The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

The Premise

We were talking about the premise last week and how having a premise will help you stay on track with your outline, and help keep your story structure and character arcs in line. The bare bones purpose of the premise is to show your character, the stakes, and define the character’s goal, and imply the story’s resolution. You can use your premise later to pitch your book, write the cover copy, and create a media kit. Note that there is also an emotional / moral premise, aka theme, which is what you, the author, set out to prove. Think love conquers all, the end justifies the means, or ruthless ambition leads to destruction. We will discuss theme at a later date.

How do you come up with a great premise?

Remember that the premise is a statement, usually one or two sentences, which defines what your book is about.

The easiest way to create a premise is to break it down into parts.

Part 1: When

Part 2: Action

Part 3: But

Part 4: Point

The parts put together look like this:

When this particular thing happens, your character is moved to action, but the action is opposed by this other thing, creating problems which point to some conclusion.

Part 1: When. When equates to the event in your story which provokes your protagonist to act. It most likely is the inciting incident of your story. The When is your story problem that your character needs to solve. The When gives the reader a sense of what your character is up against.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season…

Part 2: ACTION. The Action clause defines the character’s goals, motivations, and relationships, and tells the reader who the character is.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives…

Part 3: But. The But section is all about the conflict. The But section shows the opposing force and all the peril that the character must overcome.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives…But fearing the loss of tourist revenue, the town’s mayor forbids the closure and endangers all…

Part 4: Point. The point clause is the chaos component, or those events in which all potentially could be lost. The reader can see how the potential loss will lead to (point to) the resolution of the story.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives, but fearing the loss of tourist revenue, the town’s mayor forbids the closure and endangers all, so Brody, the Ichthyologist, and a grizzled ship’s captain must go to sea to capture the killer shark, where they engage in an epic battle of man vs. nature.

Once you have your draft of your premise, it is a good idea to test it out. Ask a few trusted readers to give you objective feedback. Note that the best objective readers are those familiar with the craft of storytelling. Your mom is probably not a good option unless she is a novelist. Ask your readers if they can see the whole story and can see a general idea of the story structure. Ask your readers if they can see a beginning, middle, and end. Take your readers’ critiques with gratitude and make adjustments if necessary.

You may need to repeat the process several times before you have the perfect premise, but now that you do, you know exactly who your characters are, your plot, and how to outline your novel. You have saved months and years of writing to discover these things.

See? Smart!

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

The Premise

I was sitting with my critique partner last week, and the topic of the premise came up. We were talking about his new story outline, which he has been working on to have the structure solid before he began writing. This is a great idea, especially for pansters (those writers who write by the seat of their pants without an outline and who don’t necessarily know where their story is going) because it saves time in the long run. Without an outline, my writer friend could spend months and years writing pages and pages that ultimately he wouldn’t end up using. This is something that he has done in the past, unfortunately. He learned a great lesson because that particular panster style can be a waste of valuable writing time. He’s a much smarter writer now. He works out all his plot points, characters, and accoutrement in advance before he writes a word. Yeah. Smart.

So what is a premise and why do you need one?

The story premise is usually one or two sentences, and it usually expresses some universal truth. If you know your story premise before you create your outline you will have an easier time writing your pages and keeping your plot and character arcs accurate. The story Premise provides the natural structure of the story and expresses the entire story in those one or two sentences.

To put it simply, the premise is the statement that defines what your book is about.

But do you need one? If you have your premise, you will have an easier time pitching to agents, editors, and publishers because you will know what your story is about.  You will have an easier time marketing. You will also have the premise to lean on if you story gets side-tracked. You can ask yourself if the scene matches the premise. If not, stop writing, and write a scene that does. So, yeah, you need one.

Coming up with a good story premise can be difficult, though.

Next week barring deadlines and snow drifts I will be breaking down the premise writing process into a few small steps to make it easier.

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been contemplating Show v Tell, trying to offer some information about the elusive topic and trying to explain why, in fiction, showing is better than telling for the majority of your story, though both are necessary.

