Writing without Words

Wait a minute here. Writing is using words, isn’t it? Yes, but it’s also more than that.

Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue. When they talk about the script for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue. Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together—the beauty of a sentence.

When people speak of Shakespeare’s work, they almost always talk about the beauty of the language.

These are all forms of visible ink. This term refers to writing that is readily seen by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.

But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the tellers point is also writing. Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing.

These are all forms of invisible ink, so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story. More to the point, it is the story. Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it.

—Brian McDonald, Invisible Ink, Chapter One. All quoted text is copyright original author. Emphasis mine.

Yesterday I started reading Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald. It was incredibly difficult to put down, and if I hadn’t had house guests that afternoon, I would have finished it in one sitting. Today I finished it.

I’ve read A LOT of books on writing. I own a bookcase—not just one or two shelvesfilled with books on the subject, and I have read dozens more. Most books repeat what others have said before them. Never have I read a book on storytelling that has so much original content as Invisible Ink. There were several subjects from the book of which I had not heard before, or had not seen explained well until reading the book.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the wisdom McDonald, who often consults for Pixar, offers in Invisible Ink:

  • Writing is more than just the words on the page.
  • The Seven Easy Steps to a Better Story
  • Establish the story’s reality at the beginning.
  • The idea of your story (sometimes referred to as “theme”) is the armature of your story.
  • Every moment in the story should illustrate the idea—otherwise it is superfluous. “Every decision you make should be based on the idea of dramatizing your armature idea.” (Chapter 3)
  • “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” (Chapter 3)
  • Jokes can teach you a thing or two about structure and set up.
  • The use of “clones” is a tool that master writers use to show, not tell, their idea.
  • Each character needs to serve a purpose in the story. Comic relief is not a purpose.
  • Have characters experience their own personal hell. It will make them better people.
  • Speak the truth, not the facts.
  • The best stories have “masculine” and “feminine” parts. Physical action and plot (“masculine”) as well as emotional truth (“feminine”).
  • The best stories transcend genre—anyone can enjoy them.
  • Don’t write subplots. Write supporting plots.
  • “You are a slave to your story, not a master.” (Ch. 5)
  • Think of the audience (Address and Dismiss, Address and Explain, Superior Position), but don’t bring attention to yourself as writer.
  • Once you pay attention to theme, you’ll see what works and what doesn’t in other stories.

This is an outstanding book and fast read. Grab a copy and read it. Highlight the head-scratchers. McDonald gives really great examples of his points using movies and books. Think theme isn’t important? Think morals in books are preachy? Check out Invisible Ink, and chances are McDonald will show you why your favorite stories have made such an impression on you.

Until Friday, dear readers.

Short Fiction vs Novels AND ALSO…Setting

First, a little bit about my background. Then, the difference between Short Stories and Novels. Last, a word about writing setting, and why it’s more important than I thought. Skip around if you want. I won’t be offended.

my writing background

If you’d asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have had one of three answers: 1) goalie in the NHL, 2) marine biologist, or 3) actress.

1—I grew up in the desert of Colorado and none of my friends wanted to play street hockey with me.

2—As a child I was deathly afraid of whales. They still totally creep me out.

3—Seemed most viable.

Problem was, this tiny little town I grew up in had very little culture, very few opportunities for me to pursue theater until it was introduced in 8th grade as an elective. Until that point, I read Shakespeare and wrote my own scripts. Writing was a means to an end.

My eighth grade year, my school also finally included a creative writing elective. It wasn’t much, but it was my first real instruction in writing, and it was short stories. I learned that writing could be its own reward.

I continued taking creative writing in high school and decided to major in writing in college (my grandparents, who helped me pay my tuition at this private liberal arts university, forbade me from majoring in the arts. Writing I got away with because I could train as a technical writer). Halfway through my junior year, I changed my major to a combination of writing and graphic design. That choice meant I had to give up some writing classes, and one that I gave up was “Writing of Place.”

I thought it was a good choice at the time. When reading, I usually skimmed or completely skipped paragraphs of exposition, unless I REALLY liked the book and was determined to read every. single. word. Setting seemed secondary to the rest of the novel. Who wants to read twelve paragraphs about how undulating the hilly landscape is? Not I.

Sometimes I just wished that all books were illustrated…

When writing skits or plays, I don’t have to write setting—I can write a line or two and leave the rest to the set designer. Setting was an afterthought.

I have a problem few others share. Most writers write too much and then have to edit, edit, edit, edit to trim the fat. I write a skeleton of a story and then revise and revise to give it some more fat.

