Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Literature vs Genre Fiction

I’m currently enrolled in a Fiction Writing Workshop class at Rowan University. Since this is a graduate-level class, the intent is that we will learn things that go beyond just plot and characterization and show, don’t tell. The professor described it as a more in-depth course where we will be refining our writing on multiple levels and in as much detail as possible.

One of the issues that was raised on the first day is “What is the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction?” The answers varied, but in the discussion that followed we basically defined Genre Fiction (whether it be fantasy, sci fi, romance, mystery, etc) as books that are designed just to tell a story. They have a plot with a beginning and an end, and they are written for the purpose of selling books. Many authors who write a sci fi adventure book probably don’t say that they’re trying to send some epic message about the human experience. They may just enjoy those types of stories and think that they have a good story to tell.

Literature, on the other hand, was defined as writing that has some deeper meaning or message that goes beyond the story. It tells us something about life, and resonates in a way that will carry with the reader long after the experience.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have Sci Fi Literature. If you picture it as a Venn Diagram, you’d have some overlap between various genres and works of literature. Some stories, however, are just stories.

To give a basic run down, I’ll go over some of the books I’ve read so far this year. One was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is definitely Literature. The story wasn’t just a story about animals taking over the farm. Instead, it was a political commentary about how power can corrupt and governments can take advantage of the people.

Then I read Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars, about the war taking place in Wonderland where Alice has to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (in a darker and more action-oriented tale than the original Alice in Wonderland, in a similar vein as the 2010 Alice in Wonderland film). This book didn’t seem to have any important political message; the war in the book was simply the Queen of Hearts grabbing power and ruling the land with an iron fist. You don’t really need to dig much deeper than that to understand the conflict.

Some books, as I mentioned above, can fall into both categories. For example, while there might be some individual dispute on this, I’d consider the Hunger Games Trilogy to be both literature and sci fi/action-adventure. On the surface, the first book is a story about teenagers being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the evil Capitol that rules over the various districts. However, there can be parallels made to many social issues: youth violence (such as school shootings), poverty, the misbalance between starving third world countries and lavish capitalist societies, and the way media will depict any kind of tragedy or violence on the air just to get higher ratings. The fact that these events are taking place in a futuristic high-tech society that has force fields and such is just a matter of setting.

The questions raised in my graduate class, about the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction, has made me have to sit down and consider my writing in a new way. I don’t have any aspirations to be considered a literary writer or have my work have some deeper meaning (though if I sat down to analyze my work from a neutral perspective, I could definitely list a variety of ways that Manifestation and Contamination are critiques on how our society reacts to acts of terrorism, and the way blame is passed to people who aren’t responsible for the attacks just because society views everyone of certain “groups” as being equally to blame). I sat down to write an urban fantasy story, and if people later decide to consider it literature, then hey, bonus.

However, even though I don’t consider myself a literary writer, this class will require me to produce works of literary fiction. I still plan to make it urban fantasy literature, but I need to think more deeply about my approach. My goal with the class is to work on more short stories to go alongside Radiance, Belladonna, and the other shorts I’m working on for release along with the rest of the series. I may end up writing several new short stories, or one long one (since the class is open to either possibility). But for the new stories I work on to count as “literature,” I need to make sure there is a deeper meaning.

Is there a deeper message in Radiance? I would say yes. On the surface level, it’s a story about a girl gaining a magical power. Yet on a deeper level, it’s about faith and belief (which are themes that run though all of my writing, since belief is a very powerful force in the Arcana Revived world). So I’m considering how to look at the types of themes and deeper messages I tend to work with, in order to consider how to focus more on those things in whatever I’m about to write this semester. I haven’t yet decided how to go about this, but the ideas of belief and faith are a good starting point. I think I can say a lot about the power of belief and the way your personal perspective can change reality around you.

On one level, these are concepts I’m familiar with from my Communication Studies education; there’s a principle called Symbolic Interactionism that explains how our understanding of reality is changed by communication. This is a subtle effect, but can have a real impact. A small example would be if your parents treat you like you’re stupid, and you end up unmotivated in school, resulting in low grades, thus proving your parents right. Yet if they encourage you and tell you that you can succeed, you’ll try harder, get better grades, and prove them right. Your success or failure in such a situation can be determined by what kind of communication takes place.

On another level, this idea can be applied to fantasy works when considering the effect magic can have on you. The way characters like Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez communicate about magic in their world has a very real impact on how it functions. I don’t want to go into more detail because of spoilers, but it is something you can see in Radiance if you pay close attention to Maria’s thought process during the story and watch the nonverbal communication between her and the other minor characters in the book. There are some deliberate moments where people’s reactions reflect their beliefs in a way that causes literal changes in the world. It’s Symbolic Interactionism meets Magic and Mystery.

So in order to write literary works in this class, I think I’m going to take these concepts and focus on them more than I have in the past. Hopefully the results will be something my classmates say has a deeper message or says something about faith, belief, and society.

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Bull in a China Shop

What does a bull in a china shop have to do with writing a good novel? Read on to find out.

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “like a bull in a china shop” to refer to something chaotic and destructive. It brings to mind images of a bull rampaging around, smashing everything in sight, and creating a godawful mess.

Then the Mythbusters proved that a bull let lose among racks of china dances among them like he’s at the ballet, running around graceful and free, without causing any damage at all.

There are plenty of other common phrases similar to this one that have no grounding in reality. Just to name a few, you should be aware that ostriches do NOT actually bury their heads in the sand, Columbus did NOT prove the world was round, and despite what people claim, Alanis Morissette actually did use the word “ironic” correctly in her song (one of the definitions of “ironic” is simply something “unexpected,” and every example in the song fits that definition, despite what critics try to say).

So what does all of this have to do with writing? Glad you asked.

Sometimes, when people are writing a book, movie script, or what have you, they use phrases like those listed above incorrectly. Now, if it just falls in a character’s dialogue, it’s probably not a big deal. After all, if a character in a book or movie says “Columbus proved the Earth was round” it might just be because the character thinks that’s true, the same way most people do. However, the problem comes when a character is supposedly an expert in a certain topic or an otherwise intelligent figure and they’re repeating things that simply aren’t true. One example of this is Sybok quoting the Columbus myth in Star Trek V.

The worst way to screw this sort of thing up would be if you have a character who is a scientist or who has a PhD in their field. You might decide to have them quote some important “fact” as part of how you show their knowledge, but if that fact is just dead wrong, you may end up making your character (and yourself, as the writer) look like an idiot. It’s something that can be avoided pretty easily if you just do a little research. I frequently head to Google to read up on various topics that come up in my writing, just to make sure I get the facts straight. A good example of this is one of my main characters, Dr. Patricia Caldwell. She’s a psychiatrist with Medical Degree in Psychology, and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (I even extensively researched what kind of degrees she would need for her position, in order to make them as accurate as possible). Dr. Caldwell is the most intelligent and educated person in my books, and it usually falls on her to discuss anything scientific. Now, I get a certain amount of leeway in some things since my books involve a lot of magic, and with magic, I make the rules. But when anything medical or scientific comes up, I do as much research as I can to make sure it’s accurate. There might still be mistakes that slip through (after all, my degree is in the Writing Arts, not Psychology or Biochemistry), but I make sure to research my facts as much as I can.

There are some other ways getting the facts wrong could cause problems in your writing. A few simple examples are things like how cars will generally NOT explode if the gas tank gets shot or if the car falls off a cliff (Mythbusters busted both of those), a pressure breach in an airplane probably won’t suck people out the window (Mythbusters again), and getting shot doesn’t actually make you fly back five feet in the air (hey, Mythbusters did that one, too). Many of these things are used in movies because Hollywood likes to make things dramatic and exciting. Having such things happen in your book, however, might make people think you just didn’t get your facts straight before writing it.

It can be a good idea to have your critique partners or beta readers be on the look out for these things as well. When I critique a story for someone, I always point out anything that seems wrong or inaccurate to me. I also like it when someone brings those things to my attention in my own writing. Sometimes it’ll be something I didn’t realize at all before they mentioned it. Other times it’ll be a situation where I facepalm and realize I should have KNOWN better. In either case, however, it’s best to catch this sort of thing during revisions rather than letting it get printed on the page. Nobody is perfect, but a writer who takes the time to do the best research they can will be more successful than one who never pays attention to the mistakes they made.

Suspense Without Death

I’d like to talk about suspense.

