Tag Archives: Michael Young

Prewriting for Productivity VI: Plotting the Rest of the Story

Second Try-Fail Cycle

The second try-fail cycle should be a much larger cycle than the first one.

The protagonist should try harder to solve the problem, bringing more resources to bear. The antagonist should try harder too.

Additional Cycles

There should be at least three total cycles, but there can be more.

The thing to remember is to make each successive cycle more intense.

The suspense must build.

The Final Try-Fail Cycle

Escalate to the breaking point.

Reach the point of no return.

Either the protagonist or antagonist must finally reach his or her goal.


The longest try-fail cycle.

Both sides put in the most effort and the most planning.

The conflict at this point usually affects the most people and those people the most deeply.


At this point, someone gets what he or she wants.

There is often a reversal involved, in which the antagonist appears to be winning, but the protagonist turns the tables.

Should be the point of highest tension, and near the end of your story.

Once this happens, the story needs to wrap up quickly.


This is a French word for the “falling action” of the story.

Here you wrap up the loose ends.

You must relieve the stress/pressure that was built up because of the conflict.

A story without a denouement can feel disappointing.

If it is not the final part of the story, still tie up some loose ends, provide some resolution.

Never forget = this is the payoff for the reader.

Other Endings

Some cultures do not wrap things up at the end. (such as Japanese stories)

This can be very frustrating for Western readers.

This is called an ‘open ending’ Ex: The protagonist has a choice of two doors. He opens one, but the reader is not told what is behind.

Resolving a Story

We witness how characters have progressed.

We witness the price of victory/defeat.

We have a resolution of conflicts.

If the story continues, at least resolve some conflicts.

We tie up loose ends and answer questions.

We reward the reader for reading.


1. The first and most obvious attempts have failed for the following problems. What do you do next?

a. In the first class of the day at high school, David’s girlfriend dumps him in front of the whole class.

b. A ravenous dragon flew into town and scorched the entire village, leaving a sole survivor.

c. The bank is going to foreclose on the diner that is Mrs. Baker’s sole source of support if she can’t come up with enough money in one week.

2. A violent gang is threatening to kill the mayor because of his crackdown on crime. How could you:

a. deepen the conflict?

b. broaden the conflict?

c. bring the conflict to a climax?

d. create a denouement?

3. Plot out your remaining try-fail cycles, the climax and the denouement.

Prewriting for Productivity V: Inciting Incident and First Attempt

Inciting Incident

This is where the reader finds out about the central conflict.

Should occur as quickly as possible in a story.

Should be as interesting and exciting as possible.

The Try-Fail Cycle

This is when the protagonist attempts to solve the problem but fails.

Generally, there should be at least three try-fail cycles in resolving a problem, great or small.

Too few cycles makes it feel unrealistic for the reader.


Each try-fail cycle needs to escalate.

That means that it needs to do one or both of two things:

Deepen: The conflict now affects people more deeply. The stakes are higher.

Broaden: The conflict now affects more people than it did before.

First Try-Fail Cycle

The first try-fail cycle must be an earnest, but not epic attempt.

Does not take up very much of the story.

The hero tries the first thing that comes to mind or the simplest solution.

Trying the “diplomatic approach” before a fight.

What Comes Next?

The first try-fail cycle should launch the action into the second try-fail cycle, in which the protagonist and company will try something more ambitious to solve the problem.

Once you have reached this point, you have likely gone from the ‘beginning’ section of your story to the ‘middle’ section.


1. Create an inciting incident for the each of the following beginnings that interrupts the routine of the character.

a. Bob wakes up, gets ready and heads out in his car for his long commute to work.

b. It is Kristin’s last day of school and she is going to a party with her friends.

c. Mr. Welker wakes up and set out to the mountains for a hike.

2. Think about the first attempt for a character who has the following problems.

a. In the first class of the day at high school, David’s girlfriend dumps him in front of the whole class.

b. A ravenous dragon flew into town and scorched the entire village, leaving a sole survivor.

c. The bank is going to foreclose on the diner that is Mrs. Baker’s sole source of support if she can’t come up with enough money in one week.