So it comes as no surprise that, when I decided to try NaNoWriMo a few year’s back, I got about 3,000 words into my novel and realized that I was about halfway through the plot. That’s not a novel. That’s a pathetic, anemic excuse for a novel. I learned then that a novel is in a completely different league than short stories (not to mention plays).

the difference between novels and short fiction

First, there’s a difference in length.

  • Length—Novels are longest, novellas are shorter, and short stories are shortest. See the numbers below for my recommendations. For more information, check out this post on Novel-Writing-Help.com
    • Novel                  80,000–100K words
    • Novella               20,000–50,000 words
    • Short Fiction    2,500–10,000 words
    • Flash Fiction     fewer than 1,000 words

With all those extra words, novels have more room to explore…more.

There’s a difference in scope.

  • CHARACTERS—Short stories usually focus on one or two characters. Novels often introduce a larger cast of protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters, and minor characters.
  • PLOT—Novels have longer, more complex plots. Short stories have to be simpler than novels because of the length constraint. However, I think there’s more freedom with short stories because they have a selective plot. Making Shapely Fiction is a great resource on the variety of “shapes” short fiction can take.
  • SETTING—Novels take you to more places, switch scenes more often, or stay in one place through more seasons.

And there’s a difference in depth.

  • CHARACTERS—Novels can explore depth of character in more words. But this can be a pitfall, because it tempts writers to spend far too much time in backstory. Feel free to get carried away during the drafting process, but kill, kill, kill! during revision
  • PLOT—Novels have plots, subplots and twists to keep the reader turning pages. Short stories usually focus on one plot line.
  • SETTING—A more generous word count means novels spend more time exploring setting. 


Too much setting, and the reader’s eyes glaze over and they skip a few paragraphs. Too little setting, and you have a novel that no one can connect with because all they can visualize is a bunch of nobodies floating around in nothingness doing nothing. Unless you are Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot, it’s not going to work. In fact, I think that Waiting for Godot is a waste of ink.

You really don’t want to know what I know about writing setting because…I really have no idea what I’m doing yet. But the best resource I have yet found on the subject is “Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life” by Moira Allen. You can read it here. Yes, the website isn’t the prettiest, but the text is what is important.


So here’s your Monday Motivation.

  1. Take a character you know fairly well. Your WIP’s protagonist, your favorite fictional character, yourself, etc.
  2. Choose a mood for your character. Angstful? Annoyed? Embarrassed? Lonely? Something else?
  3. Pick a setting/situation and place your character in it.
  4. What is happening? How does your character react? What does your character notice? Keep his or her mood in mind—how we feel influences what we see and what we do.
  5. Write until you feel satisfied that you learned something or challenged yourself.

The 8 C’s of Plotting: The Ending

This is Part 7 of The 8 C’s of Plotting. Click here for the whole series on the 8 C’s. Or click the image below to be taken to the General Fiction Feed.

Today is Act Three, the Action, Curve ball, Final Battle, Culmination, and Resolution. If this is your first time joining us, be sure to start at the beginning with Part One.

Last week we rounded up Act Two with C6—the Comprehension, which is the turning point, the awakening, the glimmer of hope, the renewed motivation. It is basically this moment:

The hero (protagonist) got a near-fatal blow at the end of Act Two, but is now getting up and wiping off the blood, ready to either finish off the bad guy or die trying.


So Act 3 begins with Action and ends with resolution, the new sense of normalcy. See the dotted line in the chart below? That’s the Normalcy line. Upward movement is progress, and downward movement is chaos.

Action is determination to fight back. If the collapse (C5) brought a death, the action might be revenge. It’s whatever happens as a result of the comprehension (C6).

Update: I detail the whole third act of Toy Story here. You’ll see that the “action” section is full of problems and obstacles for the protagonist(s) to overcome!

Simba, ready for action:

In movies, the action to curveball (C7) to final battle to culmination (C8) might only last a few minutes, with more time devoted to the resolution. Unlike some strict proponents of the 3-Act structure, I say: if you have all the stops in the right order, you can decide where you take a rest stop, where you spend the night, and where you drive straight through.

(Highlight between brackets to reveal SPOILERS)

In The Lion King, [Simba climbs back up from the cliff; Simba makes Scar reveal the truth to lionesses; the fight between the lionesses and hyenas begins; “They call me MISTER PIG” flash to Timon and Pumbaa fighting other enemies; Simba corners Scar, who begs for mercy].

