Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

From an Editor’s Desk: Follow Their Eyes

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 24•20

With the holidays upon us, I’m especially grateful  for all the good things and people in my life, the small joys that bring so much simple pleasure. A walk with a friend, an engrossing novel, spring blooms, autumn leaves, watching seasons change, the first sip of tea in the morning, dinner simmering in the kitchen.

This space is for writers searching for fresh ideas to improve their craft.  I teach topics I believe can be helpful to writers at all stages and share issues I  notice in writers’ manuscripts. I’m generally mentioning habits and failed techniques that sink a story, but of course, I work with writers who demonstrate brilliance, imagination, and a thoughtful approach to storytelling.

But into every writer’s life problems rear their snaggly heads.  At times we lapse into dullness, we lean on crutch words, we make typos and gaffs. Our plots wander, our characters confuse, and our endings fall flat. Because writing is hard. And writers are at a natural disadvantage  because we use computers and the familiarity of our words on the screen breeds a kind of blindness. Sometimes the more often you read your own words, the less you’re able to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

With that in mind, I want to call your attention to a simple technique in writing fiction: using characters’ eyes to reveal emotion and  meaning. This is a reminder to  pay more attention to how your characters look, stare, and express emotions. If eyes are the windows to the soul, then match your characters’ expressions  to the exact emotion or reaction needed. Here are suggestions for getting it right.

  1. Figure out your crutch phrases and go-to moves. A few that appear too often  are eyes widening, teary eyed, blank stares,  blurred vision, stared straight ahead, watched like a hawk, she looked him straight in the eye, eyes darting, piercing stares, blinking back tears, eyes narrowing, smoldering looks, deep-set eyes, and steely-eyed. There are also cliched colors like baby blue, emerald, and chocolate.
  2. Make certain that the character’s eyes are appropriate to the scene. Too often characters gaze down at the floor or at their hands. Now, these gestures typically indicate discomfort or avoidance, but sometimes readers just sow them into a scene when that’s not the intended effect.
  3. Don’t feature all your characters  reacting the same way.
  4. Avoid strangeness and viewpoint slips such as His eyes smiled at me or Her face fought against tears.
  5. Ditch the hobbit staring. Hobbit staring is a term I learned from a movie buff friend. He coined it from the Lord of the Rings films when the camera lingers too long on stares between two characters as if that demonstrates some deep meaning or message. Because often it does not. Then the filmmakers apply it to other staring contests, versus, say, heartfelt dialogue that could be more direct and meaningful.
  6. If you’ve watched the delightful and deservedly popular series The Queens Gambit you’ll notice characters staring at each other a lot. Because it’s appropriate. Because they’re seated a few feet across from each other in earnest and sometimes excruciating combat.  Because they’re often trying to psych each other out.
  7.  Question every tear. I sometimes ask writers to count every scene where a character ends up weeping, wet-eyed, or with tears leaking down wet cheeks. This request comes from noticing how weeping and sobbing are overused resulting in melodrama, excess sentimentality, or depicting a character as too emotional for her own good. And the good of the story. Too much weeping and the story gets soggy and dull. And please, just forget single tears. Please.
  8.  Mix it up. Often a writer’s most used crutch words are look and see. However, in real life people gape, squint, spot, gander, gawk, ogle, stare, gaze, study, inspect, scan, scout, spy, study, inspect, notice, note,  peek, peep, peer, and rubberneck.
  9. Expand  your repertoire of descriptions: haunting, beckoning, steady, stormy, mocking, mournful, lifeless, sultry, goopy, teasing, pitiless, glassy.
  10. Stir in a little weirdness. Many people have mismatched eyes. Then there are droopy eyes, people with different colored eyes, bloodshot eyes, Rasputin eyes, lazy eyes, buggy eyes, one working eye, wandering eyes, piggy and close-set eyes.
  11.  Study how and when successful authors use close-ups. If you never focus the camera lens on a character’s face during an emotionally-charged scene, then readers cannot enter the moment and feel what the characters are feeling.
  12. Study actors. Notice how their eyelids raise a bit to show interest or droop to indicate the lack of interest. Note how they leer, seduce, flash anger, hide their true feelings. If you’re serious about writing your job for the rest of your life is to notice subtext. And that often begins with the eyes.




Character arcs happen mostly in action

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•20

Historical Accuracy and other Peeves: Skip the hugs and kisses.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•20

With apologies–an early draft to this article was mistakenly published before it was completed. Updated November 17.

