Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Three Examples of Great Hooks

I've written some about story hooks in previous posts. Here are three wonderful examples of excellent story hooks from the winners of Narrative Magazine's Winter Story Contest.

Now I know why these stories won...

Read the hooks for yourself:

Christmas Eve
by Kevin A. González
“TWO DAYS AGO, my father was making French fries and started a fire in her kitchen. It didn’t spread too bad, but the cabinets all melted and the stove was a total loss. When I heard the sirens from the pool, I knew it was my father: it’s not the first place he’s burned down.”

Maine Night
by Debra Spark
“IN NORMAL FAMILIES, a late-night phone call means only one thing: tragedy. A drunken mishap. A car crash. A heart giving out. Maybe a decapitation or a roadside bomb, the twenty-first century offering an escalating range of horrors. But the Pearlmans are not a normal family.”

by Viet Thanh Nguyen
“EVEN AFTER A WEEK in Saigon, Vivien would appear no more of a native than on the day she arrived. On the streets, she was easily mistaken for a Korean businessman’s frazzled wife or a weary Japanese tourist, her frosting of makeup melting under the tropical glare.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hard Boiled True Crime Served Up Hot: Meet Jeannie Walker

I want to introduce you all to an exceptional individual, Jeannie Walker, who self-published her true-crime memoir, Fighting the Devil, which chronicles the story of how the father of her children was poisoned to death by his new wife and bookkeeper and the legal case that ensued.

Walker was a 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards True Crime Finalist and a 2010 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Awards True Crime Finalist.

Shares Walker: “My book is the horrifying true story of the cold-blooded murder of my ex-husband, a Texas millionaire and the father of my children. I wrote the book to speak for my ex-husband as he no longer has a voice.”

Here’s the synopsis of Fighting the Devil:

In the midst of Texas ranch country, on a quiet and peaceful spring day, a 49-year-old millionaire rancher sat down to lunch with his wife and bookkeeper, as he often did. Less than half an hour later, he was deathly ill, with stomach pains, severe vomiting and intense intestinal distress. Three weeks later, he was dead from a mysterious illness. His wife seemed to show no emotion when she learned of his death. However, his bookkeeper became very nervous and upset upon hearing the news, and ran through the hospital corridor to the nearest elevator.

The Texas millionaire rancher discovered his wife and bookkeeper had stolen thousands of dollars from him. After he demanded the money back, he started getting sick. While in the hospital, doctors were mystified as to how an otherwise healthy, energetic man could become so deathly ill. The dying man told everyone within earshot that his wife and bookkeeper were killing him. The man's wife said her husband was hallucinating from drugs the doctors were giving him. The millionaire rancher succumbed in the hospital while strapped down to his bed with restraints on his hands and feet and tubes in every orifice. After the rancher died, an anonymous caller tipped off the police. The widow was the sole beneficiary of the estate and a $350,000 life insurance policy. A week before the man's death, a teenager visited the rancher's home and became deathly ill after he drank juice that was in the rancher's refrigerator. Two years after the millionaire's death, a bottle of arsenic was found in a storage locker rented by a woman under an assumed name. That’s when Jeannie Walker, the mother of his children, became a sleuth to help solve the murder.

I asked Walker some questions about her book. Primarly, I wanted to know why she felt that she alone was the person to take on this monumental task.

“I set out to seek justice,” shares Walker, “because it was something I had to do for my children’s sake. "

Why did you decide to write a book on this murder case?

“The story was on TV at least twice. The last time was in 2005 on the Oxygen Channel series Snapped. Everyone kept telling me I needed to write a book on the case, because they wanted to read it. I knew more about my ex-husband and the murder case than anyone, so I finally decided I needed to write a book about the murder case, which, by the way, is still an open murder case.

Why did you feel the need to give a voice to your ex-husband, who no longer had one?

“Because it was the right thing to do.”

Why did you feel you were the right person to do it? 

“Over the years that followed the murder, I collected information, studied things for the sheriff’s office and became a key player in the team that held one woman accountable for Sternadel’s [Walker’s ex’s]death.

