Fiction Writing Tips 8190

Welcome to the ninth page of Fiction Writing Tips feature. Here you will find tips 81 through 90.

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Tip #81: Recognize the Errors in Other People's Fiction—Part 1 

This sounds like I'm telling you to be snarky about how inferior your fellow writers' fiction is, doesn't it?

That's not what I'm trying to say. With our fellow Christian novelists we need to be as loving as we want them to be to us.

No, what I'm talking about is different. I have come to realize that there is a step between understanding a fiction writing concept and being able to apply that concept to your own writing.

You may fully understand that you shouldn't start your book with backstory, for instance, but when you look at your actual manuscript you can't see that that's exactly what you've done.

It's as if your own writing is invisible to you, impervious to your efforts to discern if you've followed or violated whatever rule of good craftsmanship you're trying to apply. Even if you're positive you completely understand that rule.

The step between understanding it and seeing it in your own fiction is the ability to see the rule violated in other people's fiction.

Once telling and POV errors and whatever else begin standing out to you like blinking lights in someone else's novel, you'll be well on your way to achieving the ability to see it when you turn to your own fiction.

Just beware: if you do successfully learn how to see fiction errors in other writers' writing, you may no longer respect those writers' work. I've had more than a few favorite novelists drop off my favorites list when I'd go back to their work and see them violating many of the rules I consider necessary for good fiction.

It's like anything else. The more you learn what excellence looks like, whether it's in a golf swing or musicianship or computer programming, the less tolerant you'll be of mediocrity. It's the price of growing in your own skill. Just remember to be loving.

Spot the Telling

Now we're going to play a game of spot the telling. In order to give you practice at spotting telling in someone else's fiction, I'm going to give you a few passages of text. See if you can spot the telling in these.

Example 1:

Jenny had always loved Spring. It was a season of new life and new beginnings. She often remarked to her friend, Louise, as they would walk their dogs to the park, that Spring was like a new chance to do the year right. This time, she always told herself; this time I won't mess up my life. This year will be different.

Example 2:

"No, Wiggles!"

Jenny pulled her toy poodle away from the baby lying on the picnic blanket.

The blanket was a red and white check that reminded her of the blanket she and Jerome sat on during their first date. The clouds had blown in as if expecting something interesting to happen, and crowded together to get a look. Unfortunately the cloud cluster had resulted in a cloudburst, and she'd almost lost her chance with Jerome.

"Come, Wiggles. Bad dog."

Example 3:

Jenny sat on the park bench, her former high hurdles championship legs no longer what they used to be. The leader of the local moms and tots group at Hilltop Church tied her dog's leash to the bench and opened her magazine. The plump mother of six crossed her ankles and tried to forget that tomorrow she would meet up with Jerome, her ex-boyfriend who, twenty years ago, had dumped her after the high school prom.

Example 4:

"Hello, Jenny."

Jenny looked up at the sound of her name. It was a man's voice who had spoken. She shielded her eyes against the sun, which was right at the man's shoulder, and thus shining into her eyes. His was a trim and muscular silhouette.

"I'm sorry," Jenny said, because ever since she'd been a child she'd learned to make things better by making them her fault, "I can't see you. Who am I talking with?"

Example 5:

The man seemed to hesitate a moment, standing still with the advantage on his side. Then he stepped to the right so Jenny could see him.


He looked amazing. In high school he'd been painfully thin but still handsome. Now he'd certainly filled out. His eyes were that same piercing blue and his hair, that silken curtain of blond, still called to her to touch and fix. Her eyes went straight to his left hand. No ring.

Of course, her left hand did have one. She slid that hand under her thigh and wished she could instantly drop three dress sizes.

"Hello, Jerome."

He smiled. That same crooked grin. "Hello, gorgeous."

Answer Key

Could you spot the telling? There's a trick in there, so be sure you really can see it. Don't read the answers until you're sure.

Example 1 is all telling. Absolutely nothing happens. If it were a movie, it would've been the equivalent of sixty seconds of blank screen. That's bad.

In example 2 the telling begins in the second half of the first sentence in the third paragraph. In other words, everything in that paragraph after "The blanket was a red and white check." Did you see it? It's backstory, maybe even a flashback, and it definitely stops the story.

Example 3 contains what I call sneaky telling. The passage doesn't stop to include whole paragraphs of it; it's just that little bits of it get slipped in as we go.

If this were a movie, how in the world could the viewer know that she was a former hurdles jumper or that she was about to meet her boyfriend or that she had six children? The viewer couldn't. That information was not conveyed through scene, action, or dialogue. It was spoon-fed by means of telling.

Show vs. Tell is well covered in Tip #29 and Tip #70, by the way. Be sure you've read those, too.

The telling in example 4 is harder to spot, but it's there. Did you see it? It's where the author explains Jenny's motivation for apologizing ("ever since she was a child...")

Example 5 is the trick. There is no telling in it.

Description is not the same thing as telling. See Tip #67 for the distinction. You need description to further the story. You don't need telling at all. And her own thoughts (wishing to drop three dress sizes) are not telling, either, at least not by definition.

Be sure that, in your zeal to trim the telling, you don't also throw out things it's okay to include. Character thoughts (as long as they don't go into exposition and backstory) and description of setting and character and action, are not telling.

Well, how'd you do? Hopefully this has been part of a learning process for you, especially if you weren't able to automatically see the telling in those examples. Keep looking at them until they pop out at you. Then turn to other fiction and read it with a critical eye. You'll see it, believe me.

And that's a good thing, even if it spoils you for certain authors. Because seeing it in other people's fiction is the prerequisite to being able to see it in yours.

Next time: Spot the POV Error.

Tip #82: Recognize the Errors in Other People's Fiction—Part 2

This is the second installment in a series on spotting fiction errors in other people's writing. The premise we're working under is that it's all but impossible to go from head knowledge to practical application when it comes to the "rules" of fiction. It's one thing to know one of those rules. It's something else entirely to see where you've violated that rule in your own writing.

The theory is that there's a step between those two. If you can learn to apply the rule in what you see in other people's fiction, you'll be more than halfway to being able to begin to see it in your own. So I'm providing the opportunity for you to begin trying to see these errors in some short passages of fiction.

Last time we played "spot the telling." This time we're going to play "spot the POV error."

POV, or point of view, is something I cover in Tip #30. Be sure to read that before playing our little game.

