First Page Critique: Characters, Connection, and Flow


By Kathryn Lilley

Today, we’re critiquing the first page of a story called AMERICAN LIONS, submitted anonymously by a TKZ reader. I’ll kick off the discussion with my feedback, and then I invite you to add your notes and constructive criticism in the Comments.

American Lions

“You remember Spag, don’t you?” Aunt Julie asked Nora for about the hundreth time that morning. She asked it when she got Nora and Myra out of bed, when she rushed them out of their house, when she drove them across town, and now as they walked into the Filler Up truck stop. She nodded her head as she asked, “Don’t you remember him?”

I don’t know, Aunt Julie.” What kind of a name is Spag, anyway? “Why are we here? My mom needs me. And Myra can’t miss any more school. They’ll send a truancy officer to our house. He’ll ask questions.”

Stop worrying, Nora. Let the adults handle this.”

Nora had never been to a truck stop before. Aunt Julie said they were going to have breakfast there. Nora scanned the room. It was crowded with rowdy men seated at round tables in the center of the room, men stuffed into booths along both sides. At the far end, Nora could see a kitchen through a cut out in the wall. A row of men sat at a counter facing the kitchen. From the back, the men looked pretty much the same. The had short hair and and were hunched over their plates, or reading newspapers and drinking coffee. But there was one man who sat facing away from the kitchen, toward the entrance. His hair was shoulder length and layered in the current style. Nora studied his features for something familiar. Then she saw him looking back at her and she moved behind Aunt Julie.

“There he is.” Aunt Julie said and the man and he hurried over to her.

“He looks like Rick Springfield,” Myra said.

“Myra, Nora, this is the friend I was telling you about. Remember him now?”

He said to Aunt Julie, “What are they doing here?”

Nora moved close to Aunt Julie and said, “But this place, is it safe?”

“They’re truckers, Nora. You’ll be with Spag.”

“Now wait a minute, Julie. You asked me to meet you here and you put me on baby sitting duty? I thought you were in trouble, I thought you needed my help.”

“I do. I need you to stay with the girls. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“But I can help, Aunt Julie. Don’t leave me here.” She’s my mother. She needs me. This morning was the worse I have ever seen her.


My comments

Some distracting technical issues made it difficult at times for me to follow what was happening in this scene.

Setting the stage in the first paragraph: crowd control

The first paragraph introduces (or makes reference to) a total of four characters–Aunt Julie, Nora, Myra, and Spag. I had trouble visualizing who was actually visible in this scene as it opened–there is not enough information provided to orient the reader in the scene. I had to backtrack and reread the first paragraph in order to sort out who was doing what. (Tip: As a general rule, try to lImit the focus of action in each paragraph to a maximum of two characters.)

Cue the reader when the dialogue or focus shifts to a different character

Whenever a new character begins speaking or the scene’s focus shifts to that character, the writer needs to cue the reader that a shift is taking place. For example, in the second paragraph, a new character is speaking, so the dialogue should open with an opening quotation mark.

“I don’t know, Aunt Julie.”

Focus on action/reaction

It would strengthen the scene to include more reaction and characterization for the character named Spag. Show him reacting to the children and sizing up the situation as he realizes he’s being thrust into babysitting duty.

Avoid distracting POV wobbles

I got slightly disoriented by some of the point of view transitions.  Sometimes Nora’s point of view is presented in third-person, as follows.

Nora moved closer to Aunt Julie…

Sometimes the POV shifted to first person, focusing on Nora’s internal thoughts as in the following.

This morning was the worst I have ever seen her. 

(Yes, it’s possible to shift the point of view within a story, but the way it’s done here added to my overall feeling of disorientation within this scene.)

Keep track of characters

The character Myra was briefly mentioned in the first paragraph, but not in a way that established her physically within the scene. I was a bit startled  therefore when Myra popped up later on in the scene to contribute the Rick Springfield observation, (I also had to look up Rick Springfield to identify him. Would a young child know who RIck Springfield is, btw?)

If you are going to re-introduce a character who has been silent or missing for several sentences or paragraphs, you need to re-establish that character in the reader’s mind. Something like,

Myra, who’d remained silent during our discussion, jumped in to deliver the final verdict.

“He looks like Rick Springfield,” she said.

