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Why? Because we all do.

Everybody lies at some point in their life. So should your characters.

Maybe you have a character who lies all the time and doesn’t even know they’re doing it, like one of the world’s great pathological liars, Blanche DuBois, of Tennessee Williams‘, A Streetcar Named Desire. She’s desperately tortured and flawed, and there is no richer loam for creating life-like beings who tantalize us and endure, to say nothing of making for classic roles pursued by the best actors.

There are also levels of using lying as well as types of liars. Some characters might do nothing but lie to advance a specific goal, something you usually find in plot-driven genres such as Thrillers and Mysteries. Lies can drive a plot or can be used for creating a second act reversal in a screenplay or plot twist in a novel.

Some characters lie on the deepest levels – to themselves – which initiates painful inner dissonance and thereby creates the inner drama that great writing requires. I’m thinking more literary fiction and scripted dramas here, which certainly includes our dear Blanche. Literary fiction also loans itself to the flip side of the lie, when a character is challenged by what they feel is true and it is the world that lies to them, such as Carissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway.

See where I’m going with this? Knowing what kind of liar your protagonist is and their relationship to falsehoods spun adds muscle and connective tissue to the skeleton of your character.

Some characters might lie for intellectual speculation and entertainment, such as the billionaire manipulator, Maurice Conchis, in The Magus by John Fowles. That character went to great lengths to sustain a string of lies; no illusion too costly or elaborate, and for no reason other than to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about human behavior. The lies of Conchis become a frustrating maze for the narrator/protagonist whose adult life has been shaped by a deep and persistent pattern of lying to himself. In The Magus,  lies reflect character motive and arc while driving the plot entirely. This method of weaving a tale made the truth revealed at the end all the more dramatic.

Maybe you have a character who is like most of us: not above bending the truth to save someone’s feelings, avoid judgment or to elude anticipated punishment should the truth be revealed, yet who essentially believes in candor and strives for honesty with others. In this case, can a white lie lead to real trouble?

Conversely, a character may set high stock on always being honest, wherein the act of lying has a deeper trigger and meaning and must be foresworn, even at great cost. In this sense, there is opportunity to put that character into a situation where they MUST lie, for whatever loaded reason, or suffer unbearable consequences. For a resolutely honest character, a lie can be an arc, inciting incident and/or plot twist.

So, the next time you’re building a character, doing back story to help you know them better, ask yourself:  what kind of liar is this character? Is it a big deal if they lie? Or does it roll out of them second nature, like a con artist? Are they emotionally invested in their lies? Do they consciously choose to lie, or is it pathological? What are they protecting or advancing when they lie? Are they good or bad at it? Will their lies backfire? How do their lies affect the secondary characters? And so on. This is a revealing thread to pull…

If your story is populated with mostly honest people but you want to write gripping dialogue (and who doesn’t?), ask yourself what each character really wants during the scene, and how they will lie or withhold information about that to the other/s. This will help you avoid any “on the nose” dialogue (where people say exactly what they want and mean), which can come across as wooden and (ironically) false.

I’m not saying that you need to create an entire premise based on lies alone, although playwright David Mamet would say it’s been done, as would author John Le Carre and screenwriter/director Chris McQuarrie, to name only a few.

Defining how your characters’ lies shape them and how you can use the act of lying to develop your plot might seem counter-intuitive, given how we seek to strike notes of honesty, to write from our guts, but this exercise will open entirely new perspectives AND DEPTH in your work.

Would I lie to you?  😉


She stood at the top of the hill by a giant oak as the setting, Georgia sun turned the impossibly red hills to an even deeper shade of rust. She bent over and clutched a handful of the rich loam, so cool against her palm, and understood that what she held in her hand was the very reason she struggled – and worth any price. In spite of the odds and her many defeats, she straightened as her will pushed all else away. Surrender had never been an option.

Her once-fine clothes tattered and her small frame thinner than ever, she trembled and shook her fist of dirt at the sky, crying out with every ounce she had, “As God is my witness! I will never go hungry again!”

