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Keeping Secrets

9 March 2015 | No Comments » | Frank Morin

Keeping secretsWithholding information just to mess with your readers doesn’t work. If the character would know something, the reader should know it, particularly if you write in first person or deep-dive third person.

In general, all the major information needs to be revealed by about the three-quarter point of the story. This is the second plot point, and is when the hero learns the last major reveal that launches them into the final showdown, giving them the drive to commit everything in their final attempt to win. That doesn’t mean we can’t have twists and turns and creative solutions, but if your story hinges on a bombshell getting dropped in the final chapter that fundamentally changes everything, chances are the approach will fail.

It’s possible, but tricky. Like other rules – know it before you try to break it. Only by understanding the principles can you twist them.

For example, one movie that worked very well was Sixth Sense. The main character didn’t know he was aSixth Sense ghost until the end. That changed everything about the story. It was a gimmick that worked because of brilliant execution. Unfortunately, once we know the gimmick, the story loses much of its power. The Sixth Sense is fantastic to watch once, or maybe twice. I don’t think I know anyone who has watched it more than that.

Some new writers think they need to withhold information to create suspense, to prepare for a big reveal. Suspense is important, but that’s not the way to do it. Holding back information that the reader should know through the normal flow of the story is a cheap trick and readers find it offensive. It insults their intelligence and it’s poor writing.

The author needs to find a better way.

A new writer might have characters avoid questions that they would naturally want to ask, questions that would force important truths to come out. By not asking those questions, they can withhold the information. This doesn’t work because the readers are asking themselves those questions and they’ll think either your protagonist is an idiot for not asking them, or that you as the author are insulting their intelligence.

Another mistake is for a new writer to try skipping the reveal, but allude to it. “Jane then told Bill something that shattered the foundation of everything he’d ever known. Life would never be the same.”

Well, what was that truth? If we’re in Bill’s head, we need to know it too, or you’ve broken the deep-dive you’ve established. We need consistency, or we drive readers out of the story.

So why not choose to structure their POV so we don’t do a deep-dive into the character’s head? In this way we can keep secrets, right?

Maybe. But that deep dive is a huge draw for readers. By creating distance between the reader and the character, it’s harder for readers to connect and empathize and root for the character. You risk your greatest emotional payoff that way. The approach can work for the right story, if the author has the skill to pull it off.

But we can’t tell the reader everything too soon, right? It would rob the final showdown much of its punch. You’re right, but it’s a point that has to be approached with caution. We create suspense with structure, not with gimmicks.

Some ways to deal with the issue:

1. Find a believable way to keep the information secret. For example, in The Maze Runner, the characters Maze Runnersuffer amnesia and one of the biggest challenges they face is to learn about their past. As those bits and pieces are regained, both the characters and the readers learn more, and the stakes grow.

2. It’s all right to have the hero put some pieces together and say, “I have a plan.” And cut the scene. This is pretty common, and if done right, can be very effective. The reader knows enough to feel connected with the ongoing story without feeling blocked or deprived, and they can still enjoy the surprise twists and cleverness of their characters. Just make sure to launch right into the plan, or the readers will expect to hear about that plan.

3. Reveal the secret to the readers, but not the hero, through other characters. If the protagonist is in the dark, but it’s important that the readers know something that’s known by other characters, this can actually help create effective tension. The readers see the problems the protagonist is having and wonder when and how they’re going to learn the secret, and how that truth will affect them.

4. Use misdirection. Mystery novels do this a lot. They’ll focus on the clues that seem to be most important, while the tiny details the characters and readers mostly ignored become key elements at the end.

5. Be creative. For example, in a fantasy series with a magic system, readers gain a sense of how the magic Steelheartsystem usually works. Depending on how rigidly defined the magic system is, this plays into how much it can be used to solve the ultimate problems. Suddenly revealing an entirely new aspect to magic and using it to abruptly win is an insult to readers and a trick I personally detest. However, the heroes can use their magic in creative ways that the reader probably hasn’t considered – taking the principles to the extremes. You’ve still established a foundation to build on, and it makes sense once readers consider the possibility, but you still get to enjoy the surprise/cleverness factor. Brandon Sanderson is famous for doing this. His recent YA fantasy novel, Steelheart is a great example.

6. Study your favorite authors, look at how they create suspense and weave the truths into the story.

7. Lastly, have fun with it. You want to suck your readers in, create believable tension, and seal them to your hero and the seemingly insurmountable challenges they’re facing. When your hero puts all the clues together and devises that clever solution, readers will love it and return to that story again and again.

I Would Do Anything for Love…

27 February 2015 | 1 Comment » | Kristin Luna


But I won’t do that. You know what I’m talkin’ about, Meatloaf.


Instead, we did all of this:

Victoria Morris Threaded the Tapestry

Gregory D. Little Subverted the Meet Cute

Ace Jordan did the Science of Love to Explain the Murky Middle

Mary reminded us that All You Need is Love

Joshua Essoe gave us advice about Writing Sex ScenesIn two posts!