Edit out repetitive language and extraneous words

We all have a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases. The fifth paragraph contains an extraneous phrase “and the man”, and the repeated phrase “Nora moved behind Aunt Julia” are examples here.


The nice thing about technical difficulties is that they’re easily fixed with editing. An editing pass will eliminate most of the issues I’ve mentioned.

After reading this scene, I’m not sure what type of story this will turn out to be. Once the technical issues are fixed, the writer can concentrate on bringing the characters and story into stronger focus.

Please add your constructive feedback in the Comments, and thanks to our brave writer for submitting today’s first page for critique!

The Little Dialogue Ditty That Always Makes You Look Bad

Being a new writer is a good thing. We all wore that name tag when we began our writing journey.

The goal, however, is to hide that fact as we write stories we intend to submit and publish. Anything that exposes inexperience is a bad thing, sometimes leading to rejection, or if not that, to harsh judgment from readers and reviewers. If your story is on the bubble, this can be the thing that pushes it over the edge… in the wrong direction.

There are lots of ways to screw up a novel, not all of them unique to rookies and well-intentioned sophomore authors. But perhaps the most fertile ground to find evidence of one’s newbie status is within how we write and present dialogue.

Let’s be clear, dialogue is easy to write. But it’s extremely hard to write it really well

When that happens, careers can explode. Dialogue is a place to shine, to stylize narrative in a way that would put non-dialogue sentences over the top into a universe shaded with hues of purple and riddled with bleeding adjectives and screaming adverbs.

Okay, that sentence came close to just that. Not an accident. I wanted you to notice before you winced.

On the other hand, bad dialogue, the kind that sounds like it came from a bad elementary school play, the kind punctuated by someone who never met a comma, can tank your story altogether.

Within the vast minefield of dialogue there are a handful of common mistakes that scream “rookie writer… run!”  Over the past few years there have been more than a few terrific Kill Zone posts on the subject, my favorite being coverage of the tricky task of attribution. I won’t rehash all the ways this can make you look bad – use the Search function for some good stuff on this topic – but there is another pesky tendency that is most commonly evidenced by newer writers especially.

Which is why this is a case of principle trumping evidence to the contrary, in the form of this mistake occasionally appearing within traditionally-published novels, which employ professionals editors who are paid to – but not always successful at catching – eradicated before warming up the printing presses.

This, too, involves the use of character names.

Not as attribution, but rather, within dialogue itself in the form on one character addressing and acknowledging the other. It is best defined with an example. See if this is like any conversation you’ve ever heard in real life, and then ask yourself if you’ve ever written something just like it.

“Hey Dave, good to see you, man!”

“Steve, you old dog, you look terrific.”

“You know Dave, I’m feeling okay. Especially after… well, you know how it goes, right Dave?”

“I sure do, Steve. Been there, survived that.”

“Just shoot me if you ever hear about me having to do that again, okay Dave?”

“Will do, Steve. Count on it.”

“Thanks Dave. You’re a prince.”

“No problems, Steve. You’d do the same for me.”

Okay, I know, that was painful to read. And not just because of this demonstration of how all those names within the exchange create a totally false, less-than-authentic cadence while lending a corny, fifties-television vibe to it all.

But this happens all the time in manuscripts written by newer writers. And occasionally in novels written by authors and edited by editors who should know better.

In every workshop there is one guy who throws up a hand right about here in this discussion, so allow me to address that one next.

Certainly, there are instances in real life when the use of the name of the recipient of your words is called for. Like passing someone on the street who doesn’t see you, so you call out their name to get their attention. Or if you’re a supervisor chewing out a rascal employee (even then, only once is enough).

That said, listen closely to the real world in which you live. Chances are you can go months without hearing this. Which should reinforce the fact that you should go decades without having one your characters talk this way to another one of your characters.




Writing Lessons From The Masters

by James Scott Bell

Okay, the headline is sneaky wordplay, as I am not referring to writing experts, but The Masters golf tournament recently concluded. Something shocking happened there and I think we can all learn from it, as writers and as normal folk making our way through a life that tosses out plenty of lemons.


Jordan Spieth

There is a young golfer named Jordan Spieth. He is twenty-two years old and a huge talent. He’s already won two majors (the hardest thing to do for a pro golfer), and one of those was last year’s Masters. He’s also a classy, well-spoken gentleman. And boy, do we need more of those these days.

Which is why what happened is so sad.