Technically, what's called omniscient POV is not an error. It's simply another style of POV. But it's so often used by writers whose fiction skill-set is low, and it's so closely associated to Telling (see Tip #29), that to me it is an error. So I'll treat it as such in one or more of the examples that follow.

In brief, POV is whose eyes we're seeing the scene through. It's whose head we're in. Or, if you want to use a filmmaking metaphor, it's who is holding the camera.

The viewpoint character for any given scene is the reader's periscope into the world of your story. What that character sees, hears, smells, feels, thinks, and knows is fair game to let us in on. But to go beyond that is to commit a POV error.

So let's play.

Spot the POV Error

Example 1:

"Surprise! I'm home!"

Jimmy reacted in horror. What was Tom doing home now? It wasn't even July yet. "Uh, hi, Tom."

The news caught Connie by surprise, too, but for a different reason. She thought he wasn't going to announce his arrival. They were supposed to meet and then seem to arrive together. "Tom," she said with her eyes narrowed, "this is...unexpected."

Tom couldn't believe their reactions. "Aren't you guys glad to see me?"

Example 2:

Connor was tired. The spry warrior of yesteryear stretched his feet out on the couch. How did it come to this? His emerald eyes glistened as he thought of his buddies lost in the war. One, in particular. His face clouded as the image of Kane's broken body flashed across his mind.

Example 3:

Clete hauled the last hay bale into the barn. He came into the yard rubbing his lower back. A man stood beside the bulldozer blade, a hiker's backpack high on his back.

"Can I help you, stranger?" Clete said. Where was that worthless dog, anyway?

The stranger raised a hand against the hot Kansas sun. "I'm looking for a particular farm."

Clete heard a deep Southern accent in the man's voice. Maybe he was good folk after all. "Which one?"

Davis O'Bannon removed the backpack from his shoulders and leaned it against the wood fence. "Family farm. Name of Oldfield."

Clete nodded. The Oldfields had come from somewhere down South. "'Bout a mile east of here, off of farm-to-market road two-nine-five." He rubbed his back again. "You want a drink or something? Iced tea, maybe?" Didn't all Southerners like iced tea?

Davis smiled perfect teeth. "Much obliged."

Example 4:

The blond waitress looked at the customer as if at a roach. "You've got a real sense of humor, don't you?"

The former gunnery sergeant just laughed. "I guess not."

"It's hard to be really funny, isn't it?" she asked, swallowing hard.

He looked down at the menu. "I wouldn't know."

Example 5:

Doyle and Dexter entered the hotel lobby at precisely eleven thirty. Doyle swept his eyes across the pink marble flagstones and the ornate chandelier, conscious of Dexter's open-mouthed expression. The boy could be such a yokel. He could use that.

"Come," the older man said, "let's check in."

"Sounds good to me," Dexter said, smelling chlorine. "And then I'm hitting the pool."

Answer Key

Well, did you see them? There's some crossover with spot the telling, too. Did you notice that? Telling and POV errors often go together in fiction not ready for publication.

So let's see how you did.

Example 1 is simply omniscient POV. We get everyone's thoughts and feelings. It's classic "head-hopping," and I hope you read Tip #30 for why that's counterproductive.

In Example 2 we're inside Connor's mind. We find out he's tired and we are privy to what he thinks and remembers. How, then, can we know that his emerald eyes glistened or his face clouded? Does he happen to be looking into the mirror the moment he thinks this? Probably not.

This is an observation by an external (i.e., non-Connor) person, which makes it a POV error.

Did you catch the part that is also a bit of sneaky telling? "The spry warrior of yesteryear." Is he really thinking this about himself? Did he think, "Ah, me, it's good to be a spry warrior of yesteryear and stretch my feet out on the couch"? Not likely. Which makes that a POV error, too.

When you've got POV well understood, the POV violation in Example 3 will hit you like a pitcher of ice water. Did you see it?

The Southern man with the backpack is a stranger to Clete. So how do we suddenly learn that the man's name is Davis O'Bannon?

If Clete didn't suddenly learn the name, and Clete is our viewpoint character, how can we suddenly know it? We can't. That's a blatant POV violation.

Do you see how this is related to telling? The author (well, in this case, me ) was afraid you wouldn't get who this guy was, so he told you his name. It didn't come out through dialogue, though it easily could've. It was simply given to you. The author violated the restrictions of POV and spoon-fed you the information.

If you give information to the reader that the viewpoint character couldn't know, you've committed a POV error. And probably telling, as well.

There are exceptions, such as when you let the reader figure something out that the viewpoint character doesn't know. For instance, if we had had forty pages in Davis O'Bannon's viewpoint and known that he always took his backpack off when talking to strangers, then when this interloper on Clete's farm takes his backpack off we'll know it's Davis O'Bannon, even though the author hasn't violated Clete's POV.

Most of the time, though, if the POV character doesn't know or detect something, the reader can't know or detect it, either.

Example 4 is tricky. You probably noticed the sneaky telling: "the former gunnery sergeant." That's akin to "the spry warrior of yesteryear" in Example 2.

The other problem with this example is that you don't really know whose head you're in. Maybe you're in the customer's viewpoint because he might describe the waitress as blond, whereas she wouldn't sit around thinking of herself as the blond waitress.

But later we learn that the waitress swallowed hard, which sounds like something only she would know. And then we learn that the customer is a former gunnery sergeant. Well, does she know this about him? It's telling, but at least it might be something she would know. Except that he seems to be a stranger to her ("the customer"), so then how would she know he used to be in the military?

This is another case of omniscient POV. The writer has not exercised the self-discipline to restrict himself to the thoughts, senses, and interpretations of the viewpoint character. The irony is that this distances the reader every time, though the author thinks he's bringing the reader near because he's revealing everyone's thoughts.

The first POV error in Example 5 comes in the phrase "the older man." We're clearly in Doyle's POV in this scene. He looks around the lobby and we get to see what he sees. He thinks of Dexter as "the boy." All well and good.

But then suddenly we see Doyle described as "the older man." Well, he's obviously older if he thinks of Dexter as a boy. But who thinks this thought? Does he describe himself as "the older man"?

This isn't a hop over to Dexter's head; it's just a violation of Doyle's perspective. It's not something he would think or detect, and yet it's given to us on a platter.

Finally, we do jump over to Dexter's POV when we learn that he smelled chlorine. If the POV character (in this case, Doyle) can't sense or know it, the reader can't learn about it. Stay disciplined. Stay inside one head per scene.