“I started taking notes on the plane ride from my home in Long Island, N.Y., to Texas for the funeral of my ex-husband. I started writing down the thoughts that were racing through my mind. That note taking was paired with the snapshots I took during my first visit after the murder. After I met with the chief investigator, Clay County Sheriff Jake Bogard, I started getting deep into the case. I made phone calls, talked to specialists and did large investigation projects the county could not afford or did not have the resources to do. The sheriff would call and ask me, ‘Do you think you could help us out on this?’

“In the book, I recall getting questioned by some of the people I called, such as the head of the FBI, John Douglas, who questioned, ‘What agency are you with?’ The sheriff fixed that problem for me. He had me put my hand on a Bible, and, over the phone, he swore me in as a deputy.

“As I continued to search for justice, I continued to take snapshots and keep notes. I was encouraged by the Sheriff to record interviews if I could, too. I started documenting my memories and put them in a folder. I would write down what was said in an interview and transcribe the tape if I recorded it. People would tell me, ‘This needs to be a book, and you’re the one to write it.’ I started thinking I need to write a book about this.

“I would write, then would put the book aside. Then something would trigger me, and I would write some more, then put it aside. I had folders and folders and folders to go through, and I basically wrote three or four books.

“For a while I struggled with how to end the book. The bookkeeper, Debra Baker, who was convicted of First Degree Murder of my ex-husband, was given probation by the jury. That’s not a very good ending.

“But in 2003, Debra Baker was put in prison after she violated the terms of her probation. This again triggered me to pick up and start writing. But this time, I had an ending— at least one suspect was behind bars.

Is the book self-published?

“Yes. After I finished writing the book, I didn't want to wait for a traditional publisher to decide whether or not to publish it. I wanted it published right away.

“One of the steps I am taking to market my book is by being giving interviews, such as this interview for your readers.

“This book was very difficult to write. I still cannot help but cry when I think about at certain parts that I felt I had to put in the book, since it is a true story. But, I am glad I wrote the book to speak for my ex-husband, who no longer has a voice, and to let others know that if their lives are ever touched by anything as horrific as a murder; that they have the ability and the right to become their loved one's advocate, and if necessary their own, real-life Sherlock Holmes."

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Future of Freelance Writing. Is There One?

Everyone knows: Print mags are folding. Their spines are becoming slimmer and slimmer. Newspapers are on-line. Print journals are becoming a relic of the past.

Is there a freelance market anymore? I spoke with journalist Kristi Singer about this very fact. Singer specializes in entertainment reporting and music journalism. You can learn more about her writing on her blog:

“Sadly, I want to be honest here and say it is a very tough time for writers," says Singer. "Magazines and newspapers were the bread and butter of the freelance writer. Now so many magazines are folding because advertisers can't afford to advertise. Content is so readily available for free online as well."

Advice for Freelancers in a Difficult Time

“I would say just be persistent," shares Singer, "make the connections, network and don't give up if this is what you want to do. Many online magazines, blogs and websites have to use writers as well as print.

I do have a few common sense rules though:

1) Don't ever write for free. It causes a downward slide in the pay scale for all writers across the board.

2) If you are starting out as a freelance writer, keep your part or full time job until you know that you will make enough to survive.

You Still Want to Be a Freelance Writer. How Does One Break In?

“The answer is that there are many routes, like with any career. You may get your start at the college newspaper and make contacts with local media. Others write as a hobby and on a whim submit a story for publication and are often times surprised that they get accepted. I think the bottom line - with any form of art - is that if it's good, it's good. If you have natural talent, it won't go unnoticed no matter which route you take."


"If you are serious about a freelance writing career," says Singer, "you have to be very organized, deadline oriented and understand the importance of networking and timing. Join websites for writers and definitely LinkedIn and Facebook. Create a website or blog with your work that you can send potential clients/editors to. Then, start researching. If your focus is music, look up every music magazine and website you can find and start contacting them. Eventually you will get someone who needs you and your journey will begin.

Finding Your Niche: Kristi’s Is Music

“Finding your niche as a writer I think begins with your interests and passions. I chose music and entertainment because that was my love and slight obsession. I knew all of the bands and songs on the radio and was excited to learn about everything 'behind the music.

"If you want to go the music journalism route, you will have to build relationships with bands, managers, local clubs, promoters, record labels, etc. It may be difficult to do initially, but eventually they will recognize your name and respond quickly.