Obviously I’m not alone in declaring this a humbling, angst-filled, anxiety-inducing year. Did I mention fattening?  Like many millions around the world, I’m following the COVID numbers with growing horror and paranoia. I’ve been wearing a mask and scrubbing like a surgeon since March and cannot imagine why other people simply don’t use common sense and seek reliable news sources. Don’t get me started on governors that won’t protect the lives of their citizens with mandates.

I’ve been limiting my exposure, meeting a few friends distanced and outdoors, am not traveling, and have rarely eaten in restaurants. I missed my father’s 90th birthday because he lives more than 2,000 miles away. Like millions I’m exhausted by an administration that refuses to admit they lost an election. Lately I’ve been chased from my home by a mouse invasion because I’m unable to share my residence with rodents of any sort and poison takes awhile to go through a population.

My plans for Thanksgiving are still not firm even though our family gathering would be small. This midafternoon the Portland sky was so black and foreboding it looked like a horror film imposed on top of another horror film. Then I slept through the crashing downpour that ensued. Because I feel like a could sleep for a month. Did I mention it’s sloshy wet and mostly gray here?

All I know for sure that it’s soup and reading weather.  I’m grateful for my clients and their stories that give me lots to ponder, and stories wherever I encounter them. I’m currently watching a  British crime series with only 4 episodes called Collateral. It begins with an unlikely event, the murder or a pizza delivery guy and is twisty, layered, and well acted.

My  current read is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself  a gritty fantasy in The First Law series. I’m on book one and it’s long and the editor in me wants to dig into it with knives and scalpels, but then maybe I was a surgeon in a previous lifetime.  I mostly want to get to book 2 Before They Are Hanged, because I’ve read the opening and it’s far stronger, the language is more appropriate, and the whole seems more plausible in a grimdark sort of way.

I’m reading it because I’m analyzing grimdark fantasy of which Abercrombie, George RR Martin, and other mavens are shaping unsettling, haunting realities. Need I mention I’m escaping into worlds more improbable than this one?

Grimdark is boundary pushing. It’s influencing entire genres.  It’s a subgenre that’s takes an anti-Tolkien approach with more grit, realism, violence, and sex.  Science fiction and dystopian fiction also fall under this category. You’ll often find hard-bitten anti-heroes leading the casts, brutality, ash, and ruin. Stories also hearken back to the earliest legends and tales, along with echoes from history.

Which leads us windingly to appropriateness and accuracy when writing fiction. If you’re stopping by here, no doubt, you know just how hard it is to write any kind of fiction. You also know that when  you’re writing a story that veers far from your everyday reality that it requires a lot more work and objectivity. Sometimes it’s hard to really see what you’ve got on the page, how your story holds together.

That’s where educated readers come into the picture.

Editors notice a lot. Our attention is piqued by voice and  language, moves on to plots and the pitfalls therein, and slams on the brain brakes at inaccurate details.

Let’s consider one such problem.   First, a confession: I’m not always comfortable with PDAs–or Public Displays of Affection. Especially teenagers pawing each other at the mall. Even close-up kisses in movies aren’t my thing. On the other hand, football fans exchanging a celebratory touchdown smooch meets my approval. I could watch babies and toddlers cuddling and loving up  their moms and dads and siblings all day. I can’t get enough of babies.

But I’m also averse to PDA in fiction where it doesn’t belong. Turns out there are lots of stories where it’s erroneous or silly.

Certain fiction genres place huge demands on writers. Require enormous rigor and exhaustive research and multiple rewrites. Often these demands mean acquiring reams of knowledge outside  your own purview. I’m especially thinking of historical fiction, but then I’ve also worked on some dystopian fiction that lacked the internal logic and science to create the dire future depicted in the story. As part of my gig I’ve spent countless hours combing original sources, medical journals, old texts, university catacombs. I also study maps, paintings, and portraits from past centuries and suggest writers should too.

If you are writing historical fiction that takes place before the 19th century please, please lay off with the hugs and kisses. And declarations of  I love you and I need a hug. Also, just lay off the hugs.  They simply weren’t common gestures as they are now. In fact, PDAs were often seen as classless, lacking in manners. Intimate gestures mostly happened between married folks behind closed doors. (Please understand I’m not saying there was no extramarital sex.)

