Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Introducing Unforgettable Secondary Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 16•19

There are so many tricky aspects of crafting fiction, so many techniques to master. And then there’s revision with all it’s myriad decisions. Many writers can struggle creating vibrant and complex secondary characters. After all, complicated main characters are hard enough to create. Memorable co-stars, however, can make or break a story. I always view them as a measuring stick for a writer’s prowess.

Here’s a vivid example of a memorable secondary character from Leif Enger’s beautiful Virgil WanderHis name is Rune–so here’s a simple trick, give your characters resonant names. In this case, rune has mystical, mysterious associations. The day after the protagonist Virgil survives a car accident in the opening moments of the story he walks to the waterfront of the forbidding, ever-changing Lake Superior. Enger is introducing an oft-used device: a mysterious Stranger comes to town.

I ended up at the waterfront. It’s not as though there’s any other destination in Greenstone. The truth is that I moved here largely because of the inland sea. I’d always felt peaceful around it–a naive response give it fearsome temper, but who could resist that wide throw of horizon, the columns of morning steam? And the sound of a continual tectonic bass line. In a northeast gale this pounding adds a layer of friction to every conversation in town.

At the foot of the city pier stood a threadbare stranger.  He had eight-day whiskers and fisherman hands, a pipe in his mouth like a mariner in a fable, and a question in his eyes. A rolled-up paper kite was tucked under his arm–I could see bold swatches of paint on it.

There was always a kite in the picture with Rune, as it turned out.

He watched me. He carried an atmosphere of dispersing confusion, as though he were coming awake. “Do you live in this place?” he inquired.

I nodded.

“Is there are motor hotel? There used to be a motor hotel. I don’t  remember where.”

His voice was high, with a rhythmic inflection like short smooth waves. For some reason it gave me a lift. He had a hundred merry crinkles at his eyes and long-haul sadness in his shoulders.

“Not anymore–not exactly.” If I’d had more words, I’d have described Greenstone’s last operational motel, the Voyageur, a peeling L-shaped heap with scraggy whirlwinds of litter roaming the parking lot. Though technically “open,”  the Voyageur is always full, its rooms permanently occupied by the ower’s grown children who failed to rise on the outside.

“Oh well,” he said, shaking himself like a terrier. He peered round at the Slake International taconite plant, a looming vast trapezoid which had signified bustling growth in the 1950s and lingering decline ever since. Its few tiny windows were whitewashed or broken; its majestic ore dock rose out of the water on eighty-foot pilings and cast a black-boned reflection across the harbor. No ship had loaded her in so long that saplings and ferns grew wild on the planking. We had a little forest up there. I looked at the  kite scrolled under his arm. He’d picked the wrong day for that, be then he looked like a man who could wait.

He said, “You here a long time?”

“Twenty-five years.”

At this something changed in him. He acquired an edge. Before I’d have said he looked like many a good-natured pensioner making do without a pension. Now in front of my eyes he seemed to intensify.

“Twenty-five years? Perhaps you knew my son. He lived here. Right in this town,” he added looking round himself, as though giving structure to a still-new idea.

“Is that right. What’s his name?”

The old man ignored the question. He pulled a kitchen match from his pocket, thumbnailed it, and relit his pipe, which let me tell you held the most fragrant tobacco–brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel. A few sharp puffs brought it crackling and he held it up to watch smoke drift off the bowl. The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided.

Did you notice how this small scene multi-tasks? Here’s a review of Virgil Wander because I’m hoping you’ll read this beautiful story.

Techniques to borrow:

  • Sharply observed first impressions (carried an atmosphere of dispersing confusion as though coming awake, a good-natured pensioner making do without a pension, looked like a man who could wait)
  • Props (kite and tobacco, kitchen match, pipe)
  • Smells (tobacco)
  • Iconic or mythic comparisons (rune, mariner in a fable)
  • Indelible physical features: (fisherman’s hands, question in his eyes, a hundred merry crinkles as this eyes and a long-haul sadness to his shoulders)

Here’s a tip: When you need to describe a character or objects or setting ask yourself what does this remind me of? As you walk around your world, really notice your surroundings and ask yourself the same question.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 03•19


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 01•19

Nail your character’s essence

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 25•19

Fiction equals characters. Characters make us care, worry, empathize. And characters need to be knowable. When a character is introduced in a story he or she needs to make a strong impression. (Walk-on and minor characters are sometimes the exception.) This means when you create  characters, after you make decisions about physical appearance and their essential role in the story, then start refining his or her essence and key personality traits. Some of the decisions about your character will happen without you making decisions because characters have a way of emerging and evolving in our deeper consciousness.

No matter your process, it’s crucial to nail a character’s humanity and complexity on the page. And to nail his or her essence from the first breath he/she takes in your story. 

Within the personality spectrum there are endless possibilities. There are also layers to one’s personality, and it seems to me that the inner layers are a character’s essence. Let’s list some possibilities: quiet, serious, boisterous, buoyant, innocent, worldly, full of laughter, cautious, always ready for adventure. Let’s consider other options: practical, frivolous, introverted, extroverted, questioning, plays by the rules, respects the status quo, rebellious, rigid, creative, uptight, light-hearted.

