Monday, June 20, 2022

The Big Question, Part 2


The second level is the primary character or characters.  The character or characters' struggles reflect that theme, and they must work their way through the plot to find their own answer.

Other characters will reflect elements of the question in their interaction with the plot.


The third level is the plot itself.  The plot must force the characters to find the answer to that question.

In essence what this boils down to is character equals plot, and plot equals character, and both answer the Big Question. 

All of this sounds rather esoteric with the result being a morality play, but it isn't, really.  What you are doing is creating a skeleton to build your story on that will give it depth.

The Big Question is one you ask yourself as you develop the story, but the reader may never be aware of it in a conscious way.

The really important thing to remember is that you must find a question and a story means of examining the two sides that interests you.  You will be spending a lot of time with this story and its characters, and no book is more unpleasant to write or impossible to finish than one you are either bored with or has major characters you don't like.

We'll look at different places to find a Big Question in the coming blog articles.

Part 1:

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Big Question

 For the next month or so, I’m publishing my workshop, including worksheets, called “The Big Question” where I’ll lead you through one method of going from a simple idea to a complete outline of your novel. Remember that you can ask me questions via the comments under each blog or by hitting reply if you get my content via my .io group.  Enjoy!

The Big Question

How to Create a Powerful Novel

from a Few Ideas and One Big Question


Marilynn Byerly

Have you ever read a story then felt dissatisfied by it as you put it down?  

You thought about the story's elements.  The main characters were likable enough, the story had plenty of action and conflict, the bad guy was suitably bad and powerful enough to be a challenge, and the story ended the way it should, but something was missing. 

That something is often called depth or resonance, and it's that element that turns an ordinary story into one you couldn't put down.   

How do you create a story like that?  It starts with the creation of the story.


A story has three main levels as you create it.  


The first level is the theme or general idea.  It is the simple statement of what the story is about on a large level.  It is the Big Question.  Just a few of these questions are: 

Can illusions about your lover destroy a relationship? (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, THE GREAT GATSBY)  

Will obsession with the past destroy the future? (DAVID COPPERFIELD, MOBY DICK, GONE WITH THE WIND) 

What should you do when society and your own sense of morality clash?  (AVATAR, DANCES WITH WOLVES)

Each question has two sides. For the three examples above, the two sides would be reality versus illusion, living emotionally in the present versus living emotionally in the past, and society/duty versus moral beliefs. 

Here are some of the Big Questions I used with my published novels.

TIME AFTER TIME:  Can illusions about your lover destroy a relationship?  Reality versus illusion

THE GAME WE PLAY: After total betrayal, can a person regain their trust?  Trust versus distrust

THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN: Will obsession with the past destroy the future? Living emotionally in the present versus living emotionally in the past

GUARDIAN ANGEL: What is true nobility?  The commoner prince versus the noble-born frog

A good Big Question must have strong cases on both sides to work.  

If, for example, you choose the Big Question “Is rape acceptable in a romantic relationship?” (rape versus consensual sex) you'd have a hard time making both sides equally strong because most of us in contemporary society find nothing acceptable about rape, and you probably couldn't either.  

Monday, June 6, 2022

Putting Romance into Non-Romances

Romances are allowed the leisure of the characters learning about each other, the back and forth of the relationship, and the build up of plot and emotion to the happily ever after.  That essentially is the plot.  

Non-romances often have a romance subplot, but how does a thriller or suspense writer balance their action and forward plot movement with the slow burn of a romance?

Skilled suspense and thriller writers’ romance plot tends to be what I call insta-love.  The hero and heroine meet because of what's happening, they have an instant emotional and sexual connection with each other that's off the charts, but they focus on what they need to do.  They also gain respect for each other, and the way they interact and their pasts/presents show the possibility of their successful future as a couple.  Sex happens early and as often as the plot allows.  Even thriller characters need to sleep, bandage their boo boos, do some research, and reload their weapons.

Their emotional/romantic problem tends to be very simple.  They have conflicting careers, and one needs to stay while the other needs to go.  Or it can be a bit more complex.  The woman is old money and power, and the other is from a lower middle class background who thinks he is unworthy of her.  His insecurity makes him pull away when he should be moving towards her.  The problem is resolved through talk, a like-duh moment of epiphany, or another character offering a practical solution.  None of it ruins the pace of the thriller or suspense novel.

If you’d like to see how this is done, I recommend two masters of this technique— Heather Graham and Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick.

Monday, May 30, 2022

How Many Viewpoints?

 QUESTION: How many viewpoint characters can I use? And must I have the bad guy’s point of view?

The point of view character or POV is writing jargon for the person whose head you are inside during a scene in fiction. With the exception of omniscient viewpoint novels, all current genre novels have only one character’s POV at a time.

The number of point-of-view characters you use in a novel depends on genre needs as well as the story you have to tell. If your choice of POVs isn't mandated by the market, you use the number of POVs you need. 

In STAR-CROSSED, I used six POVs because my story and world building were so complex, and the novel was big enough at around 130,000 words to allow so many characters.  One of the POVs was my villain.  

The problem with multiple point of views is that some readers have trouble keeping track of the characters, or the pacing is slowed with each new viewpoint as the reader gets into a new head. 

The writer also runs the risk of telling too much with so many viewpoints which can suck the interest and surprises right out of a story.  

I have also created complex suspense plots with only one or two POVs because the plot was so tightly connected that those POVs were enough.  

In a plot where you have an antagonist, you don’t need to include his POV.  The reader will still get a sense of the person because of what he does.  

The main characters are also discovering who or what this person is by following the clues of the crime or the situation.  As the characters learn about this criminal, so does the reader.  