Bear with me because PDAs and romantic acts need to be accurate across many genres.  A Western where you’ve placed a trail boss on one knee to beg for a woman’s hand in marriage might come off as ill-suited. If you write a fantasy set in an alternate universe with swords and sorcery, but then the setting is similar to Europe in the Middle Ages, then stick to the general mores of the Middle Ages unless you’ve got a logical reason to vary things. Like your characters are visiting a brothel or a highly-paid courtesan is in the scene. Couples canoodling as they stroll down a cobbled street, not so much. A drunk pinching a barmaid’s plump arse, yes.

Also, in times you need to imagine a world of  inconvenience. For centuries open sewers were common and diseases spread easily. Many people stank. Often only the rich could afford soap and hot water to fully bathe in. Servants and slaves were typically involved in these ablutions. In centuries past teeth might be missing, but since there was little sugar, not everyone would have rotten teeth. Skin might be pox pocked, scarred, and weatherworn; then there were goiters, missing digits and limbs. Human bodies often underwent extraordinary wear and tear. And many people died young.

As I was writing this I was reminded of the Westerns I’d sometimes watch at the Cosmo theater in my home town when I was a girl. Saturday matinees often featured Westerns and I’m remembering cowboys who rode into town after a long, arduous cattle drive, but carried none of the dust and grime of the trail into the saloon with them. And the (mostly)lovely young women who worked in the saloons sometimes looked more like beauty pageant contestants than whores. And the pioneer wives were typically pink-cheeked wearing pristine aprons. Romanticized. Sanitized.

Don’t pretty up everyday life especially when it comes to relationships unless you’ve got an impeccable reason. And please don’t call them relationships. It’s a contemporary term. Of course you get to choose details that suit your cast and plot. Create complexity  and plausibility because love within a marriage wasn’t always seen as vital to it’s success. Take care with chivalry and courtly love; don’t forget the common practice of arranged marriages, along with notions about chastity, church and convent schools teachings.

Don’t forget the inherent  dangers of sex in ages past like sexually-transmitted diseases. Here is an account of a duke dying of rotting genitals. Factor in little birth control, few cures for common diseases, famines, plagues, and such and it adds up to a world where your characters might not be looking fabulous and romping it up all the time.

And when your maiden character finally succumbs, it’s likely her beloved cannot count every freckle on her henceforth covered body. Before  electricity candles, lantern, and firelight didn’t alight a whole room unless it was room where the inhabitants were wealthy. For most people throughout the ages candles were dear, as were lanterns and fuel.  And I know it sounds picky, but getting the lighting wrong is a dead giveaway that the setting details are inaccurate. As is leaving it out. Starless nights were beyond black, they were infinite, mysterious, and scary unless you were seated near a fire.

Now of course your characters can find each other under crazy circumstances and celebrate love and birth healthy children, and and even frolic naked in a meadow. But as I’ve recently reminded a talented writer: fiction is a world of threat. Even if there are giggles under the covers and orgasms along the way, bad things will happen to characters we adore. But first turn down the lights.

Winter is coming 


Stay strong, have  heart, write about these crazy times even if you’re writing from loneliness or rage or outrage. Or because you’re writing from your lonesome, pissed off, heavy heart.



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•20

From an editor’s desk: Accuracy and how not to screw up sight lines, fisticuffs, and body blows

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 12•20

I taught virtual workshops last month and before teaching one on editing, I was asked to comment on typical mistakes, red flags, and screw-ups that are easily noticed in manuscripts. I’m going to list them here, starting with something that drives me kind of batty. File it under A for Accuracy.