I often hear people complaining about certain TV shows, movies, books, and comics by saying that there is “no suspense” because “the main characters can’t die.” This can apply to anything from a TV show like “24” (where everyone knew that Jack Bauer had to live or else the series would end), a book series like Harry Potter where the books are named after Harry so of course he has to live, or to a webcomic like The Order of the Stick, where people always complain in the website’s forums about there being no danger to the main cast because they have “plot armor” (as in, their lives are protected because they’re needed for the plot).

I touched on this subject before in a series I wrote about how to use magic in your writing (You can find that series in three posts: The first post discusses 1. How to make your magic unique and 2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense, the second post discusses  3. How to break your own rules (and do it right) and 4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic, and the third post discusses 5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”) and 6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000).  Specifically, “The Superman Dilemma” is an idea that a character’s powers can be so strong that there is no suspense, such as because Superman is rarely in danger and you KNOW Superman won’t die because he’s Superman. The way I discussed getting around this dilemma is by putting the suspense not in whether Superman lives or dies, but instead in whether he succeeds or fails.

So summarize the concept I went over in the post about “The Superman Dilemma,” it basically goes like this: suspense doesn’t just come in whether Superman will die. It comes in whether everyone ELSE will die. Can Superman save them all in time, or will he fail? In a scenario like this, the suspense comes not only from the loss of other lives, but also from the emotional strain Superman faces when he realizes he wasn’t strong enough to save everyone. Similar turmoils occur frequently in other shows and books as well. A good example is Doctor Who. Everyone KNOWS the Doctor can’t die, because if he does, he just regenerates. But the suspense comes in wondering whether he can save everyone else, and we see his pain and his turmoil every time he fails someone who was counting on him.

Now, the original post I wrote about this dilemma was focused on the magic angle of suspense; specifically, the way you use these ideas to create suspense when you have a character with extreme powers and abilities (whether they be Superman’s superhero powers or the Doctor’s intelligence and cunning). However, this concept can be taken to a different level. What about if you have a character with NO powers?

I’m currently reading The Hunger Games. I haven’t yet seen the movies and I plan on finishing the books before I do so. (Spoilers to follow, so don’t read on if you don’t want me giving away the plot of the book). Now, The Hunger Games has no real magic in it (though the Gamemakers technological ability to do things like summon a giant wall of fire could almost be magic from a literary perspective). The main character, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive the games through nothing but her skills, cunning, and perseverance. Of course, I know she CAN’T die in the first book, because a) there’s two more books and b) I’ve seen previews for the second movie, Catching Fire that show her as the victor. Does this take away the suspense?

No. And here’s why.

Katniss isn’t a superhero, so she’s not expected to save anyone. If she does save one of the other Tributes, she does so because she is pure of heart, not because she’s there to save them. So the idea of “failing to save people” (as with Superman) doesn’t really apply to her. We expect her to have to kill the others. So if we remove BOTH the suspense of her dying (since she can’t) and the suspense of her failing to save others (since she isn’t expected to do so), then what suspense is there?

The suspense of her maintaining her humanity.

I’m about halfway through the book. I just read a scene where Katniss and the younger girl, Rue, are both hiding in the trees, trying to escape the other Tributes. Rue warns Katniss about a hive of genetically engineered wasps, and in exchange, Katniss warns Rue to escape before she unleashes the wasps on the other Tributes down on the ground. Two Tributes die because of Katniss’s actions, but we see this as a victory, because they were trying to kill Katniss first. She wins and defeats her enemies.

However, there are two Tributes so far that are NOT Katniss’s enemies: Rue and Peeta. Peeta is in love with Katniss and saves her life, not only refusing to attack her when he has the chance but warning her when others are coming. So by this point in the book, both Rue and Peeta have proven themselves to be friends and potential allies for Katniss. She won’t want to kill them, even if she’ll willingly kill any of the other Tributes.

This creates suspense, because even knowing Katniss has to live, the reader wonders, Will she have to kill her friends? I don’t want Katniss to have to kill Rue. I like Rue, and I want her to live. But even if she dies, there is suspense because I don’t want Katniss to be the one who kills her. Maybe Rue will be killed by another Tribute. Maybe she will die of the dangers around her in the wilderness. Maybe she will heroically sacrifice herself to save Katniss. I don’t know what will happen, but not knowing creates suspense. More than anything, I don’t want to see Katniss suffer the pain of murdering someone she sees as a friend. That pain, the pain Katniss would feel over having to kill someone she doesn’t want to kill, would be worse than Superman’s pain when he fails to save a life.

So you see, there can be suspense in many forms. Sometimes it’s not a question of “Will the main character die?” Sometimes, it’s a question of “What will the main character have to do to survive?” She might lose something deeper, some part of her good nature. And if she turns into a murderer to save herself, isn’t that a bigger defeat than seeing her die?

#WritingPrompt Results, Belated

So, way back in October I posted a Writing Prompt, based on a random slip of paper I found in one of my used school text books. I was intrigued by the words on the paper, and I posted it on my blog with a challenge for someone to write a story based on it. About a week later, my Twitter friends Nyssa23 and Kayla Thomas each sent stories along based on the prompt.

Well another Twitter friend, Pamela Simon, promised me a story as well. And then never sent it. I think she was shy about sharing it. BUT, she finally sent her story along. So here it is. I hope you enjoy it! (And if you do, go bug her on Twitter and tell her!)


New Aesthetic

From the safety of the booths and tables, the tall bar stools always looked like the last step before giving up. It was the limbo that people hung out in before giving up and dying quietly single and alone. It was what you did before you threw in the towel and created an online dating profile.

For Carolina, sitting at the bar felt more like the first step after giving up. There was no longer anything left to lose, and only the rest of her life to live.

There was no place to put her purse, so she balanced it on her knees. In this way her body betrayed the relaxed persona she wanted to give off, like she didn’t care that she at the bar and alone. She pressed her feet into the rung on the tall chair so that her legs were at almost a perfect right angle. The bar tender stopped in front of her, his towel-covered fist shoved indelicately into a pint glass. “Can I get you something?”

She worried her lip. She didn’t know what to order. Kyle always ordered for her – he considered himself a beer expert the same way some people incorrectly considered themselves art critics. Kyle, who was so brilliant with his hands when he was writing the directions, couldn’t put together a piece of Ikea furniture to save his life. Kyle couldn’t remember plans unless they were written down and had an accompanying alarm on his cell phone, but he could remember every inane statistic and piece of trivia in baseball’s history. Kyle, out of whose ass the sun rose and into whose smile it set every night, had left a note that simply said to the homeland – you’ll be missed like it had been eight days and not eight years.

And with that Carolina, who had always felt so independent despite their relationship, realized that she had unwisely put her heart in Kyle’s hands and he had run off to the motherfucking “homeland” without giving it back to her.

That was something else he did. He borrowed things and then never gave them back. It was easier to move in with him than to try to get all of her DVDs back.

“Do… you need more time?” The bar tender asked. He drew out the first word, like this was how he was going to give her more time.

“No,” Carolina said. Only it came out like “doh.” She wiped the back of her hand under her nose and then sniffed in hard, immediately regretting the action. It was one of those things that the kids did in class and it made her skin crawl, just thinking about all the shit they inhaled by doing that. Carolina said, “No, thank you. Do you have cider?”

“I have Woodchuck.” The bartender put a small napkin down in front of her for the drink. Then he tentatively set another one down beside it. “Apple and raspberry.”

Carolina picked up the second napkin and pressed it to her nose. There was nothing left, her nose as empty as she imagined her chest to be, but she didn’t want to admit it. She balled up the clean paper in her fist and asked, “Raspberry?”

The bar tender leaned in and said in a stage whisper, “It’s not that good.”

“I’ll get the apple.”

“Start a tab?”

She glanced down at her purse in her lap and then back at the bar tender. “Yes. No.” She sighed and pulled her wallet out of the purse. “Yes.” Carolina set her credit card down on the counter and slid it forward.

“I’ll take good care of this,” the bar tender glanced down at the card. “Carolina. That’s pretty.”


She folded, unfolded, and then refolded the napkin while she watched the bar tender enter in her sale. Then he opened the bottle for her and set it down on the first napkin. “Let me know if you need anything else.” He set a menu down in her vicinity and moved on to another patron.

Carolina wanted to relax, to let her feet swing, but she didn’t want to hang her purse from the back of her tall chair and she didn’t want to set it on the dirty counter. This was something she never worried about at tables and booths; there was always a spot for purses and jackets. Thank God for the season-less southwest where she rarely needed a jacket.

