Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Writing consoles

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 08•18

Rhythm, repetition, making patterns–these are not only important devices for shaping the strange and abstract instrument/object we call a poem or story, but they are craved as well because of our primordial need for reassurance, the sense of security we get from moving over the known. A mystery doesn’t lose power in revisiting. Writing is not just to know, it is also to console. We need to be reminded that we are part of the obscure rhythm of birth and decade. It is the humming that matters. ~ Breyten Breytenbach

Writing a Potent Action Scene

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 04•18

Action is eloquence. William Shakespeare, Coriolanus 

There are a few techniques it seems like I’m always passing on to my clients: amp up your verbs; use language and details to create more tension; and force scenes to rise. By rise I mean writers need to thrust the drama level to a crisis, a confrontation, an explosion. Because in most scenes you’re aiming for the worst outcome.  But if you’ve been writing awhile, you know that action scenes don’t come easy. I’ve got some ideas for you.

Components of an action scene:

Characters The main players in the scene with their key traits visible & engaged. Secondary characters need a reason for being.
Setting The time, place and context in which the scene takes place. Setting is not a backdrop, stage action scenes for maximum wattage.
Scene driver: Inciting event/change/threat The event/stimulus/threat that starts the action rolling in the scene (action can be precipitated before the scene begins)
Internal response

External response


How the main characters react emotionally to actions, threat, choice.

How the main characters react physically–dialogue, movement, escape, confrontation, fisticuffs. Typically there is a second driver (event or response)that starts the action.

Goal What the main character decides to do as a reaction to the inciting event or threat.
Consequence How the main character struggles to accomplish the goal.
Resolution How the scene goal turns out–win, lose, draw, escape, disaster.
  • Three words to write by: cause and effect.
  • Action scenes are high stakes.
  • The action needs to build to a full boil crisis.
  • Whenever possible structure action scenes with a midpoint which is also a reversal.
  • Use all your tools to create a character’s emotional responses including, subtext, posture, facial expressions, gestures, mannerisms, eye movements, and voice quality. Voice includes pitch, rate of speech (does the character talk fast when nervous?), intonation.
  • As you write, imagine you’re holding a camera catching the action blow-by-blow.
  • With intense action, use short sentences to pick up the pace. Action scenes usually have a minimal amount of description unless it contributes to the scene. The scent of blood. The sound of a gun cocking, or the creak of a floor board. This is not the place for describing the scenery or the characters.
  • Action scenes feature choppy and incomplete sentences. Such as, “What was that noise?” “What the . . .”
  • If the setting is complex and the action intricate, sketch out a map. Place coins or placeholders to mark your players, define the sight lines, scene’s boundaries (how far can a character reach?), and how long it might take to walk, run (or sneak) from point A to point B.
  • If the action is complicated, ask friends or family members to act it out so you can verify the sequence and reactions.
  • Read your dialogue out loud.
  • Use simple past tense verbs such as “kicked” or “punched” rather than those pesky ‘ing’ participles such as “kicking” or “punching.”
  • Your protagonist has skills, strengths, and weaknesses you can exploit and showcase. Foreshadow those traits throughout the story so when the reader reaches the action scene, he is expecting complications and credibility.
  • Scenes are never random events—they all need a logical connection to the story line and to create ramifications.
  • Pay special attention to endings—they need weight, potency, and to reveal consequences.
  • Pacing is key, but is also controlled by the scenes that come before and after. These will typically be slower to set up and react to the fight.
  • When writing fight scenes or violence, pack these scenes with an emotional punch too.
  • Read screenplays to digest the moment-to-moment breakdowns.
  • When you watch films study the reaction shots.
  • Some emotions in an action scene will be brief or fleeting.
  • When a gunshot is fired nobody has time to think. However, the body’s chemistry shifts to handle lethal threats, allowing the brain to process far more information in a shorter period of time.
  • Keep in mind that action scenes happen at several levels and much of the fight needs to be about internal changes, the inner world of protagonist.
  • During revisions fine tune character’s emotional reactions so they’re unique, fresh, and individual. This aspect of revision is crucial, but sometimes difficult.
  • Make certain you can justify carnage and bloodshed.
  • Don’t bog down the sequence with too much technical description. Show who has the upper hand, rack up the tension to the nines, and tap into the motivations of the character readers root for. And if someone gets punched or shot or knocked to the ground, readers should feel it too.
  • Utilize all the senses and never rely solely on physical description.

stay tuned for action scene examples


Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 01•18

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 30•18

For National Poetry Month

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 17•18

A poem, as a manifestation of language, and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle sent out in the–not always greatly hopeful–belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something. Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality. ~ Paul Celan

Adrienne Rich on Why Poetry Matters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 12•18

Every year when April rolls around and the landscape is nodding with new, soft blooms National Poetry Month happens. I spend the month reading poems, starting my mornings with a poem I haven’t read before. Reading about poets’s lives I’ve newly discovered while searching out these poems, and jotting down small glories and discoveries in my writer’s notebook.

One of my favorite lines about poetry comes from Adrienne Rich who said, “Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.” She was one of the most influential voices in the 20th Century.

