Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Setting: Week 6 of Re-visioning Your Story

There’s a time and place for . . . time and place in your story. When and where your story takes place gives the reader a reference point, or as Dwight V. Swain calls it, ” a standard for your reader.” Getting the time and place right makes a difference like the difference between Sleeping Beauty’s castle and Windsor castle.

When revising your manuscript, you’ll want to be certain to read through at least once while focusing on how you reveal the story’s setting. Perhaps you think you don’t need to because “my story takes place in the real world, in a real city, in a real home/office/park.” Whether your story’s world is based in reality or made-up purely from your imagination, your choice of details revealed and withheld in your manuscript can support or destroy your reader’s suspension of disbelief. (And I’m assuming you want to do everything you can to support your reader in this regard.)

Setting is a huge topic. In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, Jessica Page Morrell calls setting details “a literary Leatherman.” And she gives a long list of things from politics to technology and everything in between that are setting details. Robert McKee says in his book, Story, “a story’s setting sharply defines and confines it’s possibilites.” He also defines setting as four-dimensional: including the story’s place in time (the past, the future, etc.); the time it takes from the beginning of your story to its end; where your story takes place, and the story’s position on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And Dwight V. Swain remind us of three key points in Techniques of the Selling Writer: “your reader has never been there; it’s a sensory world; it’s an objective world.” Finally, I repeat: it is the details you have put in your manuscript that builds a convincing, or not so convincing world.

Re-Read Your Manuscript

Remember, you will be reading your manuscript but you will not correct a single typo or word. When you read through your manuscript you need to have your favorite writing implement, your revision notebook, and five colored highlighters. You are going to read through your manuscript and list each different physical location in which action takes place on a different page of your notebook.

Be specific. Write: the living room of character A’s house; the kitchen of character A’s house; the front yard of character A’s house; not just ‘the house.’ Beneath the location list the words you used to describe this location. If you character moves within this location you may want to draw a sketch of the layout of the room.

First, go through your novel scene-by-scene. For each scene (and transition when applicable) you are going to list:








The Story’s Setting

When you have finished identifying the parts of setting you have in your story, review your notes and think about the story as a whole. Fill in the same information, but this time do it for the story as a whole.

Historical time:






Analyze Setting in Scenes

When you have finished listing these things, it is time to analyze the effectiveness of your each scene. Donald Maass said “use the world as a vital force in which the characters move,” in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. You agree? Of course, but do you know how you determine if you’ve shown your story world as a vital force? Ask questions. Question every bit of the information you’ve gathered in your notebook.

  • Historical time
    ·Does the historical time period add conflicts, obstacles, mood or character to your story?
    ·Is there a different time period that would increase the conflicts or obstacles?
  • Date
    ·What does the date and day of the week add to the scene?
    ·Would a different time of day, or day of the week, improve the conflict, tension, or mood?
    ·Would more or less time increase the tension?
  • Time
    ·What does the time of day add to this scene? Think about what makes dawn different from sunset or mid-afternoon different from suppertime?
    ·Is there a different time of day that would increase obstacles, conflict, or mood?
  • Duration
    According to Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “There are two kinds of time in this world: chronometrical and emotional. One you measure with a watch; the other with the human heart.”
    ·In chronologic time, how long does the scene last?
    ·Does the amount of action and dialog you have on the page match this duration?
    ·Have you timed yourself as you read the dialog out loud? Or figured what the actual travel time for the distance would be, using the same method of conveyance?
    ·In emotional time, how long does the scene last? Remember Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than an hour.” So how long does it feel to your character?
  • Location:
    ·Where does the scene take place?
    ·Is there someplace else that this scene could take place that would increase the conflict, tension, obstacles, or mood?
    ·How many different locations do you have in your entire story? Why?
    ·How do your characters feel about the location? Is it homey and comfortable or a place assoicated with painful memories? What does he love about it? What does he hate about it?
  • Details:

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us,, Jessica Page Morrell points out that “description does not equal inventory.”
·Does your descriptions of setting sound like a listing of inventory?
·Do the first three things your viewpoint notices give a firm, overall grasp of the location?
·What does your viewpoint character feel about this location or time?
·How many more details did you give for this location?
·Does the number of details you’ve given match the importance of the location or time?
·Can you change the impact of the setting (location or time) by decreasing or the number of details?
Jessica also reminds us “don’t use categories (cats, boxer shorts, restaurants) use specifics: Siamese , plaid boxer shorts, or Sushi restaurant.”
·Are there other details that would better evoke the mood, theme, visual image?