"My relationships in the entertainment/music business began while I was in college writing for the university's newspaper. I became friends with the local bands, went to concerts that came to town, became friends with local DJ's who got me access to backstage and interviews artists I probably might not have had the chance to get to as easily on my own. I networked and made friends. And I'd say it was a snowball effect."

Singer's Advice for the Aspiring Freelancer?

- Write about those things you are passionate about. Otherwise it will become work too quickly.

- Don't be discouraged when you get your first, second, third and fourth "no." That just means you are one editor closer to a "yes."

- Network, network, network.

- Promote yourself. Sell yourself. You are your own business.

- Be organized and pay attention.

- Don't give up on your dream and pursue it no matter who believes in you or who doesn't.

- Enjoy the feeling of seeing your byline and be happy about it. You earned it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Brainstorming Consequences for Your Characters

Here's a really wonderful post I found on Jurgen Wolff's Time to Write blog about mapping out different options for consequences to your character's actions.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How to Write a Scene with Cecilia Russell of How Movies Work

Writing compelling scenes is the basis of any good screenplay, novel or short story for that matter. But how does one do this?

Practice, practice, practice

According to Cecilia Russell of How Movies Work, the only way to get better at writing scenes is to practice

“It’s like playing scales for a concert pianist, or practicing a putt for a golfer," says Russell.

“One of the things that used to mess up my ability to write was the idea that I needed to 'know' what I was writing in order to write something. So not true. Writing characters, dialogue, conflict, subtext, action narration doesn’t require a story. It doesn’t require a reason to write. You don’t wait to practice your craft when you are in a situation where you have to perform. You practice so you can perform. Big difference.

“Also, there’s something magical about practicing writing without an intended product. For so many of us, especially those who are producers and professional copywriters, we’ve been to school in structure, [told to] outline heavily before you start writing. For some, it shuts down another avenue for accessing your story – writing purely through character.

“When you let your characters speak, roam around and find their internal direction you can often find your story that way too. The characters are more liberated to act when they aren’t constrained by your roadmap.”

The tennis match

In order to practice writing scenes, Russell came up with all the different types of scenes that she typically reads in scripts. 

One of these basic conflict scenes between two or more people Russell calls the “tennis match.”

“One character serves up the problem, the other character answers, deflects, lobs, changes the problem or loses the point. There’s two people NOT talking about the conflict. Then there’s pure action. There’s a scene that creates tension and suspense. A scene that introduces and reveals character. Another where a character is challenged to change his/her core wound (what we call the internal character flaw that’s the core of the hero’s journey). As a writer, you want to know how to do every one of these scenes artfully. It’s so much easier if you practice before you are ‘in the game.’ "

What are the components that need to be in each scene?

According to Russell, each scene needs change.

“Something needs to change or be different between the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene, whether that’s emotional, informational or physical. Sometimes it’s all three.”

- Every character has to have a desire or a motivation.
- They need a willingness or lack of willingness to reveal their desire or motivation.
- Conflict must occur. Either as a result of the characters’ actions or differing desires or as an outside conflict (a bomb explodes).
- The end of the scene reveals a new conflict that will need another scene to resolve it.

Other tips for showing more in scenes and telling less?

Russell advises:

1. Imagine having to write your story without dialogue. How would that change your scenes?

2. Play with character who lie and missing information. When a character lies or has limited knowledge, the writer has to SHOW how they are lying. The story tends to reveal itself in action, not words.

3. Remember the audience is smart and looking for story connections. If you show a gun, you assume someone’s going to use it. If a character says they are happier than they have ever been in their lives, you assume that something bad is going to happen. 

Learn more about the workshops that Cecilia Russell offers on her website Her next scene writing class starts next Wednedsay night, June 22cd, 6-9pm. It's online, $279 for 9 weeks. Click here: to get a 20% discount: $237!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Meet the Great White Agent, Janet Reid

Hey everyone, I had the pleasure – yes, I will repeat – pleasure of interviewing the ultimate sharktress, Janet Reid of Query Shark, yesterday for my new radio program, The Writers Radio Resource.

I am happy to report that I am still here, all limbs attached. Reid's bark isn’t all that bad either, even if she does maul queries.