Virgil Wander

I recently read Leif Enger latest beautiful novel, Virgil Wander. It’s now number one on my Top 10 Favorite Novels of All-time list. One thing I like best about Enger’s stories is that he creates fascinating and sometimes oddball characters you’ve never met before and will never forget. He toes the line between creating ordinary-extraordinary story people you want to spend a lifetime with. 

And while complicated, they’re knowable  They typically face uncommon, vexing problems and dilemmas and seem as human as my next-door neighbor. Virgil Wander, the protagonist of this wending tale, is no exception. I don’t want to give away too much, but he starts the story with a head injury and owns a failing theater in a small town. The failing town is perched on the ever-changing and blustery Lake Superior and skies, wind, and storms play a big role in the story. If you’ve never visited Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water on the planet, it’s a primal, massive inland sea. 

Toss in a pipe-smoking, kite-flying Norwegian, a mysterious prodigal son millionaire, a missing baseball player, several boys who need a father, and a local handyman on a downward arc. The setting is tightly woven into all aspects of the tale, but it’s the characters who will live in me forever.

Here’s an example of how Enger introduces a character, the aforementioned missing ballplayer, while capturing his essence and adding to the mystery of his disappearance: Most people knew about Alec Sandstrom, or thought they knew, could be traced to a silken Sports Illustrated article published on the anniversary of his death.

The magazine’s expenditure of four thousand words on a failed minor-league pitcher testifies to Alec’s magnetism. In two seasons of small-time baseball, Alec was often compared to eccentric Detroit phenom Mark Fyrich, who is remembered for speaking aloud to the ball itself as though recommending a flight path. Alec didn’t talk to baseballs–his quirk adored by fans of the Duluth-Superior Dukes, was to break out laughing during games. Anything could set him off: an elegant nab by the second baseman, a plastic bag wobbling like a jellyfish across the diamond, a clever heckle directed at himself. His merriment was unhitched from his success. Sometimes he laughed softly while leaning in for signs. His fastball was a blur, its location rarely predictable even to himself. Sprinting on-field to start the game, limbs flailing inelegantly, Alec always seemed sure his time had arrived. 

“Reality wasn’t strictly his deal,” Beeman recalled. “My God he was fun to watch.”

Engaging as Alec could be, he’d never have received the elegiac Sports Illustrated treatment had he not strapped himself into a small plane at dawn, lifted off in a light westerly, and banked over Lake Superior never to return.  

Untethered from his success. Sigh. Pardon me while I indulge in writer’s envy. As you can tell, Alec is an original. And notice how his essence is joyful?  Stay tuned, I’m going to reveal a few more of his characters’ essence in an upcoming post.

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Quick take: make it hard on your protagonist

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 18•19

Common writing advice has been circulating for decades: pile on obstacles in your main character’s path. Here’s a reminder: those obstacles, causing tension and suspense, should also come from within the protagonist. Which brings us to character flaws.

Characters are far from perfect, which is why we love them and relate to them and worry over their fates. We see ourselves in their bumbles and screw-ups.

When you first begin imagining your main player, he or she also needs a moral deficiency along with an inner frailty. Let’s say your character grew up overlooked in a family of geniuses or super stars or beauties. Real or perceived lacks or feelings of inferiority can stain a lifetime.

If your character feels second-rate how will he react to an antagonist who won’t take him seriously? How about an antagonist who denigrates him? How will he react? It’s likely his reactions won’t be entirely rational. Or what about a suitor who comes along with grand promises of an easy life and a forever love? Or an antagonist who suggests shortcuts or instant fame? Will his moral weakness stand in his way or will he ultimately choose a principled path?

Moral dilemmas and hard choices make the story unputdownable. Toxic shame or low self-esteem or stuck thinking are barriers to happiness and redemption as we all know. We see them all the time in real life and of course these demons also translates to the screen.

For a contemporary example of moral & emotional deficiencies, check out Season 3 of HBO’s True Detectives. In the series, the leads played by Mashershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, are damaged men who wrestle with their demons as much as with the evidence in the case. Two children disappear as the story opens and the twists and various timelines in the story create a labyrinth the viewer cannot resist wandering through. Feeling doomed.

Writing advice from Paul Coelho

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 15•19

“If you overload your book with a lot of research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and your reader. Books are not there to show how intelligent you are. Books are there to show your soul. “

Quick Take: Use Your Pain

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 13•19

After my first book Writing Out the Storm was published, I got a phone call from an executive at iVillage. It was a high-profile site and the biggest women’s web site in the world at the time. I was hired to be the writing expert and teach hundreds of writers. The gig included live online lectures where I learned to type about 100 word per minute, assignments, feedback, and a whole lot of writing. I refined a lot of my methods for teaching beginning writers and helped launch the careers of several successful authors. And did I mention it was fun?

The writers at the site were given assignments and posted them for all of us to comment on. One of the assignments was to write about the discovery of a corpse. And oh man, did that open up the floodgates of weird. Bodies turned up in car trunks, landfills, wells, and city parks. It was a hoot. Many of the writers were stay-at-home moms and the corpse assignment tapped into their hidden imaginings.

