Weekly Musing: Reference This

In the past I’ve talked about a variety of resources I found helpful at the time. Re-reading it I realized how much my idea of what is useful has changed. Some of the tools I listed I no longer use. Either outgrew them or decided to try others.

One of the biggest changes has been in the kinds of books I consider to be valuable reference materials. I’ve expanded my scope beyond grammar and editing books to books on such topics as superstitions, what various traumas to the body actually look like, to how to better write emotions. No matter what genre you write, be it general fiction, mystery, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. below I’ve listed a few books I think every write should have on the bookshelf.

Story Elements and Novel Writing – Writer’s Digest produces several books on story elements.  These are great for strengthening your strengths and providing help on weaker areas. For example, I think my biggest strength is dialogue yet I still have a book on it. I also have a book on characters, emotions, and viewpoint. Never know when characters might start sounding alike or when I struggle to find the right “voice” for a character.

What I personally focus on is having multiple books on my weak areas. For me I believe that it is setting and descriptions as well as plot and structure. I struggle to translate the world and people I see in my head onto paper. Also, since I consider myself more character-driven, making sure the plot makes sense and has scenes that support it I struggle with.

I think every writer should have at least one book on beginnings, middles, and endings since very few writers, if any, are proficient in all three. I think it’s also great to have a book on these since I see so much emphasis placed on the first sentence, opening chapter, or first 50 pages that it’s no wonder books fall apart in the middle and sputter to an end. If we want our readers to keep coming back we need to look at our manuscripts as a whole.

And like any writer, I have a few books on how to write a novel. There’s an overwhelming amount of books out there. Some claim you can write a draft of one in as little as a month, others set more realistic goals (unless you’re slow like me) of 90 days. Still others focus on how to write the kind of novel that will get people’s attention. I decided to go with a couple because too much information can be a bad thing.

Emotions and Personality Types – I was naturally born with a gift/curse to empathize with both real and fictional people. In my head and heart their emotions tend to be felt as much as if they were my own. Yet I frequently struggle to set those emotions on paper. This makes me feel as if I’m not doing the characters justice.

I heard about a book called The Emotion Thesaurus via an article. What I really appreciate about this book and the subsequent follow-ups The Negative Emotion Thesaurus and The Positive Emotion Thesaurus is that they aim to help writers get out of the rut of describing the same emotions in the same way. In the original book the authors include physical signs, what a particular emotion feels like internally, and mental responses to name a few of the categories. In the two follow up books they take things further. They include associated thoughts, behaviors and attitudes, related secondary emotions, positive and negative aspects, and even examples from TV and film.

Another book I’ve found useful is the Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. Unlike the emotion thesaurus series, this books provides deeper analysis. In addition to listing various personality types, the author offers how personality differs in children and adolescent. Other features which appeal to me are discussions on psychological disorders, criminal types, creating a family, and love, marriage and other kinds of relationships.

The Human Body – I’m not necessarily referring to having Grey’s Anatomy nearby, but I do think it is important to have books dealing with the human body. For example, I have a book on poisons, body trauma, and more than a few books on weapons. Although not quite related, I even have a book on survival. Never know when a character will wind up on their own in the woods or desert or ocean.

If you think only crime and mystery writers need these kinds of books, think about this way. Say you write historical fiction and have a scene involving a battle. The time period dictates the weapons and equipment involved, but you’ll want to make sure injuries and deaths inflicted are plausible.

Or if you write fantasy, perhaps the book on poisons can be of use. Maybe your protagonist likes to coat a particular kind his or her weapon of choice. What would using poison plus their weapon of choice due to a body? Again, having a book on body trauma can be helpful for describing the wound.

Myths, Symbols, Superstitions, and Legends – Again, no matter what genre you write in, why not consider adding a few of these books? While I’ve yet to use my books on superstitions, symbols and signs, and mythology, I feel they are valuable. Who knows, maybe I could have a character obsessed with Nordic mythology who uses it guide his or her life.