  1. Forget Hollywood, John Wick, John Wayne and the worst of moviedom. Forget every shootout, stunt,  sword fight, car chase, foot chase, strangulation and  karate kick down you’ve watched. Especially those where the hero shoots his enemy at close range and doesn’t end up splattered in blood.  Verify  every fact, action, detail, bullet trajectory,  weapon used for accuracy.  And blood splatter. It’s  especially egregious when suspense and crime writers get things wrong. That means bullets and bodies are flying, with no possible relation to reality. And don’t get me started how heroes survive a firestorm of bullets by dodging and a few somersaults while spouting clever comebacks. Wayward gunfire happens. A barrage of bullets will injure or kill someone. Assault weapons are killing machines, which is why they were devised for the military.
  2. Start with motivation, think through cause and effect, and how action scenes will reveal characters. If the scene doesn’t push the story forward it simply doesn’t belong.
  3. Take care when using iconic locations. When your character charges across a well-known landscape like the National Mall in DC or  Times Square in New York or avenues in Paris, many readers will know the lay of the land. Same for famous buildings from the Empire State Building to the Eiffel Tower to the Taj Mahal.
  4. Understand and verify sight lines. First, unless a character is using some kind of device, most people cannot see blocks or (heaven help me) miles. They especially cannot recognize someone waltzing or skulking down the street blocks away.
  5. More about sight lines: Unless a shooter uses a scope or a special weapon, they cannot shoot targets who are running around a block or two away.  Now, some weapons can shoot a mile or more. It’s one reason hunting accidents happen.  But can your character’s weapon shoot that far? Are you thoroughly familiar with the weapon? Have you fired it? Handling and shooting guns, experiencing the heft and smells is amazingly elucidating.  Is your character a trained marksman?  And as far as a gun fight–unless you have firsthand or expertly researched information, why is it in your story? And don’t forget, shooting back at assailants is especially difficult while dodging gunfire. And few ninjas, Navy Seals, or trained experts of any ilk can dash across a vast, empty expanse unharmed when someone is gunning for them.
  6. Less is more. Especially if you have no firsthand knowledge. And my dear fellow writers, most of us have not. Most of us have not been beaten to a pulp, shot or strangled someone, or fell into an icy river. The less you know about what’s happening in a scene–be a gunfight or running in a dark forest–the more you just might need to keep things tight. Avoid complicated scenarios and ninja moves.   Instead, factor in the big picture. How does the altercation move the story forward?  What is the scene goal? Are the stakes high? If not, why the confrontation?  Will an action scene expose your protagonist’s flaws? Self doubts? Have you foreshadowed the events? Will the scene rise to the highest drama possible?
  7. Fights of any kind are exhausting. Swords are heavy. Breathing will get ragged.  Blows to the head likely cause concussions. If your character–an ordinary citizen or sloppy P.I.–takes multiple punches it’s likely game over. In the body is a not meant to be a punching bag. If someone is knocked unconscious, it’s not likely he’s going to scraggle to his feet and continue exchanging blows. Unless he’s a professional boxer and even then it’s game over.
  8. Bad guys are rarely gentlemanly and don’t take turns. Or play by the rules. Or stop amid the fight to spout jokes or make confessions. The Joker notwithstanding. Villains and bad guys of all types are hellbent on taking down their opponents. Period. That means tripping an opponent, biting, gouging eyes, spitting, hair pulling, diversions, and assorted dirty tricks. Or running over the protagonist with a heavy SUV.  Cuteness, cleverness and to-the-death battles rarely mix. Unless you’re Inigo Montoya in Princess Bride. Who survived sword thrusts, but still defeated Count Rugen. Because it was a fairy tale and sometimes good guys can survive grievous wounds. And Montoya had a righteous, fire-in-the-belly need to avenge his father’s murder.
  9. Along those lines, ease up on dialogue.  Avoid repetitions and threats. Again, unless you’re Montoya uttering, “Hello. You killed my father and now prepare to die.”
  10. Fires burn. Lungs, skin, tissue. Heroes dashing in and out of wall-to-wall flames to rescue babies, puppies, and damsels will get scorched. Their lungs will get wrecked unless they’re wearing some kind of mask/respirator. Burns scar. The pain lasts a lifetime.
  11. Darkness conceals. Scary scenes happen in the dark for a reason. Because everyone,  unless wearing night vision goggles, is at a disadvantage. Same with fog, smoke, blizzards, and whiteouts. Having recently driven through a mix of  dense smoke and fog so thick it was like a whiteout from my days in northern Wisconsin, your nerves are on such high alert that it might take your neck a few hours to unkink.
  12. And speaking of nerves, research what happens to the human brain and body when in danger. If you don’t know about how the nervous system works when a human is   you shouldn’t be writing about characters in danger. Fight-flight-freeze is real. It’s your job to know exactly how the human body works under many circumstances and stressors.
  13. Study scene basics.  Take care with structure–short sentences and punchy verbs are needed. Use all the senses. Sweat, sour breath, coppery blood, vomit, reeking corpses. The buzz of swarming flies and crawling maggots. Grunts, groans,  oofs, plop, scream, shrieks, siren wails all work for a reason. Because the human body responses to them.  And don’t forget touch–the most intimate sense. What does a cold body feel like?
  14. If your story includes a murder, the police and legal response to it must be faultless. I’ve worked on manuscript where a protagonist leapt from a plane and all was well. And I’m not talking about a military exercise. Another story where a murder happened and there was no logical, fact-based, or realistic aftermath in the investigation. The world is chock full of TV shows and films that depict accurate or mostly accurate police and legal procedures. If you screw up any aspect of crime writing your credibility vanishes after your first mistake.
  15. Know the laws governing your story. If the state or country the murder occurs in has the death sentence. If the accused needs to be read his rights. If bail can be posted. If the accused has the right to an attorney or phone call.
  16. Along those lines, precise details in any crime or suspense novel will sell the story. Obviously a good plot is crucial, but it’s the realism that nails it. Know exactly what a crime scene looks like and who works when investigating crimes from the coroner to the fingerprint team. Exactly what the inside of a prison entails. What prisoners wear, eat, and do with their time.
  17. A realistic aftermath is beyond crucial. Know how much blood loss occurs. What a drastic drop in blood pressure means. How a faltering heart is revived.  While tissues swell, bruises do not sprout immediately after a punch or blow. Bruises change color over time until they fade and heal. Body blows don’t ease with a shot and an aspirin and don’t heal over night. If someone is punched in the face or nose, even if nothing is broken, the pain is enormous, eyes water.