  • Senses:
    ·Is there more than two colors on each page? If there are two or fewer colors on the page, you might want to add more.

Prepping the Muse

Whew! That was a lot of work in a full length novel. By now, your muse is probably chomping at the bit, impatient to be re-writing. Write notes in your revision notebook. This week you are still prepping the muse. Next week, you will restructure your story.
images from copyright free photos dot org dot uk

Which of the part(s) of setting did you excel at in your manuscript?
Which part(s) did you discover were weaker?

I love hearing from you, but whether you comment or not, thank you for spending time with me.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: above

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together

As the Plot Turns

As the plot turns, so turns your story. Pantser or Planner, HOW you choose to write the story MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. Fine tune the plot in the second draft, the revision. The first draft is to get the story down on paper. It’s the revisioning that matters. This is where you take that diamond in the rough and cut away everything that gets in the way of your reader seeing the shining gem inside. In the final analysis, for your story has to have some kind of structure, some thread of a plot, that will keep your reader engaged.

Lesson 5: Re-Visioning Your Story

More than Just a Beginning, Middle, and End

First, let’s agree upon a definition of plot. Wait a minute, you say, everyone knows a plot is: a Beginning, a Middle and an End. Some of you may think you’ll outwit me by quoting a dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, which says the plot is “the plan of events or main story in a narrative or drama.” I’d argue that plot is more than that.

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. Swain, Donald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell: plot is a series of scenes where something changes, each scene building intensity and tension, increasing your reader’s sense of foreboding, until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain his goal, followed by a release of tension in a satisfying manner. It’s a mouthful, I know. But all of those things are part of plot.

Then there is the issue of subplots. For the purposes of this post, we’ll use the same definition for subplots with a little less intensity and tension. And we could go into plot patterns such as the quest, the chase, the coming-of-age stories, and so on. From there we can go into genre specific plot patterns or we could get to the nitty-gritty of plot: scene and scene structure.

But this post is not intended to teach you how-to-plot, that’s a whole series of posts in and of itself. If you need to learn more about what plot is, how-to-plot, the various patterns of plot, etc., I highly recommend Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. If you need to know how to construct an effective scene Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain is the book for you. And to learn more about story arc, read Robert McKee’s Story. In fact, I recommend you read a whole slew of books about plot. Just as with all the other parts of a story, the how-tos about writing, there is no ONE RIGHT WAY. It doesn’t exist. However, if you read a bunch of different books about plot, you will find the way that works for you in the particular story you are writing.

Your Assignment

What we are talking about today is how to evaluate your plot, how to see the holes and the common mistakes that sink manuscripts. This week you will be analyzing your story based on your story sentence and your scene sentences that you wrote in the first Re-Visioning Your Story post. You did write those sentences, didn’t you? You will also need your notes about goals, character, and conflict. Plus you’ll need a black or blue ink pen, a colored pen or felt-tipped marker (any color other than black or blue), paper to write on, and your manuscript. Got them? Good. Then, clear off your desk or your dining room table and let’s get to work.

First, re-read your story sentence. Your story sentence represents your main plot. Now, re-read your scene sentences. Go ahead, I’ll wait. *hums to self*

Having just read your sentences, you are going to categorize your sentences according to plot and subplot by putting a ‘P’ or an ‘S’ after the sentence. By using a colored pen or felt-tipped marker, you will be able to easily spot these indicators when you need to. If you have more than one subplot, just indicate it by a number (S-1; S-2, S-3 . . . ). Some scenes can do double-duty by advancing both the plot and subplot. Mark your sentences accordingly.