According to Reid, she tears apart our queries for our own good. And she said so without an ounce of snarkiness (sharkiness?). The fact of the matter is, how else are we going to learn to write queries? Reid shared that publishers and agents used to do aspiring authors a serious disservice by demanding that they know how to write the perfect query without giving them any of the tools as to how to do so.

That’s like demanding someone become a virtuoso piano player without lessons. Impossible, right? Luckily we now have Query Shark.

The idea of Query Shark is not to mock the attempts of aspiring writers to pen queries, but to show how not to write queries through example. You can lecture writers all you want as to how to write a query, but if you can’t give any examples, how does one expect writers to learn?

Enter Query Shark.

So how does a writer write the perfect query. I queried Reid.

“It needs to entice me,” said Reid.

Okay, so what does that mean?

One tip Reid shared was to include at the top:

Who is/are the main character/central characters?

What’s the setup?

What are the stakes?

The higher the stakes, the better the story, people. If you want to learn how to raise the stakes in your story, you can read my blog post dedicated to the subject.

Sounds simple, right?

Not necessarily, says Reid. "Like anything simple, this is hard."

Oh, and don’t brag about how your book is the best book ever written. Your work will speak for itself

Reid also added that, as a fiction writer, it doesn’t make a difference if you have a big social media following.

“Writers who spend all their time on social media aren’t writing,” says Reid.

I don’t totally agree with that. You can’t spend all your time on social networking, but a little is fine. I don’t think it hurts to arrive on an agent’s doorstep with just a bit of a built-in following.

But what do I know?

I guess what Reid is saying in a nutshell is, if the book's good, she can sell it, regardless of how many friends you have on Facebook. Besides, it’s got to be more than just your grandma and all your nephews and nieces who are going to buy your book anyhow.

I’ll let you know when I have the entire interview posted.

E-Book Success Story -- Diary of a Mad Fat Girl

Are you questioning whether you can really achieve success if you do choose to self-publish your novel?

Let me tell you about one success story, which comes in the form of an author who was a total unknown until recently, who goes by the name of Stephanie McAfee, who last year decided to make her novel, Diary of a Mad Fat Girl, available digitally.

Says McAfee:

"It's a crazy story. I listed [Diary of a Mad Fat Girl] on Amazon's KDP website on Christmas day of last year and put in on Barnes & Noble's PubIt! on February 4, 2011. It made the New York Times Bestsellers list in the fiction/ebook category on March 27, 2011 and managed to hang in there for ten weeks. It also made the combined print/ebook list the week of its debut and was on there for 3 weeks. Needless to say, when the book appeared on the Times list, that's when I started getting emails from agents and publishers. I signed on with LJK Literary Management at the end of March and had a three-book deal with Penguin by the end of April. See what I mean? Crazy.

"It's been a whirlwind experience (to say the least) and the shock has yet to wear off. I am a high-school teacher from Mississippi, who quit a great job when my husband joined the Army and couldn't find another one when we relocated to Colorado. In March of last year, I decided to give the 'book writing dream' one last shot and wrote Diary of a Mad Fat Girl around my son's nap schedule. I thought I'd sell about six books and have to buy three of those myself. The entire experience has been humbling, scary, stressful, unbelievable, and incredibly exciting all at the same time."

Learn more about Stephanie McAfee here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Is There Life for a Screenwriter Outside of L.A.?

According to Lisa Walker England, a screenwriter living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there is.

“I have sold a short that is set to go into production this summer,” says England. “In addition, I have just been offered a job, developing and writing a full-length feature for an independent production company in Los Angeles. (I was offered the gig based on sample pages from my spec scripts.) It’s still early in the contract negotiation process, so I can’t say more about the project at this time. I am working on finishing several other specs and have a children’s book under official consideration at a respected publishing house.”

So why not just move to LA?

England lists the cost of living as one of the reasons she stays put in Milwaukee.

But there is another great thing about her unpaid internship at the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Huh, say that again?