There was a game on, but it was baseball. Carolina couldn’t look at it, so she looked anywhere else. She sipped her cider and thought about what her next steps should be. The last plan she had made had stupidly relied on Kyle. At some point, she thought, that was what you did. You made plans with other people, because at some point, that was the next step to be taken. You joined your life with someone and your road was his – it was an “ours” instead of a “mine.”

She took another gulp of her cider and glanced back up at the game. She shouldn’t have come here, but she didn’t know what else to do during the playoffs. It hadn’t been long enough since Kyle left – she hadn’t even told her friends.

She tried to inconspicuously blow her nose into the napkin and then she set it down near her cider bottle, intending to throw it away on her way out the door.

“Excuse me.”

Carolina had her bottle up to her lips when she turned to face the man who had spoken. He wore a blue cap backwards and a matching faded t-shirt. He was a Cubs fan and he nervously glanced up at the screens and then back at Carolina, like he would pass out if he missed a single pitch. Since he was a Cubs fan she imagined that under the hat was thinning hair, but when she quickly glanced over him from head to foot, she could see that the rest of him seemed aesthetically pleasing. Except… he was a Cubs fan.


“Is anybody sitting here?” He pointed at the empty seat next to Carolina, the only one left at the bar.

“Um.” Carolina didn’t want to lie, not when it would be so apparent that nobody was sitting there, but Carolina didn’t want to be next to this guy either. He smelled too much like the boys in her classes, had too round of a face for her liking. “Well.”

Someone pressed a hand to her back and a man – another man – said, “Hey baby.” She swiveled in her seat, for a second expecting Kyle, but no. The voice wasn’t as deep; and anyway, Kyle had never in their entire relationship called her baby. He made fun of guys who called their girls baby, like maybe they couldn’t remember her name, or just didn’t like it.

Kyle liked to tell a story about the two months he dated a girl who shared a name with his sister, and how he never once referred to her by her real name because it was too weird for him.

Carolina wasn’t sure she wanted to sit by this guy either, but he at least reminded her of the boys she had grown up with. His hooked nose was exactly between two big brown eyes and his hair fell into his eyes in the old-fashioned way. “Hey,” she said slowly.

The first man looked them over and stepped away. He said, “Sorry, man,” like Carolina wasn’t even there. It was something Kyle would do, and she clung to that as a reminder that Kyle was an ass and not worth her time.

The new guy swung himself onto the seat next to Carolina and smiled at her. “Sorry about that,” he said. “This is the last seat at the bar, and I’m willing to play dirty for it.” He waved the bar tender over and ordered a black and tan; then he turned his attention back to Carolina.

“Well, you don’t smell like the douche bag section of the mall, so I won’t object.” She ran her hands along her purse to make sure it was closed, and then picked up her bottle again. “So I guess thanks for the rescue.”

The guy smiled at her. “The pleasure’s all mine.” She returned his smile, but didn’t say anything else. Small talk was never her thing. He said, “I’m Miles, by the way.”

Her first instinct was to feel self-conscious. With every intention of spending the evening alone, Carolina hadn’t bothered to do anything with her short blond hair or even bothered putting on an outfit more presentable than a layered tee and bright turquoise capris. The only thing she felt okay about was her lack of makeup, which was the norm for her.

Carolina took another gulp of her cider and thought maybe she was getting hit on. She took a deep breath and said, “Look. I appreciate it, I do.” Her ears heated up and though in her head the words sounded just perfect, as she spoke them they felt anything but. “I’m not here to meet anybody. I’m just here to be here.”

Miles blinked quickly and shook his head. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give off that impression. I’m not hitting on you. I’m just here to watch the game. It’s the playoffs.”

Heat filled Carolina’s cheeks. Instead of being embarrassed at the assumption itself, she was mortified that she’d been out of the game for so long that she no longer had any idea what it felt like to be hit upon… or at least, she couldn’t tell the difference between single people flirting and a normal conversation.

And she didn’t even know if this guy was single or not. She attempted to look at his left hand for a ring, but his arms were crossed, with the right one on top. He didn’t wear the shorts-and-t-shirt combination that Carolina equated with perpetually single men, but a polo and clean khakis didn’t mean that this guy was taken, either.

“It certainly is,” the bar tender said. He put a dual-shaded glass of beer in front of Miles and silently took the credit card from him to start a tab. Carolina relaxed when she saw a bare left hand, glad that she didn’t accuse a married man of coming onto her.

“Yeah,” Carolina said. “I’m not really watching, but you go ahead.”

“Are you a fan?”

Carolina sighed. “Not really.”

“I could explain it to you,” Miles said. “The players wear tight pants. I hear that’s a thing girls are into nowadays. Since you’re not into me, and I have no interest in picking you up, I don’t mind encouraging you ogling other men’s asses.”

Carolina smiled into her beer bottle. That was one detail about baseball that hadn’t slipped past her. “It’s really okay,” she said. “Just enjoy your game. Pretend I’m not here.”

“That seems awfully rude.”

There were a few seconds where Carolina thought that Miles was going to continue to engage her in conversation, but he seemed to turn his attention to the game, or at least, to something else other than her.

She enjoyed the relative silence, the way that the world went on around her. It was a needed reminder that her life was still going to go on the same as it always did whether or not Kyle came home to her at the end of the day. Carolina ordered another cider and thought about how she’d have total control over the DVR… but only for the rest of the month. After that she’d need to cancel it, because she wouldn’t have the funds to pay for it anymore. And maybe not the cable either.

Carolina cleared her throat and moved her bottle along the table. She bumped the balled up snotty-napkin and it rolled toward Miles. He reached to pick it up and with an awful shrieking noise Carolina said, “Don’t touch that!”

Miles pulled his hand away quickly and held it against his chest. “What?” he asked. “What’s in that? Is it a bomb? Are you a suicide bomber? In a bar?”

Cheeks heating up, Carolina grabbed the napkin and shoved it into her purse. “I blew my nose into it,” she said. “So that was disgusting, I apologize.”

“Oh,” Miles said. “I’m used to it. I’m a doctor.”

“You are?” He hadn’t struck her as a doctor. She didn’t know very many personally, but the few she did know were snooze-fests. Miles didn’t seem like a snooze-fest.

“Not really,” Miles said. “I’m an accountant. Would it have mattered if I was?”

“Mattered for what?”

He shook his head. “Never mind.”

He took a gulp of his beer, the two types mixing together in the process and then slowly separating again. “Do you have a name.”

She sighed. “Yes.”

There was a pause and Carolina felt too shy to look over at him. She wasn’t there to flirt, she was there to be morose and see a baseball game without breaking down in tears, because staying at home alone on a Saturday night was too much for her to take so soon after the breakup. Three innings down and she was successful.

“May I have it?”



“No, Carolina.”

“As in, North Carolina? Or South Carolina?” When Carolina finally looked at Miles he grinned widely at her, proud of his joke. “So that I know how to drawl it. Were you conceived there? Do you have those kind of parents?”

“What kind of parents?”

“The kind that disturbingly choose to name their child after whatever city the baby-making was done in.”

“The Carolinas are states,” she said. She shook her head. “I was made in Chicago.”

Made in Chicago? Are you a robot?”

The bar tender switched out her empty bottle with a fresh one and Carolina shook her head again. “No. They moved here from Chicago a few months before I was born. And I can do the math. And conceived feels like a dirty word.”

Miles smiled again and nodded. “Well, okay then, Carolina made in Chicago. It’s nice to meet you.”

He turned his attention back to the game, and Carolina focused again on her drink. She hadn’t intended on having more than one, and once she had started drinking the second she realized it was a mistake. Her quick trip out to face her fears was turning into more of an excursion, and that was something she didn’t need.

“Does it hurt?”

Carolina frowned when she looked at Miles. “What? When I fell from heaven?”

Miles tipped his glass toward her. “I would have asked did it hurt for that one, but like I said, I’m not hitting on you. God. Don’t be so arrogant.” Carolina tried to pull off indignant, but Miles was wearing a charming smile, the kind that she was never able to ignore. While he continued to insist that he wasn’t hitting on her, his light-hearted tone and habit of leaning into her personal space still made her think otherwise just a little bit. “I meant how hard you were thinking. Does that hurt?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“I’m a really curious guy.” If Carolina were looking for someone she’d need to begrudgingly admit that Miles also had a charming personality. “You should try asking some questions. But do it carefully. Asking questions is the gateway drug to having civilized conversation.”

“You ever spend a long time hating a certain type of person only to realize you are that person?”

Blanching, Miles asked, “Are you a hipster?”