Divide one sheet of paper into columns titled scene number, plot, subplot, and ???. (Make as many columns as you need.) You will be listing the situation, action, and reaction for each scene under the appropriate column. The example I’m using below is from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

As the Plot Turns, Plot Spreadsheet for revising your novel.

If you have situations or actions and reactions that you cannot label as plot or subplot, list them in the column marked ???. Flashbacks, information dumps, and low tension or non-action scenes should be listed in the ??? column also.

According to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel, “The most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and mid-career novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest.” He lists things like: thinking while driving from one place to another, taking a shower, fixing a cup of tea or coffee, love scenes, and exposition as being predictably low tension.

When you have finished evaluating all of your scene sentences, look at the columns. Which one has the most S-A-R units? If it’s the plot column, then you’ve done a reasonable job of keeping your story focused. If it’s one of the subplot columns or the ??? column, then you’ve some work to do in your near-future. (Hint: the general rule of thumb is no more than 3-4 subplots.)

Next, study each column, one at a time, asking yourself the following questions.

· Do your characters take action? (Hint: if not, your story is not making forward motion.)

· Is there some action that has taken place off-stage? (Hint: if it has, you may need to add a scene.)

· Is there some missing action that has to be explained in a flashback, info dump, or by one character to another? (Hint: long flashbacks are ‘deal-killers’ according to agent-author, Jessica Page Morrell.)

· Does someone other than your protagonist or antagonist take the action? (Hint: These two should do

most of the action.)

· Is the action, or reaction, predictable? (Hint: if it is, your reader is probably bored.)

· Should your character have taken any other action, or reaction? (Hint: you don’t want the reader shouting, ‘call the police, stupid!’)

· Does the action, or reaction, lead naturally to the next situation-action-reaction unit? (Hint: if it feels forced or like a sudden left turn to you, it will to the reader.)

· Is your protagonist driven closer to or further from his goal with each action and/or reaction? (Hint: there should be some scenes that bring him closer, but more scenes that drive him further from his goal.)

· Does the action, or reaction, place your protagonist under increasing pressure? (Hint: if anything worse could have happened to your character, it probably should have.)

· Does the action and reaction match one another in tone or emotional effect? (Hint: having your detective kissing his girl while standing next to the corpse is probably not a good idea.)

· Is the action and reaction related to the story sentence? (Hint: even subplots should reinforce your primary plot or theme.)

· Does the action and reaction demonstrate a change? (Hint: at least one or the other should.)

· If you took this situation-action-reaction unit out, would the story suffer? (Hint: if it can be taken out without hurting the story, it should be deleted.)

· Does the whole of the action-reaction units for the plot increase reader tension and foreboding? (Hint: tension should rise and fall like foothills leading every higher until you’re in the mountains before there is a release of tension?)

· Is the protagonist in real jeopardy of not reaching his goal during the final action? (Hint: if it doesn’t, you need a different climax.)

Make any notes you need either in your colored-ink pen in the appropriate column or on a separate piece of paper. (Be certain you label your notes on the separate piece of paper with scene number, situation, action or reaction to avoid confusion later.)

How did your plot turn?

“Many beginning writers don’t want readers to feel uncertain, and so load the story with predictable events or feature elements in the story that are glaringly obvious to everyone except the characters in the story. Suspense comes from a reader worrying about characters under pressure as the writer delays outcomes.’ (Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell)

So, did you put the pressure on your characters? Did you find you had too many subplots? How many low tension scenes did you have? Didn’t have any? Brag about how your plot turns in the comments below.

Next week we’ll discuss time and place.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: : Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

Lesson 5: above

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together

Do Your Characters Play Well With Others?

Lesson 4: Re-Visioning Your Story

Do your characters play well with others? While writing the first draft you can allow your characters to ‘’take over’ your story, but not so in revision. By play well with others I mean, your characters must interact in an interesting way with other characters in your novel. During revision you may find that your characters react more than act, are less than focused on their goals, or simply aren’t a good fit for your story. In that case you have some characters that need re-visioning.