* * * * * *

I’m paraphrasing a famous scene from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. (I’m sure most of you got that before I confessed). It was chosen for its ease of recognition, for its universality.

I rewrote the scene above from memory and not as direct quotation because that part is not important. What is important is that the intimacy, immediacy and emotional impact of the scene is so good that it allowed me to remember and re-create it. We remember scenes like this. We relate to her emotion. That’s why this particular scene from Mitchell’s book has been re-translated, copied, aped and mimed by others since it was first written.

Gone with the Wind is an epic story of the American Civil War told through the intimate lens of a driven, spoiled and iron-willed Southern Belle fighting for her survival in the thick of it, and at a time when women were highly restricted by their complete dependence on the men in their lives. Her world is complex. There is society and then – there is The War. Chaos not only reigns, it comes crashing through her foyer, and what doesn’t she chases after in layered petticoats. You might not like Scarlett O’Hara or some of the choices she makes, but you are drawn to her for her daring and her will – you feel her.

This brings me to the topic of writing an epic. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve gotten into conversations with other writers where, as soon as the writer confesses to working on an epic, they get this look on their face that says, “Did I bite off more than I can chew?” There’s a good reason for that. The scope of an epic can fan the heat of doubt in many good writers.

So, let’s say you’re writing an epic and it feels like it’s gotten away from you. How do you break it down and move it forward? Think like a painter.

  • The epic is your backdrop. This is best dealt with through your narrative thread. Here is fertile ground for craft in your prose, and big brush strokes. Put your best verse forward.
  • Your characters, as they live through and within momentous times, are your foreground and emotional touchstone. We get personal here, and as emotionally real as you can manage. Dig deep. This is why Hemingway said, “Writing is easy. Just sit in front of the typewriter and bleed.”  Creating back-story on all your characters is essential for knowing their inner-landscapes. When you know your characters like you know your friends and family – or yourself, if you are brave enough – you can deliver a story that others can feel, which frequently is what defines a story’s odds for success.
  • Do your characters shape the big events of their time through their direct involvement and action/s (knowingly or unknowingly) or are they like Scarlet, buffeted about, and mostly helpless to change the course of the her world? Herein lies the material for your plot.

All great epics feel real and personal. Another good example is the film Reds, directed by and starring Warren Beatty. His character made choices against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, choices that revealed and shaped him. Although he fancied himself “a player,” ultimately, his epic environment humbled him in its scope, and he comes to understand that his actions did little to affect the human surge he found himself within. (Many times in epics, our characters get in over their heads). If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember the scene at the train depot when, having given up all hope, as he is quite literally swept along by the masses, he is miraculously reunited with his love – having finally realized that their feelings for each other were more important than any of his grand schemes. Talk about intimate! It deserved those Oscars.

These are only two examples. Cast around your own reading and viewing experiences to find more epic tales that touch you on a personal level. There are too many to cite herein. Revisit your favorites and study them this time to see how other storytellers have done it well.

Remember, storytelling is an ancient, intimate human experience. Your craft must make the reader care about your story and this cannot happen without characters who touch the reader like breath on their hands as they turn the page.  This goes for both narrative fiction and screenplays.

Whether your story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, during the European Holocaust or at the height of the French Revolution, the best epics feel like close-ups. Craft an “epic sense of place” by putting the bulk of your background where it belongs, in narrative thread. Much of the material you gather from your research comes into play here. Develop plot via your background throwing everything it has at your characters – and with the choices your characters make. Create intimacy and realism through deep knowledge of your characters, like they were family. With these elements, hopefully, your epic can evoke the immediacy and tension it needs to take your readers and/or viewers along with your characters on a Very Big Ride.

Abrazo, bellas

Keep Thinking Big.

You finally finished writing your book. Now what?

In spite of all the hard hours put into it, and the sacrifices made, coming to the end of your manuscript is, for all writers, only the first step toward seeing your work published. Now that you’ve got your manuscript in hand, what do you do?