Carolina laughed. It felt good. It was something she hadn’t found herself doing since the breakup. Even her seniors, who always made her laugh more than she knew was professionally appropriate couldn’t get more out of her than a derisive snort. If anything, their happiness got on her nerves – the way they had their whole lives ahead of them, hadn’t yet gone down any paths they couldn’t fix. She envied those seniors and maybe that was keeping their jokes from striking her funny bone as they usually did.

“I’m not a hipster,” Carolina said, taking a deep breath. She sighed. “I was with this guy for like, a really long time-”

“Two weeks?”

Carolina smiled. “Longer than that.” She took a gulp of cider, steeling herself for the story. “Eight years we were together, almost nine. And the whole time I thought I was this independent girl because we had our own lives and we each did our own thing. And Kyle broke it off with me this week and I’m so lost without him. I hate girls who act like this after a breakup.” She sniffed and brought her soggy beer-bottle napkin to her nose. “I hate Twilight,” she whined.

Miles patted her shoulder, but he didn’t say anything.

The human contact was nice, almost like it relieved some of the pressure. At the same time, the ache grew as Carolina realized that even with this, she was better with a companion. She wanted to be that independent woman she always thought she was.

“You know,” Miles said slowly. “Everybody needs to realize they’re not Beyonce at some point.” Carolina found herself smiling again. “I mean, it was the worst day of my life, when I realized I wasn’t Beyonce.”

Carolina laughed again, and while tears threatened to fall, they were old tears. New ones stayed in their ducts, where they belonged. “What’d you do?”

“I took off that leotard, aired out my junk, and then figured out who I was.”

“I wish it was that easy,” Carolina mused.

“If you need help taking the leotard off,” Miles started.

“I thought you weren’t hitting on me.”

“Just offering a friendly hand.”

Carolina rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the cider in her hand, back to the bad mood that she was allowing to fester. “I’ll bet.”

Before they talked the silence felt good, like crawling back into the blankets after a shower on a cold morning. Now that they had shared some conversation it felt oppressive, like it was just another thing she was doing wrong. She said, “I don’t need your help. But thank you anyway.”

“Oh, I know you don’t,” Miles said. Carolina quirked an eyebrow, but she had nothing more she needed to say. “I mean, you’re such an independent woman and all. And not at all a hipster.”

When the bar tender passed by again Carolina stopped him and asked for her check. She felt rather than saw Miles’ eyes on her and she casually turned her head away from him, like she was watching one of the other games on one of the other television sets.

It was the kind of bar that was filled with TVs, and realistically speaking, this guy could have sat down anywhere and been able to watch the game. There was a moment when Carolina was filled with the heady sensation of being able to command someone’s attention; that perhaps Kyle hadn’t left her because she wasn’t attractive, but because she was lacking some other quality.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

It was one thing to direct her attention away from Miles, but Carolina wasn’t prepared to completely ignore him. She turned around on her stool and widened her eyes. “I guess you can ask whatever you want.”

“Do you have ESP?”

“Excuse me?”

He leaned forward, like he was about to tell some sort of secret. “You asked for a check, and I thought, well, I better get this girl’s number now before it’s too late, and then you turned away from me.”

Carolina’s head buzzed. She wasn’t supposed to be asked for her phone number. She was supposed to come here and mourn the passing of her relationship. She was supposed to watch a baseball game without Kyle and try not to cry at the bar, and then she was going to go home and make a frozen pizza and eat the whole thing.

“I don’t have ESP,” she said, when Miles looked like he actually expected an answer to that ridiculous question.

“So just dumb luck then.”

“I guess so.”

Miles’ smile was infectious and Carolina tilted her head down rather than show him that he had any kind of effect on her.

“Can I ask you another personal question?”

She sighed and turned back to Miles. “I don’t see dead people.”

“Well that’s relief,” Miles said. “What happened with your dude?”


“Okay, what happened with Kyle?”

Carolina tilted her head up to the ceiling, though she knew there was no assistance to be had from there. “He just left me.”

Miles didn’t say anything, clearly waiting for more.

“He left a note that said he was going to the homeland. And most of his stuff was gone.”

“Going to the homeland?” Miles perked up with interest. “Were you sleeping with a Russian spy? Because that is amazing.”

“It was more than just sleeping together,” Carolina said. She turned her stool away from Miles so that she was facing forward again, and took the check that the bar tender had left for her.

“I didn’t mean that,” Miles said. “I’m sorry. I was making a joke. What’s the homeland?”

Carolina stared at the check, doing the math for what kind of tip she should leave. “Chicago,” she said, scribbling the numbers onto the paper. “He’s a big Cubs fan.”

“So you know baseball,” Miles said. She nodded, but she didn’t say anything. “I hate baseball,” Miles said. “I think it’s the worst sport. No guy should wear tight pants like that. That’s why I’m a basketball fan.”

“I hate basketball, too,” Carolina said. She couldn’t help her smile, though. That time she didn’t try to hide it.

Miles rested his elbow on the bar and leaned his head into his hand. “Are you sure you’re not a Russian spy? You don’t seem to like American things.”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Carolina tested out the tease and it felt funny on her lips. She wasn’t ready to play this game yet. “I’m very sure I’m not a Russian.”

“You know what we should do?” Miles looked so excited that Carolina was almost caught up in his enthusiasm. “We should go to Chicago next weekend. Sneak up on him. Find out what he’s really doing out there. He’ll see you and realize you’re way better than Chicago. He’ll be back by the end of the playoffs.”

With each word Carolina’s heart sunk closer to her toes. She wanted Kyle back, but she didn’t think she could compete with the city and the baseball team and everything else that Chicago had that she didn’t. She didn’t think that she could take an additional rejection after being dumped so unceremoniously.

Carolina picked up her copy of the receipt and said, “I think we should go our separate ways. But thank you for the talk.”

Miles put his hand on her wrist, a movement so strong that Carolina turned her attention back, willing to hear whatever he was planning on throwing at her next. “I mean it. Lemme take you to Chicago. Maybe you’ll see him and after this you’ll realize, you know, that you’re more independent than you think you are.”

“Maybe you just want to shack up in Chicago,” Carolina said. She pulled her wrist from his grip and slid off the stool.

“Is that a no?”

Carolina smiled softly. A quiet voice in the back of her head encouraged her to at least take his number, or give him hers, or do something. He was nice, he wasn’t bad looking, and he hadn’t yet tried to put a roofie in her drink.

“That’s a no thank you.”

“Can I get your number?” Miles asked, standing when Carolina started to walk away.

She turned and smiled. “Not today.”

It took actual effort not to turn around and look at Miles one more time, or go to him, or respond, or do anything like that. When she walked out the door though, it felt like the next steps into the next great thing.

#WritingPrompt Results!

So not long ago, I posted a #WritingPrompt that came from a note I found in a used book. I challenged anyone who was up to it to write a short piece based on that prompt.

Several people stepped up to the challenge. One person wrote a short that I linked to from the previous post, but here it is again. That first story comes to you courtesy of Nyssa 23 (I don’t know what the 23 means, so you’d have to ask her). If you enjoy that piece, you should go check out her blog, burritosandborscht.

Today, another friend of mine from twitter, Kayla Thomas, wrote a piece she titled Narrow Miss. You should go read that one too, and check out Kayla’s Blog.

I hope you enjoy both of these stories. Even though they came from the same prompt, both writers took the concept in very different directions. And maybe if we’re lucky, someone else might have a story to share soon too!


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This is something totally random. Today, I was reading a book for one of my classes at Rowan University. The book was bought used. I found the note you see above tucked into the pages. I have no idea who wrote it. I have no idea what the note originally meant. However, since the book in question was a book about writing techniques and how to break out of your shell as a writer, I can only assume this note was meant for some kind of story.

So I figured I’d post it as a writing prompt. The seeds of a story are there. A mysterious stranger, an unplanned trip, a rendezvous that may not end up happening…

I’d love to see someone write a scene, a story, or a poem about this. I’m really curious to see what someone would do with it. If anyone wants to take up the challenge, I dare you to write something based on this. I double DOG dare you to. Then, let me know you wrote it (either leave a comment here, tweet me @cantrelljason, or email me at cantrellwriter@gmail.com). I’ll either link from my blog to yours if you posted it on your own blog, or you can send it to me and I’ll upload it here.

I triple dog dare you.

How to Write a Sex Scene

I was uncertain what to write about today, so as is my wont, I went to Twitter. One of the Megans I follow (Twitter is a breeding ground for Megans) suggested “How to Write a Sex Scene Using Goats as a Metaphor.”