Every character in your story must be there for a purpose. A story is not like life where you meet random people that appear and disappear without disturbing your world. Every character should serve your story by doing the work of the story. Even in a heavily plot-driven story, your characters must be in the driver’s seat. So how do you make certain your characters are taking charge? With more analysis of your story, of course.

Before you read your story this time, you’re going to make a table or an excel spreadsheet. Across the top there should be columns for number, character name, role, traits, relationships, and physical attributes.

Number the rows of your table so that you will have a total count of characters when you’ve finished.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Sorry Shakespeare, the wrong name would not smell as sweet. In stories, character names matter. In this column, list every character you have named in your story. Does the name suit the time and setting of your story? Could Huckleberry Finn have been named Mycroft Holmes? What if Arwen had been named Hester Prynne?

Does the name suit your character? Consider the names Scarlett O’Hara vs. Jane Eyre. Is there any other name that would suit Hannibal Lecter? What about Voldemort? Each name evokes a certain feeling, an expectation. What can your reader expect based on your character names?

Another thing to look for in revision is how many of your characters have look alike or sound alike names? John and Sean can be confusing. Even in the television series Charmed where one of the gimmicks was that the sisters’ names each began with the letter P, the characters had distinctly different names: Piper, Prue, Phoebe, and Paige.

Character Roles

Characters play certain roles in stories. This is not to say they should be stereotypes. But if you understand the role your character plays in your story, you will be better able to refine your character’s motivations and goals. Character development could be a series in and of itself and not the focus of this post. In this post, I will only briefly define each of these roles. (for brevity and clarity I use the pronoun he).


    • the character whose pursuit of a goal drives the story in a particular direction. Often the story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, but not always.


    • according to most definitions, the essential trait of a hero is self-sacrifice. This doesn’t necessarily mean your character has to die, but he must pay a price to obtain his goal. King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo function in their stories as heroes.


    • generally, this is the protagonist who makes choices that are not heroic or of a self-sacrificing nature. Macbeth is the classic anti-hero.


    • The Antagonist has a goal in direct opposition to the protagonist’s and does everything in his power to keep the protagonist from his goal.


    • A Sidekick is loyal, faithful, and supportive. He can be associated with either the protagonist or antagonist. He can be a dog, a robot, an alien, or a human.


    • sometimes also called guardian or teacher: The Mentor can be a wise teacher such as Obi Wan Kanobi to Luke Skywalker or Dumbledore to Harry Potter. He can also require the hero pass a test before bestowing an object that the hero will need later in the story.


    • This character role generally appeals to the logic and reasoning of other characters in the story. Examples of this type are Dr. Spock, Hermoine, and Sherlock Holmes.


      • This character role generally appeals to the emotions of other characters in the story. In the Harry Potter books, Ron fills that role. Dr. McCoy and Deanna Troi are

    Star Trek  characters in this role.


    also called contagonist, trickster or temptress: This character is a clown, a mischief maker, or skeptic or is contrary to the protagonist or hero. Fred and George Weasley are the mischief makers in the Harry Potter series.

Spear Carriers:

    • These are characters whose purpose is limited to specific scenes. They might have a piece of information or a weapon or item that the hero needs. These characters are not larger-than-life types and often do not have names.

Setting or background:

      • These are the characters of crowd scenes. They enrich your story by demonstrating that there are other people in your story world. They do not interact with your story characters but sometimes they serve as obstacles such as the crowds in the movie,

    Blade Runner.


     The Narrator tells the story about the protagonist or hero. Dr. Watson is a narrator.

How Many Characters

Not every story will have every character role in it. Sometimes one character serves multiple roles. For example, a protagonist can also be a hero or an anti-hero. A sidekick can represent emotion or reason, sometimes even the skeptic.

Every character you list must fulfill at least one role. If you cannot tell what role your character fills in the story, neither can your reader. That character needs to be better focused or killed off.

No two characters should fulfill the same role. If you find you have more than one sidekick who is the emotion character, merge them or kill one off.

Characteristically Speaking

In this table you are creating, characteristics are the three primary personality traits of your main characters. Is he honest, trustworthy, and reluctant? Or is he self-aggrandizing, dishonest, and loyal to his gang?