Most writers pass their manuscripts on to a “trusted reader” or readers. This would be anyone you know who you feel is qualified to give you sincere and honest feedback on your work, and who is willing to commit the time for this. If you are fortunate enough to have this as a resource, make sure you stress your desire for an honest opinion: it will do you no good as a writer if you’re out for nothing but empty praise.

If no friend or loved one qualifies, you might be able to find a reader through mutual support groups with other writers. These can be found through your local writer’s organizations, of which there are several in most major U.S. Cities.

Once you address any glaring issues pointed out to you by reader feedback, you’re ready for a professional edit. So – how do you find one where you live? How do you determine compatibility? How do you know what to expect, both in terms of fees, time and the actual work done?

Here are a few tips for finding your perfect editor:

  • Ask your local writer’s group

Many freelance editors belong to local writing organizations. Finding an editor this way allows you to easily check their reputations, as well as their qualifications.

  • Online search for local help.  Many freelancers have websites. Usually, they will list what they’ve edited in the past or testimonials, any genres that they specialize in, and their rates. (Expect to pay between $4 – $6 per page for line editing cleaned-up manuscripts). Using someone local is reassuring to most writers, although not necessary. Local help gives you the opportunity to assess your comfort level when turning your project over to the hands of someone else. And you can meet in person to discuss any questions or issues your editor finds.
  • Determine your budget.  Many professional editors will work with you to help you achieve your final goal of a manuscript ready to shop. We understand how dear your project is to you, not only in terms of the hours already invested and the hours of promotion ahead, but also with the costs for hiring professional help to bring your manuscript up to a competitive level. Determine how much you can spend each month, and if necessary, ask the editor if they can work within your budget on your project. It might take longer, but you can accomplish the desired goal chapter by chapter, if necessary.
  • How well does your editor write? It’s not unreasonable to ask your editor for samples of their own writing. You want the best possible judgment applied to your own project, and this is a sure-fire way to determine the skill level of your editor.
  • Remain open to initial feedback. I always ask for a sample, the first 20-pages, when first meeting with a new writing client. This allows me to determine whether or not the project is ready for professional editing. Believe it or not, I’ve turned many writers away. This does not mean that the writers in question are not capable of being good, even great, writers. It just means that they either don’t have a cohesive project in hand, their voices are undeveloped, or that they don’t yet possess the skills required to produce a draft that can compete in a highly competitive arena. If this happens to you, do not be discouraged and certainly, don’t stop writing! Keep at it, and save your money for a future edit that will result in a truly viable manuscript. No one wants to waste your time or money, so listen to whatever input your editor gives you, and don’t take it as a judgment of your talent. We see a lot of manuscripts.
  • Get it in writing.  Any editor worth their fee will insist on a contract before commencing work. Remember, you are absolutely within reason to discuss and amend any clauses that make you uncomfortable. A contract is standard, and ensures that both parties are clear on the level of editing work that will be done, deadlines, payment fees and schedules, and editing credits. If your manuscript is topical, i.e., hot in the news, you should ask for a non-disclosure statement, as well. Most editors won’t have a problem supplying you with one. As a rule, a professional editor won’t discuss your work with anyone other than yourself, but if you have any qualms, and it isn’t offered with your contract, feel free to ask for one.

A last word of caution is given for dealing with online companies that offer a flat, standard fee for editing manuscripts: check for complaints. Some people will accept any manuscript, without thought to the readiness or marketability of either the manuscript or the client. These are the folks who charge standard rates without first reviewing the manuscripts in question. They often sink the hook by charging much less than someone else for the equivalent hours of work. Unfortunately, in these cases, you usually get what you pay for, which is a manuscript not much evolved from the original. My advice is that you don’t waste your money on such superficial services. The exception might be with an already solid draft of non-fiction material needing nothing more than corrections in punctuation, table of contents, glossaries and/or final proofreading.

I have a few writers whom I’ve worked with for years now, in multiple genres and on a wide variety of stories. It is definitely worth your time to shop around until you find an editor with whom you feel comfortable, who is honest as well as nurturing to your talents, and who you can develop an ongoing relationship with for all your future writing endeavors.

And remember: even the greatest writers need an editor.

Break a pen!

July 2018
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