3. Plot out your inciting incident and first try-fail cycle.





Prewriting for Productivity IV: Developing Supporting Characters

Level of Detail

What makes a side character a side character is the level of detail.

Main characters are photos taken in high definition, while side characters are standard definition to sketches with paper and pencil.

Still make them interesting and know things about them, but do not provide as much info. If you provide too much info, you might confuse the reader into thinking that they are more important than they are.

No fillers 

Books with too many characters can become confusing.

Each of your supporting cast should fulfill a purpose in advancing the plot or enriching the setting.

Sometimes, side characters can be combined to fulfill multiple roles.


The “older and wiser” character who trains or helps the protagonist come to some realization.

Helps the protagonist see their potential and provides encouragement.

Are often removed from the story/killed off so that the protagonist can eventually stand on his/her own.

Ex: Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, Dumbledore


This person provides help and moral support to the protagonist.

Often shares the same/similar goals

Is used as a person for the main character to bounce ideas/thoughts off of.

Examples: Han Solo, Samwise Gamgee, Ron Weasley

Love Interest/Temptress

Provides motivation or a distraction for the protagonist

Can help the protagonist discover what is important, what his/her identity is.

Not always present, but fairly common.

Examples: Princess Leia


Sidekick/foil to the villain

Supports and motivates the villain

Gives the villain a voice for their thoughts.


Can be companions

Can add flavor to the world (especially fantasy creatures.)

Can have personalities

Can help reveal the personality of humans.

Can be fully-fledged characters in fantasy.

Example: Hedwig, Alsan,

Places and Things

Places and things can take on their own personality, especially in fantasy and sci-fi

Example: Hogwarts, the One Ring

Add “extras”

Just like in a movie or play, there are extras in the background that make things feel realistic.

Don’t give a lot of detail about them, but enough to give the desired impression.

Ex: “The marketplace was full of vendors in simple booths, crying out and selling their wares.”


1. For each of the following protagonists, name what kinds of supporting characters they might have. Write up a short sketch about each one of them.

a. an aging knight

b. a teenage Olympic athlete

c. a businessman who just lost his job

2. For each of the following antagonists, name what kinds of supporting characters they might have. Write up a short sketch about each one of them.

a. a cantankerous college professor

b. a disgraced wizard

c. a junior high bully

3. Write a scene between a protagonist and foil character. The hero has just suffered a major defeat at the hands of the antagonist. Focus on revealing the protagonist’s thoughts and reactions in a natural way.

4. Look at your work in progress. Are there places or things that act as characters in their own right? How do you handle this?

5. Pretend you are writing your protagonist walking down a busy beach. Write a description using extra characters to set the mood of the scene.

6. Sketch out your supporting characters and explain the role that each of them will play in your story.

Prewriting for Productivity, Part III: Protagonists and Antagonists


This is your hero, the person the reader should be rooting for.

Make this person as interesting as possible.

No one wants to 
read about boring or weak people as the protagonist.

Needs to have a strong goal or desire that is being impeded.

Usually just a little older (1-2 years) than the target audience.


No White Knights

Real people have flaws. So should protagonists.

Should not be so flawed that readers cannot sympathize with

Should have room to grow throughout the story, because this
is a satisfying progression.

The reader will likely put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. This means that it is often most effective to have the protagonist be the same gender and near the age of the target audience.

Things to Consider





Likes and Dislikes (food, music, free time)

Family and friends

Major life events (trauma and triumphs)

More Things to Consider

Speech patterns




and other backstory or important details

Character Bible

Keeps track of each character’s attributes.

One entry for each character that documents personality and appearance.

Can be used during writing to help with consistency.

Opposing Goals

Whatever the goal of the protagonist, the antagonist should have goals that are mutually exclusive.

The best antagonists have a logical point of view, can justify their actions and are not just evil for the sake of being evil.

Blended Character

Most antagonists are not all bad. They have some redeeming qualities.

Make them as well-rounded and interesting as your protagonist.

Make them someone who could have been a force for good if things had gone differently.

Win, lose, or draw?

Many stories have the protagonist getting everything he wants at the end.