Well, how'd you do? Keep reading those examples until you can see the shifts instantly. Then begin spotting them in the fiction you read.

When you can do that, you'll be ready to see these errors—or lack of them—in your own fiction.

Tip #83: Don't Telegraph that Your Hero Lives

Every now and then I'll see something like this in the unpublished fiction I work with:

They had him surrounded. Twenty deathbots against Peter Protagonist and his dying quegmaticon. This was going to be how it ended for him. A deathbot lurched forward and Peter fired the quegmaticon. Nothing more than a green belch came out. The deathbot grinned, if such things could happen, and struck him a backhanded blow that sent him flying into the metal bulkhead. It was a wound he felt for the rest of his life whenever he passed through magnetic storms or got too close to electron tanning beds. He rose to his feet and wiped blood from his lip. The deathbots closed in. He was going to die.

Beside the extra-long paragraph and the questionable writing, did you see something wrong with that passage? Something that undercut the suspense you felt as you read?

The author was trying to make you worry for the hero's life. He (I) was going for an edge of your seat moment that made you zip through the pages to see if the guy lives. But then he put something in that defeated his purpose entirely. Did you see it?

It was the comment about how he would feel that wound for all the long years of the rest of his life.

Wait a minute: if he's going to live long years beyond this encounter, how are we supposed to be worried that he might die here?

The information that he lives through this crisis pretty much sounds the death knell for the suspense not only in this scene but in the whole book. He lives. You've told us that. So in this moment when we're supposed to be afraid for him, we're not. And in the future moments in this story when we're supposed to worry that he might die, we won't. You've told us he lives. So why worry about him?

I don't know why writers feel compelled to use this little device. Maybe they've seen it in other books and they want to do it to in order to feel like a real writer. There must be some good reason, but I haven't thought of it yet.

It's akin to reading a series out of order. I love it when people discover my Operation: Firebrand series, for instance, even if they come into it in book 2 or 3. But it does kind of kill the suspense in previous books if they read book 3 first. It's hard for them to worry in book 1 that a character might die if they've seen him alive and well in book 3! That portion of the suspense I was creating in that book is dissipated.

So it is when you telegraph to the reader that a character makes it out of a scrape alive. You basically kill your suspense for the rest of the book. Or more, if you're writing a series that takes place over a relatively short period but you tell the reader that the protagonist lives for many years beyond that.

Why do that? How are you helping yourself to do that? I recommend you leave your reader guessing.

If you feel you must say something like this, leave it ambiguous. Like: "He would feel that wound to the end of his days. And judging from how things were going, today might be the end of his days."

Better yet, just don't telegraph it all. Let your reader be nervous and really wonder if the character will make it through alive. That's how you write page-turners that keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Tip #84: Don't Let Characters Serve Plot

The woman who has been terrified of being attacked by a monster decides to let the rest of the group go on ahead so she can be left alone in the creepy deserted mansion to catch her breath.

Yeah, right.

The scientist whose only concern in life is to keep a natural environment free of all signs of human impact tears off a candy wrapper and throws it in the grass.

Oh, really?

The expert chess player makes an erroneous comment about the rules of chess and thereby reveals that he is really the killer.


Why would a novelist make these characters do these things? Because the novelist needed something to happen in the plot. Because the novelist didn't mind violating who these characters were so long as the plot could advance.

This is called "character serving plot." Don't do it!

The author wanted the woman to be alone when the monster attacked, so s/he made the character do something she would never do. The novelist (in this case, Michael Crichton in The Lost World) wanted the dinosaurs to eat the unlikable scientist, so he caused the scientist to violate the essence of his character. The author needed the detective to break the case at this moment, so s/he caused the character to do something he would never do.

Character serving plot is among the most atrocious form of fiction there is. The novelist who does this, who violates who her characters are so that the plot can be advanced, insults her readers' intelligence.

You won't notice that she's a computer expert but she conveniently forgets how to check e-mail, will you? You won't be bothered if a songwriter doesn't notice when one of his own songs is being played, will you? You won't mind if a detective with thirty years' experience doesn't notice when he's being followed by three cars and a helicopter, will you?

Now, I love plot-first novelists. I R 1, in fact. But, bless us, we can tend to move characters around the story like the car and the shoe in Monopoly. Characters are like things to us. Like furniture. Or, at best, like pets.

We've got "The Girl" and "The Friend" and "The Villain" and "The Boss." We produce the book equivalent of a Kung Fu movie. Hiyaa! Goons come in against Hero. Hero fight them. Hero get Girl. Ug.

You know, like Cliffhanger.  ;-)

In our furniture moving and pet herding, us plot-first novelists can sometimes make our characters do things they wouldn't naturally do.

Well, that's because we don't know who our characters are, actually. With most of them you could change the character names all around and no one would be able to tell the difference.

"That sounds good," Mike said.

"Yeah, I love it," Steve said.


"That sounds good," Lorraine said.

"Yeah, I love it," Betty said.

--And you can't tell the difference. All the way through the book.

That's why I created Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist. Check it out.

If you're a plot-first novelist, and I hope you know whether you are or not, I beg you to get to know your characters better. Make them more than the thing that gets blown up to make the hero mad and go on a revenge killing spree, okay?

When you know your characters it will suddenly feel wrong when you try to make your professional singer not know how to read music or when you make your Olympic figure skater a real klutz.

You may not be able to see if you're doing this. This might be one of those things where you need someone else to read your manuscript and tell you when you're having characters serve plot. If so, get someone to do that for you. Ask someone to read it looking for that thing only, especially if you know you're prone to this.

But you need to begin to see when you're doing it. Try to see it in other people's fiction, then apply that to your own work-in-progress.

Begin treating your story people like real people, not playing pieces. Begin liking them as unique individuals, not stereotypes from the movies.

And you will learn how to let characters be themselves and do the things they would truly do.

When that happens you'll have to figure out another way for the dinosaurs to eat them or the detective to figure out they're the killer. But I have no doubt you'll be able to do that. Just be sure you don't violate some other character when you come up with your solution.

Let characters act like they really would act if they were real. And your readers will rise up and call you blessed.

Tip #85: Be Teachable

Most of the aspiring Christian novelists I know are wonderful, humble people. They are eager to learn and dogged in their commitment to apply what they learn. It is their goal to raise their craftsmanship to the point where their fiction will be considered publishable.

Such people are a joy to work with.