Clancy showed us the Flip Side: Bad Girls and Anti-Heroes and Why the Guys Love them

Travis Heermann Examined and Bound

Kim May Pleasured us with Pain

Stephan McLeroy no longer Struggles to Define Love

Leigh Galbreath Drew us in with Dysfunctional Relations

Tracy Mangum gave us a master class in Love in Screenplays

Jace Killian showed us the Try and Fail in Love

Matt Jones made Ignorant Secret Troubled Love to us

Tracy Mangum followed up with Sex in Screenplays

Lisa Mangum reminded us that First Comes Like

Frank Morin pushed A Life of Passion

Colette advised us to Let Love Simmer

And RJ Terrell wrote On Love


Sure, this month is over, but we know you’ll be back. If you fall we will catch you, and we’ll be waiting. Time after time.


A Life of Passion

24 February 2015 | Comments Off | Frank Morin

Life of PassionWho do you love?

What do you love?

Everyone needs a little passion.

The interesting people in story, and in life, are those who embrace what they love with passion. It might be a spouse, family, work, or hobbies. We love people who are excited about what they do or who they are. We respond to passion. Easy example is when people tell us about a recent book or movie that we haven’t read or seen yet.

If they say, “It was all right.” No matter what our previous anticipation level might have been, it now falls a notch.

What if they say, “It was awesome! I’m going to camp out at the movie theater right now and wait until it opens tomorrow so I can see it again”? We can’t help but absorb a little of that passion. It’s contagious and exhilarating.

People do need to find balance in their life, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still feel passion for each component that makes up who they are and what they do. They just can’t let that passion lead to excess and stupid decisions.

One of the most tragic things we see in literature and in life are people who won’t follow their passion. They won’t ask the girl on a date, won’t apply for their dream job, won’t take a chance and LIVE their lives. Thankfully, this character flaw is seen most often only at the beginning of a story to highlight a hero’s dramatic character arc.

A great example is Walter Mitty in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Here’s a guy who has buried his passionsWalter Mitty so deep, he has to escape life in lengthy ‘zoned out’ moments where he dreams of doing great things. He has shackled himself to a boring job and refused to live, even though he dreams of it. The story is beautifully told, includes breathtaking scenery, and excellent music as Walter begins to break out of the repressed life he’s lived for so long and embarks on an amazing adventure that changes everything. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

In real life, it can be hard sometimes to chase our dreams, to live passionately. Are we Walter Middy before or after the moment where he decides to live?

How many times do we hear someone say, “I’d love to do that!” Only to then banish the thought and turn away. If it’s not illegal or immoral or likely to prove fatal, maybe they should reconsider.

Are you holding back, suppressing your passion?

Fear of failure is often the cause. Sure, we might fail, but at least fail while trying. Failure is a way to learn so much, but society has made failure taboo. The problem is, life is full of failures. Why not fail while doing something we’re passionate about instead of failing at life because we lack the courage to try? Here’s what a few famous people had to say about failure:

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” (Michael Jordan)

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” (Bill Gates)

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Thomas Edison)

We don’t like stories of cowards, of those too repressed or afraid or timid to live. Usually in stories, cowards are either killed or, if they’re a main character, their initial cowardice is overcome as they rise to become a hero. There’s a good reason for that. Readers don’t buy stories that lack progression.

Not surprisingly, it was hard to find great examples of characters terminally afraid to live their lives, afraid to embrace their passions.

One example that came to mind for me is Pierre Gringoire, the struggling playwright in The Hunchback of Notre Dame who is saved by Esmeralda, but lacks the courage to do anything productive. He is about as completely useless a character as any I’ve ever read. I’ve hated him since I was first forced to read this dark, depressing book as a kid. Pierre refuses to fight for the beautiful woman who saved his life, refuses to fight for anything useful, and eventually slips away from all conflict, taking along Esmeralda’s pet goat, Djali, the only creature who seems capable of dealing with his pitiful life.

So be Walter, not Pierre, and embrace your passions.

What are you waiting for?

Working the Humor Scale

16 January 2015 | 1 Comment » | Frank Morin

BobOne aspect of character that can be hard to pin down is: How funny should they be?

Most of us aren’t comedy writers. We write fantasy or science fiction or horror or (input genre), but that doesn’t mean humor doesn’t have a place in our stories.

People draw upon their sense of humor in real life, even in dire circumstances. It helps relieve tension and to cope. We don’t need to become the next Terry Pratchett, but sometimes a little humor is the best way to deal with the difficult situations we’re bound to drop our characters into.

Everyone loves a sense of humor. Does our character have one?

Humor has a scale, just like all the other attributes we’re defining for our characters, just as important as their fighting skills, how much they love their mother, and whether they respond to small animals by wanting to pet them or to eat them. We just don’t think about it that way as often.

So I’ve designed a Humor Scale to demonstrate the types of humor we can assign to our characters.