Think only fantasy or horror writers would benefit from these? Think of it like this. Say you write mystery. Perhaps the bad person leaves behind a series of symbols. Maybe instead of using the most recognizable symbols in your country, you cast your net wider and look to another part of the world. What does this say about the antagonist? Is he or she from that area? A person obsessed with the culture? How do you go about narrowing your field of suspects? Maybe your cast includes an archeologist who has worked in that region, an anthropologist specializing in that culture, and a native of that region. Maybe the real culprit is none of them and is someone who wants to frame one of those people for an unrelated personal reason.


Having a variety of reference books beyond the usual writerly ones is a great way to get inspired. If you’re stuck in your story, consider perusing through a book of superstitions. Or when you’re editing and want a better way to describe a character being sad. Grab your books on emotions. Not only does it add more realism, it can make our work more interesting and unique. And you don’t need a ton of books to help you. All the books I listed are condensed and brief, general information. Many of these are geared toward writers and are easy to understand. Their just jumping off points and can be used in conjunction with websites and other books.


Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Four – Conflict and Resolution

This week we come to the conclusion of my four part series on the literary basics. For a quick recap see my previous posts on Character, Plot, and Setting. For the fourth and final installment I’ll be discussing Conflict and Resolution.

The definition of Conflict is a choice or situation the protagonist faces at the beginning of the story must be solved or not. Essentially, conflict is the reason for the plot, the characters, and the setting. Below are listed the different kinds of conflict.

Internal – As the name suggests, internal conflict is one in which the protagonist battles himself. Something happens that forces the protagonist to question himself. This may lead to a moral dilemma. The protagonist’s internal conflict can also manifest itself as a battle to overcome a perceived or real deficiency in order to “win”.

External – This type of conflict is a result of some other person or object or concept that the protagonist has a problem with. There several kinds external conflict with some debate as to whether a couple of them should be their own category or included with another one.

Man vs. Man: The most common type of conflict, it consists of one person or a group against another person or group.

Man vs. Nature: Another popular type, it consists of a person against either a force of nature, such as outrunning a powerful storm, or animal, like in Moby Dick.

Man vs. Society: In this type of external conflict, the protagonist is battling an institution, tradition, or laws of his culture in which he struggles with but ultimately either comes to accept his situation, is beaten by it, or overcomes it. Think of such stories as 1984 and many dystopian based novels.

Man vs. Supernatural: Some argue this should be included with Man vs. Nature since the Supernatural is an extension of the natural just unexplainable. Personally, I think this is definitely separate from Man vs. Nature because it’s hard to compare battling werewolves with being surrounded by actually wolves. One’s made up, while the other is real.

Man vs. Technology: A newer kind of conflict thanks to the acceleration in technology from the Industrial Revolution to now. This can be used to show how technology is used against man to enslave him.

Man vs. Fate/God: Like Man vs. Supernatural, this one could be folded into one of the other categories such as either Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Self if the protagonist is battling fate, such as in Oedipus Rex, or the gods, such as in The Odyssey. Again, I personally believe stories in which an earthly creature struggles against fate/destiny or a god/gods in different because those concepts are abstract and don’t fit neatly into any other category.

Many stories often have more than one kind of conflict in them. For example, this is particularly true when the protagonist is on a journey. Not only is he battling several foes before reaching the Big Bad, but also along the way he may start to question their own will, thus creating an internal conflict that they must solve in order to overcome the main conflict.

All of this conflict within a story should ultimately lead to the apex, or climax of the story. What this simply means is everything that has happened in the story leads to one decisive event. Following the traditional three act structure, the climax traditionally comes somewhere toward the end of the middle part of the story.

Once we get the climax, we come to the last puzzle piece. Resolution is all the falling action after the climax and which propels the story to a resolution, or end. In the traditional three act structure a small percentage of the story is spent to tidy things up. Resolution doesn’t always necessarily mean that all a reader’s questions will be answered.