Writer's conferences are full of this kind of folk. They're so serious about wanting to improve that they're willing to invest in their own education and improvement. (See Tip #25.) This is one of the reasons I work so hard at writer's conferences, giving out help where I can even as I feel overwhelmed and sometimes even bled dry. What teacher wouldn't knock himself out to help eager learners?

But occasionally I run into an aspiring novelist who doesn't want to learn anything more.

Such folks usually indicate that they think their prose is golden as it is. They feel they've already read everything they need to read and learned every technique worth learning. And they believe their story is from God Himself. Every word. Does God need an editor? Does God need instruction?

This kind of attitude is...less pleasurable to encounter.

Chances are, you're going to have to make a lot of changes to get your novel published. It may have "just come to you," but that doesn't mean it's well-written. You may've written it in an almost altered state of consciousness, as if God were downloading it directly to your brain, but that doesn't mean it's ready to be published. Or even that it was from God and not the result of mysterious psychological machinations in your own mind.

No one can deny that Saul, later the Apostle Paul, had a direct experience with God. And yet he took off into the desert for years to get this Christianity thing figured out before he was ready to rock and roll. He realized that an encounter with God does not mean he didn't also need preparation.

Maewyn Succat, the man better known as Saint Patrick, received a bona fide vision from God to return to Ireland to bring the Gospel to his former captors. But he took several years in ecclesiastical training before he set out. A calling is essential, but it's not the only thing. Training is also needed.

I hope you have received your story directly from God. But that doesn't give you permission not to learn your craft.

I also get this "Craft? Who needs to learn craft?" attitude from the folks who have come to fiction to write a novel in order to sugar coat what is really a sermon designed to knock readers upside the head. Agenda-driven novelists (see Tip #59) often don't want to bother learning the craft of fiction. They're just teabagging into fiction long enough to disguise their +2 Mace of Bludgeoning.

Don't be like this. I'm sure your novel really is art and no one wants to invalidate the authenticity of your vision, and I acknowleged that it could really be directly from God. But do you want to get it published or not?

Weighing the Options

Long before I actually got published with Multnomah I almost got published with Zondervan. I had this series of fantasy novels I wanted to write and the fiction editor there at the time (the blessed St. Dave Lambert, speaking of saints) was interested in the series.

But he thought it work better as a YA (youth) series.

Hmm. How interested was I in getting published? Was I willing to bend my original idea in order to get published or was I going to hold on to the pure vision and later console myself with the satisfaction that I had at least stuck to my guns?

I told him a YA series would be boffo. Sweet. Let's do it.

I was willing to make that compromise and be teachable. As it turned out, Zondervan eventually decided they didn't want it even as a YA series, but the point remains.

Years later, after my first trilogy had been published, I sent out a proposal for another novel. This one was for a novel I called Grasping at Angels.

It was a hard sell in a lot of ways. In fact, it was probably the best thing you could put together if you wanted to not get published in CBA. It was a tragic, male-oriented story about a poor serf in an unpopular era of history, and it didn't even have any romance in it. Oh, and I wrote it in present tense (Tip #57).

I sent it out far and wide. Acquisitions editors around the industry liked the writing but said there was basically no way they could get the thing published.

But again along came the aforementioned St. Lambert. Dave looked at the proposal and said it might have a better chance if it were in past tense.

Hmm. How interested was I in getting this thing published? I had my reasons for using present tense, but I knew it was unconventional. And here I had industry pros telling me it was one of the obstacles to getting the book published. Would I stick with my original vision or be teachable and bow to the wisdom of these people?

I rewrote it in past tense.

Everyone eventually decided not to publish it, but it was another opportunity for me to show whether or not I would harden my neck against reproof.

When you decide you don't want to make the change an industry veteran recommends (whether you think the person is right or not, and whatever your reasons for doing so), what you're usually saying is that you'd rather not be published just now, thank you.

If you decide to stick to your artistic vision, that's a good and legitimate choice. Just don't complain that the book continues to be rejected. Yes, maybe it is because the entire industry is broken and every editor is short-sighted. But it might also be because you don't yet know enough about this industry or your craft, and it might serve you better to remain teachable.

My beloved Bill S. Preston, Esquire, once encountered an idea from Socratic philosophy: "The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing." To which the venerable Ted "Theodore" Logan responded, "That's us, dude!"

Amen, brethren.

I hope you never reach the point where you decide you've learned enough and don't need to learn anything else. 

Certain novelists get so famous that they are allowed to reject their editor's every suggestion. Some don't even use editors. And some publishers let them get away with it because they know the book is going to sell whether it's been edited or not.

I hope you never get there, even if you become a bestselling author ten times over.

You will always lose objectivity about your own writing. You will always have something you can improve in your craft. And you will always need humility in this and every aspect of your life.

Stay teachable, my friend. (And party on, dude!)

Tip #86: Stop Being Teachable

Okay, I chose that title for effect and to show a nice contrast with last week's Tip. But I need to be sure I'm very clear in what I mean here.

We should never stop being teachable. Ever. It's an attitude of humility that must characterize every portion of our lives, especially our writing.

But in the craft of fiction writing there comes a point (many of them, actually) at which you must decide it's time to stop taking in more instruction and just start writing.

I see this at writer's conferences. Attendees from one of my classes come up and say, "You say we should avoid backstory in our fiction but in the seminar next door they're saying we should include it. What gives?" Or "You say stick to 'said' but the teacher last year said 'said' is boring. What should I do?"

Sometimes these poor people can get so wound up in trying to do what every writing teacher says that they find they can't move. Because not every person who teaches about writing fiction agrees with everyone else who teaches about writing fiction.

But the aspiring writer doesn't want to violate any rule of fiction. These folks can find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to simultaneously adhere to opposing teachings. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance, and it's a good way to drive yourself crazy.

Here's a helpful piece of advice for you, inspired by our 16th president: you can't please all the fiction writing teachers all the time.

These jokers, myself included, each have their own set of rules and likes and dislikes and pet peeves. They each have their own schools of thought about what makes good fiction. You can't possibly adhere to them all because they don't agree with each other.

So what do you do?

You sift through all the "truths" about fiction writing you hear and you hang on to the ones that make sense to you.

If one person says no jumping to a second storyline within the first 40 pages (see Tip #43) and another person says you should have at least three storylines going by page 40, then you've got to put your brain into gear and figure out which one seems right to you.

Investigate. Try both ways. Look for examples of both. Look at the reasoning behind both teachings. Look at the fiction produced by both teachers. Decide which one to go with.