So what’s a writer to do? Interview experts. Investigate until your brain numbs. Choreograph and sketch out your scene. Use exact measurements to determine where characters are hiding, swashbuckling, and shooting. How many feet or yards separate them? What blocks the sight lines? Are there realistic hiding places? Then act them out, pace distances and figure out where punches will land. If you’re alone when writing then use the dog or a footstool or a pile of books. Know what damage punches will inflict. Before your character leaps from a rooftop, don’t plan for bird-like miracles.

If you’re writing about the Old West visit locations and museums. If you’re never ridden a horse, and your character is going race down a varmint or bank robber, why are you writing about horse chases? Seriously.

One More Tip: While most people will be charged with adrenaline when under attack, it’s also likely that they’ll screw up. Trip, slip, stumble, pee their pants, underestimate opponents, panic, freeze.

Stay hopeful, keep writing, and for god’s sake vote. While wearing a damn mask.  Better yet, work to get out the vote, and don’t fall for all this balderdash about voter fraud. Future generations depend on our votes. And I realize people from other countries read this space. Thanks for putting up with the madness that is now the U.S.A. We will get better.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•20

Mood meets dark night of the soul

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 15•20

There are still fires burning in beautiful Oregon and 5 million acres in the West have been incinerated. My house is no longer in an evacuation zone for which I’m grateful. However, the air is still hazardous and I’d really just like to step outside. Hoping it’s sometime soon.

One technique that  all writers need to master is purposefully using mood in storytelling. I consider mood part vibe, part setting, and part reader torture method. Did I say torture? I mean making readers feel what the writer needs him or him to feel. Giving readers profound emotional experiences.

Examples are Gothic, dark,  spooky, idyllic, brooding,  madcap, funny, mysterious, nail-biting, light hearted, rollicking, melancholy.  It’s crucially connected to the genre, setting,  and  tension in your story. Tension readers can feel.

At the same time,  the mood in your novel or short story needs to vary. If every moment is ominous or terrifying or sweet or giggly readers will weary. Stories need pauses for readers to set the book down or experience a ratcheting down of tension. Because again, relentless stories can be hard to endure.

Here’s a  trick to optimize mood and connect it to structure. At the end of the Act 2 the Dark Night of the Soul moment occurs. It’s a  critical turning point or plot point, also called All is Lost  because hopelessness and despair can permeate.  Often a protagonist’s options have run out or all means of escape are closed off. Sometimes the protagonist realizes that he or she has royally screwed up. Or has been blindsided or feels  heartbreaking regrets. It’s the emotional reckoning of the events and mistakes that have come before. It typically involves the protagonist hitting bottom. And the protagonist realizes the truth of his or her dire situation.

This is the time to heighten the mood with details, sounds, smells–whatever you need to make the scene potent. This is the time to capitalize on setting.

Think dark alleys, vast, echoing parking structures,  lonely churchyards, empty  streets, graveyards. Or maybe you want to use claustrophobic gatherings or a carnival or  drunken crowd. Just plan for the protagonist’s immense feelings of isolation and desolation.  And, of course, dark and stormy nights.