Blame her. This whole post is her fault.
Blame her. This whole post is her fault.

She failed to clarify whether she meant “How to Write a Sex Scene That Uses Goats as a Metaphor (for sex)” or “Use Goats as a Metaphor for ‘How To Write a Sex Scene.'” I’m choosing to interpret it as the latter; that is to say, goats will be my metaphor for how to write, not for sex. Though I expect there will be some gray areas.

So how do you write a sex scene? It’s an area many writers find uncomfortable. I’m going to speak frankly, however, so if the previous paragraph about you goats and sex didn’t scare you off, be warned that adult content is coming (pun intended).

First, allow me to precursor this by saying I’m not an erotica writer. I have written my fair share of smut, however, which can be found on certain corners of the internet if you know where to look. I’ll be sharing a sample of it below, so if you’re not shy, you can read it and judge for yourself whether I write it well enough to be giving advice on the subject.

The first thing I’ll suggest is the same thing every experienced writer will tell you about writing anything: you need to read a lot. You have to write what you know, and in the case of sex scenes, “what you know” doesn’t necessarily have to be based on your own real life experiences. It can be based on what you’ve read. By reading more erotica, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and that’s the best way to learn how to write it yourself. I also suggest reading a wide variety, both the good and the bad. Read sex scenes like a goat in a junkyard: don’t discriminate, and chew on everything you can find. Sure, you might chip a tooth on a dull piece of tin or some tough rubber, but you’ll learn something in the process. After all, what better way to learn what NOT to do in your writing, than to read some bad erotica and learn from its mistakes (I’m looking at you, 50 shades of Grey)?

I’ve read more than my fair share, and based on what I’ve read, I’m going to lay out a few general categories:

1. The Ram – These smut stories rush right into the dirty parts without any style or grace. The result is usually poor writing, and is likely to be more pornography than erotica. The difference between porn and erotica is that one is art, and the other you just jack off to. Compare, for example, (NSFW) this versus this. One is artistic, meant to provoke emotion. The other is for milking your goat cheese. One of the key differences is good taste, but there’s more to it than that. I’ll explain in more detail about the “good taste” side, but what you should realize about the Ram is that its focus is just on the physical and the instant gratification.

I’d like to analyze these two photos from a purely artistic perspective. The first one, despite not being particularly crude as nudes go, is still a provocative pose. It’s designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the obvious female body parts. The model’s pose is simultaneously submissive and seductive, and from the spread legs, the arching of the back, and the expression on the face, it’s easy to imagine this model in a sexual context. I could probably find plenty of even more sexual examples on Google. Is this photo artistic? Yes. It’s clearly professionally done, and not just some snapshot someone took of their girlfriend. But it’s also clearly a shot designed to entice men in the way all porn does (and if you have any doubt, you can check the other NSFW shots from the same website, which get even more sexual).

Now, let’s consider the second photo. I found it among several others in a set that all strike me as being much more artistic. In these, the model isn’t the sole central focus of the shot. The backgrounds and lighting are as important in these shots as the model, whereas in the previous shot, the background was plain, non-distracting white. The model on the first image is even on a white table; this is clearly a deliberate choice to make sure nothing distracts you from the nude girl.

Take another look, and think about where your eye first enters the photos. Look at this one compared to this one. Where is your eye drawn? In the first one, the eye is most likely immediately drawn right to the breasts, and then down to the crotch. This isn’t accidental; the model’s pose creates a line of motion that draws the eye in that direction. Even the angles of the first model’s legs are all designed to be lines leading to a central point, the point the viewer is presumed to be interested in. (For a wonderful explanation of how object placement in a photograph can lead the viewer’s eye, I recommend this article). But with the girl in the barn, the eye is drawn first to her face, then along her back towards her feet. Nothing about that shot makes the woman’s breasts a central focus or signifier. Yes, she’s still a beautiful naked girl. But her pose isn’t seductive or sexual.

This is the difference between the Ram, which shoves the sex in your face, and a more artistic approach, where the sensuality is more part of the background. You can use a similar approach in your writing. Focus on the entire image, not just on the naughty bits.

2. The Sheep – The sheep is soft, docile, and easily guided by a firm hand. This is your relationship with a tantalized reader, who waits with wide eyes for you to take them on an erotic journey. Don’t scare them off. An average reader isn’t coming to your book to get rammed, and they (hopefully) keep their pants on the entire time they’re reading your book. Your goal isn’t to get your reader to seek their orgasm. Your goal is to capture their attention and keep them emotionally invested in your story.

In his book, “Stein On Writing,” Sol Stein says that the key to suspense is to give your character a goal, something they desire, then keep them from achieving that goal as long as possible. In erotica, the goal is the culmination of the character’s sexual desires, and the character should be forced to wait as long as possible to get what they want. If the reader is in tune with the character, they will be just as eager as the character to see it finally happen. In the romance novel my friend Carey wrote, the protagonist doesn’t get to taste her “forbidden fruit” until one of the final chapters. The result is a reader who is on edge the entire book, waiting to see if it will happen.

Even within the single sex scene itself, a skillful writer won’t ram right into business. There should be flirtation. There should be foreplay. There should be a LOT of “show, don’t tell” emotions. How long you wait to get to the “good stuff” depends on your writing style. It could be paragraphs, it could be pages. But if you grab the goat by the horns in the second sentence, you’re doing it wrong. Let the emotions and tension build for awhile before the climax (both in the story structure and in the bed).

3. The Pompeii – If you google “erotic goat,” this pops up. Click the link, and read the accompanying article. I assure you, it’s intellectual, not revolting (though it certainly might weird you out).

The reason I shared that article is because it raises an interesting, and I would say important aspect of eroticism in art. Our mythology is filled with examples of eroticism that aren’t limited to humans, and if you’re a sci fi or fantasy writer, this is an area you might find yourself delving into. The important thing to remember in cases like this is that this isn’t bestiality and it isn’t perversion. It’s history and myth. It’s also something you might want to use in your writing, if you do it right.

Piers Anthony is a fantasy writer who delves into this sort of thing, and does it in good taste. In his world, “Xanth,” there exist magic love springs that enchant any creatures that drink from them. After taking a drink, creatures are compelled to mate with the next creature they meet, and the magic ensures that the coupling can and will result in a child. Different species accidentally stumbling across love springs is how the world came to have species like centaurs (half human, half horse), harpies (half human, half vulture), and satyrs (half human, half goat). Though Piers Anthony never shows us a human and a goat mating in erotic detail, the results of the mating are there.

If you’re a fantasy writer, you may want to write human/dragon mating, or something similar. You can play it for laughs, the way Piers Anthony does, or you can address it with seriousness. Consider more than the physical questions of “will it fit?” Think about the cross-cultural differences between the two species. Think about how difficult the mating ritual might be between a mammal and an egg-laying reptile. Think about whether a dragon would have the human emotions associated with “making love,” or if they would view the act differently. Fantasy writer Elizabeth Haydon depicted a dragon in her novel, “Rhapsody,” as viewing his mate as a shiny piece of treasure to be guarded as part of his hoard.

All of these elements and more can become important parts of your story. They can be used to build up to the eventual sex scene, which instead of just being two people bumping uglies, will instead be a triumph over cross-species cultural barriers and all of the conflict that comes with them.

4. The Domestic Goat, Capra aegagrus hircus – Goats can be domesticated, like cattle, and kept as pets or livestock. This is like functional, bland sex; you might milk the goat every day, but that doesn’t mean the goat enjoys it. If a reader feels like reading your sex scenes is a chore, you might be better off skipping the milking and going straight to the breakfast table. There’s nothing wrong with the “fade to black, cut” method of writing sex scenes. It’s probably the kind I use the most often. Does your story need the sex, or are you just putting it there because sex sells? I only write a full erotic scene if there are strong emotions involved, and I’m trying to show the characters reaching a new level of their relationship or achieving an emotional bond. If it’s not important to the story, then you’re just going through the motions of the daily chore.

All of the above examples talk about the purpose of sex in a story, and how to sculpt a scene. “But Jason,” you ask, “when do we get to the naughty fun parts?” Well, as I said earlier, you need to tease your audience and make them wait to build suspense. But I suppose I can’t write a “How To Write a Sex Scene” post without discussing the language itself.

First, I’m going to share some examples of different ways to write descriptions in a sex scene. One will be an example of my own work. I don’t by any means think my own work serves as the highest artistic examples of erotic writing, but I do believe it’s appropriate that if I’m going to write about sex, I should have the courage to share my own writing.