Jordan Spieth was set to go absolute legend. Only three players have ever won back-to-back Masters. You may have heard of these guys–Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.

Spieth was playing lights out, leading the tournament all the way into the final round. He was up by five strokes with only seven holes left to play. All he had to do was avoid a major mistake and a second green jacket (the Masters’ cloak of honor) would be his. And then they’d begin measuring the space for Jordan Spieth on golf’s Mount Rushmore.

So as Spieth stepped up to the notorious par-3 12th, he could feel it, the victory. The crowd was with him. As were the millions watching at home.

But then the unthinkable, the shocking, the disastrous happened. Spieth hit two consecutive balls into the water. The first from 150 yards, the second from just 80. These were shots Jordan Spieth can make in his sleep, left handed. Not this time. The infamous Masters pressure caught up with him and … plop, plop.

His next shot went over the green and into a bunker. When it was all over, Jordan Spieth, one of the best players of his generation, carded a quadruple bogey.

And lost the tournament.

That, my friends, will mess with your head. To his credit, Jordan took it like a man, stood up to reporters’ questions, and made his obligatory appearance in Butler Cabin to slip the green jacket on the surprise winner, Danny Willet. Poor Jordan went through the motions, but he was clearly not there. He looked like an actor auditioning for a part in The Walking Dead.

This loss will be with Jordan forever. The only question now is, how will he handle it?

I know for sure he will hurt for a long time. But I suspect Jordan Spieth will muster his competitive spirit and play great golf again. I believe he will add several more majors to his resume before he’s done.

Which leads me to three lessons for writers:

  1. When you get knocked down, let it hurt for an hour. Then write something

Rejection. Rotten reviews. Dismal sales. They hurt. Don’t deny it. You can’t.

But after an hour (set a timer!) get yourself back to your keyboard.

If you’re on a project, write a new scene. If you’re not, write a journal entry.

Or use a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing. (There’s a wonderful “writer igniter” over at the DIYMFA site. Check it out).

When you write, the pain of the setback begins to fade a little. It will try to reassert itself, but then you write some more. Eventually, the pain ceases to hold any power over you.

  1. Be the kind of writer that readers pull for

People like Jordan Spieth. He’s humble and positive and polite. Golf fans want to see him do well, especially now.

So show in your craft and your social media presence that you are a positive writer, someone who seeks to add value to other people’s lives. Readers who know you that way are much more likely to give you another chance should something you write fail to catch on.

  1. Don’t expect the easy road

Let me engage in a golf analogy for writers who are contemplating self-publishing. Imagine that suddenly anyone could play in The Masters. Just show up and tee off. Would being able to play mean you’d finish in the money? Of course not. The best golfers in the world would still win the prizes, with a few exceptions. Some really good amateurs would get in and maybe a handful of these would play out of their minds and make some tournament dough.

But the vast majority wouldn’t. Why not? Not because there’s a “tsunami of golfers,” but because their game is not good enough yet.

What they would need to do is go practice, get some coaching, and expect that it will take years to develop a great game. Even then, there are going to always be better golfers than you.

But if you grind and drive your beat-up Saturn from tournament to tournament, maybe you can earn enough to make it worth your while. Plus, you are playing a game you love.

Well, publishing is like that now. You don’t have to wait for an invitation from the Forbidden City. You can publish anytime you like.

But please don’t think that “getting to play” is an automatic win. You need to work on your craft, every day, just the way a pro golfer does. Think in terms of many years and many books, not just next month and your one completed novel.

Jordan Spieth will be back. And so will you, writer, because the only way to stop you is if you quit.

And you’re not going to.

So what about you? What major setback did you have to overcome, as a writer or in any other arena of life? How did you handle it?


Ah, April 15. Why does this date create images in my mind like, oh, a pie with a slice cut out of it? Dunno.

Dollar SignAnyway, I’m also reminded of a TV show years ago called The Millionaire. A guy would show up at some person’s door and hand them a check for a million dollars, taxes “already paid.” The rich man behind this scheme wanted to see what an ordinary person would do with sudden wealth.

So if someone were to offer you a million bucks tax free, but with the condition that you never write fiction again … would you take it?

And what’s the first thing you’d do with a mil?