As when Agent Starling encounters Buffalo Bill and his dungeon of horrors in Silence of the Lambs. With the trapped senator’s daughter screaming for help nearby…and that creepy, doomsday music…

As when the Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove chooses to die of gangrene instead of being an amputee. “You don’t get the point, Woodrew. I’ve walked on this earth in pride all these years. If that’s lost, then let the rest be lost with it. There’s certain things my vanity will not abide.”

By the way, the Dark Night exists in cozies, romances, literary fiction, coming-of-age tales, in other words, fiction across the board…

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Please vote and be kind to one another out there.

Reminder: I’m teaching two virtual workshops for the Chanticleer Author Conferences on Thursday and Friday, the 17th and 18th.  I’ll be talking about creating mood and atmosphere in my Between the Lines workshop Thursday, 9:30-12:30 PT. Connect Chanticleer for details here.




More tips on introducing secondary characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 05•20

A bit cooler today I’m happy to report, but more blistering temperatures on the way.

Awhile ago I posted this example of introducing an unforgettable  secondary character from the great Leif Enger’s novel Virgil Wander.

You can find my column here in case you missed it. I’m going to talk about it during my virtual workshop Captivating Co-stars: Why Secondary Characters Need More Love for the Chanticleer Author’s Conference on Tuesday, September 8th.  Expect lots more examples and techniques for fleshing out your story cast.

Here are a few tips I’ve been thinking about as I finish my presentation and handouts for this  workshop.

Introduce your secondary characters one by one. Readers need a sense or understanding of their importance to the protagonist and story as soon as possible. This is especially important in your opening scenes and why it’s important to really, really think long and hard before you create a crowd scene in your first pages.

It can be helpful to imagine your reader as someone who has stumbled into your scene blindfolded and flummoxed. How will he/she get his/her bearings? Understand who is who? Tell the players apart? Understand where the whole shebang is taking place?

Create at least a few distinguishing, interesting qualities for your co-stars. Flouncy chiffon dress with red Keds. Flawless skin. Blue and purple hair. Beer gut. Nose like a hawk’s. Stooped posture. Yellow teeth. Rancid breath.  Six foot seven. Four foot eleven. Scarring acne.

Here’s an example from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:

Late, the protagonist Richard Mayhew is hurrying to a restaurant for an important dinner with his fiance’  when this happens:

She continued to drag him along, as a door ahead opened in the wall, an little way ahead of them, and someone stepped out and stood swaying for long long terrible moment, and then collapsed to the concrete. Richard shivered and stopped in his tracks. Jessica tagged him into motion.

(Jessica keeps talking, warning him how to act around her boss, their dinner guest) They had reached the person on the sidewalk. Jessica stepped over the crumpled form. Richard hesitated. “Jessica?”

“You’re right. He might think I’m bored,” she mused. “I know,” she said brightly, “If he makes a joke I’ll rub my earlobe.” 

“Jessica?” He could not believe she was simply ignoring the figure at their feet. 

“What?” She was not pleased to be jerked out of her reverie. 


He pointed to the sidewalk. The person was facedown, and enveloped in bulky clothes; Jessica took his arm and tugged him toward her. “Oh. I see. If you pay any attention, Richard, they’ll walk all over you. They all have homes, really. Once she’s slept it off she’ll be fine.” She? It was a girl. Jessica continued, “Now I’ve told Mister Stockton that we–” Richard was down on one knee. “Richard! What are you doing?”

“She isn’t drunk,”said Richard. ” She’s hurt. He looked at his fingertips. “She’s bleeding.”  The scene continues with Jessica insisting they ignore her.

The girl’s face was crusted with dirt, and her clothes were wet with blood. ….

Suddenly, the girl’s eyes popped open, white and wide in a face that was a little more than a smudge of dust and blood. “Not a hospital, please. Take me somewhere safe. Please.” Her voice was weak.

As the scene continues Richard picks up the girl and as he plans to carry her back to his place Jessica threatens to end their engagement.

Richard felt the sticky warmth of her blood, soaking into his shirt. Sometimes, he realized, there is nothing you can do. He walked away.

I’m so glad he walked away aren’t you? Technique to steal: Use secondary characters to reveal, expose the main character’s values, beliefs, traits.

He carries her home,stops up the bleeding, and she falls asleep in his bed. Dazed, he lands on his couch, wondering what has just happened. He eventually falls into a nightmare and sat up, gasping for breath. The girl is there and asks, “Bad dream?