Why did I say three traits? A series of three conveys a kind of balance, a rhythm. The Rule of Three exists in story structure (beginning, middle, and end), titles (The Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, etc.), jokes and comedy usually have a series of three beats (ba-dum-dah!), and the most minimal and stable structure is three-legged.

These traits should be the three that are typical of your character, the ones that matter to them. If these traits are important to your characters (either consciously or subconsciously) then your reader will also care about them. To avoid stereotypes, I suggest that each character have one unexpected trait as in my examples above.

Do you show the primary traits of your characters in action on the page? If not, your character may appear weak or dilute to your reader.

Do your character’s primary traits match his character role and (for your main characters) his story goal? Your story will be even stronger if your character’s traits relate to your story theme.

If you find that your characters are not consistent, or have more than three characteristics, you must carefully consider whether that enhances your story or not. Inconsistency and too many characteristics confuse the reader.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Relationships matter, in the real world and in the world of fiction. What relationship does each character have to the other? Are they friends, enemies, or frenemies? Perhaps they are family but the family is highly dysfunctional. Are they best buds or new acquaintances?

How do your characters feel about each other? They do feel something, don’t they?

What feeling does your character evoke in your readers? This is also a relationship you, the writer, must build. You build this relationship by understanding why should your reader care about this character.

If you find the relationships of your characters do not enhance your story, re-visioning is necessary.

Let’s Get Physical

The physical attributes of your character are the least important. Your reader will fill in blanks, so unless the genre of your story requires detailed descriptions, don’t over describe. Some description is essential. But do the physical attributes of your characters contribute to the story? At the very least, the physical attributes should not get in the way of the story. If your ninety pound weakly goes through the entire story without working on his muscle tone, he’d better not be able to be able to scale the mountain and beat the martial arts expert in order to obtain his goal.

When you introduce the character, does the introduction include specific traits or features? Remember that each descriptor you use increases the reader’s expectation that this character is important. If the character isn’t that important to the story, delete some of those traits and physical descriptions.

Are the physical attributes consistent? Readers hate it when the blue-eyed brown haired protagonist turns out to have coal black hair and twinkling hazel eyes three chapters later.

Does everyone look the same? Sometimes that can be the point of your story, if so, soldier onward. Most of the time your story is much stronger if you have contrasts in the physical appearance of your characters.

Do Numbers Matter?

In short, yes. It is difficult for a reader to care about a cast of thousands. Look over your cast of characters. Are there characters that appear in only one scene? Is that character necessary? Is there a way to use that character in other scenes? If not, perhaps you should consider rewriting that scene, un-name that character, or delete that character.

The number of characters in your story depends upon the scope of your story. A more intimate story should have fewer characters. A large, sweeping saga will have more characters. Remember, the more characters you have the more dilute your story may become. If your story requires a multitude of characters I strongly recommend that you study successful books such as George RR Martin’s series, A Song of Fire and Ice. The more characters you have, the stronger your other writing skills must be.

Your Assignment

If you’ve been following my Re-visioning Your Story series, you’ve read your manuscript a few times already. Hopefully, you are not sick of your manuscript, but if you are, hang in there. The light is at the end of the tunnel, sometimes it’s a long tunnel, but if you keep moving, you’ll get there.

This time, as you read your manuscript you will be focused on your characters. Fill in the table as you read. Again, do not revise, do not change one typo. Make notes of things you would consider changing and of the things you wouldn’t change. All your notes, all the dissected parts of your manuscript are brewing in your writer’s brain. There are just a few more things to evaluate, then your muse will be ready to pull it all together and turn your manuscript into the story you wanted to write.

I’d love to hear how you are doing with your deconstruction of your manuscript. Won’t you take a moment to write a comment or two?

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: : Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: above

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together

Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Last week you read your story without altering one single typo, didn’t you? This week you will need to review the notes you wrote about how your story made you feel. And you will need your story sentence and your scene sentences. Do each of your sentences include a hook, a protagonist with a need versus an antagonist with a need in an interesting setting? If they do, good job! But perhaps you had difficulty writing your story sentence or a particular scene’s sentence. If so, it may be that you did not establish clear character goals. Are your character’s goals golden?  If not, read on.