“When I arrived on the first day, I found out that my new boss was a board member of Film Wisconsin, the equivalent of the state film commission. Cha-ching! Not long afterward, he ‘loaned’ me to an Emmy-winning writer/director, who, in turn, invited me to collaborate with him on several professional projects. I can’t describe for you the opportunities that are opening up because of that partnership – all because of an internship outside LA that people told me was a ‘waste of time.’ If I were a young writer in LA, I’m convinced my knuckles would be bloody by now from all the locked doors I’d be banging on, just trying to slide my resume or script sample inside."

Less competition outside of LA

England also cites less competition as one of the reasons she enjoys living outside of LA.

“Why live in a town where you’re just one of nine million other hungry people, all at the same skill level as you, all competing for the same tiny pool of gigs? Why not live in a town where the scarcity of your kind breeds some demand? The challenge is: you have to develop the creativity, innovation and foresight that can turn your small fish pond into that stepping-stone opportunity.”

Fresh, original content

Tired of only seeing movies and TV programs about LA? So is Lisa Walker England.

“I cannot believe how many movies are shot in L.A., about L.A.,” says England. “I mean, really? The world is full of fascinating places with fascinating stories! I’ve been told repeatedly by LA-based writers that LA is starved for fresh, different content set in unique locations. I’ve found that advice to be so true. If you’re not in LA, use your location to your advantage! Cultivate an artistic voice, characters and situations that will get noticed in LA precisely because they’re not about LA. I personally think it’s harder to maintain originality if you’re surrounded by the often-myopic Southern California culture. Even if you try, it’s just hard to maintain a really strong grip on other places in the world.

"This does not mean I won’t move to LA at some point; it just means that I’m actively discovering and leveraging the advantages of not currently being there. And that’s my whole message: don’t allow conventional wisdom about your circumstances to sabotage your career.

"There is life outside LA! If you, like me, live far outside the City of the Angels, get busy discovering the resources that are at your disposal – and figure out how you can leverage those resources as strengths to bolster your LA pursuits."

Finally, how does one stay connected with other screenwriters?

Says England: "I stay active in many different organizations – screenwriters’ associations in LA and in my home area, social networking via LinkedIn/Twitter/Facebook, meeting other writers in the area face-to-face. In short, as everything else I’ve said, it takes WORK (and probably extra work). But especially with the social media platforms we have today, if you don’t stay connected and meet new writers, it’s your own fault. Honestly.

"You’ll also need to be willing and able to invest money in periodic trips to Los Angeles for conferences, networking, pitching, etc. And you must develop a strategic plan for keeping up those relationships via social media after you leave town. Time and time again, I find that these relationships – the one’s I’ve built successfully from afar after a single face-to-face encounter – are the ones that yield valuable opportunities and wisdom.

"I’ll admit that I’ve had an added advantage in that I’m an alum of the 2010 writing program at Act One: Hollywood Above the Line ( It’s an intensive program that allows a select group of young writers to learn the craft from Hollywood insiders and then participate in an ongoing mentoring program with working Industry writers. The Act One community of faculty, alums and staff are a huge source of connections, opportunities and professional growth for me.

Get in touch!

Says England: "I’d love to get to know your readers! If you’re intrigued by this approach (or disturbed!) or want to share your own story, feel free! Shout out to me at JourneyCraft via social media: LinkedIn, Twitter @JourneyCraft or my website: In fact, as a thank-you for contacting me, I’ll send you a free brochure I’ve developed, packed with tips for maximizing your opportunities outside the LA market."

Friday, June 10, 2011

What's at Stake and Giving Your Story a Sense of Urgency

What's at Stake?

Each main character of every story needs to be facing serious struggles for the story to keep the reader's interest.

Writers are continually told to create a life-and-death issue for the protagonist, but this "does not mean that every protagonist must face death in every story," says Nancy Ellen Dodd in her new how-to-write tome, The Writer's Compass.

"It means making the stakes as high as you can crank them so that to this protagonist at this time in his life on this day it feels like a life-and-death issue."

I see this problem in many writers' work I consult on.

I must admit that I have trouble with this very issue myself.

I like what Dodd has to say here: "The seriousness is not measured by whether the issue is life or death, rather by the intensity of the desire."

Dodd asks us to explore several issues in determining what the stakes of our story are:

1. What's at stake for your protagonist?

2. How serious is the outcome?

3. Is this the most important issue in the protagonist's life at this time, and will the outcome determine the course of his life to be the best or the worst it can be?

