ones that include birth control. Scenes where the characters declare mutual consent. Timid first sexual encounters. Sex on a bed! A BED, for the love of romance!

Congratulations! You now know all about creating ROMANTIC SUBPLOTS in your novel. For an additional resource in writing romance subplots, my wonderful CP, Brittany Kelley, a romance author, suggested the resource ROMANCING THE BEAT by Gwen Hayes.

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae this month.  You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @RaeHardingbooks to receive notice of upcoming #WritingwithRae posts!

If you would like to learn about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments!

See you next month!

Identifying and Fixing Passive Voice

This month’s Writing with Rae was a request by one of my Twitter followers, @Ninjajedi34. She wants to know how to identify and fix PASSIVE VOICE in writing.  And who doesn’t? Passive voice plagues every writer at some point in his or her career. The cure is to define it, identify it, and then search and destroy.


To understand the difference between active and passive voice, you need to strip your sentence down to its bare minimum: subject and verb. Examples:

Jane ran.

Sally jumped.

Dick sat.

Simple enough, right? Now, let’s throw a wrench.


No, not really. But we are throwing out objects. Objects are what the subject is acting upon. They may be present in the sentence or implied. For example, in the sentence “Dick sat” it is implied he sat “on” something, even though it is not explicitly stated in the sentence.

So when we write, “Dick sat on the bench,” the object our subject acted upon is the “bench.” In other words, the subject ACTIVELY engaged with the object by performing the action.

In a nutshell, ACTIVE VOICE consists of a subject+verb+object structure. It may be a simple sentence, but rest assured it’s active!


On the flipside of active voice, PASSIVE VOICE switches the sentence structure, taking the object and putting it in the subject’s place in the sentence: object+verb+subject. Instead of “Sally jumped the gap,” a passive voice reads, “The gap is jumped by Sally.”

Here the object does nothing (as objects do). An action is done to it by the new object (what SHOULD be the subject).


The hallmark of a passive voice sentence is to be verbs + “by.” To be verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) partner with the word “by” in a sentence where the object is in the subject’s place in the structure  and creates a passive voice.

Remember, just as in the above examples of objects being implied in the subject+verb structure, so too can the new object (the intended subject) be implied in passive voice sentences. For example:

The gap is jumped over [by Sally].


Here’s one of the most amusing tricks to spotting PASSIVE VOICE: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of your sentence and the sentence still makes sense, you have a PASSIVE VOICE present. It’s an old tip, but so easy.

The track was run BY ZOMBIES—silly, but makes sense= PASSIVE VOICE

Jan ran the track BY ZOMBIES—does not make sense, ACTIVE VOICE


Why do so many of us fall under the spell of writing PASSIVE VOICE sentences? Because the subject+verb+object structure does not always make strong sentences. This is especially true when using “ing” verbs.

Jane was running the track.

Sally is jumping the gap.

Dick was sitting on the bench.

The above examples are active voice sentences, but they FEEL passive. The subject seems too distant from the action.

Never fear! There is an easy fix! Anytime you search for an “ing” word and see it combined with a to be verb, change it.

Jane ran the track.

Sally jumps the gap.

Dick sits on the bench.

Once you’ve done this, you can add details to strengthen the sentence.

Sally jumps with abandon over the mud-filled gap in the path.

Dick sits, like melted wax, on the hot metal bench.


There is good news when it comes to identifying PASSIVE VOICE. PASSIVE VOICE is awkward. It reads awkward and it sounds awkward—especially for native English speakers. Because of this, PASSIVE VOICE is easy to detect. Just read your work aloud. If it sounds “funny” look for the tell-tale signs: to be verbs and “by,” then examine the sentence’s structure.

In reality, writers have a harder time avoiding WEAK active voice sentences, than passive voice sentences. I see it all the time in my drafts and the drafts of others. Thankfully, the fix is just as easy as detecting PASSIVE VOICE. Search for the “ing” words and check the word for a to be verb preceding it. It can take a while, but the more you fix, the more you’re aware of the problem. Before you know it, you will begin to eliminate WEAK active voice sentences in your drafts naturally.


So why is PASSIVE VOICE the wrong choice?  Readers are able to engage in the story more easily when the action the subject takes is clear. ACTIVE VOICE does just that. PASSIVE VOICE disrupts the reading experience. The reader is distracted because there is too much distance from the subject and the actions. When a sentence is in PASSIVE VOICE readers are left to decipher what action is being performed by whom and to whom.

Sentences in PASSIVE VOICE also require more words in order to make it “work.” This is not the case with ACTIVE VOICE, leaving the writer room for valuable details to enrich your prose.

PASSIVE:  The car was chased by the dog.

ACTIVE:  The livid dog chased the red car.

In the ACTIVE VOICE sentence above we get a broader picture of what happened even though the same number of words were used.