Lesson 2: The second installment in my “Re-vision Your Story” series.

Are Your Character's Goals Golden? Lesson 2 in Re-visioning your story discusses character goals.

A Goal Is

Whether this is the first story you’ve written or the ninety-first, you are most likely aware that your story and your characters should have goals. Goals are what drive your plot. Goals are what make your characters strong or weak, sympathetic or not, and finally, goals in opposition create conflict.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, a goal is “the purpose toward which an endeavor is directed, an objective.” Notice, the definition says the purpose, an objective, toward which an endeavor is directed. In other words for it to be a goal, there must be an endeavor, an action taken, that moves one toward a single definable objective.

But, my characters’ have complex goals, you say. They have many goals and those goals change in the course of the story.

In his book, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass refers to goals as character needs.

‘Most authors would like their characters’ needs to emerge more artfully, to infuse the action of the scene rather than squat atop it like an elephant on an egg. . . . . But this restraint is too often a convenient excuse for not working out what a character wants or needs at this particular moment.
“Working that out is essential to shaping a scene in which everything that happens has a meaning. At the end of a scene, we want to feel that something important occurred. . . . We won’t get that feeling unless we get, in some way, a prior sense of what we’re hoping for — a hope that in the scene is either fulfilled or dashed or delayed.”

Readers want to feel that spending hours of their time reading a novel was worth it. So you, the writer must know . . .

What Your Story Is About.

Have you identified your story’s central theme? What is your character’s primary goal? Does your story sentence convey those things? If it doesn’t, your story goal needs to be clarified. Ask yourself: Why did you write this story? What is it about this story makes your heart sing? Be specific. Don’t say, it’s a story about a fisherman and the honor of struggle, defeat, and death. That’s too vague. Instead use specific nouns, action verbs, and defining adjectives or adverbs. If I were to write a story sentence for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it would be something like ‘Eighty-one days fishless, an old Cuban fisherman battles a magnificent marlin to exhaustion and then must fight off sharks attracted to his kill, finally arriving ashore with a sixteen-foot carcass and his honor as a fisherman restored.’

Types of Goals

Goals can be internal, external, short-term, long-term and somewhere in the middle.

Internal goals may or may not be something your character understands and is able to articulate. But you, the author, must know it. The internal goal shows what motivates your character and frequently this goal is a long-term goal.

In the Old Man and the Sea, the old man has an outer goal and an inner goal: to catch a fish and to restore his honor as a fisherman. The character is not able to completely articulate his inner goals. Hemingway hints at the internal goals with references to how the old man is considered unlucky and that the old man’s sail resembles “a flag of permanent defeat.” Other hints are in the old man’s observations of how it didn’t matter if you were a marlin or a shark, onshore each was gutted and prepared to eat.

The old man’s long-term goal was to prove, to himself as much as to the others, that he was a fisherman, that he was not bad luck.

Goals Must Be Actionable

If your character has goals but only sits and worries about them or about how something else will affect his goals, your reader will not care.

Hemingway takes care to show us the old man’s desperation in his interactions with the boy. The old man’s pride drives him to refuse to accept defeat but he does accept a beer and some sardines. These situations set the reader up to feel sympathy for the old man. Then he acts. He takes his skiff far out into the Gulf. He does it alone because his longer-term goal is to restore his own honor. The marlin takes his bait and the battle begins. The old man’s battle is physical and internal. He battles the fish for days, testing his physical strength and his determination, but he also battles his pride when he fears no one will be worthy of eating the fish.

One way to make goals actionable is to make goals that are opposites.

In The Old Man and the Sea, the main character’s internal and external goals could be called oppositional. He needs to catch a fish successfully but instead of fishing with the others, he goes out beyond them, alone. The distance and the fact that he has no one to help with his battle are due to his pride.