  • Slapstick (10) – Pure comedy. Take some ibuprofen because your stomach’s going to hurt from laughing so hard.
  • Comic Relief (8) – Usually not your main protagonist. These are the side-kicks that we love to laugh at.
  • Deadpan/dry (7) – They say funny things, but in a serious way.
  • Comedy Villains (7) – They’re bad guys, but they make us laugh instead of scaring us.
  • Wisecrack (6) – Always have a comeback, a great one-liner, no matter how dire the situation.
  • Sassy (5) – Cheeky, and full of spirit. Often get into trouble as a result.
  • Snark (4) – Sarcastic, snide.
  • Gallows humor (3) – The more dangerous one’s job, the more refined their gallows humor. Think of the group of crucified criminals in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian singing, “Always look on the bright side of life.”
  • No humor (0) – These are often your serious villains who burned all humor out of their system.
  • Comedic villain (0) – They’re the bad guy, but they think evil is funny. Their sick humor either demonstrates a lack of understanding of the gravity of what they’re doing, or proves they’re insane.

Here’s the Humor Scale in graph form, with examples to illustrate each category.

Humor Scale


We can apply the various categories in all kinds of situations. Some examples include:

  • Jokes. These can be woven in just about anywhere.
  • Situational humor. The entire scene is inherently funny (your super-buff warrior hero is stuck in a cupcake bake-off against the evil overlord)
  • Dialogue. Great place for wisecracks, snark, sass, and gallows humor.
  • A funny outlook on life. Either irreverent, bizarre, or just a little bit off. Any of these can produce humorous situations and dialogue. Something funny, and yet totally in character.
  • And of course, slapstick lies in a realm all its own. This is pure comedy. Some characters just have to fall down and break things wherever they go.

In all of these instances, there are commonalities. Surprise is the secret to humor, and usually there’s some kind of set-up, then the punch-line that adds the surprise, the twist, generating the laugh.

Humor often pushes things to the extreme. Think the intro to Captain Jack Sparrow. Standing atop the mast of his ship is a great epic image. Then comes the comedic twist when we learn it’s really a small boat and he’s standing atop the mast because the ship is sinking out from under him.

So let’s talk specific application.

When I first started writing, I included only a little humor in my stories. Even the first drafts of my YA fantasy story, Set in Stone, remained too serious. With some self reflection and encouragement from family, I decided the story needed humor to work. So I rewrote 80% of the novel, making dramatic changes to the plot structure and how I approached it. I ratcheted up the humor while still maintaining an epic feel to the story. It was my first foray into humor-laden fantasy, and response from beta readers is overwhelmingly positive. The novel will be released this spring.

With my urban fantasy novels, I toned down the humor, but I’ve been experimenting with sliding characters along the humor scale, depending on which effect I’m looking for.

It’s not as hard as I first feared. Humor isn’t the story. It’s just another layer, and you can shift characters along the humor scale pretty easily once you determine what effect you’re looking for.

In a recent editing pass over an epic fantasy novel, I decided to shift the protagonist a couple of notches up the scale. So I mixed in a little snark and dry humor, which helped him come across as more experienced, more resilient, and less emotional. The story as a whole is unchanged, but his outlook on life, and his responses to some of the crazy events he’s experiencing works so much better.

Luke SkywalkerIn essence, I shifted him away from the Luke Skywalker end of the scale and more toward Han Solo. Luke is young, idealistic, and inexperienced while Han is tough, world-wise, and irreverent. They’re both heroes, but they approach life and trials differently. I applied a little of Han’s unflappable attitude and great one-liners.

In The Empire Strikes Back, after losing his hand and learning the evil overlord of the universe was his father, Luke’s response always seemed more whiny than heroic:

“Nooooooo! I’ll never rule the universe with you.”

My character had reacted more like that. Now he could now respond more like Han Solo who, after being tortured, just said, “I feel terrible.”

Or who snapped, “Never tell me the odds,” when flying into an asteroid belt.Han Solo

Or, when Leia confessed she loved him just prior to his getting frozen in carbonite, he glibly replied, “I know.”

Another example of the effect of the Humor Scale decision is comparing Battlestar Galactica to Firefly. Both have spaceships, fighting, life-and-death situations but, where Firefly is enhanced by the humor woven into it – making it a cowboys in space adventure – Battlestar Galactica was left very straight-laced – a little too much so in my opinion.

So play with this layer. After writing your story and making sure all the other elements are in place, check where each character falls on the Humor Scale, and where that takes your story as a whole. Then decide if that’s where you want it. Perhaps poll some early readers and discuss if the story would benefit from either more or less humor.

Tweak accordingly, and have fun with it.

* * * *

Here are a few humor-related links you might be interested in:

Scott Adam’s Dilbert blog, where he talks about writing humor.

The Writer’s Dig by Brian Klems – Another good blog post, with links to other articles.

Tabloid Reporter to the Stars – This is a short story recommended to me as an example of one that successfully added humor. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to.


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