Once again, everything that follows is NSFW.

First, let’s look at an example of bad writing; The Ram, in full force. Here is a short excerpt of a story on Literotica.com:

“I have driven to meet you at your house. After chatting online for awhile we were anxious to meet each other. It’s a hot summer’s day, so I told you to be in shorts, no boxers. It is a long drive but finally I arrive and knock on the door. You open it only to be pushed back inside by me. Seeing as you want an aggressive girl, there is no time for small talk.

The door slams shut and I drop to my knees right there at the door. You are not expecting to get moving so quickly. I look up to see a mixture of amazement and curiosity on your face as I start to unzip your shorts.

You open your mouth but I don’t give you time to say anything. I shove your soft cock into my mouth. I suck and lick it, making it grow and come to life in my mouth. Finally it is fully erect, gagging me as it touches the back of my throat.”

Now, I’d like to analyze this story, not as a work of porn, but the way I’d critique any piece of writing. Let’s review it from a professional angle. We open with no introduction to who these characters are, just that they have been “chatting online.” There is no description of their appearance, their occupations, or anything. The action starts in the first paragraph with the “aggressive girl” pushing her way in; this story tells us from the start what we should expect from it. Then, second paragraph, the girl is already on her knees. By the third paragraph, we have some extremely graphic language and a scene straight out of a cheap porno.

If this sort of scene appeared in a novel, would you keep reading? I wouldn’t. There’s no emotion. There’s no reason to care who these characters are. This story is about fucking, plain and simple. The entire story is 768 words, and there isn’t a single paragraph in it that isn’t about the raw, physical act of sex.

Now, if you want to write porn, you could use this style. But I think most of the people reading my blog want to write books and stories. That’s certainly what I want. So, how do you write a sensual, erotic scene in a novel, without it turning into trash like this?

Let’s take a look at something more emotional. The following excerpt is from my WIP novel, “Manifestation.” It contains minor spoilers from the novel, so be warned:

            “Hours later, Tock awoke in Frankie’s bed. She glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand, and realized it was four in the morning. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep there, but after a rather energetic night of fun and experimentation, she had passed out in Frankie’s arms. Part of her wanted to get up and go back to her room, but his arms felt quite nice around her. Something else also felt quite nice pressed up against her from behind, filling her with an urge that she couldn’t deny. She lay there for awhile and contemplated the most sensible thing to do. She knew that leaving, and letting the boy wake up alone, would be a better way to get the message through to him what it was really all about. She wasn’t prepared to do the relationship thing; her life was simply too much of a mess.

            She stared at the clock as the digital display ticked away another minute. What would Frankie Palladino think if he knew he was in bed with a murderer? Would that change his tune? She couldn’t ever admit such things to him, of course, but she still needed to make him understand that she wasn’t the ‘girlfriend’ type.

            But then, his body felt so warm and nice pressed up behind her . . .

            I’ll spell it out fer ‘im in the mornin’, she thought. She rolled over to face him and slipped her arms around him, then kissed him urgently. He moaned in his sleep as she pulled him on top of her and his body responded on instinct before he was even fully awake. Her gentle but none-too-subtle hands sought the source of her urges and soon woke him fully. The response she felt under her hand made it clear he was more than ready for another round.

            She spread her legs for him and pulled him in close, wrapping her arms around him and tracing her fingernails down his back. She gasped as he entered her, and forgot all thoughts of whether they were in a relationship or just fucking. She just became focused on the sensations pulsing through her body. Frankie was strong, and his athletic body was warm and firm against hers. He made her moan, and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, clinging to him as she let him have his way with her. Part of her just wished he wouldn’t be so tender and gentle about it . . . that just made the situation all the more complicated . . .”

See the difference? First, it’s a little more than twice the length of the clip of the porno story, but you can follow the link to Literotica to read that whole story (all 768 words of it) and you won’t see what you see in my excerpt of “Manifestation.” Let’s analyze it bit by bit.

First, the opening paragraph of the “Manifestation” excerpt sets the scene. This particular scene comes after a short mid-chapter scene break, so what you see above, with Tock waking up, is the “beginning” of this scene, for all intents and purposes. That first paragraph names both characters, and it sets an image of the setting around them: a dark bedroom in the middle of the night, a digital clock counting away the minutes, and the fact that this is Frankie’s room (in the college dorms). These visual details aren’t much, but they’re certainly setting the scene better than “I knock on the door, you open it.”

Now, my first paragraph still sets an erotic tone, as Tock observes the feeling of Frankie pressed up behind her. I never name a body part, but you know which part is pressing against her. It’s subtle (more so, at least, than the other story). But it sets the stage for what comes next. More importantly, though, there’s emotion here. You can see a sense of conflict. She has doubts, and isn’t sure how to express them. That makes the lovemaking that follows all the more meaningful.

Let’s take a closer look at the actual vocabulary, shall we? Both stories reach a point where the penis enters an orifice, to use the boring technical terms. Let’s compare those specific moments in each story.

The Ram:

“I move down from your face, to your stomach, turning around to face you, so you can see my tits bounce as I press your cock into my ass. I take some of your pre cum and rub it on my tits, sucking the cum off in front of you.”


“She spread her legs for him and pulled him in close, wrapping her arms around him and tracing her fingernails down his back. She gasped as he entered her, and forgot all thoughts of whether they were in a relationship or just fucking. She just became focused on the sensations pulsing through her body.”

I’d like to set aside the crudity of the Ram’s language and focus on the actual imagery and emotions (or lack thereof). In the Ram’s story, we see “bouncing tits,” a “cock,” “pre cum,” and lots of rubbing and sucking. The images are all sexual. The only emotion we see is lust. As for the words themselves, these are all classic “porn words.” People who write stories just for the sake of getting off tend to focus on these kinds of words, thinking that the crudity is what a sex scene is all about.

The “Manifestation” clip, on the other hand, focuses on entirely different body parts and images. “She spread her legs,” “wrapping her arms around him.” We see “her fingernails down his back.” Even when the sex itself starts, it’s not “he shoved his cock into her pussy.” Instead it’s “She gasped as he entered her.” It’s still sensual and erotic, but it’s not crude. The focus isn’t on the physical anatomy. It’s on the emotions.

Compare these two scenes to the earlier photographs. As before, one is focused on breasts and sexual things. The other is focused on emotion and artistry.

That, in my humble opinion, is the key difference between porn and art. Art moves your heart, while porn just moves your genitals.

Focus on the characters. Focus on their emotions. The sex is just the background. The story is more important. As yourself what purpose a sexual scene serves in your story. The “Manifestation” scene above is meant to show Tock’s inner turmoil, the conflict she feels between her desire for Frankie (desire that is both physical and emotional) and her doubts and fears. The closing lines, “Part of her just wished he wouldn’t be so tender and gentle about it . . . that just made the situation all the more complicated . . .” are the real reason that scene exists. If I weren’t trying to show those emotions, I’d have cut straight to the following morning. This scene exists to show the reader that conflict. The fact that Tock’s emotions and confusion are being shown during a sex scene has little to do with the sex, and everything to do with the story.

In closing, I hope you’ve read and appreciated this post in the mature, professional way I’ve tried to approach it. I love me some naughty bits, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place to approach things from a serious angle.

Character Archetypes and the Orphan Hero

I’m going to start this blog post by describing a popular work of fiction that most of you are probably familiar with. There will be a short quiz at the end, so pay close attention.

The story begins with the Hero as someone who lives in ignorance of the bigger troubles that exist. He doesn’t have a complete family, and what he thinks he knows about his family isn’t quite true. He thinks he’s just an ordinary person, until trouble begins and he finds out he is destined for greatness.

An elderly wise figure leads him from his home on an adventure to stop a great evil. This figure possesses some strange magical powers that the Hero doesn’t understand. Yet the Hero learns that he, too, has something special about him, and as a result he is the only one who can complete his task.

The Hero receives a special weapon, which later in the story he will lose for a time only to later replace/reclaim it. This weapon is significant enough to be considered a way of identifying the hero in some way.

The elderly figure with the special powers is eventually lost in battle with a horrible villain. The figure returns later and still continues to guide the Hero in some way.

The Hero is, at one point, injured in a massive way that leaves him permanently changed or scarred. He is joined in his journey by a good friend who saves his life at one point, and without whose help the Hero would have failed in his quest.

The Hero eventually learns he has a stunning and unexpected connection to the main villain. He eventually defeats the villain, but only through some spectacular means that are more dramatic than just a battle to the death.