If that kind of opposition of goals isn’t clear to you consider these: Greg must trust his girlfriend with his life, but he also must protect himself from getting hurt by getting too close to her; Sally has no job or money and she needs food for her kids but she has a moral objection to stealing and taking charity; or Charlie needs to feel worthy and thinks to do so he must exact revenge for a wrong done to him but he must keep his enemy alive in order to prove he is deserving of his birthright. Goals can also be in opposition between two people: Joe must win the race because he needs the prize money to pay for his mother’s operation but Tom must win the race in order to qualify for the championship race so he can pay off his bookie.

Goals must be Meaningful

The reader feels the old man’s struggle as worthy because the reader identifies with the old man. We identify with the old man because we’ve all suffered one defeat or another. We understand the need to restore one’s honor, pride, and dignity. He’s heroic because he is determined and he takes action despite being defeated.

Another thing that gives goals meaning is that they must be large scale. Large-scale does not have to mean that if your character does not achieve his goal the world will end. It means that it is not easily solved. It will cost something to pursue it. The old man’s battle is large scale (life or death), it’s immediate (the battle is present on the page), and it is not easily solved (he battles the marlin for days and the sharks through the night). And there is a cost to him. He is physically tested and injured. And in a sense, he loses because he loses all the marlin’ meat to the sharks.

Ultimately the old man acknowledges his pride, the strength, and dignity of his opponent, the marlin, and the natural behavior of the sharks. And although he comes home without a fish to sell, he has restored his honor as a fisherman.

Do Your Character and Story Goals Jive?

Villain or heroine, your primary characters must have goals. Every scene must have goals. In order for your story to have depth, to have a deeper meaning, every scene’s goal must have something to do with your characters’ goals and with the overall story goal. In order for the goals to matter, there must be opposition. The only way successfully weave those together is to create clear, actionable goals that matter.

After you have identified your overall story goal, review you sentences for your scenes. Does every scene fulfill, dash, or delay achievement of the short-term goal? Does the scene’s resolution move toward fulfilling, dashing, or delaying achievement of your long-term story goal?

Your Assignment

Again, this week you want to identify things that are working and things that are not working. Reach for the Golden Goals that will make your story well integrated. Identify if the goals are internal, external, long term or short term. Indicate which ones are oppositional. Make notes on how to make them more oppositional, more meaningful and immediate. Make notes on 2-3 different actions your character could take to achieve this goal. And write down 2-3 possible outcomes of this attempt: reached the goal, didn’t reach the goal, or delayed that goal. Do not attempt to rewrite. Let your muse chew on what you’ve learned. Make notes as you need to, but do not rewrite.

I’d love to hear from you. Won’t you share your story sentence? What do you find difficult about goals? Is there something that helps you identify them? Do you have more external or internal goals in your story and characters?

Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: above

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well With Others?

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together

Re-Visioning Your Story

Revision is probably the single most difficult thing a writer must do. Now, I know some of you are going to remind me that there are those who advise not to revise, except to editorial demand. I believe there are some writers out that who have so internalized the process that for them there is little or no revision needed. I’m not one of those writers . . . yet. So I have studied and developed my own process. I call it re-visioning your story.

Am I an expert on revision? I don’t claim to be an expert. Or to know THE ONE WAY to revise. But, I have done a lot of revision – the wrong way. I have also read tons of how to write books and blogs, and taken more than a few classes. I’ve had a few stories published and I have taught a few writing classes. So I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.

Lesson 1: 

Many experts say the best thing to do is let your manuscript cool before you begin to revise. How long you ask? As long as it takes, they say.

Can’t wait that long? That’s okay, but gear up for some hard work.


Before you begin, put your life in order. Okay, not really, but you do need to have long stretches of uninterrupted time, a notebook or computer file for notes, a large stack of self-stick notes, and colored pens for marking up your manuscript.

Put your pencils down. Hey, you with the red pen! You, too. Not one pen scratch or computer keystroke should be made for a while. Just one correction of a typo and your mind will shift into edit mode. That will not be helpful at this stage. Put your reader’s cap on.

Now, put a copy of the manuscript in front of you. I prefer to have a printed manuscript for the first stages of revision. If you are one who can read the electronic screen and SEE what’s written, then go for it.

