The Three Characteristics of Successful Fiction

Three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful:

1. It must have a precise and suspenseful plot.

2. The author must feel a passionate urge to write it.

3. He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.

— Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Ten (Plus Four) Commandments (of Writing)


1. “The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth.” — Henry David Thoreau

2. “If you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” — Arthur Quiller-Couch

3. “The best rule for writing–as well as for speaking—is to use always the simplest words that will accurately convey your thought.” — David Lambuth

4. “There are simple maxims . . . which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short one will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the readers to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.” — Bertrand Russell

5. “I have made three rules of writing for myself that are absolutes: Never take advice. Never show or discuss a work in progress. Never answer a critic.” — Raymond Chandler

6. “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — W. Somerset Maugham

7. “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” — Truman Capote

8. “There is probably some long-standing “rule” among writers, journalists, and other word-mongers that says: “When you start stealing from your own work you’re in bad trouble.” And it may be true.” — Hunter S. Thompson

9. “If I were to advise new writers, if I were to advise the new writer in myself, going into the theater of the Absurd, the almost-Absurd, the theater of Ideas, the any-kind-of-theater-at-all, I would advise like this:

  • Tell me no pointless jokes. I will laugh at your refusal to allow me laughter.
  • Build me no tension toward tears and refuse me my lamentations. I will go find me better wailing walls.
  • Do not clench my fists for me and hide the target. I might strike you, instead.
  • Above all, sicken me not unless you show me the way to the ship’s rail.”

Ray Bradbury

10. “Breslin’s Rule: Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.” — Jimmy Breslin

11. “One of the great rules of art: Do not linger.” — Andre Gide

12. “Do not pay any attention to the rules other people make…. They make them for their own protection, and to Hell with them.” — William Saroyan

13. “Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.” — Norman Mailer

14. “I’ll give you the sole secret of short-story writing, and here it is: Rule 1. Write stories that please yourself. There is no rule 2. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself, you will never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public.” — O. Henry

Of Inspiration and Imagination


1. “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.” — William Blake

2. “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.” — Charles Dickens

3. “If writers had to wait until their precious psyches were completely serene there wouldn’t be much writing done.” — William Styron

4. “I sit in the dark and wait for a little flame to appear at the end of my pencil.” — Billy Collins

5. “Use your imagination. Trust me, your lives are not interesting. Don’t write them down.” — W.P. Kinsella

6. “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” — Neil Gaiman

7. “You go to the attic of your mind and rummage around and find something.” — Mary Higgins Clark

8. “Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” — Ray Bradbury

The Best Judge of Character? Why, 10 Famous Authors, Naturally


1. “Creation of character is, like much of fiction writing, a mixture of subjective feel and objective control.” — Julian Barnes

2. “Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found.” — Elizabeth Bowen

3. “The characters that I create are parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find out what I don’t know yet.” — Gail Godwin

4. “I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking.” — Joan Didion

5. “I visualize the characters completely; I have heard their dialogue. I know how they speak, what they want, who they are, nearly everything about them.” — Joyce Carol Oates

6. “When I write, I live with my characters. It’s like going to work. You see the people at the next desk in full regalia all the time, and you know where they came from and where they are going. The point is to define the nuances of everything that’s happening with them and to find the element of their lives that is fascinating enough to record. That takes a lot of doing.” — William Kennedy

7. “Don’t write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story.” — Ethan Canin

8. “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” — Raymond Chandler

9. “It doesn’t matter if your lead character is good or bad. He just has to be interesting, and he has to be good at what he does.” — David Chase

10. “Think of your main characters as dinner guests. Would your friends want to spend ten hours with the characters you’ve created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be evil, but they’d better be compelling.” — Po Bronson

Elizabeth Bowen’s 7 Tips on Approaching Dialogue

1. Dialogue should be brief.

2. It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.

3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.