When you do this you are, in a sense, ceasing to be teachable. You're saying, "Wait a minute, I can't do both of these. Which one am I going to go with?" You're ceasing to be the yes-sir/yes-ma'am writing pupil and are beginning to, if you'll allow the Star Wars reference, build your own light saber.

Because that's what we're talking about here. We're talking about you figuring out what kind of writer you want to be. You're deciding which option you prefer in dozens of stylistic choices.

Maybe you don't like said but you do like cutting out backstory. Hey, that's okay. Go for it. Maybe you decide that only first person and present tense will ever work for you, no matter what anyone says. Awesome.

Take your shot. Make your stand. Carve out your niche. Decide who you want to be.

Not in an in-your-face sense, with lots of defiance, but in the sense of a teenager figuring out what kind of adult s/he wants to be.

You will come to the time when the childhood days of instruction are done and the adult days of productivity are upon you.

You're able to craft what kind of novelist you want to be. What will that look like for you?

Count the Cost

Of course as soon as you stop agreeing with every teacher or book on writing, you're going to start being in disagreement with many of them.

That's part of adulthood, too. You can't please everyone, not and be an adult.

If you want to keep pleasing everyone, stick with the yes-ma'am stuff and continue revising (or reversing) your writing style with every new writing teacher you study under or every new book you read. That's a legitimate part of the learning process.

But when you're ready to plant your stake and say, "No, this is the kind of writer I want to be," brace yourself for opposition.

What if you love backstory and have decided your first 20 pages of every book will be nothing but the life stories of your main characters? Well, hey, if that's what you want to do, beautiful. Go for it. But if you're asking an agent to represent you or an editor to publish you, you'd better hope that person loves frontloaded novels, too, or you're going to get rejected.

It goes back to my question last time: how badly do you want to be published? Are you willing to compromise some of your line-in-the-sand stylistic preferences to get published at a house that doesn't like what you've decided to do in your fiction? Are you? Or would you rather keep looking and possibly not get published with this project?

Someone who is happy to revise her book according to the preferences of the agent or editor may find herself published long before you do. That's the risk you take when you decide your way is the only way you can write.

The phases are like this: When you start out writing fiction, you're basically a child. Hopefully you're extremely teachable in this phase. If you don't realize you know nothing about it you're not going to be willing to learn from those who do. And your writing will forever be infantile.

Then you enter the teenage phase of a writer's development. Here you're starting to realize that not every expert is infallible and agrees with every other expert. You're beginning to disagree with some experts and to develop a whole toolbox full of techniques and styles you prefer. There's a sense of mild rebellion here as you begin to feel more and more sure of what you like and who you want to be as a writer. That's good and normal.

The final(?) phase of a writer's development is the equivalent of adulthood. You've achieved some measure of success. You've found a whole bunch of things that seem to work for you. You're still learning, you're still experimenting, you're still challenging yourself, but most of the growth and development is behind you. You know who you are as a writer and you're confident in that. You may even be in a position to teach others.

But even in this last phase you must remain teachable. Nobody likes a know-it-all, even if she's a successful novelist. Everybody must keep growing and, as we said at the outset, an attitude of humility is essential in the Christian life.

Is my own writing perfect? Hardly? Is it pretty much doing what I'm attempting? Yes. Am I pleased with my style? Have I found my voice? Yes and yes. Can I learn new things and improve areas of my craftsmanship. Absolutely.

At this point in my writing life I look to peers and to other novelists I admire. I examine their styles or teachings to see if there are aspects of them that could improve my own fiction. But those things must fit into my overall sense of who I am as a novelist.

And honestly, I'm not looking too hard. I'm pleased with what I'm doing and I feel I'm more or less done with the major writing lessons in my life. Hopefully I have remained humble and teachable as a person and as a writer. But I'm also confident enough in what I'm capable of that I've stopped reading books on how to get better as a writer.

What we're looking for in your development is the same thing. You need to go through all the phases and you need to forever remain teachable. But you're heading to the place where you know what to do and how to do it, and you're happy with how it comes out onto the page. You realize you may need to change this or that to meet the approval of an agent or editor, but you're not going to automatically make that change just because. You may decide to pass. 

You're headed to a place of satisfied confidence in your writing. In one facet of craft after another you'll realize you've reached a place of sufficient skill and don't need to hear any new opinions about it, at least for now. Maybe later you'll change your mind. You can always remain humble while at the same time ceasing the phase of basic learning. teachable, except when you stop. And even when you stop being teachable, stay teachable.  ;-)

Tip #87: End Your Scenes with a Zinger

I pay a lot of attention to how people begin their books. (See Tip 35, for instance.) An appropriate and engaging beginning is so vital to hook your reader.

Chapter beginnings are smaller versions of the same thing. They're chances to engage your reader afresh, and should be done with care. Same thing about scene beginnings within chapters.

But endings are every bit as important as beginnings. So let's talk a bit about structuring them well.

I've already covered the subject of circularity (Tip #40), which definitely applies to endings. So be sure to cover that.

What I'm talking about here, though, is something more technical. What I'm talking about here is the actual verbiage to use when ending a scene.

Your last line in a scene is as important as your first line. I hope you take an extra moment to craft both of them well. Your last line might refer back to the first line (which is circularity). This gives a nice feeling of completeness and instills in the reader the confidence that you know what you're doing as you write.

Or your last line in a scene may not have anything to do with the first line. Your may use a scene's last line to hit the main topic of the scene again, to introduce a twist, to create a cliffhanger just before cutting away to a new storyline, or to simply let a character have the last word.

The point is that if you make sure your endings are structured well—and don't just end—your prose will appear more professional.

Here are some examples of scene endings from one of my novels, Operation: Firebrand—Crusade.


There is a scene in which the paramilitary Firebrand team is posing as a group civilian aid workers in Sudan to dig a well for a village. Characters in the scene are doubting that our heroes are really aid workers at all. So at the end of the scene one of the Firebrand team members, a huge muscleman named Garth, takes the opportunity to underline their cover story. Here's the last line in the scene:

"Boy," Garth said too loudly, "sure is a great day to dig a well."


In a subsequent scene the Firebrand team learns that the Sudanese military sometimes finds where humanitarian groups airdrop food supplies and then sends helicopter gunships to attack the villagers who gather around the drop site. Rachel, a member of the Firebrand team, is getting more and more angry as the story progresses. Here's the last line of the scene:

Rachel growled. "Typical."