Using Your Disadvantages

Bullitt_posterBy Elaine Viets

I love movie car chases. Nothing beats “Bullitt,” with Steve McQueen’s Mustang hurtling down the San Francisco hills. Michael Caine’s crafty Mini Cooper mixup in “The Italian Job” is another classic.

italian-jobBut traditional mysteries can have car chases, too. I wanted a car chase in The Art of Murder, my new Dead-End Job mystery. My private eye, Helen Hawthorne, doesn’t drive a muscle car. Good detectives have to blend in. In South Florida, that often means a white car. Helen has a white four-cylinder PT Cruiser.

iglooSteve McQueen would weep.
But I got my car chase, thanks to an equalizer – speed bumps. The extra-wide ones, a.k.a. traffic calmers or “speed humps.” (Cue the risque jokes.)These speed bumps are in a lush Fort Lauderdale neighborhood known as The Landings, where residents dock their yachts out their back doors.

I can’t reveal the killer’s name, gender, or vehicle model, but here’s The Art of Murder car chase in The Landings. Watch that yacht. It will be in the car chase, too.


The Art of Murder Car Chase
The killer roared out of the driveway toward The Landings, blasting across Commercial Boulevard as the light turned yellow. Helen followed, accompanied by a chorus of car horns and upraised middle digits.

This wasn’t a fair race. Helen knew her trusty Igloo was seriously underpowered. The killer’s car had twice as many horses as the PT Cruiser. The killer floored the car and it flew over the north bridge into The Landings. Helen’s Igloo tried its best to keep up, but its workhorse engine was no match for the powerful car. Still, Helen floored her Cruiser.
And saw the speeding car slam on its brakes.

The speed bumps! Suddenly this pursuit was almost fair. The sports car raced forward again, then slammed on its brakes for a bump. Race and brake. Race and brake.
The odd stop and sprint chase continued for four speed bumps, with Helen’s intrepid Igloo managing to keep pace.

Helen struggled to push her car on the straightaway and spot the speed bumps in time to brake. The two cars lurched through The Landings.

After the fourth speed bump, the killer powered through a four-way stop to the angry blare of honking horns. Helen made a full stop.

She waited her turn for two cars, then crossed the intersection and floored the Igloo again. Her finger pressed SEND for 911. I should have called the police sooner, she thought. I can’t let the killer escape.

The killer was turning left at the next block. There were no speed bumps on that street. It bordered a canal. Helen was going to lose the killer.

She could hear the 911 operator saying, “Nine one one, what’s your emergency. Nine one one . . . ”

“Help!” Helen shouted into her. “I’m pursuing a killer in The Landings. I’m almost at Fifty-sixth. Get the police here. I can’t talk.”

Helen slammed the brakes again, and the Igloo jounced over the speed bump. Her cell phone clattered to the floor. Helen could hear the 911 operator and hoped the woman believed her plea for help.

Up ahead, she saw the killer make a screeching turn on two wheels, heading straight for a yellow moving van with its ramp down, parked in the street. The killer swerved to avoid it, and nearly hit a pony-tailed woman walking her fluffy white shih-tzu.

The killer swerved again, narrowly missing the woman and her little dog.

And the accident seemed to happen in slow motion.

The killer lost control of the car on the small humped canal bridge. It sailed over the bridge railing and crashed into the white yacht tied up at a backyard dock. The front end of the car smashed through the yacht’s pristine white hull. The car’s back end was on the dock, sliding toward the water.

A screeching, cracking sound split the air as several million dollars collided.


The Art of Murder is my fifteenth Dead-End Job mystery. Helen Hawthorne and her landlady, Margery Flax, tour Bonnet House, the whimsical mansion-turned-museum in Fort Lauderdale and admire an up-and-coming artist at a museum painting class. When the talented artist is murdered, Helen is hired to find her killer. She discovers the artist’s sketchy past. Was the promising painter killed by her jealous husband? A rival using her artful wiles? All that and a car chase-boat crash, too.

Pre-order The Art of Murder


Ending Up At The End

by Joe Moore

One of the most popular features of TKZ is our First Page Critiques. We invite you to submit the first page of your WIP and we will critique the good, bad and ugly elements of the work. We offer this feature because of the importance of grabbing the reader right off the get-go. A list of all the previous submissions can be found at First Page Critiques along with an invitation to submit your first page.