I should note that PASSIVE VOICE is not always a mistake. In academia, for example, PASSIVE VOICE is preferred. Other situations may include when the subject is unknown, when the subject is obvious to the reader or has already been mentioned, when it’s not important for the reader to know who the subject is, or when the subject is general.

The link below is a great resource for more examples of passive versus active voice:

https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/active_versus_passive_voice.html


Congratulations! You know how to identify and fix passive voice in your writing.

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae.  You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @RaeHardingbooks to receive notice of upcoming #WritingwithRae posts!

If you would like to learn about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments!

See you next month!

Writing Fight Scenes with Punch

This month for Writing with Rae, I’ve been asked to provide tips on how to write an awesome FIGHT SCENE in your novel.

First thing’s first! Do your research and learn the vocabulary. If you’re characters fight with swords, you better know what a “parry” is. If hand-to-hand-combat is more of your character’s style, know the difference between a “roundhouse” and an “uppercut.” Learn your weapons and make sure they fit well with your character. You should know a broadsword is heavy and cumbersome and requires tremendous upper body strength to wield.  Rapiers are light and swift and rely on a lot of leg work. You’ll also want to know what era these weapons were used and what modification have developed over time. You want weapons that fit well within your novel’s worldbuilding.

You will need to be versed in fighting styles too. A knife fighter will stab and slash quickly multiple times until an opponent falls—there is no once and done in true knife fighting. Different swords require different fighting stances. Do your research—knowing is half the battle! (catch my GIJoe funny?)

Lastly, don’t overload your fight scene with technical terminology. Just because you know what a full tang on a blade is doesn’t mean you should talk about it in your fight scene. More than likely, your reader couldn’t care less. It’s knowledge you should know, but don’t show, unless of course it has a specific purpose within your storytelling.

Now that you know what you’re talking about, let’s discuss verbs.  Action scenes require action verbs. Make them strong and one-syllable heavy: “block,” “shove,” “crush,” “slam,” “punch.” Like short sentences, quick verbs support the quick pace of a fight scene. Don’t forget about verbs that give the weight of the fight, both physically and emotionally. During the fight does your character “fear,” “defy,” or “gloat?” What about pain? Does it “sting,” “burn,” “shoot?” Get in your character’s head AND body.

You’ve got research & words. It’s time for some tips in not letting your readers get KO’d. You need to grab their attention and keep them in the ring. Keep the stakes high! Give your hero a worthy adversary. If the opponent is not a legitimate threat, then you run the risk of losing your reader’s suspension of disbelief. You also don’t want to write a play-by-play! Watching a fight scene and reading a fight scene are not the same. Documenting every punch, kick, and roll makes for a tedious read. Finally, be sure every fight scene moves the plot forward. Something must change as a consequence of the fight. If the scene before and the scene after still makes sense without the fight scene in between, then get rid of it.

Now it’s time to dive deeper. A successful fight scene happens out of the character’s head. Trust me, they aren’t thinking about how they feel about fighting their opponent. There’s time for that before and after, but not during. Introspective characters would get killed in a real fight. You are allowed to add verbal exchanges though. Readers don’t care for lengthy fight descriptions, so mix it up with dialogue. What words are exchanged between your character and his or her opponent?  

A successful fight scene also utilizes all of the senses! Sight is the easiest, but don’t ignore the others. Besides, who doesn’t love onomatopoeia? “The blow KNOCKED the brute’s head into the brick wall with a SMASH and his body fell with a THUD.” Also include environmental smells, touch, and taste.  Try to avoid the word “felt.” It’s usually a sign you are beginning to “tell” instead of “show.”

What about a battle scene? Most fights are frenetic, but battles are outright chaotic. Your job as the author is to make the scene clear to your reader without bogging him or her down with too much detail. Make sure you have mapped out the environment for your knowledge. Battle scene will have far more clarity when the orientation of buildings, water, trees, etc. are consistent. Contradictions lead to confusion.

Also be sure to avoid flowery words, similes, and metaphors. The last thing you want to do is slow down the action by not being straightforward and specific. Avoid passive voice.  Allow your characters to interact within the environment.

Another great tip is to utilize “found objects” and opportunity within your fight scene. What resources are available when your character is disarmed? Which opponent on the battle field will your character target? What happens when your character reaches a fallen comrade? 

If your battle is massive and epic, think about giving multiple perspectives from characters amongst the battlefield. And be sure you have done your research on basic battlefield maneuvers and strategies.

Congratulations! You’ve written a fight scene! I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae.  You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @RaeHardingbooks to receive notice of upcoming #WritingwithRae posts!

If you would like to learn about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments! See you next month!

Outlining: The Seven Point Structure

I recently began a monthly Twitter event beginning the last week of each month called #WritingwithRae where I share topics on the writing craft. The first topic is my favorite outlining technique call the Seven Point Plot Structure:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution/Falling Action

Many pantsers believe plotting stifles creative juices, but plotting is a great way to prevent writer’s block while still allowing flexibility for those who need it. The outline is just the skeleton–how you add the muscle is up to you! Outlines are blueprints or roadmaps. Having one keeps you in the right direction. It doesn’t mean you can’t deviate. Brilliant ideas do not come to us simultaneously. Let your outline be freeing and elastic.