What do I mean by see? Multiple studies have shown that most people scan electronic information. All electronic information. And most of the time, that’s good enough. For revision purposes, scanning is not good enough.

In revision, you need to step back from your novel and analyze how well its parts work with all the other parts. Once you’ve analyzed how well (or not) the parts of your story work, you will be able to see where it needs improvement, re-Vision your story, and make all the parts of a strong story come together.

What parts, you say? Hook, Protagonist, Antagonist, Conflict (aka Plot), Setting or World Building, and Resolution are the major parts I’ll be discussing in these posts. But there are additional parts like transitions, point of view, details, and identifying your reader that I will cover as well.

Okay, so you have printed your manuscript? Onward.

Revisioning Your Story: Am I an expert on revision? I don't claim to be an expert. Or to know THE ONE WAY to revise. But, I have done a lot of revision - the wrong way. I have also read tons of how to write books and blogs, and taken more than a few classes. I've had a few stories published and I have taught a few writing classes. So I'd like to share what I've learned with you.

Just Read

Read your manuscript in one sitting. Read it as a reader would. Remember no writing, no corrections of any kind. Just read. Let the story wash over you, notice how it affects you emotionally but don’t write just yet.

Finished? Now you can pick up your pen and paper (or turn on the computer). Do not write on the manuscript. This information goes in your revision notebook or folder. Write down only what you FEEL. Some questions to get you going:
-What overall feeling did your story convey to you?
-How did the opening of the book make you feel?
-What feeling did you experience at the end of the book?
-Were there scenes that made you feel so strongly that it formed pictures in your head that you can still see?
-What impressed you the most? (Yes, it’s okay to be impressed by your own writing.)
-Where did you disconnect from the story or characters?

If you’re like me, at this point you’re going holy inkblots! There are parts that you loved, but there are parts that you cringed while reading. That’s all right. It can all be fixed.

Revision Your Story

Before you can improve your writing you have to know where you went right and where you went wrong. You have to know story structure and you have to pull your book apart bit by bit.

So, if you’re ready to start, put your thinking cap on and write your overall story sentence. If you think the story you wrote is not what you had intended to write, write your story sentence for the story you want. Its purpose is focus. You can’t hit a home run if you can’t see the ball.

The story sentence, if you recall, is a hook, a protagonist with a need versus an antagonist with a need in an interesting setting. If you need more information about the sentence, please read my article “The Best Writer’s Tool.” If you’ve already mastered the sentence and were smart enough to have one before you started your novel, it’s time to move on to the next step.

What is a Scene?

Again, before you can begin to analyze a scene, you need to have a definition of what a scene is.

According to Robert McKee in his excellent book, Story, “A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a perceptible significance.” Whew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Can you analyze your story based on that? If you’ve read his whole book and understand what his terms are you can. But to me, it’s a little high concept.

Let’s try another definition. According to Donald Mass in Writing the Breakout Novel, “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end.” That’s pretty good as far as the structure of a scene. But how do you put that together or take it apart?

The above definitions are all well and good, but my favorite definition of a scene was supplied by Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer. His definition is, “A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.” I would only add to that that the scene ends with a change – the character attains his goal (or not) or acquires information which propels him into the next scene. In other words, a scene consists of a viewpoint character making an effort to achieve an immediate goal in direct opposition to someone or something and that effort results in a change. Now that’s a definition I can sink my teeth into.

Analyze Your Scenes

Finally, it’s time to analyze your scenes. For each and every scene in your book write down who the viewpoint character is, what the immediate goal is, who or what opposes that goal, and what change has occurred. Again, don’t fix anything. Don’t write on your manuscript. You are just looking at the structure at this point.

It’s a slow, sometimes painful process. But trust me, it will help. It will identify weakness and strengths. It will inspire your muse to make your story stronger. If ideas on how to fix your story come to you at this point, make a note in your notebook – but keep moving forward.

Next week we’ll look at goals.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

1: above

2: Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

3: Twist the Knife Slowly

4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

5: As the Plot Turns

6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

7: From the End to the Beginning

8: Putting the Pieces Together