So we all know how important the first-page grab is, how a writer has to set the “hook” as soon as possible. But what about endings? Are they as important as beginnings? After all, they occur after the big finale, the gripping climax, the roaring finish. In a way, we can think of endings as anticlimactic. And yet, they have an important function to perform in any story. So today let’s take a Writing 101 Series look at endings.

First, the ending should resolve anything that was not addressed during the climax. Once the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is put to bed, what’s left must be brought together as a resolution in the ending. There must be closure to anything still hanging in the reader’s mind.

The ending also answers or clarifies the story question. Since the story question usually deals with character growth or change, the ending must make sure the story question is answered.

Let’s say that the main character had to stand by and watch his family perish in a terrible accident that he inadvertently caused. The story question might be: will he ever forgive himself and have the courage to find love again and perhaps start a new family? The actual plot might deal with something totally different, but along the way he finds a new love interest. Once the climax occurs and the plot is resolved, the reader must discover the answer to the story question. It has to be made clear in the ending. In most stories, the main character takes a journey, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional. How he completes the journey is the answer to the story question and must be resolved in the ending.

Another function of the ending is to bring some sense of normalcy back to the characters’ lives. It can be the restoring of how things were before the journey began or it can be the establishment of a new normal. Either way, it must be resolved in the ending. Our hero has found a new love and plans to start a new family. It’s his new normal and the reader must understand the changes that he went through to establish that new normal.

If the story contains a theme, message or moral, the ending is where it should be reinforced. Not every story has an underlying theme, but if it does, it must be clarified in the ending. This way the reader can close the book with the feeling that the theme or message was accomplished or confirmed. The main character(s) got it, and so did the reader. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the message, it has to be confirmed in his or her mind what it was, and if it was completed.

The end resolution of the theme or message must be in sync with the story. For instance, if the theme is to accept a spiritual belief in the existence of a greater power in the universe, the plot and characters must touch upon or address the idea somewhere along the way so the end resolution confirms that they have changed their beliefs to support or at least admit to the theme.

The ending should also cause readers to feel the way the writer intended them to feel. Whatever the emotional response the reader should experience, the ending is where it’s confirmed. After all, the writer is the captain of the ship. He steers the story in a specific direction—a direction he wants the reader to go. The reader is a passenger along for the journey. It’s important that in the end, the ship dock at the right port. Worse case is that it doesn’t dock at all. That’s the result of a weak ending.

The ending is how you leave your reader. It’s the last impression. And it just might be the reason the reader wants to buy your next book. Or not.

When Death Becomes Real

I am busy with Edgar banquet duties this week, but I am confident you will enjoy this entry from my co-author and sister Kelly.– Kris.

JR Book

By PJ Parrish

We write about crime, death, torture, corpses, graveyards and cops and we do it, usually, via Skype from homes 1,600 miles apart.

Despite the distance, it’s pretty easy for us to use our purple Post-Its to move a murder from chapter forty to chapter thirty five, because when you write fiction, you can kill anyone you want whenever you want and then finish off your glass of pinot and go to bed. You might lay awake thinking about the book — whether the plot flows logically or if you’re characters act rationally.

But occasionally, usually after a particularly grueling writing day, or one glass of wine too many, we sometimes find ourselves wondering what kind of people we are to be able to write this stuff and simply move on to something as a casual as walking the dogs or sitting down to a meat loaf dinner.

The answer is that no matter how graphic we may get, no matter how monstrous our villain or how many bullets we shoot across the page, in the end we know none of it is real.  But once I had a chance to discover just what it’s like to write when it is real.

A couple years ago, I had both the pleasure and discomfort of assisting a new author on a true crime novel. He was a homicide detective who had a story he wanted to tell about a murdered officer but had no idea where to start. As a published author working on a new book set in his city, I was in need of technical information about his department and its history. Outside a bowling alley one night, we struck a deal. I would do a little editing for him. He would answer my police questions.

I thought it would be relatively easy. Like many authors, as PJ Parrish we have done light editing and critiquing for charity auctions and occasionally for friends, and I suspected this would be no different. But there were a few things I did not anticipate.

First was the officer’s passion for his story. His need to tell the story eliminated any of the usual author-ego issues, but it also made for the occasional dust-up between us. Usually, that involved his need for absolute realism and my desire to take literary license for dramatic effect. Second, I did not realize how different it would be writing about real events and the people who were even more real.