Fast forward several decades and these days I know and work with a lot of suspense and thriller writers. And for the most part, they’re the kindest, funniest people around. But their stories are full of cold-eyed killers, mutilated corpses, and creepy motives. Obviously these (relatively) normal writers haven’t experienced these things, but they still access darker parts of themselves to bring their stories to life.

Which leads to this point: Be willing to track your own  uncomfortable emotions and experiences to use in your writing. Were you ever an outsider?  Had a lonely childhood? Crazy parent? Family’s expectations were wildly unrealistic or confining?  Have you been rejected or betrayed? Did tragedy or devastating illness visit your family?

Mine those potent and awful memories working from the gut, remembering your body’s reactions and truths. When you discovered a dear friend slept with your fiancé what did your stomach feel like? Hollow? Nausea? Roiling? How did you try to comfort yourself? How did you recover from the shock and sudden unknowns? How did you navigate your new landscape? Because how the heck do you move forward after a brutal betrayal or terrible ending to a relationship? 

You want and need to write outside of your normal reality? Use your pain. Especially notice the times when you experienced the ‘fight or flight’ reactions because fictional characters have them all the time. And then write from your body because it holds those awful truths.

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Add sizzle: Tips for potent dialogue

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 10•19

Dialogue electrifies and ignites fictions. It brings characters and conflicts into focus, especially when characters argue, coerce, and threaten. Here are a few reminders about how to keep dialogue sizzling:

Skip the throat clearing, greetings and pleasantries. Don’t warm up; jump right in.

Ditch the names.

Write dialogue that creates consequences. If there are no consequences, question why you’re including it.

Dialogue reveals the inner person. Distinguish your characters from each other by nailing their primary personality traits and bearing before you sketch the scene. Distinguished, serious type? Witty? Argumentative?  Shy? Eccentric? Commanding presence? Their word choices will reflect this.

Dialogue reveals the characters’ emotions, even when characters try to hide them. Know where they stand on the topic before, during and after the exchange. Some examples: defensive, guarded, nervous, furious, torn.

Speaking of topics up for discussion, don’t be afraid to allow the convo to shift directions or uncover hidden motives–the real reason they’re talking.

Dialogue works best if at least one character is uncomfortable, off-balance, guarded, or unsure.

Typically dialogue is adversarial; it’s  about characters vying for power, dominance, or control. Give at least one character an agenda.

If you’re not using dialogue to reveal the truth of relationships, you might want to analyze writers who do.

Dialogue zings when characters are saying no to each other.

Know the dynamic that exists between the characters. Sometimes just nailing the essence  or context of an exchange makes is easier to write. Ask yourself what lies beneath the scene.  A refusal? Subterfuge? Prying or demanding answers? Explaining a situation? Asking for something that’s hard to ask for?  Is this a power play?

As in real life sometimes characters interrupt.

Take care with beats–the small inclusions of gestures, actions, reactions. Too many eye rolls, gazing off in the distance, gazing into each other’s eyes, fighting back tears and the like, can annoy the reader. You want readers to imagine many of these reactions.

Add small actions or activities for a natural flow–fixing dinner, washing dishes, walking, shopping, getting dressed.  In my editing gig I’ve seen too many characters sitting across from each other staring unblinkingly into each other’s eyes far too often. It’s not the way most of us talk most of the time.

Justify every repetition. 

Don’t be afraid to include weird or inappropriate dialogue if it makes sense for the overall plot. Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running is one of my favorite novels. It’s essentially the story of a family who is forced to cope with a daughter and sister’s mental illness–schizophrenia. It’s a sad, hilarious, and poignant story with one of the best character arcs around for Smithy Ide the protagonist. The absurdity of Smithy’s uncle’s comments and jokes help balance out the bleakness and unpredictability of Bethany’s illness. Uncle Count is the kind of guy who always has a dirty, racist, or offensive joke no matter the occasion and is clueless about how inappropriate he is, how unwelcome his jokes are. He usually starts with, “Have you heard the one about the two priests who walked into a bar?”

If you’re staging an argument it needs to escalate. Words need to land like blows.

I’m going to be adding examples of effective dialogue here, so stop back. 

Subtext is part of dialogue. A particularly powerful subtext trick is for a character to hedge, avoid answering, try to change the subject.

Avoid lengthy answers, exchanges to keep the pace perking along. The whole conversation can go on for several pages, but keep each of your characters’ back-and-forths to 3 sentences (or so) or under.

Keep tags simple. The she said, he said parts of fiction should appear invisible or natural. Say no to chortles, rejoiners, retorts, and demands. Allow the dialogue to inform the reader about the speaker’s tone.

In case you haven’t read this beautiful book,  The Memory of Running. I cannot recommend it enough. And yes, I realize I’ve recommend it before. 

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart. 

Breathe life into your stories through the senses

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 01•19

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 30•19

“Sometimes I get the impression that I write out of simple intense curiosity. It is that, in writing, I surrender to the most unexpected surprises. It is at the time of writing that many times I become aware of things, which, being unconscious, which before I didn’t know I knew.” ~Clarice Lispector