The first Plot Point to outline is the Climax/Resolution. THIS is what your story is about; it all leads to this moment. This is where the plot and characters collide to form the end of the story. The hero fights through the climax and either wins or looses. Either way the conflict is resolved. The resolution is a series of small scenes showing how the world has changed after the conflict.

After outlining the Climax and Resolution, move onto the Hook. You know where your story is going, now it’s time to figure out where your story starts. The trick to figuring out your hook is to move from the opposite state from where your story ends. For example, a selfless character at the end may begin as a selfish character in the beginning. This provides an arc throughout the plot.

Your hook sets up the hero in his/her ordinary life. This is the moment before the story begins, the scene that occurs right before the inciting incident and the hero’s immediate reaction.

The second part of your hook reveals the conflict, the problem disrupting this ordinary life. You should plan your hero’s reaction to this conflict, the action the hero takes thereafter, and the consequences of that action.

After outlining the Hook, move onto the Midpoint. This is the center of two states—where your characters moves from reaction to action. The Midpoint is usually (not always) in the middle of Act II (if the Act I, II, III structure works for you). The protagonist usually receives new information that changes his or her perception of the conflict.

This new perspective changes his or her commitment in the struggle against the antagonist. On the flipside, the protagonist could gain a broader understanding of the danger involved and his or her motivation for achieving his or her objectives may turn.

The protagonist’s experiences inside the “new world” builds up into a crisis. At this point in the story the hero no longer reacts, but becomes proactive—there is a reversal in action.

After outlining the Midpoint, it’s time to outline the First Plot Turn. The part of the story moves from the beginning to the midpoint and introduces the conflict. The first Plot Turn might also be known as the “Call to Adventure” or the “Confronting of New Ideas.” The hero might meet new people or make new discoveries. Alice’s decision to follow the White Rabbit is an excellent example of the First Plot Turn.

The hero’s life is disrupted by the conflict, thus a change in trajectory begins. This usually begins the end of Act I. The hero will have to chooses to engage or not.

Next we outline the Second Plot Turn. Similar to the first Plot Turn, the second Plot Turn moves your hero from the midpoint of the story to the end. The hero must obtain the final piece of the puzzle in order to succeed. This is where they receive the last element in moving their success from TRYING to DOING.

Most times the second Plot Turn involves the hero finding the power within, even if he or she doesn’t know it, and then taking action. The hero grasps victory in the jaws of defeat.

It’s time now to outline the First Pinch. This is the event that forces the character(s) into action. In the first Pinch peace comes to an end. Something goes wrong and it’s usually because the bad guys attack. Many times the villain, or his or her influence, is introduced in the first Pinch Point. The hero’s life changes due to the consequences and pressure is applied.

To get the best use of your first Pinch Point, escalate the conflict and force your protagonist to make tough choices. If the hero wants to achieve his or her objective he or she must engage. This is the first crisis your hero encounters within the “new world” and it’s build up leads to the Midpoint of your novel.

At last we outline the Second Pinch. This is right before the story’s central conflict. The full weight of the pressure rests on your characters and hopelessness sets in. Plans fail, mentors die, and bad guys win. All seems to be lost.

Defeat is hurdling toward your hero like a torpedo and the hero experiences his or her “darkest moment.” Despite this, or because of this, the protagonist pushes forward. Your hero has no way out, but through the complications, through the consequences, and through the escalations. At times the second Pinch is bittersweet, as often there is a price to pay.

And that’s it! Once your outline is put in order you can work on your world building, round out your characters, and thread in your subplots. If you want to go more in depth with your understanding of this outlining technique, Dan Wells, American horror and science fiction writer, did a lecture that can be found as a five-part series on YouTube. I highly encourage you to check it out! You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC430F6A783A88697


It’s Up!

Ep. 3 Peer & Professional Critique

It was an absolute pleasure speaking with Natalie Lockett from Write Away Pod about peer critique groups. She also interviewed Meg Trast from Overhaul My Novel about professional critiques. If you are a new writer or a seasoned writer with no experience in critique partners, I highly encourage you to check it out!

You can listen to the full podcast here: http://directory.libsyn.com/episode/index/id/9009164

You can learn more about Natalie Lockett and her podcast here: https://www.natlockettwrites.com/write-away-podcast-1

And you can learn more about Meg Trast here: https://www.overhaulmynovel.com/

My critique partner April Jones can be found here: https://thepathtostory.com/

My critique partner Justin Siebert can be found here: https://justinmsiebert.com/

And my critique partner, Daniel Reece’s short story in Memphis Magazine can be found here: https://memphismagazine.com/fiction/gronklin-trouble/

Enjoy!