In a later scene the Firebrand team leader, Jason, gets an abusive slave owner in Sudan alone. Jason has been steaming about child predators already, including real-life victim Samantha Runnian. Jason has just witnessed this slaver, Ahmed, beating and about to rape a young girl who is his stolen slave. Jason forgets his self-control for a moment and pretty much beats the crud out of this slaver. Here's the last paragraph from the scene:

Something told him he was going to feel really bad about this very soon. But right now all he could think about was Ahmed's whimper and how just maybe Samantha Runnion was resting a little easier in her grave.


Do you see what I'm doing in each example? Do you see how the last word in the last line in the last paragraph of the scene acts like a period or end cap?

"Well," the last word of the first example, reminds us of what they're supposedly doing in Sudan. "Typical" reveals Rachel's attitude and builds toward a fateful decision she makes later in the story. And "grave" is the most painful word for Jason to think about: that an innocent child should be in her grave because of scum like this.

The last word ought to be like a key, the final thing that drops into place to unlock the full meaning of the scene. Like the last tumbler in the Resolute Desk in National Treasure 2. The last word connects with the reader and resonates like the slowly dying echo of a church bell.

What About You?

Take a look at your work-in-progress; how do your scenes end?

Have you made a deliberate choice to tie them off perfectly or do you just kind of stop writing and move on to the next thing?

Could you, with just a tiny bit more effort, reword your scene endings so that the last word of the last line of the last paragraph sends a little zinger into your reader's mind?

Good scene endings are not going to just happen. They are constructed with effort and conscious choice.

Like scene, chapter, and book openings, your endings for scenes, chapters, and the book are prime real estate. Readers pay attention to them more than to most of the words in the middle. These endings are your opportunities to nudge something just right for your book.

When it comes to the last word of the last line of the last paragraph of your entire book, be sure you spend as much time crafting it as you spend on your "Call me Ishmael" line at the beginning.

Scene endings are powerful things in fiction. It's as if the volume is turned up for them. Whatever you put there is going to have added emphasis to the reader. So make sure you craft them exactly as they should be. At the end of each scene, give your reader a zinger.

Tip #88: Examine Your Desire To Be Published

Why do you want to be published?

Of course it's a dream of yours, but what's behind that dream?

A need to prove something? A desire to be someone? A need to leave your mark on the world? A desire to be famous and/or rich? A need to justify your existence?

If so, I'd like you to reexamine those reasons.

Don't get me wrong: it's not necessarily bad to want to be published. There are dozens of good reasons to want this. But as I've worked with thousands of aspiring novelists over the years, I've encountered quite a few not-so-good reasons, too. I've struggled with some of them myself.

Lately I've been meditating a lot on contentment. It seems to me that contentment is pretty much the secret to a successful Christian life.

I also believe that its opposite, discontentment, is behind just about every sin in our lives.

From Eve on down to today, most sin begins with this thought: "Wait a minute, I don't have what I deserve." Which leads to an inevitable reaction: "I'm going to grab for myself a bit of what I should've been given in the first place."

Discontentment leads to greed. I don't mean greed only in the narrow sense of wanting more money or possessions. I believe greed is the inescapable result of thinking we haven't been given what we deserve (or of thinking we have been made to endure something we don't deserve), no matter the category.

When we feel we haven't been given enough of something, we act greedy about that thing. If we believe we have been slighted or gypped, we try to snag for ourselves some measure of what we feel we've been denied. Maybe that's possessions, maybe it's sexual gratification, maybe it's food, maybe it's the approval of a certain person or group.

Or maybe it's an insatiable need to be published.

Jesus said to be on our guard against every form of greed (Luke 12:15).

As writers, I think we need to examine our motives for wanting to be published. Do we want it so desperately because we feel it will make us content?

Can you be content with your life if you never get published? Or will you not be "happy" until you achieve this goal?

Let me tell you: being published is nice but it won't make you content. Easy for him to say—is that what you're thinking? If so, I understand. But it's still true.

Being published brings with it its own set of pressures and problems. It's a nice feeling, but so is having a chocolate bar. Neither one is so incredible that it will align the planets of your particular solar system and bring you ultimate peace.

If you believe that getting published will finally make all your dreams come true, you're believing a lie. And you may be acting out of greed.

No wonder Paul says that greed amounts to idolatry (Colossians 3:5). If you're looking to a publishing contract to make you content, then you're looking to it to do something only God can do. And if you're looking to something besides God to do something only God can do, that's called idolatry.

So I ask you again: why do you want to be published? What do you think will come to you if and when that day finally comes?

A Place of Fullness

I believe every Christian struggles with areas of greed. Areas in which he believes his life would be complete if only...X.

What's X for you? If you got married? If you were able to have children? If you were able to get that new car? If you were able to afford a new home? If you were to be offered a multi-book publishing contract?

Again, it's not necessarily wrong to want to change your situation. If you or your loved ones are being abused, it's not wrong to want that to end. If you're living in a dangerous place and you wish you could get out, it's not wrong to want that or to work to make a change.

It's not wrong to want to be published, either. If your desire is correct, then I think God loves to grant us the desires of our hearts—having placed those desires there in the first place!

I'm personally "discontented" with the state of Christian publishing, especially regarding Christian speculative fiction. So I'm launching my own publishing company to try to rectify the situation.

The question is one of motives. Do I believe that this publishing company will solve all my problems and bring me inner harmony? No. Even if it goes great guns (oh, please, oh, please!), it won't bring me inner peace.

I have to go through my life firm in the knowledge that God has given me everything I need for contentment.

I have to believe I'm operating from a place of fullness, not a place of lack.

When God used Nathan to rebuke King David, He said He had given David tons of amazing gifts, "and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!"

So it is with us. He has lavished us with the riches of His grace and blessed us with every spiritual blessing. He has given us a life so abundant our cup runs over, a life characterized by joy, love, comfort, and the peace of God.

We are, like Adam and Eve, complete in the Garden. As Christians we are equipped with springs of living water welling up to eternal life. We have the powerful, loving, guiding Spirit of God.

What more do we need? What else does God need to add in order for us to be content?

God is not the great Withholder. He's not the great Gypper. He is the great Giver. The Lavisher. The Father delighted to give us the Kingdom.

Perhaps it's time for you to do some meditating of your own. Ask God to change your perspective from one of looking always at what you feel you lack to gratefully remembering all He's given. He hasn't gypped you.