4. It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

5. It should keep the story moving forward.

6. It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.

7. It should show the relationships among people.

10 Thoughts on Dialogue From Notable Authors

1. “Dialogue has to show not only something about the speaker that is its own revelation, but also maybe something about the speaker that he doesn’t know but the other character does know.” — Eudora Welty

2. “Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.” — Edith Wharton

3. “Good writers do not litter their sentences with adverbial garbage. They do not hold up signs reading ‘laughter!’ or ‘applause!’ The content of dialogue ought to suggest the mood.” — James J. Kilpatrick

4. “Nouns, verbs, are the workhorses of language. Especially in dialogue, don’t say, ‘she said mincingly,’ or ‘he said boisterously.’ Just say, ‘he said, she said.’” — John P. Marquand

5. “A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer.” — George V. Higgins

6. “Dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine. If other writers read your work and rave about your use of dialect, go for it. But be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read short stories or novels that are written in dialect. It makes our necks feel funny.” — Anne Lamott

7. “Dialogue which does not move the story along, or add to the mood of the story, or have an easily definable reason for being there at all (such as to establish important characterization), should be considered superfluous and therefore cut.” — Bill Pronzini

8. “To write successful dialogue the author must have access to the mind of all his characters, but the reader must not perceive any more than he would in real life.” — William Sloane

9. “Don’t write stage directions. If it is not apparent what the character is trying to accomplish by saying the line, telling us how the character said it, or whether or not she moved to the couch isn’t going to aid the case. We might understand better what the character means but we aren’t particularly going to care.” – David Mamet

10, “Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you.” — Anne Lamott

What’s Your Shark?

This is an oldie but a goodie. A blog post I wrote many years ago, about the patterns I have noticed in screenwriters. – See more at:
This is an oldie but a goodie. A blog post I wrote many years ago, about finding the thing that challenges you. You’re probably familiar with the story, Sharks and Fish–it’s been doing online rounds since the days when I relied on AOL, my gas-powered PC, hand-cranked monitor and an ultra-fast 14.4k modem to gain access to the interwebz. For those of you who haven’t tripped over it yet:

Sharks and Fish

The Japanese have always loved fresh fish, but the waters close to Japan haven’t held a great deal of fish for decades. So they built bigger fishing boats and traveled farther out to sea but the farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring in the fish. If the return trip took more than a few days, the fish weren’t fresh and people didn’t like the taste.

To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats to allow the vessels to go farther and stay longer. However, people could taste the difference and didn’t care for frozen fish, which brought down the price.

Then the fishing companies installed fish tanks, but once placed in the tanks, after a little thrashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were tired and dull, but alive. Unfortunately, the Japanese public could still taste the difference.

Apparently, because the fish didn’t move for days, they lost their fresh-fish taste. The fishing companies pondered over the dilemma until they stumbled onto the solution:

To keep the fish tasting fresh, the fishing companies still put the fish in the tanks, but now they add a small shark to each tank. Sure, the shark eats a few fish, but most of the fish arrive in a very lively state. The fish are challenged.

My personal belief is that writers should be in a constant state of fear when writing. This, of course, requires your willingness to break free from your comfort zone and push boundaries. I’ve already discussed tackling that seemingly unconquerable writing task, that ambitious bit of scribbling that you either feel you lack the confidence, skill or proper desire to finish, in an earlier post (see: It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done).

If it isn’t already, writing needs to be your exploration into that frightening undiscovered country. Every new project is an opportunity to attempt narrative feats above your current skill set. To see what lies beyond the unfamiliar horizon. To embrace bizarre new thoughts, take on larger themes and alien points of view. To shake hands with new intimidating characters. To paint the world in unique hues of poetry. Anything less and you do a disservice not only to your work but also to yourself as a writer.

But it isn’t as simple as all that, is it? I mean, we’re not talking about the same brand of fear that adrenaline junkies face when they undertake risky physical activities. A writer’s fear is an abject terror laced with insecurity, inadequacy, doubt, the sinking feeling that we’ve bitten off more than we can chew, and the risk of exposing too much of our core selves.

These are also the things that fuel our excuses.

To be clear, challenging yourself in writing is more than simply writing everyday, especially if you aren’t inspired by what you’re writing, as the end result could wind up being flavorless, tired and dull. Challenging yourself is about punching above your weight class in each write and rewrite, learning to not only chew but swallow that which you’ve bitten off, and in essence growing as you come to the realization that you’ve just written something better than you believed yourself capable of.

What’s your shark? Only you can answer that. The one thing I do know is a writer’s fear is the only cycle of fear that is absotively posolutely worth repeating.

Writing for a living – no matter what you write – is a struggle. Whether you’re a freelance copywriter, a contracted novelist, or a self-publishing author, there’s countless distractions between you and your deadlines and professional goals. In order to stay on track to develop your skills, grow your business, and meet your deadlines, you need to challenge yourself to making the most of your time writing.