In the novelization of The Hunger Games, [Katniss finds Peeta, she nurses him back to health. Katniss goes to the “feast.” The remaining tributes are eliminated except for Cato, Katniss, and Peeta.]

C7—Curve Ball

The Curve ball isn’t strictly necessary, but it will give your third act some interest between the Comprehension and Culmination.

In a tragedy, this C is a bit different. Either way, the C7 is the inverse of the Final Battle and .

Here’s the curve ball, in a nutshell:

  • It’s a surprise twist for the hero, the reader, or both.
    • Sometimes readers know what’s coming before the protagonist. Fewer times, the protagonist (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) knows what’s coming before the reader.
  • It’s an unexpected obstacle the hero must overcome, most likely with help from friends. Think Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
  • It’s a reminder that the hero is still fighting a worthy/evil opponent. A dad chopping off his son’s hand with a lightsaber. The hero’s girlfriend jumping in front of him, taking the bullet instead.
In The Lion King, [Scar flings embers into Simba’s eyes]
In The Hunger Games, [One word: Muttations]

Final Battle

Okay, “Final Battle” is a bit of a misnomer, because in some cases, the entire Third Act is the “final battle” and the stuff between C7 and C8 is more like the “final face-off” or a “final exam.” So…


Final Face-off / Final Exam

Here it is: the climactic scene.

Spotlight on just the protagonist and antagonist—forget about the other characters for just a minute. Chances are, they are watching this unfold anyway. Especially if the bad guy is Voldemort and won’t let any one else lay a finger on Harry Potter.

In The Lion King, the face off is in slow motion. Then Simba [flings Scar down to the hyenas].

In The Hunger Games, [Katniss and Peeta fight Cato on the Cornucopia. They throw him off, and he’s attacked by the muttations. Katniss’ mercy kill. Announcement that there can only be one winner, after all. Berries. (Note: The announcement could also be considered the curveball. It certainly is the curveball in the movie. But in the novel, the realization that the Capitol turned the dead tributes into mutants was certainly an emotional curveball for Katniss.)]

In movies, the final face-off might be less than a minute, like it is with The Lion King. In some movies—and nearly all books, as far as I can tell—the face-off is its own plot within a plot. As in The Hunger Games, there’s a beginning, middle, and end, complete with rising action, climax, falling action, and even a twist.

For stories without a face-off between the protagonist and a “Big Bad,” I call this the “Final Exam”. Read about the Final Exam in the character-driven film Toy Story here.


If the final battle is it’s own mini-story, then the resolution of that story is the culmination. Put into other words, if the final battle is the climactic scene, then the culmination is the climactic moment. Somebody needs to lose. To be more black and white: either the Hero wins, or the Hero dies. Dying can be figurative. Don’t be afraid of gray areas, just stay away from muddy areas.

If it can’t be stated in one, short sentence, it isn’t the culmination.

Lion King: [The hyenas devour Scar.]

Hunger Games: [Capitol changes its mind:Okay, okay—there can be two winners.]


The new normal. The word “new” is important because the cast will never return back to the way things were. If the protagonist didn’t change throughout the story, it’s not much of a story. Personally, I don’t like the word “normalcy,” but it has the right sort of connotations. Life might not be the same, but life goes on.

The Lion King: [Simba roars, claiming throne. Rain. Hyenas leave, the valley turns green again.]

The Hunger Games: [Peeta and Katniss are celebrated as victors, but there is a rift between them, and the Capitol is not happy.]

Writers get bonus points if the ending matches up with the WATCH element from the Opening.

Optional: The Epilogue

The epilogue ties off any story strings that were left after the resolution. Usually the epilogue requires a shift in time, setting, or point of view. Otherwise lingering scenes are still part of the main resolution sequence.

Since The Hunger Games is the first book of a trilogy, there’s no epilogue, and the resolution doesn’t tie up all loose ends. If it did, then people wouldn’t HAVE TO read the other books.

But in Disney movies, there is often an epilogue. We want to know if the sweethearts get married. So, in The Lion King, there is an epilogue: [Look! Simba and Nala have a baby. The Circle of Life continues.]

Toy Story has a sort-of epilogue—the resolution contains a Christmas scene, but the ending still leaves room for sequels. Lots of sequels.

Thus ends the series on the 8 C’s of plotting! For now, anyway.

(Further reading on plot and story structure can be found here)

If you have questions, I’ll answer them in the comments or create another post in the series.