When you gaze at the areas where you feel discontented or where you see yourself grasping for what you're "due," ask God to remind you that in each of those areas you're operating out of a position of fullness, not a position of lack. We are heirs of the universe, right alongside Christ.

Say, with Paul in Ephesians 3:19, I am "filled with the fullness of God" in this area. I have no need to grasp for more or get ahead of the next person. I will no longer believe that true fulfillment will come from even great success in this area.

Even if you're talking about being published.

Maybe you need to surrender your desire to be published, I don't know. Maybe you need to confess that it's an area where you think God's ripped you off, and you're acting out of greed to get back what you should've had in the first place. Maybe you need to realize that a search for contentment in something beside what God's already given is, in fact, idolatry.

Contentment is found only in Jesus Christ. Whether you ever get published or not.

Tip #89: Learn To Differentiate Similar Characters—Part 1

Few challenges in fiction are as vexing as writing stories that feature a group of characters who are all basically the same: same age, same gender, same race, same occupation, same location, and same situation in life.

Think about a football team or a cheerleading squad or an army platoon.

Now, if you're just writing the group at a distance, you're usually okay. If, for instance, the women's fast pitch softball team simply passes the protagonist in an airport, there's no need to single out more than one or two from the group, if any.

But if you're going to zoom in close and spend quite a bit of time with these people, you're in for a challenge.

Some writers plunge right in, unaware of the difficulties. I see this a lot among male writers, or anyone who could be classified as a plot-first novelist (as opposed to a character-first novelist; see Tip #44). These types seem inordinately drawn to this kind of story, whether it's the fantasy army or the B-17 crew or the basketball team.

Their fiction is usually characterized by dozens of characters who all seem identical to the reader. Wait, is Hopkins the one with the glasses or the one from Philly? Everything is apparently straight in the author's mind, but the reader can't tell the players without a program.

As an editor, I sometimes see revisions in which words that had been said by one character in a previous version are now said by another character, and the story isn't affected one bit.

That's a clue for you: if you're able to just change the name tags of your characters and nothing seems wrong afterward, you're in trouble.

Here's an area where movies have it so much easier than novels. All you have to do in a movie is cast two actors and point the camera at them: the viewer can see the difference for herself. Got ten guys in a squad? Just cast ten actors who don't all look the same, and you're golden. In novels, readers don't have the luxury of a constant reinforcement and differentiation between otherwise similar characters.

What's a Body To Do?

I asked several of my published Christian novelist friends how they handle it when writing about groups of similar characters. Here are some of their ideas.

You can create a reporter or investigator character who travels with the group. This person has a story reason to interview and describe and get to know each character in your group.

This trick makes the reader somewhat more tolerant of exposition, because the in-depth description is part of the character's job. It has the side-effect of getting us more than skin deep with your characters. Good idea. It's a good application of the dumb puppet trick (see Tip #21).

You can concentrate on physical differences between the similar characters. It's true that ten soldiers standing in a line might seem identical to the casual observer, but a mother would be able to pick out her son almost instantly.

Each character will have a distinctive way of standing, posture, coloring, build, nose size, eye color, hair texture, beard or shadow thickness, hand size, lip color, haircut, tattoos or scars, complexion, head size, and face shape.

I think this is a good one, though if used alone it might become a little comic: big nose talks to no ear lobe while playing cards with pimple-face. (Also see below about nicknames.)

You can group some of them together in twos or threes. Remember Samneric in Lord of the Flies? It was really Sam and Eric, twin brothers, but they were always together and they finished one another's sentences. It was as if they were one person.

Perhaps you can do that with some of the characters in your group. One book I worked on had "the Irishmen" together in a machine gun team. These were three guys who didn't really need to be differentiated beyond that designation for the purposes of the story.

However, when we start saying that certain groups of people don't need to be well-defined, we need to be careful. (And I'm not meaning to make a statement about racial prejudice here.)

As soon as a novelist thinks it's okay to leave certain characters as caricatures, he's probably stepping into the realm of plot-first writing, which can leave many characters shallow. Which in turn leaves that novelist's fiction probably unpublishable.

You can use rank or status distinctions. If you're writing about a military team, there will be a variety of ranks within the group. These can help differentiate your characters. But even if your team isn't military, there will be variations in tasks, roles, and leadership positions within the group. There are bosses and flunkies, freelancers and lifers, the new kid and the office floozy.

A volleyball team has a team captain, the starters, the hitters, the setters, the back row specialists, the blockers, and the jump servers. Not to mention the coach, equipment boy, team doctor, etc. This can help you make distinctions and find sub-groups within the larger group.

You can use nicknames for your characters. You've got Gunny and Cookie and Sarge and LT. Why not make up creative nicknames for your characters?

Speaking of volleyball, many years ago I went to a volleyball tournament with a team of older guys who needed a sixth player for the weekend. The team's organizer was a guy who didn't seem to feel the need to learn anyone's name. He much preferred to make up nicknames for us all.

It was hysterical, really, and revealed a lot about his character. Maybe he had trouble with his memory so he made things easier for himself by using nicknames. Maybe he felt out of control in his life and compensated by renaming everyone and categorizing them according to his preferences.

So we all had nicknames, things like Red, Slick, Junior, Hippie, and Grandpa. I think the team captain was the only one allowed to go by his real name.

A variation of this is to let the viewpoint character "tag" people with de facto nicknames. Clarice went to a party in which The Lady with the Hair was stuck talking to Loud Guy. Over here we had Dixie and Trixie babbling on about makeup, and sitting alone in the corner was Sad Guy, thinking about nihilism.

You could come up with nicknames to help the reader differentiate multiple similar characters in your story. They can do double duty by letting your viewpoint character reveal her personality by the names she gives.

You can use a prop or a habit to help differentiate characters. Maybe one girl is always eating gummy bears. Maybe another always carries a romance novel under her arm. Another might constantly twirl her hair. Another might smell of garlic. Another might always wear pink.

Many beginning actors like to have props anyway. It gives them something to do with their hands. From a fiction perspective, a prop or habit gives the novelist some built-in beats (see Tip #31) to help remind the reader who this is.

Remember Edward James Olmos's character in Blade Runner? Creepy detective guy named Gaff. He always folded little origami creatures. There's a key moment late in the film when we don't know who did something, but we find a little origami unicorn on the floor and we immediately know who it was. Consider giving your characters a prop or distinctive habit.