4. Is what's at stake organic to the characters and what really matters for this story?

5. Does what's at stake become more intense when you consider the setting, the people, the circumstances and the obstacles?

What's at stake for the main character definitely needs to made clear in the beginning of the story, before the character decides to jump into the action of act two.

According to Dodd, "The thread that pulls the reader through the story is knowing what's at stake for the protagonist if he or she falls."

A Sense of Urgency

One way to build a sense of urgency is create high stakes for your main character.

However, not every story is a thriller with a ticking time bomb.

Dodd also shares that we can create this sense of urgency in our story by tightening the story "to occur in as short a time period as possible. A story with a quicker pace tends to have more intensity than a slower-paced story."

Another way to increase the story's urgency, opines Dodd, is through "the goal you give the protagonist. Is there a time issue in that the goal needs to be accomplished or met by a certain date or time? If Jerry doesn't arrive in time, his best friend is going to marry the antagonist, who Jerry knows has three other wives."

Dodd says that this is "a countdown [but] of a different nature than a ticking bomb."

According to Dodd, "a countdown can also be accomplished by the way things are changing in the world or in the protagonist or in another character. If something doesn't happen to stop the change, it will soon be irreversible. Emotions developing from good to bad to worse can be a type of countdown."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Secrets of Pitching for TV

On our most recent edition of the Writers' Radio Resource, I interview Mark Simon of Sell Your TV Concept Now about the best ways to get your TV idea made into a TV show.

Listen to the interview here.

Here's what the show's about:
In a business starved for 600 channels worth of content, it is still a huge challenge to write for TV. Why? Because writers and concept creatives at large don’t have the foggiest idea how to pitch an executive.

Enter Mark Simon of Sell Your TV Concept Now. Mark has conceived, storyboarded and presented nearly 3000 TV concepts for many major networks. He now consults with creatives on how to get their ideas produced. In addition to providing (at least) 10 pitching commandments as a guideline, he stands steadfast by the belief that TV concepts hinge on the critical trifecta of character, relationships, and story. Seems simple…well it’s not.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Radio Interview With Producer Adam Coplan

Today, on the Writers Radio Resource, I interview producer Adam Coplan about what it takes to sell your screenplay.

Go here to listen to the interview.

Over the course of his career, screenplay critic Adam Coplan has swam with producing sharks Joel Silver and Scott Rudin. One of his primary roles was to sift through the avalanche of submitted screenplays, judging instantly which ones to pass along and which to toss in the bin. Coplan acknowledges that most movies are entirely derivative of the past — a formula — yet these movies are greenlit all the time. Coplan issues aspiring screenwriters this tall order — offer originality in a world of predictability. On this edition of Writers Radio Resource, learn about “high concept”, where to focus storytelling energies, and creating a realistic scope for your project. And perhaps your piece will have a chance to actually escape that trash heap.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who Says Fiction Authors Can't Be Great Marketers?

Let’s face it, as fiction writers we can be some of the worst businesspeople on the planet. But we don’t have to be. With a savvy marketing campaign, you can even learn to market your fiction writing.

I listened to a great webinar last night by Emily Craven of E-Book Revolution. I will blog some of the other things she said about e-publishing in another post. But for now, here are some of her tips about marketing your book as a fiction writer.


Join interest groups and promote your work there.

My two cents worth: Don’t abuse this or you’ll come off as spammy. You have to become part of the community, comment on others writer’s work too. It can’t be all about you (even though many of us narcissistic writers would love it to be).

Free stuff

Yes, everyone likes free stuff. With the purchase of your novel or short story collection, why not include a free short story? Once you create a fan base, your fans will be dying to get their hands on more of your work.

Why not also give away free audio copies of your book? It’s a great way to create a buzz around your work.

And when you’re writing that new book, consider also giving away a free chapter online that people can read.


Shoot a trailer of your book or pay someone to do it for you. Then post that trailer on youtube.

Engage your audience

I just found something interesting on author Jim Brown's website. Brown offers turning you, the reader, into a character in his next novel if you sign up for his newsletter before he’s done with the book.

These are all but a few of the ways for us as fiction writers to market ourselves.

