3 Killer Tips and a Warning


Always liked the way Four Weddings and Funeral sounded as a title.  Liked Sex, Lies and Videotape, too. 

10 Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, not so much.

Hence, my title today.  So let’s get to it. 

It’s the little things that set your manuscript apart from the sea of hopeful neophytes competing for the attention of the agent or publisher you’re hoping to land.  From the way it reads to the way it’s formatted on the page, you need to have every nuance covered, no matter how subtle.

Because while they may say they’re looking for great new material, what they don’t say is that they’ll toss your manuscript at the first sign of anything that smacks of amateur hour, story or no story.

Here, then, are four ways to help you get there – one a common rookie trap to avoid… one a revelation you may not have heard before… another a strategic way to jack more juice into your main character… and the last a process-oriented pitfall into which too many newer writers tumble with head-first naiveté.

Get real with your dialogue, Sparky.

One of the most critical elements in your story is dialogue.  It’s what separates hip from vanilla, rookie from old pro, green around the gills from enlightened.

What I am about to reveal here is one of the most common mistakes new writers make, and it will get your manuscript trashed before page 10: the use of character names within your dialogue.   It looks like this… and if this sounds okay to you, or worse, if it sounds familiar, then this tip is for you:

“Well, Roberta, I’m not sure what the ol’ Storyfixer means here.”

“You know, Sparky, I don’t think I get it, either.”

“Tell you what, Roberta.  Let’s keep reading and see.”

“Sure, Sparky, let’s.”

New writers tend to insert the names of conversants into the dialogue itself.  But here’s the problem: nobody talks that way in real life.  At least not anybody you want to listen to.

Don’t do it.  Cut names from your dialogue, every time.  Even if your Aunt Mabel talks that way.  The agent or editor reading your manuscript doesn’t.

Trick out, and out-trick, your Prologue.

Prologues are tricky.  So much so, in fact, that some writing gurus suggest never using them.  I disagree, I think they can be a very effective structural tool, one that can, in the hands of the empowered, infuse a story with tension and foreshadowing by asking a dramatic question that demands an answer.

Here’s the tip: never use a character name in your prologue.  Refer to your characters as “the man” or “the woman,” or “the assassin” or “the masseuse,” whatever.  Never as Roberta or Sparky.

The idea is to ignite mystery and cultivate curiosity.  If the prologue is effective your reader will wonder who these players are and what it all means until the moment they are later strategically revealed.

Light up you hero’s resume.

This will sound obvious, but ask yourself: am I doing this in my stories? 

Give your protagonist a fascinating profession and/or life experience.  Don’t make them an insurance salesman or a Buyer for Target, make them a corporate pilot who used to fly F-18s, an ex-spy who now consults with monolithic corporations on matters of security, a mother who left her career as a hooker behind.  Something we can sink our voyeuristic teeth into, that sates our appetite for adventure and intrigue.

If the hero’s profession is a factor in the story, then this sort of takes care of itself.   You’re already taking us into a compelling dramatic arena.  But with love stories and other more relationship-driven novels and screenplays, the hero’s profession resides in the background, and this is the opportunity to add an addictive dimension to things by making them fascinating.

Your hero who works in a garden store… again, not so much.

Get your head out of your rectum.

The challenge of imparting what may be a new context for constructing and executing your stories is that you may be applying your new awareness to an existing story.   One that you already believed works just fine, thank you.

Which means, you may need to retrofit or rewrite in order to get your manuscript into proper shape, story architecture-wise.  And hardly anybody’s up for that.

So you’re writing me, telling me that your First Plot Point, the inciting incident of your story that ignites the hero’s quest and defines the agenda and nature of the antagonistic force (a little mini-tutorial, that), takes place within the first 15 pages in your manuscript.  And that you like it there. 

You want me to tell you that it’s okay, that you get to be the one writer allowed to violate the most important and road-tested principles of storytelling.

If that’s you, then here’s the warning: your story won’t work as well as it could.  And because of that, chances are it won’t sell, as is.

Assuming your goal is to sell your work, why would you allow a major compromise to drag your work into the return mail?  This is like someone just diagnosed with cancer telling his doctor he wants to continue to smoke cigarettes because that’s how my story rolls.  It’s like your kid telling you they don’t want their vegetables because they’re full of the gummy bears they ate before dinner.