I’m currently researching series novels and movies and how their plots work. By researching, I mean I’m reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies. Today, while I was watching clips of The Lion King, my husband asked me what I was doing.

“Research,” I said.

“I want to watch movies for research.

“You can watch movies for my research.”

We’ll see if he obliges. In the meantime, what is the next FICTION WRITING TOPIC I should cover on the blog? What do you want to learn about? What do you want me to learn about?

If you want me to learn how to NOT use clichés in my blog, then I will apologize. One, I know how to avoid clichés. Two, this is a blog, so I’m going to be conversational. Three, clichés are handy ways to be concise without trying too hard. Four, the purpose of my blog is not to blow readers away with how creative or literary I can be. The purpose is to describe and discuss elements of writing in plain, conversational English.

The 8 C’s of Plotting: Confrontation to Comprehension

This is Part 6 of The 8 C’s of Plotting. Click here for the whole series on the 8 C’s. Or click the image below to be taken to the General Fiction Feed.

Since last week’s post was a bit late, I’m going to round out the rest of Act 2 today. Buckle up; it’s a lot of new stuff.

Last week we talked about Preparation and Problems, the longest section of the book. We also mentioned a thing or two about Pinch Points.

As you may have noticed, the 8 C’s is based loosely on the 3-Act structure, but there are differences. If you’d like the 3-Act structure broken down into a list of terms and regulations, read Larry Brooks’ posts on StoryFix (while I think his blog is valuable, I will say he tends to ramble, and the last time I visited the site, navigating from post to post was about as easy as scrambling up a fireman’s pole).

I’ve read literally hundreds of blog posts and articles and books about the 3-Act structure, yet I was still dissatisfied to the point of creating my own method. Why? The Midpoint. No one can seem to pinpoint it exactly. There are varying definitions: It’s an epiphany, it’s a change in tactics, it’s the turning point or “point of no return.” Yet people will take a book or movie and argue what the midpoint is. Or, if you are in a literature class looking at Freytag’s Pyramid, what the CLIMAX is. Note, the climactic scene—the highest point of tension at the end of a novel—isn’t the midpoint.

Basically, whenever people talk about the midpoint, they are really just telling you this:

Make sure something interesting happens in the middle of your book, or the plot will sag in the middle.

And whenever they talk about pinch points, they mean this:

Remind the reader about the ANTAGONISTIC FORCE, you know, so they don’t forget. And also to keep the story moving.

I talk more about pinch points in part 5, also.

Blogs like Larry Brooks’ will give you exact places to put the midpoints and two major pinch points: Pinch Point I at 37.5% (3/8ths), Midpoint IN THE MIDDLE, Pinch Point II at 62.5% (5/8ths). Adhere to that if you wish. I probably will whether I intend to or not. But plenty of novelists and screenwriters will throw things around at earlier or later points in the story, and they are just fine. But note, certain strict adherents might blog about your straying from the holy percentage points.

Bottom line: somewhere around the halfway point, make the protagonist change tactics or realize a new goal. In Tangled, the midpoint is the elation, when Rapunzel finally gets to see the lights and realizes that being Flynn’s honey is her new goal. In The Hunger Games, the collapse is the midpoint.

If you want guidelines to shoot for, then take your target word count for age and genre, and apply these percentage points: Change, 10%; Complication, as early as 18%, no later than 25%; Pinch Point I at 37–38% (during Preparation & Problems); Elation or Collapse at 50%; Comprehension somewhere between 70–80% (see below); Final Battle from 90% to 99%.

It’s fine to stray from these targets! Think of the 8 C’s as an accordion. You can stretch or shrink as needed.

Now let’s get back to the 8 C’s.


Like the explosive C-4, the Confrontation is pretty perilous. And like its name suggests, it’s the first confrontation between the protagonist and the [capital-A] Antagonist after the protagonist has prepared and acquired skills and allies in preparation & problems. If your protagonist is a boxer, the confrontation will be the last match in the semi-finals.

I say “Capital-A Antagonist” because in the preparation and problems sequence of events, your protagonist(s) will face a number of antagonists and antagonistic forces. The Confrontation is the “First Battle” with whichever antagonist they will face-off with in the Final Battle.

In The Hunger Games, the confrontation is a physical confrontation between protagonist and antagonist: [the Tracker Jacker scene, when Katniss is stuck up in a tree and the Careers are waiting to kill her below]

(Highlight between brackets to reveal SPOILERS)

In The Lion King, Simba is confronted by an antagonistic force, when we are reminded of his inner conflict: [Simba meets Rafiki, sees vision of Mufasa, who tells him, “Remember who you are.”] 