More About the Hook and Plot Structure With Story Deconstructionist Larry Brooks

I recently discovered writing coach Larry Brook's website, Storyfix. Brooks offers some great tips about the hook, which you, if you read my blog, might have deduced I've been studying a lot about lately.

Says Brooks: "The mission of a hook is to grab the reader early – very early – by establishing dramatic tension or posing a question (a can of worms) that compels further interest and promises a rewarding ride.  Sometimes it’s huge, sometimes more subtle."

Brooks continues to deconstruct other aspects of plot as well as the hook, utilizing Kathryn Sockett's The Help as a model.

I recommend Brook's site as a great resource for writers who want to learn more about plotting.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Addendum to the Hook Thanks to Mark O'Bannon

Just came upon another really interesting idea for your story's hook.

Hook your audience by introducing an element of mystery into the opening of your story.

I read about this in author Mark O'Bannon's free e-book, entitled How to Tell a Story, which you can find on his website,

This book is very simple, only 31 pages. But I actually use it a lot to help me plot out my stories.

Perhaps because it is so simple, it helps one cut to the chase and plot out a simple method to tell your story, instead of a convoluted one.

O'Bannon bases his storytelling techniques on his years of study of story structure as well as on John Truby's methods.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

More About the Hook

I recently blogged about Nancy Ellen Dodd’s new book, The Writer’s Compass.

In this book, Dodd writes about the hook, or that sentence or paragraph your short story or novel begins with, which is supposed to pull in readers.

I honestly have not spent a lot of time thinking about the hook. Obviously I know that there has to be some interesting line or paragraph at the top of your story that entices readers. But I didn’t know how to construct one.

I am looking into Dodd’s book because she has some good tips about constructing the hook of your story. This is mainly because I am having some short stories I wrote professionally edited (read: I’m being professionally told just how much time I have to spend rewriting them). The editor advised that I rewrite my hooks.

In terms of the hook, Dodd asks us first to define who our audience is. “If you know your audience, then you should know or learn what interests them.”

Your Hook Can Be Founded In Current Events

Dodd also suggests we find ways to interest our readers through current events.

"What do people care about? What are they thinking about as you write your
book? How can you incorporate something from today into your story hook? What
are the concerns or fears of this particular audience? Is there a new science
discovery or a major catastrophic event or a political scandal or war that will
be on people’s minds? Your story may not have anything to do with that event
(you don’t want to date your book by being too specific to a reader of a certain
era), but it may have impacted your protagonist and how she is thinking, just as
it has your reader. The story may have evolved from that moment or be what is in
the back of the minds of the characters in your story world. You don’t even have
to mention the event, but you might allude to it in a way that your reader will
get the comparison."

The Theme of Your Story Can Be Your Hook

Another way that Dodd advises we mine for our hook is “by placing the dramatic question or your theme in your hook.”

The theme of your story is the “over-arching message you want your story to convey to your audience.”

Dodd argues that if “the writer’s theme doesn’t come across clearly, the reader is left unsure about what they are supposed to take away from the story.”

Mnemonic Device as a Hook

Dodd explains that a “mnemonic device is used to plant a word or a thought in someone’s mind, often through an image or a metaphor that represents an idea. Every time that device is mentioned, the reader’s subconscious remembers the idea that was planted.”

Dodd uses the example of the word “green.” Green can mean jealousy or environmentally protective.

Her example of a mnemonic hook for the word green is: “Now that I’m not green anymore, I don’t know who I am.”

In the above case, green can also mean Kermit. But in the very least, the sentence is mysterious and therefore pulls the reader in as he now wants to know more.

Anyhow, I hope this sheds a little more light on what the hook of your story is. It does for me, and now I have a better idea of how to recraft the hook for my short stories.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Creating Character "Windows" Through the Performance of Mundane Activities

Last night, in the writers group I participate in, one of the writers had a great window into his main character’s flaw. The only problem was that this window came on about page 45 of his script when we should have already started getting a whiff of it on pages 1-5.

This writer’s main character flaw was that the protagonist was a petulant, self-centered spoiled brat, who jumped into action impulsively without thinking because he had grown up rich and therefore thought he ruled the world.