Few stories have only the villain getting everything he wants at the end.

Some stories, which tend to be the most satisfying, have the protagonist gain some things and the antagonist gain some things.

A price must be paid for victory.


1. Write out a character sketch for the following kinds of protagonists. Provide them with at least one character trait that the reader probably will not expect.

a. an aging knight

b. a teenage Olympic athlete

c. a businessman who just lost his job

2. Write out a character sketch for the following kinds of antagonists. Provide them with at least one character trait that makes them sympathetic.

a. a cantankerous college professor

b. a disgraced wizard

c. a junior high bully

3. Sketch out your protagonist and antagonist.



Prewriting for Productivity Part II: Determining Your Setting

Part II today is about determining your time and place, or in other words, the setting.

Why do we tell stories?





A combination…


Contemporary: Set in the time in which the author lives.

Historical: Set in a time before the author’s time. Some say that it takes about 50 years from a time period to generate widespread interest for historical fiction from that time period.


If the setting is historical, much more research will be required.

Anachronism is something that is in a time period that it should not be, like putting a character with an iPod in the 1970s.

Historical places and people must be treated with care as their descendants might care how they are portrayed.

Speculative Historical

Alternate history: Change some element of history and write what would have happened.

“Punk” literature: Technology in different historical settings, such as steam power in Victorian times.

Fantasy history: Fantasy stories set in what feels like mediaeval times, etc, with completely imaginary details.

Things to Consider

Historical events of the era

Attitudes of the era (family/race roles)

Artifacts of the era

Practices of the era

Speech patterns/idioms of the era

Dress/appearance of the era

Socioeconomic attitudes

Religion and beliefs of the era, including superstitions

Sprinkling in Authentic Details

It can be easy to spend too much time on historical details and not enough on plot.

Throw in vivid, authentic details that give the reader the impression of being in the time period.

Determining Place

An exotic locale can make your story more interesting.(Think action movies.)

Is your setting an actual place, based on an actual place, or completely fictional?

How much detail about the setting do you want to include?

What to Describe

The geography

The flora/fauna

The people/the animals

The architecture


Interesting details

Use All of the Senses

W hen describing a setting, use multiple senses when possible.

Sprinkle in description, avoiding long blocks of only description.

Do not rely on only one or two senses repeatedly.

You are a word painter and need all of your colors.


1. Think about a famous story. How would that story be different is you set it in:

a…the distant future

b. …the distant past

c. …the current time.

2. What is the time period you chose for your work in progress? Why did you choose it? It is possible that there is a better a time period that would work?

3. What is the setting you chose for your work in progress? Why did you choose it? It is possible that there is a better a time period that would work?

4. Imagine that you have just stumbled through a portal into a fantasy world. You whip out your notebook and want to record everything you see. Write down all the details you can think about, what the scenery looks like, what the people and animals look like, what the weather looks like etc.

5. Imagine that you’ve just been dropped of by a time machine into the distant future to go have dinner with an important person. During the dinner you are taking note of all the things that have changed over the years and what has stayed the same. What are the people wearing? What do they eat? How do they eat it? How do they speak? Etc.

6. Choose your time and place and explain why you chose it.

Prewriting for Productivity Part I: Knowing Your Genre

I recently created a course on prewriting for my Master’s degree. I thought it would be a good thing to share with the rest of you. I’ll spend the next six Wednesdays showing the course unit by unit, starting with a video, then an outline and finally some practice activities.

The first part is about selecting a genre.

Know Your Genre

Genre = the category your writing falls into. Bookstores, reviewers and sellers separate books by genre to help readers.
 A genre tells you what kind of conflict you will have and how it will likely be resolved.

Speculative Fiction

Fiction that relies heavily on the imagination.

Often contains elements of reality.

Fantasy: A story that focuses on magic and feelings of wonder.

Science Fiction: A story based on a speculative scientific advance and its consequences.

Horror: A story that focuses on feelings of fear.

Literary Fiction

Fiction often grounded solidly in reality that focuses on the craft of writing.

Prizes the beauty of the words themselves.

Prizes structure and deeper meaning.

Highly sought after in academic circles.