Now that you have the general idea about what showing is compared to what telling is, how do you know if you are telling when you should be showing? When you submit your work for publication and you get a rejection that says you have Show v Tell issues, what is it that agent or editor saw on your pages? [Most rejections from agents, editors, and publishers are generic responses to your submission. They just don’t have time to write individual rejection letters. It is a rare thing for  you to receive an actual critique, but if you get one, treasure it, and thank agent or editor or publisher for it. They spent a lot of time to figure out your story problems. This means they liked your work enough to help you as a writer.]

When agents and editors read the below words as they consider your submission for publication, they will probably do a word search. The word search will count the number of times you use these words in your story. If you use them a little, that’s okay. If you use them a lot, it’s a problem. If you use “felt” 100 times in a 300-page manuscript, you use “felt” a lot, and you are definitely telling. An agent or editor may kick back your manuscript before they read past page three. Don’t give them  that opportunity to reject your work. Note that there is no clear ratio on the use of telling words, but if it seems excessive to you, it will most likely be excessive to an agent or editor.

Do a word search [Control/Command + F] in your manuscript and look for the below words. These words are red flags.

  •         See/Saw
  •         Thought/Think
  •         Considered
  •         Heard
  •         As
  •         Knew
  •         Could see
  •         Felt/Feel/Feeling
  •         Realized
  •         Could tell
  •         Watched
  •         Pondered
  •         It was
  •         When
  •        -ly (adverbs)

As you start doing the word searches, don’t be shocked by the number of times you use each of these. It’s all part of the editing process. It’s all part of mastering your craft. As you become more comfortable with the concept, show v tell will begin to permeate your work. You will start noticing these words as you write them, and eventually, subconsciously, you will write in a way that uses more showing and less telling. And that is a good thing. Whether you intend to self-publish, or go the traditional route, search for these words and consider revising your sentences. Polish your work. Your story will be better for it.

Also look for these key phrases that are red flags:

  •         To (verb) – to drink, to run, etc.
  •         In (emotion) – in fear, in disgust, etc.
  •         With (emotion) – with relief etc.
  •         Could See
  •         The Sound of

If you can edit your sentence to show the events as they occur rather than tell the reader the event occurred, then consider revising the sentence to do that. Use a thesaurus for alternative words and phrases. There are references available that offer writers word-choice options, and they are highly recommended.

  • Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
  • Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus
  • The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws
  • The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes
  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

I hope these posts have helped to explain a difficult topic. Take the time to master your craft. You are an artist. Be a good one.

Next: Reader’s Choice

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Last week we talked about the showing part in Show v Tell. This week we will take a look at the telling side of the equation.

What is telling? Telling is writing with a style that uses primarily narrative exposition. It is explaining the story to the reader. The writer uses this style to provide the backstory so the reader knows a character’s history or how things led up to current events. Or the writer wants to educate the reader on the villain’s prison history to explain why he is now a serial killer. Or the writer wants the reader to know all about the politics of Whigs to set up the story set in 1700’s Scotland. Generally, telling includes what is known as information dump, which is too much information given to the reader all at once. Telling is usually boring. As Chuck Wendig says, “When executed poorly, exposition is a boat anchor tied to the story’s balls. It drags everything down.”

Telling is supplying information through the narrator to the reader.

The key thing to consider is what is it that the narrator is saying? Is it something that can be expressed visually through action and interaction of your characters? You should probably revise the scene to express that information visually through action and interaction of your characters. Is your narrator providing long-winded information that the reader won’t need to know until chapter six? You should probably insert that part of the  information in chapter six. If your narrator is droning on and on about anything, you can bet you are telling, and it’s probably boring your reader to the point of closing the book. That is not good.

That said, do realize that both showing and telling are necessary to convey a story. Novels are  a mix of both showing and telling, and you should use both when you write. Don’t be afraid to tell your reader a bit of information. Not every part of a story will require strong imagery and active details. Not every part of a story needs to be shown. But don’t let your narrator run rampant.

I wrote some really bad examples of show v tell for your reading pleasure, in hopes that you might be able to see the difference between the two, and why showing is better than telling in fiction.


They went to the store and saw a funny clown with balloons. The clown had red hair, and black and white suit with giant puffy pink buttons. His face was painted white and he had a huge smile painted on his face with red makeup. His shoes were big and yellow and he had a loud horn which he used to get people’s attention. He blew up balloons. The balloons were all shapes and sizes and also were of many colors. Jim’s favorite color balloon was blue. The clown made the balloons into animal shapes like a dog, and a bird, and a dragon. He was really funny, too.