This last point is quite tricky because some believe resolutions and endings should be definitive with no room for doubt. Others are okay with some open endings as long as other things are satisfactorily concluded. Still others don’t mind completely open-ended endings. Of course, if a book is part of a series then some amount of unresolvedness is needed. How to end a story is difficult and is probably one of the reasons why many, many readers often feel dissatisfied at the conclusion. Personally, I’m okay with some ambiguity as life isn’t so nice and tidy and I don’t mind wondering “What happened?”


Hopefully this series has helped. I think it’s important as readers to understand the basics so that as we read and reflect we can understand the choices the characters make. Also, when we are having discussions with our friends, our book club, or online, we come across as an intelligent reader who can successfully defend their position. As writers it’s good to have a solid foundation on the basics to not only understand what readers expect, but then how to tweak those expectations. It also makes us look like we know what we’re doing even if at times it doesn’t feel that way.


Weekly Musing: The Basics Part One – Character

Over the last few years I’ve noticed people seem to have forgotten what the basic elements of a story are. I’ve also noticed certain terms misused by both avid book readers and fans of TV and movies during discussions. At first I dismissed this as people getting terms mixed up in the heat of the moment during a debate. But the more I hear this confusion, the more I pondering maybe it’s not a simple brain fart. Over the next few weeks I’ll be going over the basic literary elements in an effort to help people keep things straight.

First, let’s start with what makes up a story. We’ve got characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Most of these elements have many components to them which is where I think people get confused and mix up terms. Keep in mind that any information I’m presenting is quite basic and doesn’t apply 100% to every story. Many books exist which don’t follow these “rules” exactly which is what makes it’s fun for the reader.

Let’s start with one of my favorite parts of a story and what I personally start with and that is Character.

Each story has at least one character known as the protagonist. Most of the time it is a human but can be an animal or even an inanimate object. Most people associate the term protagonist as the main character is good. This is regardless of genre and for the most part, stories do revolve around what we would consider a good person.

Many stories have one protagonist whom the story revolves around. However, it’s important to keep in mind not all stories have only one protagonist. Other characters can be used and some novels exist where it’s hard to define who the protagonist is. Usually this happens in an epic series, such as A Song of Ice and Fire, but can happen within a standalone novel. Family sagas are another example where there may be multiple protagonists.

The opposite of the protagonist is the antagonist. Usually this character is thought of as the bad guy or girl as they are trying to prevent the protagonist from achieving something. Again, the antagonist doesn’t have to be human as it could be nature, an animal, or even the protagonist if the story is the character’s internal struggle. Just as it is possible for a story to have multiple protagonists, it’s possible to have multiple antagonists. Perhaps the lead character is facing several adversaries on his or her journey. Or if the story has multiple main characters, each will more than likely have their own antagonist.

One thing I’d like for more people to realize is that although terms like protagonist and antagonist set up a good vs. evil connotation, this isn’t always the case. What it means is we have a main character who has an adversary of some kind. Stories exist in which the protagonist is evil and their opponent is good. These are rare, but they are out there.

Next we move into minor characters. Simply put, a minor character serves to help advance the story along in some way. A majority of stories have at least one minor character. Either minor characters can play a small, ancillary role, such as the briefly seen parents of a protagonist, or they can play a significant role such as a sidekick, advisor, comic relief, eventually dead best friend, etc.

A very important component for a character’s story is determining what point of view in which to tell their story. Most stories use first person or some form of third person whether it’s limited (strictly from one and only one character’s point of view but not using words like “I” or “me”) or omniscient (telling the story via more than one character). Very rarely is second point of view used in which the narrator uses “you” as a way to distance himself or herself from the story.

Generally a story is told from the protagonist’s point of view whether that be first person or third person. However, like everything else in literature, there are exceptions. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the narrator is Chief yet the main character is Randle Patrick McMurphy. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is the main character and the story is told through third person limited. More complicated novels will frequently employee multiple points of views in order for the reader to see the big picture.


Although these are some of the basics that go into the character element, it’s easy to see how quickly an author can complicate things. Even turning one of these components on its head can vastly change the complexion of a story before factoring in the other pieces such as setting, the plot, conflict, and resolution.