Challenge yourself to set a timer

The late copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz worked within the confines of a timer set to 33 minutes and 33 seconds. In that time, he would concentrate fully on his writing, giving himself over to the project at hand with a few exceptions detailed in this great Copyblogger article.

  1. He could drink coffee
  2. He could stare out the window, or at the wall
  3. He could sit and do absolutely nothing for 33.33 minutes
  4. He could write the ad
  5. He could not leave the chair for any reason
  6. He could not do anything else

At the end of time, he’d take a break and let his creative juices recharge. The practice not only gave him structure for producing great content, it pushed him to complete projects faster. As your timer ticks down, you ignite a competitive spirit within yourself to finish what you’re doing before the timer goes off.

This is, of course, not necessarily the most novel idea in writing. Sprints and timers have long been the go-to solution for increased productivity. However, settling into a routine and resolving to work this hard every day is difficult for us – especially in the time of constant connectivity and social media. Which brings me to my next point…

Challenge yourself to a routine that you actually stick to

When your impending deadline is your only structure, you’ll find that your routine often flounders until you find yourself furiously working to hit your word count in the days (or hours) before your project is due. If you’re anything like me, you tell yourself during each of these mad-dash midnight struggles, “It’ll be different next time. I’ll use my time more wisely.” And then I don’t. It’s the weight loss New Year’s Resolution of the writing world… and it’s just as impossible to stick to.

But, if you’re going to thrive as a writer, you need to establish a solid routine for your work week. Sit down with the calendar of your choice and realistically address your schedule and routine. Set office hours and put them in your calendar. Take these hours into consideration when you’re making appointments and planning lunch dates. Then, start each week and each day by taking a look at what your goals and deadlines are and assessing how to make them fit within your established routine.

The first few weeks are hard, but – once you’ve settled in – you’ll find that you’re meeting your deadlines with less stress.

Challenge yourself to take time off

When you’re freelancing, it’s easy to never take a day off. Even on your weekends (even if your “weekend” isn’t Saturday and Sunday), you’ll check email or try to get a little writing in, but you need to stop that. Time off is essential to sustain creative output. Setting aside time for your family, yourself, and your friends is an investment in your career as a writer.

Find activities that replenish you and do them. Whether it’s a bottle of wine and a good book, time at the gym, dinner with your family, or a massage, putting value on self-care means that you’ll be ready for the challenges of being a writer.

– See more at:

Sally forth fearfully and be writeful.

At Loggerheads With Loglines? Try These Trusty Dusty Tips…

Even if you’re not familiar with the term logline (or log line) you’ve undoubtedly come across them when looking at TV listings or surfing movie info sites. It’s simply a brief summary of a television program or film often providing a synopsis of the program’s plot along with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.

White House Down: A Secret Service agent must fight to protect his daughter, the President, and the country from an attack on the White House.

In ye olden days of Hollywood, the studios stored their screenplays in script vaults and readers wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about on the title page, allowing studio executives, producers, directors, and actors to scan a great many scripts quickly while searching for a project that met their needs. Loglines were also written on the spine of the script, allowing people to read the summaries of scripts that were stacked without having to unstack them.

Oblivion: In the future the world is decimated from an alien invasion. A drone repairman, one of the few remaining humans on Earth, finds another human who holds secrets that will put the repairman’s faith in humanity in question.

A competent logline–I shy away from using the word good because that’s so incredibly subjective–should contain the following parts (though not all do):

  1. The set-up. Where your story takes places and possibly in what time period. It also includes the inciting incident (the thing that forces the protagonist into action), and may set up your main character (but doesn’t necessarily have to).
  2. Protagonist introduction. Where we meet your main character and the physical/mental/emotional/internal challenges they face.
  3. Antagonist/conflict introduction. Where you establish the major action, conflict and/or antagonist in the story (essentially what your main character is up against).
  4. The goal. You’re not giving the story away, merely hinting at the climax.
  5. The hook. The answer to, “Why should I watch this?” Give ’em something juicy to whet their appetites. You should also work in your story’s genre and tone.