Historical Fiction

This is a story set in a historical time period.

Often surrounding well-known historical events.

Requires research on the author’s part.


Stories that focus on romantic relationships.

There is some obstacle keeping two romantically involved people apart.

Blended Genres

Many stories combine genres.

Fantasy and historical fiction.

Romance and fantasy.

Literary and romance.

Anything that tells a good story.

Age Groups

When writing, be sure to know what age group you have in mind.

There are age categories that libraries, bookstores, and reviewers use to help direct their patrons.

Protagonists are often the same age as the target audience.

Picture Books

These are books for young children.

They have simple text and most of the page is filled with images.

A difficult market to break into because of the illustration costs associated with production.

Chapter Books

Books for younger children that are broken down into short chapters.

Simple themes, simple language.

Stepping stones to more complex books.

Middle Grade

Stories targeted at young teens and tweens.

Longer, more complicated stories.

Conflicts that go beyond the protagonists personal needs.

Often made into series.

Deal with feelings of humor, horror, and wonder.

Young Adult

Stories targeted at teenagers.

Complex plots dealing with more mature content.

Often made into series.

Deals more with action and romance than middle grade.

New Adult

An emerging genre aimed at young college students.

Bridges the gap between young adult and adult literature.


Stories targeted at adults.

Can contain mature subject matter.

Deals with conflicts that adults care about.

Most move away from the feelings of wonder in children’s books in favor of drama, romance and intrigue.

Why is this important?

Genre is important to know when pitching to agents and editors.

Also important if self-publishing for classification purposes.

Is important to know the conventions in the genre you are writing.



1. List three books/films that you feel are set in the following genres and why:


a. Fantasy:

b. Science Fiction

c. Historical Fiction

d. Literary Fiction

e. Horror

f. Romance

2. What is your favorite genre to read? To write? Why do you think this is?

3. What is the genre of your work in progress? What evidence can you give to back that up?

4. Imagine you are going to retell the story of “The Wizard of Oz”. How would you have to change the story if you told if you had to write is as a…

a. …Science Fiction story

b. …Horror story

c. …a Romance
5. Choose your genre and explain why you chose it.



Make ‘Em Laugh: Humorous Characters



Picture from ABC News

On the 4th of July, I took my five year old son to “Despicable Me 2”. At first, he was confused because he thought we were going to “Monster’s University” again, but he soon warmed up to it. One of the things that struck me about this movie and its predecessor, was how funny the minons are.

The crazy thing is, they barely speak an intelligible word, besides the occasional “banana”. What makes them so funny?

1. Appearance. These guys just look funny. They are called “minions”, but they look like something you want to give a hug. They also have some strange aspects to them, like most of them having one eye. They are one part teddy part and one part cyclops. The bottom line is: they defy your expectations in a creative way.

2. Behavior. They act in unpredictable ways. It keeps the audience guessing as to what they do next, and often they do something that you wouldn’t even think of, which usually gets a laugh. Any time a minion picks something up, you don’t know whether it is going to eat it, throw it, use it as a microphone…

3. Habits and Running Gags. Every time one of them sees a banana, you know the minions will go crazy. Perhaps that is why they are all so yellow? Having a running gag with your funny characters, as long as it is not overused, can be an excellent source of humor.

Writing, however, is more limited in depicting sight gags such as movies do, so you might have to rely more on funny dialogue and situations.

What are your favorite funny characters? What make them funny?

Writing Fresh Fantasy

When you put on your pointed hat and pick up your quill to pen a fantasy, you are in good company. It is a genre that inspires many writers, and is selling especially well with young adults these days. This also means that the competition for the latest fantasy sensation is hotter than the fires of Mt. Doom. In order to stand out from the crowd, consider the following points:

