We’ve all had heart-pounding experiences alongside fictional characters. We held our breath when Ethan Hunt made a last-ditch attempt to stop an explosion in Mission Impossible, pored over Pride and Prejudice for hours to discover one family’s future, and perched on the edges of our seats when Thanos, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man faced off in Avengers: Endgame. But why do these scenes capture us, and how can we replicate the effect in our own stories?
Story Embers Head Writer
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.
If you grew up in the early 2000s, you probably mutilated a daisy at least once to help you guess whether your crush shared your feelings. You’d pluck off the petals one by one, reciting “he loves me” or “he loves me not.” At age nine, I didn’t have a true love, but pretending was fun, and handfuls of daisies met unfortunate ends thanks to my mock indecision. This floral game of roulette is what the enemies-to-lovers trope looks like from afar.
Every story you consume informs your instincts about plot structure, prose, and characters, and when problems crop up in any one of those areas, an alarm sounds at the back of your mind. Unfortunately, no matter how savvy you are at detecting issues, the solutions won’t be as obvious. The disconnect between your ability to identify and straighten out problems is nerve-wracking because you don’t want to write an entire novel without realizing a huge flaw is undermining everything. You need to learn how to interpret your intuition’s signals through three approaches.
The most helpful writing advice I learned this year came from the letters of a demon. C. S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters serially in a newspaper called The Guardian, and he realized that the human race harbors an oversized sense of entitlement. Because others have more than we do, we think we deserve the same amount. In idle moments, we wake our phones and thumb through twenty social media posts per second. We read glowing reviews for a debut novel that the author pounded out in two months. We see friends gushing about their book deals, finished drafts, and beta-readers-turned-fans. They’ve achieved their goals while we haven’t. We try to celebrate with them. We extend perfunctory congratulations, but inwardly we can’t resist asking, Why not me?
As a Christian storyteller, trauma scares me. I want to touch readers and leave them with more hope than they carried in. My concern makes me hyperconscious of how they might respond to unsettling content, and I’m tempted to cushion gore and grit.
Prose is the undertow that immerses readers, and the deeper they sink, the more truth and beauty they can explore. The transformative power of storytelling resides in the author’s ability to pull readers into an unfamiliar sea and convince them they can taste the salt. Until they believe the waves lapping at their imaginations are real, they won’t set sail—or ever reach the shore of a new perspective.
Horror of horrors, beta readers keep telling you that your villain isn’t scary. You’ve given him a tragic past, control issues, and bloodlust. He even has an impeccable sense of style and color coordinates his weapons and outfits. Why isn’t he memorable?
I tend to procrastinate about worldbuilding because it overwhelms me. I’m expected to design an alternate reality that’s as complex and nuanced as my own. Considering the thousands of cultural customs, geographical differences, and historical events attached to every inch of Earth, the task seems too infinite for my finite imagination. Where do I start? How do I determine when to stop? Which ideas should appear in my story, and which should remain archived inside my brain?
Which is more important: characters or plot? Writers have been locked in that debate for centuries. Plot-oriented writers argue that conflict engages readers. But character-oriented writers insist that readers only care because they relate to the characters. The truth? Both sides are correct because the question is based on a misconception.
I have a confession: trying to find the right words takes me ages. I obsess over sentence structure, vocabulary, and descriptions, pouring my time and energy into the black hole of unnecessary edits. It’s a harmful compulsion, and I know it. The more changes I make, the more I hate my work-in-progress, and the less productive I become. I forget the big picture and throttle my motivation. Worst of all, my creativity ebbs. But restraining myself seems impossible. Can chronic over-editors dare to hope for a cure?