Over the next few months, as his narrative unfolded on my monitor, I found myself unable to let go of the story. I laid awake and thought about him. I started to think about the victim at the oddest times, seeing his face in every cruiser I saw on the city streets. All of this filled me with an increasing the sense of grief for an officer I never knew and a deepening respect for one I did.

I expected that at some point the repeated exchanges of the same chapters and scenes would work to dull the emotional impact. But it didn’t. It got to the point where I would postpone sitting down to edit until I knew I had a couple days to get over my depression afterwards.

Then I was given access to the crime scene photos. And I looked.

Everything became real. And I knew then that what I do with my stories, as passionately written and personally satisfying as they are, still makes for a pretty easy job. A beloved job, one I am lucky to have, but a job just the same.

As we neared the end, the officer’s passion never waned, and despite his heavy work schedule, he continued to revise and rewrite, always looking for ways to sand down the rough edges and splash some color on the players. I often imagined him working late into the night, hunched over a cluttered old desk, a half-can of beer nearby and a cigarette dangling off his lip as he pounded out a few more chapters.

Over the summer, he continued to send me pages and I continued to mark them with red ink. Slowly the book matured into something publishable. But as we entered the third act of the story could visualize this book on the shelves. Also I realized that as tough as it had been, I was going to miss it.

I was going to miss the author’s dedication and our strange, brief, and fragile friendship that survived only as long as we were writing. I was going to miss the people in the book because, in a way, telling the victim’s story allowed him to live once again, if only on pages and if only for a few months. And I would have liked to have known these people, many of them heroes in every sense of the word.

But as with all stories, once they’re told and ready to be sent into the world, we have to learn to let go. It’s never easy, even with fiction, but this was particularly hard. But we did it.

Over the years, I have thought a lot about what I took away from this experience that now seems a lifetime ago. It’s complicated, still. I know I will always reap a sense of satisfaction from helping a new author, and there is great reward in that process. And as someone who deeply respects law enforcement, there’s a large part of me that feels honored to have even penned even one single word of this book.

The book, Echoes of Shannon Street, never did find a traditional publisher, but I was okay with that because someone had told the story, and that counted for something. But about a year ago, I found myself wondering if the author had decided to join the growing ranks of the self-published. It took only one search to find it –- he had never changed the title -– and in one click, I was “looking inside.”

I was surprised to see he had changed the opening — yet again — adding new imagery, suspense, and edgy action that kept me turning the pages. I was not surprised to see that the author had kept rewriting and improving, long after we first typed “THE END” many years ago. But I was surprised to see something else.

My name. Not only as Editor, which is honor enough, but also written on the acknowledgement page was this:

“To Kelly Nichols, who taught me how to write.”

Postscript: Echoes of Shannon Street  has been made into a documentary, titled “Shannon Street: Under a Blood Red Moon, A Memphis Tragedy,” with proceeds going to the 100 Club, which aids families of officers killed in the line of duty. The movie adaptation begins filming in the Summer of 2016, with a release date of January 2017. You can also see a powerful trailer with actual crime scene images here.


Who’s Your Narrator?

Over Spring Break I had an opportunity to catch up on many books that had been on my TBR pile including two that raised some interesting questions about a writer’s choice of narrator. The first of these, Room by Emma Donoghue, has a child narrate the harrowing story of a mother and son held by a kidnapper in a one-room shed, their subsequent escape and their rocky road to adapting to the wide world beyond. For me, the choice of narrator made for a compelling read and I think it was both a wise and savvy move on behalf of the writer. It was difficult to pull off I’m sure, but the choice of a child to tell the story added an unexpected element and twist to what could have been a more typical abduction thriller.

The second book was a real summer read – Me Before You by JoJo Moyes – and it was not the kind of story I tend to read (i.e. romance). However, the choice of narrative viewpoints in this book too was the reason I think it was so compelling. As a reader we see into the mind of a slightly ditzy 20-something, her more mature sister, and the mother of the quadriplegic man who the 20-something year old has been tasked with being a companion for. The writer (wisely I think) only briefly give us the perspective of the male protagonist (the quadriplegic) before his injury. Other than that his character and motivations are clearly revealed in terms of his interaction with the other characters. Neither Room nor Me Before You are typical book choices for me (I did also read The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, which is much more my usual cup of tea:))  but they gave me some interesting perspectives on narrative choices.