Elysium: In a future where the wealthy elite live on a ring-shaped space platform in the skies above Los Angeles, a slum-dwelling guy struggles to find his way there, first to save his own life but later to bring hope to all of humanity.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, the truth of the matter is most writers find the act condensing their screenplay/teleplay down to a single sentence that still maintains the the story’s raw emotion and power to be nigh-impossible. That’s because they put off writing the damned thing until the end, when it’s no longer about fleshing out a concept, but whittling a fully formed entity down to its skeleton.

But that doesn’t apply here, does it? Because you, being the smart person I know you are, will construct your logline waaaay before you even think about typing FADE IN: on Page 1 of your script… and I’m gonna walk you hand-in-hand through the rest of the process (who sez I ain’t a proper gen’leman?). In addition to the five points listed above, here are a few more helpful tips:

  • No need to get personal. Keep character names out of your logline, they serve no purpose here. What you should do is use an adjective and/or job title (only if it’s relevant) to add a little character depth.
  • Put the protagonist’s main goal front and center. Your main character’s action drives the logline and its the key ingredient in your story pitch.
  • Give the antagonist equal time. Same rules apply as with the protagonist but in less detail.
  • Make sure your main character is a pro. No, I don’t mean making them the best at what they do (that’s all on you, if you choose to go that route). I mean they’re your protagonist so make them proactive. They are the driving force of your story and this needs to be communicated in your logline.
  • Time and pace wait for no man. Add a ticking clock, if at all possible. Nothing speaks to urgency like an action that must occur by a deadline.
  • Brevity is the soul of wit… and a proper logline. Do not crowd your logline with unnecessary details. You’re not telling the entire story soup to nuts here. Your goal is to sell the story. Pique the crowd’s interest and leave ’em wanting more.

And there you have it, all the basics needed to begin tinkering with your own loglines. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to jump in feet first and craft a few cringe-inducing logs until you get the hang of the process. I know I said it once before but it bears repeating: Your logline is a crucial element in the selling your screenplay and most often, along with the title, is the first thing a studio, prodco or acquisition exec will read, so make it as brief and mind-blowing as you can.

In case you’re interested in further studying the structure, here are some additional loglines of films released this year:

The Great Gatsby: When Nick Carraway moves in next door to Jay Gatsby, he is introduced to a world of affluence and lavish parties, and ends up striking an odd friendship with the charismatic and mysterious individual.

Frances Ha: An aspiring dancer moves to New York City, and becomes caught up in a whirlwind of flighty fair-weather friends, diminishing fortunes and career setbacks.

The Hangover Part III: While taking Alan to a psychiatric facility, the wolfpack is side-trekked when a mysterious man kidnaps Doug and forces them to track down Mr. Chow, who stole $21 million from him.

Epic: A troop of brave bugs march off to save a garden, where they encounter an evil spider queen and must summon the mythical Leaf Men to save the day.

The Internship: When their careers begin to sink due to the digital age, two salesmen land an internship at Google where they must compete against brilliant college students for a shot at employment.

The Purge: In the near future, a family hides in their home on the one night of the year when all laws are erased and people are allowed to murder without consequences.

Olympus Has Fallen: A Secret Service agent must rescue the President after a group of North Korean militants storm the White House, take hostages, and demand the United States remove military forces from the Korean Peninsula.

World War Z: A United Nations employee traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.

Lone Ranger: Spirit warrior Tonto recounts the adventures that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into The Lone Ranger, an outlaw of justice.

Pacific Rim: In a future where malevolent creatures threaten the earth, the planet must band together and use highly advanced technology to eradicate the growing menace.

Sally forth and be writeful.

A Special Brand of Bravery

In yesterday’s post, villains took center stage so it’s only fitting that the heroes receive a little equal time. In a future post I plan on discussing the anatomy of a hero (all right, guttermind, give it a rest) but today I’d like to explore the key ingredient your protagonist must possession to some degree in order to attract your audience and keep them invested:


And it should come as no surprise to any of you that if I’ve brought the subject up, there must be more than one type of courage you may either instill or bestow upon your hapless hero:

1. Heroic Bravery is the most typical brand of courage found in fictional characters nowadays, where the protagonist places themselves in jeopardy for the protection of others or to further a cause in which they passionately believe, knowing in their heart of hearts that the risk to their own well-being is completely worth it.

2. Steadfast Bravery is usually displayed by someone who routinely endures a mental or physical dangerous situation and challenges fate by meeting it head on with patient doggedness every single day.