  1. Don’t Go on the Same Old Quest: The prophecy.  The one true hero.  The dark lord standing in his way.  You’ve all heard it before.  Many times if you frequent the fantasy shelf at the library. There are certain plots in fantasy that are well-loved. That doesn’t mean you need to take your reader on precisely the same path. If your plot follows a familiar trail, look for ways to deviate from the norm.  For example, have their be a prophecy about the hero, but have two brothers go on the quest, all the while unsure of which one of them the prophecy was talking about.
  2. Play with Character Stereotypes: Could your wizard be Gandalf’s cousin? Has your dwarf been mistaken for Gimli’s stunt double?  If so, take a step back. Make sure you are giving characters their unique style, including both appearance and personality traits.  Not all wizards have to have billowing robes and long beards.  Maybe not all dwarves carry an ax and live underground.  Maybe your elven warrior has never picked up a bow, and even better, maybe the hero of your story is some ugly creature instead, like an ogre. (Oh, wait scratch that one…that’s been done.)
  3. Erase the Races: Don’t think if you include different fantasy races that they always have to fit the fantasy action figure/Tolkien-based system of having elves, dwarves, humans, goblins, etc.  This is fantasy we’re talking about!  You are only limited by the horsepower of your imagination. Forge out and found new races.  Give them distinctive physical traits, abilities, a history, likes and dislikes, and draw on all of those things when putting them into the conflict of you novel.
  4. Mix Up Your Magic: If you story includes magic, take some time to think about magic works in your world.  If you want to make your story really interesting, take the time to set up some simple rules, and then stick to them. If you magic is controlled by words, let your readers in on the rules early and by all means stay consistent throughout your story.  Pin a post-it note to your computer if you have to, in order to remember the rules you set.  Even in fantasy, readers want a clear cause-effect relationship.  It’s not enough to explain everything by saying “It’s just magic.”  
  5. Build on the Foundation: When you write fantasy, you are building on a well-established tradition.  You are never going to be able to make every element of your fantasy story unique from anything else that’s been done.  But especially in fantasy, the strength of your story is gauged by the power of your imagination. You should know what has been done so that you can go beyond it.  You can take familiar themes and twist them with your own stamp.  I can’t say what that is for you, but you need to take the time to find it.

Above all, make them remember you. Dazzle your readers with the high road working hard and using your imagination, instead of the path of least resistance. Only then, will you stand a chance of standing out for the fantasy crowd.

My Four Rules (You Can Borrow Them If You Like)


If you’re like me, it’s never fun to revise. Back to page one, feels like back to square one, and it is sometimes difficult to figure out what exactly needs to be done to this manuscript in which you have invested so much time and energy.

I have four rules of writing, ideals I strive to achieve. I recognize that I often fall short on these, but I find that having these goals make me think about them all the time when I’m revising.

Without further ado:

1. Economy of words: Never use five words when one will do. Never use four words when two will do.  Instead of having your character “walk very slowly and casually over to the door”, have him “saunter to the door”. Adverbs are the worst culprits, and can usually be condensed into more economical words.

2. Variety of words: It’s never fun to hear the same song on the radio over and over, even if you like it. If you had your favorite food every day, it loses its novelty. The same thing holds with words. Even though it might be a great image to talk about “the guttering flames” or “the dusky glow of twilight”, think of a different description next time. Try not to use the same adjectives, similes  or metaphors too close to each other. Try even to mix up your verbs. (With a possible exception in “said”).  Variety, like any spice, is only good when applied in the right amount.

3. Beauty of words: Words are like silverware. Hear me out. Each one fulfills a certain function in a sentence: some move things around, others stir things up, some separate something from another. A cheap fork that you bought at Wal-Mart picks up your food just as well as a fine, sterling silver specimen, but you only bring out the fine silver on special occasions. Your manuscript should be one of those. Where there is a beautiful, vivid word that will do the same job as a dull, tired word, use the former.

4. Clarity of words. In books, you are providing the reader fuel for his or her imagination. The clearer you are with your words, the clearer the picture in the reader’s head is going to be. I remember as a Boy Scout collecting wood for campfires. You never wanted to select branches that were still green or that had pine needles stuck to them. This kind of fuel only threw up a lot of extra, pungent smoke and made the fire unfit for cooking. (Unless you want your s’mores to taste like pine cones.) Never let obscure or unclear words throw up smoke in the minds of your readers.

What rules of writing do you live by?  What rules would you add to this list?

Photo by: Twice25