After a transition paragraph Gaiman continues describing the girl: The homeless girl didn’t say anything. She looked bad: pale, beneath the grime and brown-dried blood, and and small. She was dressed in a variety of clothes thrown over each other: odd clothes, dirty velvets, muddy lace, rips and holes and through which other layers and styles could be seen. She looked, Richard thought, as if she’d done a midnight raid on the History of Fashion section of Victoria and Albert Museum, and was still wearing everything she’d taken. Her short hair was filthy, but looked like it might have been a dark, reddish color under the dirt. 

Technique: Keep building on the reader’s first impressions, keep developing the character’s appearance and traits. Give  readers enough details, but also allow them also to fill in the rest with their imaginations. 

Reminder: on Saturday, September 12 I’m teaching Secrets of the Dark Arts, an in-depth workshop chocked full of the techniques I use to edit my clients’ manuscripts. I’ve got a lot of examples and tips that I know you’ll find helpful including the 3 major stages of editing. You can still enroll and find more information here at Write Now! Conference sponsored by Desert Sleuths, Sisters in Crime of Phoenix.

Please stay safe this Labor Day weekend. Outdoors. Masked. Distanced–however you do it, remember there have been COVID spikes in this country after holidays.



The magic of characters–including co-stars

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 03•20

Long after the intricacies of a fictional plot fade from a reader’s memory, the characters linger with an almost physical presence, a twinkle of personality, unforgettable actions, and their happy or sad fates. Fictional characters whisper their secrets, allow us to witness their most intimate moments and sorrows, and trust us with their messy emotions, bad decisions, and longings. They penetrate our aloneness, populate our imagination by starring in our inner cinema, and slip their hands in ours and transport us to another place, another time. And while all this is going on, often they teach us what it means to be human complete with all the troubles, heartaches, and mysteries.

Characters that leave a lasting footprint in our memory range the gamut from stuck-on-themselves divas and difficult drama queens, to aging Italian billionaires and lonely singletons, along with knights and spies and waifs and dwarfs. It’s simple really: Character, not plot, is what chiefly interests the reader because he translates and feels the character’s actions, desires, and passions from his own data bank of experiences and emotions.

This is the opening to my book Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction. However, the book isn’t only about ‘bad guys’. It covers character roles and types including protagonists,  heroes,  unlikable protagonists, unreliable narrators, and a slew of information to add to  your understanding.

I’ve been thinking about my book and all I’ve learned since I wrote it,  because I’m creating a presentation on secondary characters for a virtual workshop I’m teaching next week at the Chanticleer Author’s Conference. {schedule is here} Before I delve into techniques for creating secondary characters, I’m explaining the roles, hierarchy, development, and purposes of fictional players. Because the more you know about the many uses for characters –the enormous scope and weight they can bring to a story–the more tools you wield when playing God.

When I wrote my Bullies book as I sometimes call it, my main objective was to urge writers to take risks with their characters. To use shills and scapegoats and flamboyant  loudmouths. Demon  lovers, homicidal stalkers, criminal politicians.  Stir in trolls,  punks, bad asses, weirder-than-weird nerds, smarter-than-smart geeks, callous grifters, hard-to-believe they’re so foul-mouthed not-so-sweet old ladies.

Bring it on.

The same is true for your supporting cast. Sure you’ll add bit players, stock players, and archetypal players. Royals, innocents, mentors, warriors, and confidants. Burned-out cops, cranks, frenemies,   crappy stepparents, and obnoxious neighbors. Familiar types with many valid, solid uses in storytelling.

Creating co-stars can be one of the great joys of storytelling. They can be outrageous, hilarious, freaky, maddening, sex-driven, drug-addled, and vapid. They can lie, steal, betray, enchant, and embolden. They sometimes get the best lines, spout the best snark. Give the best shade. They can drive their co-stars crazy and they can also drive the plot. They can star in their own subplots and often support the protagonist’s goals. Or thwart the protagonist’s goals. Or lie about supporting the protagonist while actually backstabbing the poor sod.

But like protagonists and antagonists, they can never be dull or commonplace. Never a pale footnote. Never thinly sketched unless the character has a walk-on part. But even bit players can possess physical characteristics. A lisp. A limp. An arresting voice. Inappropriate wardrobe choices and whisky breath.

I’m having a lot of fun thinking about this topic. Does it show?

As I’ve mentioned last month, I’m teaching four workshops and details are here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Oh, and PLEASE vote.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 02•20