They think they’re right.  They’re not, and you know it.

If your FPP occurs early and you’re not willing to move it, then try inserting a major twist in the proper structural position, one that changes and redefines the stakes and the hero’s quest/need and the nature of the antagonistic force… and make that your FPP. 

This will change your entire Part 1 sequence, by the way, because now the entire context and purpose of the Part 1 scenes is to “set up” the arrival of this new Plot Point.  Which is precisely what Part 1 is all about.

And if your First Plot Point happens on page 12, then your “set-up” for it is virtually non-existent, which compromises your entire story.

You can’t mess with Mother Story Architecture.

A new and better Plot Point, properly placed, may allow you to keep your beloved existing milestone – it’s a hook if it’s early, not a Plot Point milestone – and your story will be orders of magnitude better for it.

But you have to be able to see this clearly, and if your vision is impaired by the fact that your head is parked where the sun don’t shine… well, do the math.

Photo credit: potatno.

Subscribers – have you taken me up on my half-price offer (ten bucks) on my eBook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters”?  It’s still on the table… email me for details.

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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

8 Responses to 3 Killer Tips and a Warning

  1. Great tips, especially about the prologue and dialog. Creating realistic, in character dialog has been my biggest pitfall, and i can put the prologue tips to use right away.

    Thank you for pointing out the things that pros can get away with that us neophytes can’t. It seems like each one of these tips i can put to use right away in my writing, and i’ve been looking for these kinds of tips for years…

  2. paulette

    AAAAAAK! I can’t believe this. Your one little suggestion about “not putting any names into the prolog” just totally changed everything for mine. How cool is that? My prolog is only half a page long, and i only had to take out 2 words (happen to be the name of my antag-). I LOVE the feel of it now. Thank you! Never would have thought of that. 🙂 Or if i did, it would have taken me a while LOL

  3. Shirls

    I like the warning best. I’m a total believer now in Story Structure and have for years struggled with the advice of “don’t warm up your engines” and “dive right into the middle of your story” which I have perhaps been misreading? Now that I can call the first bit the set-up, I feel a lot more confident.

  4. Ok,

    1)so where ABOUTS should the FPP/inciting incident be put? (Or, which of your wonderful treasures of posts addresses this more?)….

    2) and how does this warning line up with the whole “don’t put too much exposition/character/landscape in the front” (so what DO you put on those first XX pages, then?

    3) Can you hint at and build up to the FPP?

    thanks, am learning so much!

  5. (if you get more than one of these in your email… my bad, I’m all thumbs tonight…)

    Hey Allena — great questions… HUGE questions. I’d like to refer you to my recent 10-part series on Story Structure, where one of the early posts goes into great detail about Plot Point One and it’s precise placement.

    The placement of that story milestone is critical. Screenwriters, for example, must do it on specific pages — from p. 25ish to 30ish… with no exceptions. Novelists have a softer guidelines, but generally it’s from page 60 to 100 of the story, or the 20 to 25th percentile.

    And yes, you can and should lead up to it the foreshadowing and a building sense of anticipation. That and characterization is the primary mission of Part 1 of your story, which is everything that takes place before the Plot Point arrives and changes everything.

    Hope this helps get you pointed at your Plot Point One illumination. It’s the most important moment in your story, and you can’t cheat it.

  6. Great advice. I did read teh Structure Series….but I’m going to have to reread teh definitions to make sure that my Plot Point isn’t a Hook.

    My favorite piece of advice here is about the Prologue. Great to keep the characters nameless.

  7. Regina

    You called the First Plot Point (FPP) (at about the 20 to 25th percentile in a novel) “the inciting incident of your story that ignites the hero’s quest and defines the agenda and nature of the antagonistic force.” I finally got it. Then in a few minutes, with some inspiration and one key change (organic to the existing story, but one level more radical), I was able to make my FPP real, electrifying and clarifying everything that follows. So….Thanks for the great tip!

  8. Sean

    You say the protagonist has to have a fascinating profession. Is this Really a “must”? What if the protagonist is poor?