Okay, that's all for this time. These are all very good ideas, and you should use one or more of them if you're writing a story with many similar characters.

In the next Tip I'll detail what I think is the very best way to differentiate multiple characters who are otherwise so similar as to be indistinguishable to the reader.

Because I do not wish thee to be vexed.

Tip #90: Learn To Differentiate Similar Characters—Part 2

Last time I gave some strategies for helping the reader tell the difference between multiple characters who are basically the same. This time I'll give what I consider the most important method for doing so.

As I mentioned, filmmakers have it easy when accomplishing this. All they have to do is point the camera at the similar characters and the viewer has constant reinforcement about who is who.

However, even in film and TV this is sometimes difficult. There are two women in The Lake House who seem identical to me, even after multiple viewings (Shohreh Aghdashloo and Willeke van Ammelrooy). I think the casting director made a mistake to cast them both in the same film, especially since they're both in motherly roles for our heroine.

There's a reason actors are cast not only for their acting abilities but also for how they look beside the rest of the cast. In a show like Band of Brothers you have to do all you can to make sure the guys look different.

If it's difficult to tell these people apart in a movie, what's a novelist to do?

The first thing to do is to not get into this situation in the first place, if you can avoid it. Try to cast a woman in a group that you originally had thought of as a trio of men. Cast a child or a very old man or someone of a different race. Do what you can to avoid scenarios in which you have multiple people that the reader will have trouble telling apart.

But sometimes the story you choose will force you to have these similar folks together in the story.

If that's the case, you must know your characters inside and out.

A Test of Character

If you've read this column very long you know how much emphasis I put on developing solid, three-dimensional characters for your fiction. I consider weak characters to be one of the three cardinal sins of bad fiction (with telling and POV errors).

I feel so strongly about this that I've put together a system to help any novelist, no matter how difficult characters are to create for him, produce realistic characters for his fiction. Check it out here.

So, even if your novel doesn't include several characters the reader will have a hard time telling apart, you should be sure you've done your character work. But if your novel does have several similar characters, it's doubly important that you know them.

If you don't know them, the reader won't have a prayer.

There's a saying in preaching: "If it's a haze in the pulpit it's a fog in the pew." In other words, if the giver of the information doesn't have it straight, the receiver of the information will be utterly confused.

If you don't know (or care) who the people are in your story, the reader certainly won't.

When it comes to writing a story with several similar characters, you must know them all even better than in a story in which there are no such similarities.

As I mentioned last time, "plot-first novelists" tend to gravitate to the kind of story I'm talking about. Which can be a problem, because plot-firsters generally don't care about their characters, not as compared to the story, anyway. For them, sometimes characters are there merely to get killed to give the hero a justification to get vengeance, and thus propel the plot.

So it's already like pulling teeth to get these writers to do any homework on their characters at all, much less to do the amount of work my system requires. And then to tell them that they have to do that times two for each of the similar characters in their book...? Many of them would just rather not.

Which is fine. Sure. No problem. They just can't complain when reviewers say all their characters seem the same. This Tip applies only to those novelists who desire to raise their fiction above the level of mediocrity. Everyone else can skip it.

If you know your characters as well as you need to to pull this off, the differences between them will become apparent to the reader.

Not immediately, perhaps, but eventually. If you've got their personalities distinct in your mind, the differences will come out on the page.

So be tolerant of a few pages of similarity before the characters' distinctive personalities emerge for the reader. You don't necessarily have to make them perfectly distinctive on the first page they're onstage (though a Tip #15 intro that distinguishes them would be nice).

Just as you would eventually learn to know the difference between twin sisters, so the reader will eventually learn to tell the difference between multiple characters who seem otherwise the same. So long as they really do have distinctive personalities.

See how we're back to doing your character work?

The trick to helping the reader tell the difference between multiple similar characters is to know that difference yourself.

I'm talking more than different attitudes or hairstyles or hobbies. I'm talking essential personality cores, the kind of thing you'll develop with a good character creation book or system.

How She Said It

So you've learned your characters so well you can tell them apart the minute they step onstage or open their mouths. Excellent! Now help the reader get it as well.

While the filmmaker has the camera and microphone to constantly reinforce for the viewer what this character is like, the novelist does not.

The novelist can describe what the character is wearing, for instance, but the reader does not receive constant reminders about what she's wearing every time she speaks. The camera provides a continuous stream of reminders, but the novel does not (or had better not!).

So what's the novelist to do? You know your characters, so you're sure the difference will manifest itself eventually. But if only you could have at your disposal something akin to the filmmaker's constant reminder.

Well, you do. It's called dialogue.

How the character speaks is the novelist's means of keeping that character's distinctiveness always before the reader's eyes.

What he says, how he says it, what he talks about, presence or absence of humor, level of diction, vocabulary choice, mastery of English, use of parenthetical phrases, use or absence of word pictures, malapropisms, and regional colloquialisms all help build the gestalt of any person's distinctive way of speaking.

This is beyond the quality of a person's voice, notice, though that is part of it.

How the character speaks reveals who the character is. It reveals her personality, interests, education, and even intelligence.

So pull a Henry Higgins on your characters and examine how "an Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him."

As soon as a character opens his mouth in your novel, it ought to be (or become) clear to the reader who it is who is speaking.

The manner of a person's speaking is the window to his soul, as perhaps Jesus meant when He said that what proceeds out of a person's mouth is the truest glimpse into his heart (Matthew 15:11).

The way a character speaks is to your fiction what a camera shot of the character speaking is to cinema.

Now, does that mean you need to go stereotypical and shallow in your dialogue writing? Do you need the surfer dude, the Oxford graduate, the Mexican immigrant, and the escapee from the '50s in order to make your characters sound different? Please, no.

My character creation system, and other systems besides, will help you figure out how each character in your book will and should speak. Speech is an outgrowth of who this character is at her essence.

You must keep developing your characters until you can know how their personalities reveal themselves in their speech. When you know that, when you can tell the difference between them simply by reading a line of dialogue, you're ready to bring those characters onstage.

So it really does go back to character. You can do all the techniques listed in Tip #89, and you can try to avoid these situations in the first place, and you can try other ideas: like bringing new characters on in ones and twos, as opposed to all at once, in order to give your reader a handle on some before being asked to learn all of them.

But in the end, the best way to be sure your reader can differentiate between multiple characters who are otherwise very similar is to know your characters so well you can tell who is who simply by what comes out when they open their mouths.

Want More Tips?

Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.