I typically have a strong female narrative voice – though in a few of my WIPs I have adopted multiple perspectives, including male characters. I’ve never attempted a child’s voice, nor the perspective of someone much older than me. For me, the choice of narrator has always been guided by the story and, so far at least, that has meant I haven’t delved too far outside my comfort zone (though I’ve had some fun with darker and more amoral characters than myself!).

So, TKZers, what about you? What was the most challenging narrative voice you’ve ever used? Do you find yourself typically using a voice closely allied to your own, or have you gone far beyond this to perhaps channel someone of a different ethnicity, age or gender to you own? What challenges did this present?

All You Need To Know About Character Transformation

by James Scott Bell

God was not pleased.Ocean-Storm-Waves_Free_Desktop_Backgrounds_chillcover.com_

The special creation he had lovingly shaped, and into which he breathed the breath of life, had gone off the rails. God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Things went south from the very start. He placed man and woman in this beautiful garden with plants and animals and a Starbucks, and said there was only one rule: Do not eat the fruit of this one tree, okay? Is there any part of Do not eat you don’t understand? No? Very good.

But then the first politician the serpent whispered a sweet lie, and Eve took a bite, then Adam chomped, and it was bye-bye Eden. In the outside world Adam and Eve scraped up enough to buy a little starter home, had kids. But tragedy ensued–Cain murdered his brother, Abel.

Things only got worse. After several generations God decided it was time to clear the table, wrap it all up. But there was this one man, Noah, who was perfect in his generations, and … walked with God.

You know the story. God tells Noah that judgment is coming, so he is to build a big boat according to certain specs. Then he must bring in pairs of animals for the repopulation project. Noah obeys, gets the animals and his family on board. The flood arrives.

And Noah becomes the greatest financial planner in the Bible. He floated his stock while everyone else liquidated.


So there is Noah, inside a stinky animal pen for over a year (when you do the math), and what is he thinking? We have a clue. The ancient Hebrew style of writing is minimalist, and leaves a lot “between the lines.” At one point we read this: And God remembered Noah.

This tells me that sometime during his voyage Noah began to wonder if God had forgotten him. Was he a sap for listening? Was this all a cosmic joke? Was he going to die out here in this watery wasteland?

What Noah experienced was his “mirror moment.”

Yet he keeps the faith, does not curse God. The flood subsides. Noah and his family and the animals step out into the new world.

And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour… 

Noah is the same righteous man he was before the flood, but now his faith has been tested, and has become stronger.

This is Noah’s arc.

Discussions about character arcs can sometimes get overly complicated––complete with graphs that look like transcranial Doppler readings––or too simplistic (“Not every story needs a character arc!”)

But as I argue in my book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, it’s not really complicated at all once you nail that mirror moment.

And every story must have a character arc–or as I prefer, transformation–because, wait for it, you can’t have a story without one. You can have good writing. You can have distinct style. You can have quirky characters. But without transformation, friend, you will not have a story, and that’s what 99.9% of readers are looking for, consciously or not.

Your character’s mirror moment tells you what kind of transformation guides your story. It will be one of two types:

  1. The Lead character changes inside, becoming a different person at the end than at the beginning. In this type of mirror moment, the character is forced to look at himself and “ask” if this is who he really is, and wonder if he’s going to stay that way. The story question then is: will he actually transform into a different person at the end?

Martin Riggs

This transformation is from one pole of existence to another. From one kind of being to another. It’s a fundamental change.

Examples of this type of transformation include: Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.

Note: This transformation does not have to travel from negative to positive (though most of the time it does). It can also be from positive to negative. A prime example of this is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He transforms from good American soldier to soulless gangster.

There is even a type of transformation where the character is “offered grace” (as Flannery O’Connor put it) but turns it down. This is a tragedy. The character actually transforms backwards, becoming even worse off than before. Two of my favorite films of all time, both starring Paul Newman, are examples of this––Hud and The Hustler. 

  1. The Lead character realizes, right in the middle of the struggle, that there is no way he can win. The odds are too great. He is “probably going to die.”

Clarice Starling

This transformation goes from stasis to strength. The character remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger in order to survive the “death stakes” of the conflict.

Examples of this type are: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. 

Are there any examples of characters without any type of transformation? What about James Bond? Jack Reacher? They’re always the same, aren’t they?