The confrontation ends with a KO—a knock out. Or maybe a TKO, a technical knock out.  Either way, your protagonist wins, propelling them into…


The victory celebration. This is the moment of the protagonist’s greatest confidence, hope, or pleasure. (You can probably guess what happens in the romance genre during the elation!)

Endorphins are surging. In The Lion King, the Confrontation was the midpoint, when Simba decides to stop running from his past and run TOWARD it, backed up by a motivating Swahili chant.

This is the elation scene, and it lasts less than twenty seconds.


In The Hunger Games, the elation segment is a bit longer, which is a nice relief for us readers, who have been on the edge of our seats, getting paper cuts from turning pages so quickly. It’s when Katniss allies with Rue and makes a plan [to blow up the Careers’ stash of food].

Happiness is…making allies with fellow tributes

However long the Elation lasts is up to you. Decide how much relief the reader needs after the confrontation and before being trampled by the…


This is the near-fatal blow to the protagonist. The boxer gets punched in the face and falls to the canvas.

(Major Spoiler) In The Hunger Games, [Rue is killed by another tribute].

In The Lion King, we learn a tip about the Collapse: foreshadow its coming with setting and atmosphere. A few scenes before the collapse, we see the current state of Pride Rock, and it looks like this:

Later, it starts raining with thunder and lightning. You might not be able to control the soundtrack for your novel—your readers may be listening to Miley Cyrus, for all you know—but you can control the mood of the novel with word choice and atmosphere.

The collapse in The Lion King is when Simba sees firsthand the consequence of his leaving, and what is at stake if he fails, when he witnesses [Scar hitting Sarabi, Simba’s mother].

The collapse reminds the audience what the protagonist stands to lose.

Depending how severe the collapse is, you may end your chapter on it. Just be careful that it is a cliffhanger that keeps the reader reading. If it’s a real sock to the gut, then you’ll need at least a glimmer of hope for the reader before the chapter ends, so he or she knows all hope isn’t lost. Sometimes writers add a cliffhanger directly before the near-fatal blow, delivering that sucker-punch in the first line of the next chapter. THAT will definitely keep your reader going, since they know it isn’t the end of the story!


The gloom is whatever follows the collapse, and can be long and drawn out or just a few sentences. Either things can get worse, and they do, or they can’t possibly get any worse. The Princess Bride chooses the former route. Buttercup and Westley hit their elation when they survive the Fire Swamp together as a couple. They are separated in the collapse. For Westley and Buttercup, things only get worse: [He’s tortured to death, and she’s forced to marry the nasty Prince]. Meanwhile, William Goldman takes the opportunity to give lavish backstory on Inigo and Fezzik, to the point that the “Gloom” is the longest section of the original novel. Yet it works! See, there is freedom.

In The Hunger Games, we see what the gloom serves to do when the collapse is pretty brutal. In cases such as these, the gloom should:

  1. allow the protagonist to react to or grieve the collapse, and
  2. provoke the protagonist (and reader) to move on with a new determination

We see both in The Hunger Games when [Katniss buries Rue and grieves for her] and  [Katniss recognizes that The Capitol was the real killer (Pinch Point 2)].

In the gloom of The Lion King, Simba has to face his problems and its consequences: [He tells the lionesses that he was to blame for Mufasa’s death. Then Scar calls him a murderer and backs him off a cliff. “This looks familiar”].

Summary: The gloom is the natural outplay of whatever happens in the Collapse. It is primarily reaction and is a great opportunity to spend some time in other viewpoints or on the B story. The protagonist can only make progress towards the goal again after the comprehension.


This one’s big. It’s the Awakening, either figuratively or physically. When all hope seems to be lost, the Hero learns new information, regains consciousness, or gets help from someone or -thing.

Comprehension aligns pretty nicely with Plot Point II,* and it’s what ends the second act. It’s the BIG turning point. Everything after this is the ending. This is the stuff you won’t see in the trailer, because the Comprehension is the thing the writer keeps up a sleeve to deal at the last, best moment.

*Note: in the 3-Act structure, the second Plot Point may be assigned to anything that happens between C5 and C6.

Let’s look at some examples of C6:

In The Princess Bride, [Westley is resurrected.]

In The Lion King, [Scar says, “I killed Mufasa.”]

In The Hunger Games, [there can be two winning tributes.]

That wraps up Act II! Next week we will talk about endings.