He was also a very “wounded child”, meaning his father had abandoned him at a young age, but still demanded that the son oversee the family’s wealth as the son was a businessman. The character had a lot of issues about his father, as any of us would. But sometimes he was just a bit too precious.

While I was commenting on this fact, the writer asked me what my recommendations were for showing this flaw in the earlier scenes of his script. I tried to brainstorm a few methods on the spot, but didn't think of one great way to give insight into what a character is all about until this morning, as I sit here, slogging through a rewrite of my own work.

Provide insight into who your character is by showing how they perform mundane tasks.

Many screenplays and other stories begin with the main character waking up in the morning. While this might seem rote to some, one of the uses of this technique is in demonstrating how characters react to the mundane details of their life.

For example: A very uptight person is going to clean up his breakfast plates in a very different way than a slovenly, rather “liberal” person might, who might not even bother cleaning up his breakfast plates at all.

And what if these two different characters happen to drop a glass on the floor? They are both going to have a very different reaction.

The uptight character might overreact to the glass breaking, while the more slovenly person might under-react and perhaps not clean up the broken shards all that well. Then he ends up stepping on one of the shards later, lodging it in his foot, his penance for being such a slob.

You as the writer can then bring in other characters to these mundane situations. The uptight character, who perhaps is already late for work, might lose his stack the second his wife walks in the room, misdirecting his anger at himself for breaking a glass against her.

The slovenly guy, on the other hand, perhaps tries to shirk responsibility for his own accident, seeing if his wife can clean up the mess for him.

Both instances are both flaws that a character would have to confront during the course of his journey.

This is a great way to show character, instead of telling.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Major Elements of Story According to Nancy Ellen Dodd

I was lucky enough to recently learn about a writer, writing teacher and author of The Writer's Compass, a wonderful how-to-write tome that is now available for presale and which will be available for regular sale the second week of June. Her name is Nancy Ellen Dodd, and she teaches writing at Pepperdine University.

Dodd and I have been in contact, and I wanted to know what, in Dodd's opinion, were some of the most essential components of story.

Here's what Dodd said:


Of course we all know how critical the hook is. The hook is one of the areas most revised or sometimes one of the last things you write, after you are clear on your story. A hook can be the first sentence, the first paragraph, and occasionally the first page. You want to show the tone and perhaps the setting for your story. Is it funny, sad, cryptic, a mystery? Does it include an insight into your key characters? When writing the hook, you want to think about your target audience. What appeals to them? Are there concepts or words or current events that would trigger interest for your audience? Read hooks in stories in your genre for examples of good and bad ways to intrigue your audience.


The protagonist needs a goal. He or she may start with a goal that changes as the story progresses, or develop a goal that is challenged throughout the story or is attempting to thwart the antagonist’s goal. At some point during the beginning (first act) the protagonist clarifies the goal. While the goal is important so that the reader knows what to root for, it does not have to be static. The goal can change or evolve as the circumstances change and evolve.

First Turning Point = Conflicts—Internal and External:

The first turning point is when the protagonist has to face the conflict that will either cause him or her to take action. At that point, we should learn about the protagonist’s internal and external conflict. What is the actual event she or he is dealing with? How does the protagonist internally feel about the conflict? The protagonist may decide to meet the challenge and face the conflict or refuse it. If refused, a second turning point would then occur that forces the protagonist to move forward and begins the middle act.

Obstacles (3-7):

Obstacles are in the middle (second act) and are the challenges or events that your protagonist will face and fight in trying to achieve the goal. Sometimes the protagonist wins and sometimes the antagonist wins. The obstacles can be separate events or the story will be tighter if the outcome of each challenge then creates the setup for the new challenge. The number of obstacles depends on the type of story and the nature of the obstacles.


A revelation can occur anywhere in the story or be the reveal in the end (third act). The revelation can be something that the protagonist or antagonist doesn’t know but learns that explains the events. It can be something the audience wasn’t aware of that explains the story. If there are secrets and mysteries throughout the story, there should also be some reveals throughout the story so that the reader feels “let in” and not disenfranchised from the story. Too often writers want to keep secrets thinking they are increasing the tension in the story, however, too many unrevealed secrets only frustrate the reader.

I will blog some more about the book soon. Buy it on Amazon here.