They are the same fundamentally, but in those stories the transformation is of the second type, because the case or intrigue they are involved in challenges their powers and threatens them with physical, professional or psychological death.  

If the story doesn’t have death on the line, it’s going to feel flat.

The easiest way to find the transformation that is right for your story is to brainstorm your mirror moment.

Pantsers, you can brainstorm that anytime you like. If you’re lost in the middle of a draft (and I know you will be), the mirror moment will become the beacon that lights your way out of the thicket.

Plotters, you can determine your transformation at the beginning of things and know precisely how to outline from there (in my book I describe the “Golden Triangle” as the basis of a solid outline). Or you can put a moment in provisionally and change it later on as the story grows.

The point is that once you have it, it will illuminate the rest of your novel, from beginning to end. It will guide you in the formulation of plot, scenes and the ultimate meaning (theme) of the story trying to get out.

I’ll be in travel mode today, but will try to drop by if I can. Please continue the discussion!


aa 25 year chip

A little over a year ago — March 28, 2015, to be exactamundo about it — I posted a blog here entitled Through the Glass, Darkly, about attaining my twenty-fourth year of sobriety. April 1, 2016 marked twenty-five years, and as I write this I’m eight days in what I hope will be the twenty-sixth year. I don’t want to repeat everything I said last year — not when you can get it from the handy-dandy menu on the right side of this page — but I’ll mention again a couple of things that are important to us as writers and primarily as people.

The big one is that an addiction problem — substance, gambling, sex, or pick your poison — is insidious. It is the vampire that is tapping on the window of that wonderful domicile you call “me”. It can only get in if you let it in. Once you do so, it takes over your life without your even knowing it. If you think you have an addiction which has taken up residence in you there is a test developed by a brain trust at John Hopkins Hospital that will give you an idea. Go ahead and take it. The first time I took it I answered fifteen out of the twenty questions affirmatively (that’s not good). I laughed, put the test aside and kept drinking. I neglected getting a physical for years because I was afraid that my drinking would show up in some blood results. I didn’t have a problem, however. Nope, not me. I was ultimately fortunate enough to have a road-to-Damascus moment that knocked me off of my high horse and onto my brains. I was fortunate. But I should have paid attention to that test, a few days before. Take a look at it, and believe what you see.

The big problem leads to a large one. Writers like everyone else have deadlines and responsibilities. I assure you that the punch list you make for your day/week/month becomes a lot less important after that first beer or joint or trip past the casino of the day. There is a reason why there are no clocks in casinos or windows in taverns. We lose our concepts of time and of what needs to be done and yes, of what has to be done. Writing does not lend itself to multitasking. It is a harsh mistress, demanding full attention. You can’t do it while you’re feeding the vampire.

If you decide that you have a drinking problem, try an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You would not believe how many meetings are going on around you every day; take a look at the AA website. There may be one within walking distance of you. Try it out, keeping in mind that each meeting tends to develop its own personality. Disclaimer: I never used AA. Why? It’s not important for purposes of our discussion here. I recommend AA, however, because of all of the people I know who have stayed sober using The Program. Go for it. As far as AA is concerned, look at it as calling AAA, but for you, and not your car. If your problems lay elsewhere, from gambling to drugs, there is a program for you modelled after AA, such as Narcotics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. If you think that you might need something a bit stronger than a meeting —and those meetings can get pretty strong — go to your physician for a referral to a rehabilitation program. So, regardless of whether you choose a sober living program like the one by Ascension House – Structured Sober Living, or you regularly attend AA, you need to get help to support you in your transition from alcoholism.

The families of alcoholics and addicts in general are often forgotten. While those suffering from alcoholism are always urged to go to places such as Pacific Ridge for their recovery, many people forget just how traumatic it can be to be the loved one of an alcoholic. If you’re living with someone with an addiction, then run, don’t walk, to Al-Anon. Al-Anon is for families and friends of alcoholics. Meetings are easy to find. You will be amazed at all of the people you will meet who are going through the same things that you are. A practicing alcoholic is the prince of lies. I have seen an alcoholic go into a loving, happy family and have everyone at each other’s throats within a week. If that is happening to you, it is not something that you have to deal with alone.

I am not trying to bring your weekend down. I want to elevate it. If you think you have a problem, you probably do. This can be fixed. I did it. I do it. So can you. You will still hear that vampire tapping on the window every night, but you’ll know not to let it in.