Which character/series did I just describe?
A. Harry Potter (Harry Potter series)
B. Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
C. Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars prequels)
D. Rand al’Thor (Wheel of Time)
E. Richard Rahl (Sword of Truth)
F. Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)

Don’t think too hard. This synopsis can more or less describe all of these stories, and hundreds more. It’s a story concept that has roots all the way back to Greek mythology.

Some, but not quite all of those elements can also be found in The Matrix, several Final Fantasy games, The Order of the Stick, and many more. If you try hard enough, you could probably find hundreds of stories that have at least 75% of those elements.

Why are these tropes so common? Well, you can go spend a few weeks on tvtropes.org trying to figure that out. But regardless of the reason, these story elements and character archetypes are a fundamental part of our literature and other media.

You should consider how many of these elements are in your story. I guarantee there’s a few, especially if you write fantasy or adventure. Even in romance, you can have the “elderly wise figure” as someone who offers the protagonist advice in lieu of having magical powers, and you can replace “evil villain” with “the wrong guy” for other elements to work.

Does having all of these elements in your story make it cliché? No. If it did, Harry Potter would have been a flop. But you should be AWARE of these elements in your story. If you’re saturated with them, you might have reason to second guess a few things as being overdone. For example, if the villain is the main character’s father, THAT has been done to death. Don’t do it. Please.

Awareness of your story’s elements can help you better understand what you’re doing as a writer. If you don’t know WHAT you’re doing, it’s hard to do it RIGHT. So you should look at your story and see what tropes and archetypes you’re working with, and try to do them right.

If you understand your story, you can actually enhance things by building off one of these tropes. For example, I once wrote creative nonfiction story about my childhood and my first ever writing experience. I was having issues related to my parent’s divorce and being home alone after school, and I wrote a story about a character who fights a villain in a haunted house. Sound familiar? I didn’t realize it was using “orphan hero” tropes until my college professor pointed it out. Once I became aware of this element in the story, I was able to accentuate it in revisions and focus on it more.

What are the “themes” of your story? Some people say they don’t write to have a theme on purpose, and that’s fine. I didn’t intend for Manifestation to have themes about female empowerment, but my three main characters are a poet, a mechanic, and a doctor, all of whom are female. Therefore, I’m aware that someone might look at this story as saying “You can be anything you want to be, regardless of what society says.” That viewpoint is actually a big part of Tock’s character, and her personal motto is “ANYTHING is possible” (and with her magical powers, that’s literally true).

By seeing that theme in my story, I can build on it, and I have (specifically in how I write Tock). I think the story has become stronger as a result.

What tropes do you see in your story that you didn’t realize were there at first?

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Magic, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on how to create effective magic in your stories. You can also read parts one and two if you missed them.

This post will address the last two issues I raised about how to make magic work:
5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)
6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

So let’s get right down to business.

5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)

Stories thrive on suspense. Without it, your story will have a slow pace, and people won’t be interested in reading it.

In order for there to be suspense, there needs to be some kind of unresolved issue or conflict. There needs to be obstacles in the characters’ paths. There needs to be challenges.

The problem is, magic, superpowers, and other supernatural abilities can sometimes bypass a lot of those challenges. If you have a story with supernatural elements, you need to know how to create appropriate challenges.

A simple example of this trope is the issue that can arise in some Dungeons and Dragons based stories, such as The Order of the Stick. If you’ve ever played a high-level D&D game, you know that wizards in such games usually have easy access to things like teleportation spells. Spells like this can make some obstacles far too easy to overcome. If the characters in the story can snap their fingers and be on the other side of the continent, they can immediately bypass any obstacles such as weather, bandits on the road, or getting lost in the wilderness. Some authors address this issue by simply not allowing the characters in their stories to teleport (something that Rich Burlew, the author of The Order of the Stick, did to keep his characters more limited).

Fans of many works often complain, however, if such obvious types of magic don’t exist or aren’t used. For example, a common complaint about The Lord of the Rings is that Gandalf should have been able to simply teleport straight to Mount Doom, or, alternatively, that he should have summoned the giant eagles and had them fly the party straight to the volcano.

Doing something like that would remove any conflict and end the story. This leads to a problem: many fans will complain that the only reason such a power was removed from the story was to prevent the easy solution from happening. The common explanation is “if he had done that, there wouldn’t have been any movies, so therefore he didn’t do it.” This is a flimsy explanation, and should never actually be used by the author.

In order to keep the suspense in a story, you shouldn’t simply remove or block certain types of magic, especially if they are important in other scenes. It doesn’t make any sense to give a character a teleportation power and then make it so that they can’t use it. You shouldn’t introduce some sort of disability to a character (such as temporarily removing their powers) just to stop them from using their powers to solve a problem. Doing so can be seen as cliche and overdone. Movies and shows like Heroes, Spiderman 2, and the anime The Slayers have all had scenarios where a character temporarily loses their powers and they have to regain them. It’s been done, and it should be avoided unless it serves a more central purpose to the story (such as happening for a reason other than “because the character was growing too powerful”).

So if your character DOES have a magical power that is so strong they can solve any problem, how do you create conflict?

Let’s consider the Superman Dilemma.

Superman is probably the ultimate example of a character so powerful that he can solve any problem. He’s super strong, fast, invulnerable to most attacks, and has a wide array of powers that outclasses most other superheroes. In most scenarios, there are only two ways to give Superman a challenge: either break out some kryptonite, or put Superman up against an even more powerful villain.

Using kryptonite against Superman gets overdone after awhile, since it becomes cliche to think that every lowly thug can find this ultra-rare rock and use it against Supes. Breaking out a more powerful villain every time can often lead to an arms race that results in power levels growing too strong (See below, “6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)”). However, there is a third option that is much more effective.

The best example of how to create suspense with a powerful character like Superman is the ending of the first Superman movie starring the late Christopher Reeves. I’m not talking about the part where Lex Luthor breaks out some kryptonite; that scene is over fast, and it isn’t nearly as suspenseful as what follows. Instead, I’m talking about the wide-scale catastrophe that results from Lex’s nuclear missiles.

First, Superman has to deal with the fact that there are two missiles to stop, and he isn’t able to stop them both in time. He manages to hurl one into space, but the other one strikes in Los Angeles. Once the missile strikes, an earthquake starts, and then there are dangers all over the place. Superman is racing around, repairing the damage to the San Andreas Fault, trying to stop a train from being thrown off the tracks, rescuing kids on a school bus that is about to fall off a bridge, stopping the water from a broken dam from destroying the city, and stopping a nuclear power plant from going into meltdown. Meanwhile, Lois Lane gets buried under tons of rocks and debris, and she dies.

The suspense here is never about Superman himself being in danger. It’s about Superman failing. Even with all of his powers, he can’t save everyone. This creates conflict and suspense. The audience is never afraid that Superman is going to die. In fact, most people would laugh at the very IDEA that Superman could die . . . his NAME is in the movie title, after all!

There are other stories that face similar issues, even when there is no magic. In the TV series 24, fans often complain that Jack Bauer can’t die, because he is the main character. However, there are plenty of other suspenseful things that can happen to a character, aside from death. In 24, Jack loses his wife, his job, and his freedom. He suffers deep psychological traumas. He fails, on multiple occasions, to save his friends, and has to see many people he cares about die. His failures, not the chance of death, are what create the suspense.

If you have powerful magic in your story, you can still create suspense by putting your characters up against challenges that they can’t overcome, even with their powers. If they are facing a city-wide disaster, even the most powerful magic might not be fast enough or strong enough to save everyone at once. If your character is immune to harm, they can still suffer emotional trauma and loss if their friends or loved ones are killed. If they can teleport straight to the volcano, there can still be a mad wizard raising an army of orcs who won’t be stopped once the ring is destroyed. There are many ways to add suspense.

By remembering that suspense comes from the chance that the character will fail in their goals, rather than from the chance that they will die, you open the door to many other types of drama. Your hero could have the power to save the world, but still fail to win the heart of their love interest. They might be able to stop an army of vampires from taking over, but still fail to save a family member from a mundane disease. No matter how powerful your character’s magic is, there are still ways to create suspense.

There’s also another way to make your story suspenseful even when your characters have powerful magic. The magic itself can be an obstacle. In my novel, “Manifestation,” one of the main characters develops a magical power that is dangerous and uncontrolled. The magic itself causes problems wherever she goes. By creating a magical ability that can’t be controlled, the magic creates the suspense, rather than resolving it.