Bonk, bonk.
Jim turned around at the sound of the horn.
“Do you like balloons?” The clown stretched a balloon with his white-gloved hands.
“Uh, sure,” Jim said.
The clown inhaled a huge lungful of air and used it to blow up the balloon. He smiled when the balloon was full. As he wrapped the end of the balloon around a finger to tie it off, the balloon flew away, spiraling around the room while making fart sounds.

Can you see the difference? In the telling section, the narrator is just giving information, while in the showing section you can see what happened. Both showing and telling provide the same information, but as a reader, don’t you like the showing option better?

Next: Showing v Telling clues to look for in your writing.

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Show v Tell is the most ethereal craft concept to learn for new writers. Show v tell is so elusive that even a search on Amazon for books on the topic brings up very few results, and few of those results appear to be promising. Even Writer’s Digest only has one title available (Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts, which I have not yet read). There are a few blogs that try to explain show v tell. Some are good, some seem vague. In an attempt to clarify this ambiguous concept, I have put together a few short posts. I hope they will be helpful.

What does Show v Tell mean? In its simplest explanation, it is the comparison of writing styles, one of which is written in a way where the action is shown to the reader while the other is written in a way where the action is told to the reader. It might be helpful to think of watching a movie and compare that to sitting around the campfire while hearing a story (oral tradition) on the same topic. Both options can convey the same information, but the information is expressed very differently and the watcher/hearer interacts with the information very differently.

Stories that show the reader are visual stories. The words used to describe events are dramatic, expressive, evocative. Stories that show draw an image for the reader to see in their mind. The reader feels as if they are in the story. All the physical senses are used so the reader can believe the experiences of the characters. The writer is able to convince the reader through detail that what the characters do and say is real, as if the events really happened, and the character really lived.

Back to the movie vs campfire idea. The topic is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At the campfire, the speaker just tells you, flat out, that that Quasimodo is ugly and that he has a hunchback. But in the movie, nobody says, “That dude is hideous.” But when you watch the movie you know that Quasimodo is ugly because you can see it for yourself. It’s the same information but presented differently.

Showing is visual. Stories that show are interactive in that they force the reader to become involved in the story. The reader participates with the characters and actively judges facts for themselves rather than just passively take information in. But this is just one part of the equation. And how the hell do you do it? I’ll get to that.

Next: More Show V Tell

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Scene Setting Continued

When you think about Scene Setting, you are usually describing a place. I say you in the plural sense in that you are the writer, the narrator, the POV character, the hero, the villain, everyone. So it is possible to get confused on which “you” you are at any given moment. Consequently, it might be helpful if you ask yourself some questions.

Who is doing the describing? Each character will have a different personality (ideally) and will notice different things in their surroundings. You have to make sure that your description matches the character. If you are writing in the POV of your villain, would that character notice the hero’s body language? Would your heroine notice things which are out of place? If  your POV character is a teenager would they notice dirty socks on the floor? If you are stuck on your scene setting, take some time and describe the scene from each character’s POV and see what each character notices. Or doesn’t notice. Doing this exercise can help you become aware of elements in your scene you hadn’t thought of, or show you problems you weren’t aware of.

Is your reader learning about your fictional world from your POV character or from the narrator? If the narrator is doing the description then the scene setting will be factual and objective, while the POV character could influence the description with opinions and emotions.

How detailed do you want to be? The POV you are using in your novel will determine how your show the details that you set in your scene. In 1st POV only your main character’s senses will be used to describe the setting, so they can’t see the villain hidden on the third floor of the building. 3rd POV may be the narrator, who can see much more than the 1st POV character, and who probably will notice the villain hiding on the third floor of the building. Sometimes the narrator will shift to become the 3rd POV character and the view will shift a bit too. It just depends on who you are when you are describing your scene.

It may help to view your setting as a character. A place can have personality. Santa Monica Pier will have a very different feel than New Orleans. A bedroom has a different feel than a bus station. What mood do you want to create for your reader? What mood do you want to create for your characters? Setting can incite reactions in the reader. Setting can be a driving force behind your character’s motives. Setting can show that something important is missing from your character’s life, which alters your character’s thinking. Setting can include time which also affects your character. Think about waiting around during some urgent moment. It create’s stress for your character and your reader. How does the scene setting create conflict and tension, or calm, or lust, or whatever is necessary for your POV character?