3. Quiet Bravery, often confused with cowardice, is an offshoot of steadfast bravery where the situations are less physically dangerous. Protagonists maintain their sense of self-worth and hope as they handle their business with grace and patience.

4. Personal Bravery is exactly what it says on the tin. The protagonist risks everything for a chance at a better life as they pursue their seemingly impossible dreams. This type of bravery speaks to us all as we’ve all experienced it in some fashion at one time or another.

5. Devil-May-Care Bravery comes from protagonists that feel they have nothing left to live for–the loss of everything dear to them, a terminal illness, etc.–so they display insane courage in order to meet their inevitable death with open arms on their terms.

6. Frightened Bravery is easily the most interesting type of courage to explore within a protagonist. A character that normally chooses flight in fight-or-flight situations that has either mentally or physically been backed into a corner and forced to face their fears and rise above them can be viewed as the bravest of all the courageous archetypes (and it makes for one hell of a character arc).

The best thing about these? You’re not limited to one type per character, in fact, your protagonist may display each and every one of these types of bravery as they trod along their hero’s path. Your job as creator is to recognize which category suits your character best in order to fully flesh them out on the page.

Sally forth bravely and be writeful.


Every Villain is a Hero

“Every villain is a hero in his or her own mind.” – Allison Brennan

What suits a hero best? That which opposes them. Despite the fact your protagonist is an expert in whatever field applies to your story, the very best at what they do, they’re only really as strong as their antagonist.  And how do you create a strong antagonist? By not treating them like a mustache-twirling villain.

While your shouldn’t limit yourself to the suggestions below, here are the most common antagonist archetypes writers tend to use for ideas and inspiration:

The Immoral Antagonist

Easily the most popular form of antagonist–the person your audience will have no trouble hating. They’re usually set in clear contrast against the hero. The lines are drawn in varying shades of black and white, and readers have no problem choosing whom to root for.

1. The Hypocrite is an antagonist who feigns goodness. They may be guilty of all sorts of treachery and evil, but on the surface they’re all sweetness and light. They put a righteous face on their misdeeds–perhaps even accusing the protagonist of hypocrisy to disguise their own–but the audience knows the truth: this person isn’t just bad, they’re a fraud, which makes them all the more hateable.

2. The Psycho is simply evil through and through. No excuses, no thread of goodness leading them back to redemption. They’re rotten to the core… and crazy to boot. Serial killers, genocidal world leaders, and sadists fit the bill and if you do your job properly, your audience will not only hate the psycho, but fear them as well.

3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for an Illegitimate Reason who has let their weaknesses get the better of them. Lust, greed, and hatred can drive even ordinary people to do extraordinary evil.

The Moral Antagonist

In the moral antagonist we find a more complicated—and often more compelling—character, since they presents more parallels than contrasts with the protagonist. This is a person who is doing the right thing—as they see it—and usually for the right reasons, but who has nonetheless been forced to do battle with the hero, thanks to the requirements of your story’s overall conflict.

1. The Good Guy on the Opposing Side is usually present in stories where the conflict is between good people with opposing views who appear on both sides of the battle lines. Lawyers fighting each other for causes in which they each believe passionately, football teams competing for a championship, two love interests trying to win the same girl—none of them have to be inherently bad. Stories of this nature can provide all kinds of interesting possibilities for exploring the grey areas of life, relationships, and morality.

2. The Crusader can be insanely scary in their own right, someone who fiercely believes they’re doing the right thing, and indeed may well be fighting for a good cause. They may be someone who believes they’ve to choose between the lesser of two evils in their decisions. Or they may be someone driven to fanaticism—and thus dangerous decisions—by their passion for the cause. In fact, they may be just plain out right, while the protagonist is the one who’s wrong.

3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for a Legitimate Reason because they feel they have no choice. A character who robs a bank to pay for their family member’s operation or to save themselves from the Mafia’s threats may be a hero in their own right—or they may be a compelling and relatable antagonist to the detective protagonist who has to go after them.

So, what are you waiting for? Walk a mile in your antagonist’s shoes, see the world from their point of view, empathize with their plight, understand the justifications for their actions. In other words, treat them with the same love and respect you do your hero for they’re equally as important to the overall success of your story.

Sally forth and be writeful.