If this person's crimes are methodical, this gives the reader a bit of information about him.  If he cuts off the victims' fingers with a surgical knife, the reader learns something else about him.  

By the time the bad guy is unveiled, the reader should have a very good sense of this character without a POV.  At the moment of unveiling, the reader will usually be given the final pieces of this character's emotional puzzle.

Some writers have trouble writing the bad guys because they are concentrating on the good guys and the plot needs of the novel.  I always suggest that a writer create a summary of the plot from the point of view of the bad guy starting with what leads up to the crime and move from that point to the final unveiling.

The bad guy's choices and his story must be as logical for his personality as the plot choices and story of the main characters.  

Monday, May 23, 2022

Shifting Types of Viewpoint

QUESTION: I want to use first person point of view for my hero, and third person for my other characters. What do you think?

As a rule in popular fiction, you don't switch from first to third POV or vice versa.

Some writers have done this, but many readers and reviewers don't like this because they find it so jarring it knocks them out of the story.

This would be a particularly dangerous for a newer writer who doesn't have the experience and control to handle these changes or the reader's trust that they know what they are doing.

I can't suggest which type of POV to use. Only you can decide on that. Consider your comfort level with the different viewpoints, and the ease of telling the story with that POV. 

With first person, you must also be certain you can hear the main character's voice well enough to stay in that voice for the whole novel. 

If you do decide to write both first and third POV, you should have a very particular reason for it. 


APOLOGY:  A sharp reader pointed out that I am missing one part in my "Keeping the Reader Reading" series.  This was a mistake on my part.  You received the full series.  Count von Count from SESAME STREET is very unhappy with me.  

PUBLISHING CONTRACT WARNING:  Writer Beware and SFWA have issued a warning about a new contract clause in some small publisher contracts which is a copyright grab.

Monday, May 16, 2022

How to Foreshadow

I'm sure you've watched a movie or TV show where a character is getting ready to open a door, and you just know that the killer is waiting for her. You scream, "No, no, don't open that door!"

How do you know something the character doesn't? Part of that is foreshadowing. The filmmaker has given you clues that the character doesn't have.

For a written story, an author doesn't have the luxury of using spooky music or atmospheric lighting, but she does have other tricks to give the reader the same sense of something lurking behind that closed door.

The simplest way to do this is to have more than one viewpoint in your story. For example, one character learns that the killer is going after your heroine, then when you switch to the heroine's viewpoint, the reader will be expecting something bad to happen.

You can also write from the bad guy’s viewpoint to warn the reader what he’s up to.

Another way is to embed a clue that the heroine sees but doesn't recognize as important because she's learning so much and being menaced at the same time. The reader will often pick up on the clue and recognize the danger.

Or your character is more ignorant or innocent than the reader. A child may misunderstand a situation an adult would recognize as dangerous, and the person who refuses to believe a psychopath or monster is lurking will be easy prey in the reader's eyes.

A subtle use of language also works. Stephen King is a master of giving the reader the creeps when nothing appears to be happening but soon will. I recommend his ON WRITING which should be in your local library for more on the subject. A caveat on King: When he says this is the only way to do this, he’s wrong.  What works for one writer might not work for another.  

Genre expectations are an easy way to worry the reader. In a horror novel, the reader is expecting that scare so it takes almost nothing to make her tense as the character opens that door in the empty house that may be the killer's hiding place.

A common use of genre expectations is to set up a scary situation then let it fizzle, and the moment the character and the reader let their guard down, the killer makes his move.

Foreshadowing doesn't have to be about unhappy or dangerous things to come. You can as easily foreshadow happy events. The square shape in the hero's tuxedo jacket pocket may be a diamond engagement ring box, and he and the heroine are dining at a very nice restaurant, after all, so you and the heroine may be guessing which way the meal will end.

As an author, you must lay down the clues so the reader will think the worse or best of coming events.  Let them be just as excited as you are when the movie character starts to open the wrong door.  

Monday, May 9, 2022

Keeping the Reader From Reading

Don't you just hate it when someone keeps reading your book?  

Me, too! 

Here are a few tips on how to stop that reader before the end of the first chapter. Heck, if you do it right, most readers won't read more than a few pages.

1.  Start your story off with

* your main character eating popcorn and watching a movie or TV show in their living room.  Give details of the movie's plot.

*your main character waking up, getting breakfast, and dressing for the day.

*your main character at her workplace or job doing something mundane that has nothing to do with the plot.  Be sure to go into great detail to insure boredom!

*your main character running into a hot former flame but immediately leaving then spending many pages remembering how screwed up their relationship was.  Whatever you do, don’t let those ex-lovers talk about those old times and let sparks fly!

*a prologue that has little to do with the rest of the novel but gives lots of back story the reader will never really need.

*so much information about your world building and character's magical abilities that the reader is totally confused.

*introducing so many characters that the reader becomes hopelessly confused.

2.  Make sure your first chapter has the right percentage of dialogue, narrative, and introspection.  

10% or less:  Narrative which includes action (John flinched as she wagged her finger in his face.), immediate emotional comments (Mary fought her desire to strangle him with his tie.), and description (Clothes littered the room like confetti at a ticker tape parade.).

10% or less:  Dialogue, particularly dialogue that gives information ("I know that Mary murdered John!  I hope they hang her."), shows conflict between characters ("You're a liar.  Mary loved him.  She was framed."),  or moves the story forward.  ("And I'll prove she didn't do it.") 

80%  or more:  The viewpoint character's introspection about the past.  Give that reader back story, internal whining, and emotional navel gazing until she is screaming for mercy and throwing that manuscript down!

3.  Have the main character or characters wander around aimlessly with no goal or motives.

4. Have such poor grammar and spelling that no one can understand half of what you write.

5. Love your writing so much that it is impossible to cut out anything.