For newer writers, it is important to remember that just because you can visualize your scene perfectly, this does not mean that you have communicated this onto the page. Show your pages to someone and ask them what information they gather from your description. You may discover that the information you provided to your reader has been incorrectly assumed. For example, your fictional world is set in a desert, and you set your scene with fabulous description. You reader assumes sand for miles, hot wind, and mind-bending thirst. Ooops! You actually meant the Patagonian desert, which is a very cold desert, and where your character is in danger of freezing to death. When your character reaches for a coat, your reader is confused. After all, why would your character want a coat when it is so freakin’ hot? They throw your book in the recycle box. Not good.

Take the time to go through each scene with a fine-toothed comb. You may have significant revisions to do. What is relevant to the action of the scene? To your character’s motives? To the overall mood? What is relevant to each character? Does that differ from what is relevant to the narrator if the narrator is describing the scene? Is your description boring? If you describe your scene in the Patagonian desert, and you tell your reader that it is snowing, is that boring? Probably. Show your reader the setting instead of just telling them about it. Make the setting a visible background that your characters interact with. Show your character brushing away snow flakes from their hair instead of just telling your reader it is snowing. Make your scene setting dynamic, active, vibrant, scary, smelly, or whatever it needs to be for your character’s sake. It will make for a better reading experience. And a good reading experience translates into sales.

Setting your scene is more complicated than just simple description. But if you work it out in advance, take your time, think about what you are really trying to express and how to express it, your readers will love you for it.

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Scene Setting

Why do you need to worry about Scene Setting? It is one of the most important elements in fiction writing. If your readers don’t know when and/or where the story takes place, they will become confused and put down your book. Given the short period of time that readers will browse through your book before deciding if they like it enough to purchase it, this means a confused reader of your book is a buyer of someone else’s book. Good for them. Not good for you.

Consequently, it is of utmost importance that you place your characters within the scene (each scene) in a way your readers will understand. Scene Setting expresses where your characters are in your fictional world. Scene Setting allows your readers to visualize what your fictional world looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, sounds like. Scene Setting may also clarify when a scene takes place. Think flashback, or dream sequence, or historical era. Note that each new scene which is a change of location, or a change in time, or a change of POV, requires some Scene Setting.

As a reminder set off your new scene within chapters with a scene break. A scene break looks like this:


You can have several scenes per chapter. But for each new scene you will need to create some degree of Scene Setting. Think POV for example. One character sees the other character and what that other character looks like. Then there is a scene break. You then write in the POV of the second character who will see different things than the first character. Use only one POV character per scene. Writing multiple POV characters in the same scene is head hopping and will give your readers whiplash and confusion. Remember your confused readers above? They are now reading someone else’s book.

You can also write a complete chapter with only one scene. Whether  you write one scene per chapter or several depends on your personal writing style, story structure, plot, characters, POV, etc and is a choice that only you can make. There is no rule for the number of scenes per chapter. Just remember to establish place and/or time in each new scene.

You can establish time and place in several ways, including naming the specific place, such as Rome, Italy, or the YMCA pool. You can describe the location using the five senses. Sometimes your scene will be set inside some event like the Olympics, or the Civil War, and you will use some specific information which will help your reader become immersed in that event. If your scene is set in a specific time you can also mention that time, or day, or date when you set up your scene.

Do consider sketching out your setting for each scene, and each chapter as you write. Even if you think your reader doesn’t or won’t need it, do it anyway. It is much easier for your editor, critique group, and/or beta readers to delete too much information deemed unnecessary than it is for them to imagine a setting that isn’t there.

For a good visual example of Scene Setting, watch Gladiator. Maximus  and his fellow gladiators enter the Coliseum for the first time. The crowd is overwhelming. As the view of the stadium circles around it becomes clear how many people are in attendance. This scene is set to provide a clear understanding of the Roman Empire’s popular view of brutality, and also to show the place where Maximus must conquer death.

Next: More on Scene Setting

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