To learn more about Rich’s life and musings about the power of poetry, check out the brainpickings issue that covers this topic beautifully. Here the Poetry Foundation summarizes Rich’s remarkable life and body of work. And here is a compilation of poems, essays, letters, and interviews.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart–and read poetry.

Ron Carlson: stay in the room

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 03•18

The most important thing a writer can do after completing a sentence is to stay in the room. The great temptation is to leave the room to accelerate the completion of the sentence or to go out to the den where the television lies like a dormant monster and rest up for a few days for the next sentence or to go wander the seductive possibilities of the kitchen. But, it’s this simple. The writer is the person who stays in the room. The writer wants to read what she is in the process of creating with such passion and devotion that she will not leave the room.  The writer understands that to stand up from the desk is to fail and to leave the room is so radical and thorough a failure as to not be reversible. Who is not in the room writing? Everybody. Is it difficult to stay in the room, especially if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, where you’re going? Yes. It’s impossible. Who can do it? The writer.  ~ Ron Carlson


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 02•18

Join me in Bellingham, WA at the Chanticleer Authors Conference, April 20-22

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 31•18

I’ll be teaching on Saturday and Sunday, April 21 & 22 at the Chanticleer Authors Conference in Bellingham, Washington as part of a stellar lineup of presenters and experts.  The conference begins Friday, April 20. You can find the schedule here and details for registering here.

There are a number of options for attending, including the Masters Classes I’m teaching on Sunday, the 23.. In the morning I’m teaching Learning from the Greats because I believe strongly in analyzing great writing to understand how authors achieve plot potency along with emotional resonance. Plan on reading some novel excerpts and short stories as part of this workshop. In the afternoon I’m teaching the Anchor Scenes of Fiction. In this workshop I distill the underlying story structure that’s easy to implement and essential to your understanding of fiction. On Saturday I’m teaching a workshop on Subtext, the River Beneath the Story and leading a “kaffee klatch’ What’s in a Title?   As usual, I plan on making the sessions fun and lively while mind stretching. I’ll be posting more information, so please stay tuned.

If you don’t live in the area, here’s info on lodging. And if you’re a tulip fan like me, nearby Skagit Valley will have a glorious tulip festival going on. It’s worth a visit too. The colors are gorgeous.

Take Care with Minor Characters, part 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 19•18

Sven and Olaf, Frozen

In fiction there’s a hierarchy when it comes to characters: the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, minor, walk-on, and stock characters. Let’s focus more on minor characters, shall we? Writers who neglect minor characters are neglecting an essential ingredient, like omitting garlic or oregano from pasta sauce.

Minor characters, like secondary characters operate in a strictly supporting role.

  • They are rarely viewpoint characters.
  • Don’t take up a lot of ‘stage time’ and readers generally don’t care about them a lot.
  • Do not have a subplot.
  • This means they’re usually ‘flat’ that is, they won’t change over the course of the story and they’re not fully dimensional. (There are exceptions to this.)

HOWEVER: Minor characters add color, verve, spice, eccentricity.

  • Make things happen, help advance the plot.
  • Establish the setting.
  • Provide insights or information about major characters. Without secondary and minor characters the protagonist would be isolated.
  • Prove that the protagonist has grown or changed.
  • Support the mood or atmosphere in a scene.
  • Breathe life into the story.
  • Disprove stereotypes.
  • Support themes.


To Kill a Mockingbird: Heck Tate, Calpurnia, Judge John Taylor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, Dolphus Raymond

A Christmas Carol: Tiny Tim, Belle, Scrooge’s former fiance, Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, Fezziwig

Harry Potter series: Colin Creevey, Katie Bell, Pansy Parkinson,  Padmil & Parvati Patil, Neville Longbottom, Cho Chang (to name but a few)

Hunger Games series: Madge Undersee, Katniss’ friend who gave her the mockingjay pin, Caesar Flickerman the television host, Effie Trinket, the District 12 escort, other tributes–Cato, Thresh, Clove, Foxface, Glimmer, Marvel,  (Rue is a secondary character)

A few more tips:

  • While a minor character can be quirky or sexy, he or she shouldn’t distract readers from the main events and characters. Generally the more you tell your reader about a minor character, the more you elevate his or her importance.
  • Use minor characters for humor or breathers in the story.
  • Minor characters should complete the story, create verisimilitude.
  • Give them a ‘job’ to do, such as a witness in crime novel. In The Hunger Games,  Marvel, the tribute from District 1 kills Rue with a spear through her stomach. Later Katniss kills him. Although she’s already taken out several competitors, she is now a hunter, not the hunted, a significant shift in the story.
  • Emulate J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens and grant your minor characters silly, memorable, or suggestive names. As in Martin Chuzzlewit and  Sophronia Akershem, and Uncle Pumblechook.
  • Use minor characters to reveal class, ethnicity, culture, and the milieu of the story world.
  • Brooks, Shawshank Redemption

Don’t be afraid to give them a poignant role or to motivate another character as Brooks does in Shawshank Redemption. Poor Brook is elderly when he’s paroled from Shawshank. Problem was, he didn’t have the youth or skills to cope on the outside and ends up hanging himself. He serves as Red’s ‘anti-mentor’ in the story. Later, when Red the narrator is also paroled after spending years in prison, readers and movie viewers are reminded of Brooks’ fate. Will Red follow him?