Obstacles come in many forms, and you should choose obstacles that your character’s magic won’t help with. This is a more effective way to add suspense than simply increasing the scale of the obstacles. Which brings us to:

6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

How strong should your character’s magic be? I briefly touched on this point in part 4, “How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic.” You can have one character strong enough to lift a car, and another character strong enough to lift a mountain. You can have one character who can run 100 miles per hour, or another who can run 1000 miles per hour. How high you set the power level will have a few different impacts on your story.

First of all, in order to avoid “The Superman Dilemma,” as described above, it can be better to keep your characters’ power levels in check. A less powerful character is easier to challenge, and they have to work harder in order to achieve their victories. If you make your character too strong, you might find yourself stuck in a corner when you can’t figure out good ways to challenge that character.

Another reason to keep your characters’ power levels low is to give them room to grow. If you create a character with massive powers from the beginning, they won’t be able to grow stronger over time. If you consider Superman, he usually faces this issue. In most Superman retellings, Supes has his full array of powers pretty much from the beginning. However, if you watch the TV series Smallville, you’ll see that they started Clark off with only a limited number of powers. He gains new powers at the rate of about one per season of the show. This way, he’s able to constantly grow more powerful, without ever reaching a point where things get out of control.

You can also add more drama and conflict in later stories if you start things off small. If you are writing a fantasy series, you’ll need to escalate the level of conflict in each story in order to keep your readers on edge. By starting off in the first book with low-level powers, you can show the characters growing more powerful throughout the entire story. A good example of this is the Wheel of Time series. There are 14 books in the series, and the main characters were discovering and unlocking new powers all the way up through the final battle. If the characters had been at their full power levels from the first book, they wouldn’t have had the room to keep growing.

By keeping the characters’ power levels limited, you’ll also keep yourself from having to introduce insanely powerful villains to counter them. If you keep introducing more and more powerful villains, eventually you’ll reach the point where you can’t outdo yourself anymore. For example, after Buffy the Vampire slayer defeated a goddess at the end of season 5, many fans complained about the wimpy villains that were introduced in the next season.

I addressed this issue in my novel by having the characters manifest their powers for the first time during the story (you didn’t think I chose the name “Manifestation” out of a hat, did you?). They spend most of the first book without much understanding of how their powers work. I’m planning on a minimum of three books in this series, and that leaves me plenty of room for the characters to grow more powerful as time passes.

That’s all I have to say about Magic for now. However, you should also consider checking out this interesting post by my friend, Mari Wells. In it, she discusses various types of magic, and she takes on a different perspective than the one I offer here. I definitely recommend giving it a read.

Magic: Making the Rules, and How to Break Them


My novel is an urban fantasy story, set in a world where magic exists and is a major part of the plot. We’ve all read a lot of stories with magic in them, from Lord of the Rings, to Alice in Wonderland, to Harry Potter. Magic can be mysterious (we never know just how Gandalf does what he does). It can be silly (eating a cake that makes you grow 50 feet tall). It can be structured (half of the Harry Potter novels involve teaching us “how magic works”). How does a writer decide how to make their magic different? How do you make it believable? How do you make it capture the reader’s imagination?


I’ve studied a lot of techniques, and developed a few theories of my own. This post (and others to follow) will touch on several different points that I’ve learned are very important to writing good magic:

1. How to make your magic unique
2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense
3. How to break your own rules (and do it right)
4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic
5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)
6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

I’ll provide examples from a variety of genres (fantasy, urban fantasy, fairy tales, and even sci fi) to help show how these techniques can apply across a wide variety of stories.

1. How to make your magic unique

Magic has been done. From the oldest Greek mythology to the newest modern movies, magic has existed in fiction in so many forms that it’s hard to write anything completely “new.” So how do you make your magic stand out as something unique and original?

In his book, “Stein on Writing,” Sol Stein makes a suggestion for how to make characters more memorable. He calls it “using markers.” A marker is some unique trait that makes a character stand out. It can be Gandalf’s pointed hat, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, Igor’s hunch, or Dirty Harry’s big ass gun. You always remember a certain trait about a character, and markers are a good tool to use to make your characters memorable even if they’re not 100% unique (because NOTHING is).

Magic can also have markers. When you think of magic in certain books or movies, there are unique traits that come to mind, even if the magic ITSELF isn’t completely new and original. You’ll always remember Gandalf’s staff, Harry’s wand, or Cyclops’s ruby visor. While any individual magic effect might be something a reader has seen before, the WAY it is done can still be unique.

Consider Harry Potter. 90% of the magic seen in those books and movies has been done before, many many times. We see levitating objects, flight, teleportation, stunning/paralysis, transformation, and divination. Any level 10 wizard in “Dungeons and Dragons” can do everything Harry can, and more. About the only really unique spell is the Patronus.

And yet, Harry Potter’s magic is still somehow very original. How? By use of markers. Wizards have to have a wand or they can’t use magic (a rule NOT seen in many other wizard stories). Each spell has a unique name that you always remember. An instant death spell isn’t D&D’s “Slay Living.” It’s Avada Kedavra. Making an object float isn’t “Levitate.” It’s Wingardium Leviosa. The Wicked Witch of the West (whose name is a marker in itself) just flew on any old broomstick, but Harry flies on a Nimbus 2000.

Adding traits like these to your story can make your magic feel unique and original, even if some parts of it have been done before. Guess what? EVERYTHING has been done before. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it in a different way.

One of my markers is light. My characters use and see magic in the world around them, but they never see someone waving a wand or chanting magic words. Instead they see pure, radiant light emanate from someone’s hands before a ball of fire flies out. Light radiates from one character and touches another, sparking change as the energy infuses into them. There is a line in the book referring to a character as “like the sun” because of the light radiating from her. These markers, along with others, should make my characters, and their magic, seem unique.

So in order to make your magic unique, consider what markers you can use that are different from the norm. What does a character have to do to make the magic work? What does the magic look like? How do people react to it? Is each magic unique to each person (like individual powers in the X-men) or can people learn to duplicate each other’s magic (like going to Wizard School in Harry Potter)? Each of these questions can be used to take an otherwise familiar type of magic and add a unique spin to it.

2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense

Magic has rules. It’s like science. After all, any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. The rules of your magic will be what helps the reader to understand it, and help make sure it’s believable.

The rules can be simple or complex. In a fairy tale, “true love’s kiss will break the spell” is a simple, common rule (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Shrek). “You can’t cast magic without a wand” is another simple rule.

Some stories have more elaborate rules. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series has very complex rules. Magic is divided into different elements. There are rules for how someone can draw on a magic power, how to block others, and even differences between how men and women use magic. There are various limitations imposed on what can or cannot be done, and ways to bypass those limitations. In addition, there are advancements made throughout the series where people figure out how to do things that have never been done before.

Another good example is “The Matrix.” While it’s a sci fi movie, the characters do things that are essentially like magic. Morpheus explains the rules throughout the early parts of the movie, such as how “That’s not air you’re breathing” (to remind Neo that they’re in a computer simulation). This also demonstrates an important tool in making rules for magic: having someone to explain things to.

You can’t explain things to the reader; that’s a direct violation of “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s often better to show what happens, and let the reader figure things out on their own. With magic, however, it’s sometimes necessary to explain SOME things, since otherwise the reader might get too confused by complex rules. So how do you explain things without explaining them? Do it in character.

Neo starts off knowing nothing about the Matrix. Harry Potter starts off knowing nothing about wizards. Frodo starts off knowing nothing about the One Ring. They need Morpheus, Hermione, and Gandalf to explain things to them. But they’re not really explaining things to them. They’re explaining things to us. As the characters talk, information is revealed to the audience to help us understand things. This is a commonly used way to reveal information to the audience while making it part of the story, rather than by exposition. It also helps strengthen the audience’s connection to the protagonist, but that’s another blog post.

I mapped out the rules for magic in my world before I started writing. I thought about where magic comes from, how people develop magical powers, how the powers function, what they can and can’t do, and so on. I structured most of the plot around these rules, and several of the major plot points are centered around the characters figuring them out. I never explain things to the reader; instead, I show the reader as each character explores and figures out her own power. They bring the reader along with each discovery they make.

What are the rules of magic in your story? Do characters need an object, special training, or magic words to cast a spell? Is it something they’re born with? Can magic be blocked? What are its limitations? Consider all of these questions to develop a more well-structured world.

That’s all about the rules of magic for this post. My next update will continue with tip #3: How to break your own rules (and do it right)