Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Fiction is About the Cost of Things

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 26•19

Fiction is about the cost of things. The plot should always somehow scar or wound the protagonist and put something valuable at risk.

Protagonists suffer. Period. Paying heavy costs make characters relatable. I swear by these statements. Use them to guide your storytelling because it creates stakes, motivation, and tension.

Fictional characters take more risks than ordinary humans. Typically not all risks pay off.  Along the way friendships, allies, freedom or safety might be lost. Such is the cost of fiction.

How much will he or she suffer?  Sacrifice? Regret?

Before I go further, it’s important to point out this doesn’t mean your protagonist will always be a martyr or your story ends in tragedy. But everything can be on the line in the fictional universe: friendships and allies, family, love, prestige, honor, trust, hope, money. Betrayals might happen. Long-held secrets revealed.  Obviously these possibilities create emotional distress.

Not to mention to physical costs like  pain, injuries, and body parts. Think Katness fighting for her life in The Hunger Games and going deaf in one ear. Then she’s forced to fight for Peeta’s life because he’s been badly injured.(In the book, not the film series, he loses a leg)

Speaking of body parts: remember the suffering doled out by psychotic fan Annie Wilkes in Misery?

MISERY, Kathy Bates, James Caan, 1990, (c)Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection


Because bad things happen to our favorite characters. Really bad things. Your character’s suffering will always reveal his or her depths and strengths. Suffering always advances the plot. If it doesn’t, leave it out of your story.

Let’s look at some examples:

Jem Finch loses his innocence when he realizes the depth of racism in his small town in To Kill a Mockingbird.  

Rocky Balboa is brutally beaten and loses to Apollo Creed. But he goes the distance and wins love.

Juno MacGuff not only gives up her baby, but learns that the adoptive father-to-be is a man-child. She’s forced to risk giving her baby to a single mom instead of the stable couple she’d hoped for.

Woody of the Toy Story series loses friends, risks his pride, leadership role,and life, battles greed and heartlessness. All these costs bring him maturity and wisdom.

Katniss Everdeen risks her life to take her sister’s place in the deadly Hunger Games.

In The Godfather the Corleone family loses their oldest son in the mob war that breaks out. Unfortunately it was Sonny’s impetuousness that started the war. The inciting incident, or catalyst in the story is a meeting between the Corleone family and a representative for the Tattaglia family. This issue on the table is investing a million dollars to get into heroin-trafficking business. Sonny, going against protocol, reveals his interest in the money-making scheme.

After an attempt on the godfather’s life, and with the body count rising,  Michael the youngest son, commits murder and is forced into hiding. The story follows his profound character arc from war hero and college graduate to cold-hearted mob boss. He loses his humanity with each power move and act of revenge.

Bad decisions often make things worse. Because fictional characters screw up a lot. Which brings on more misery, self-doubt, and need for more risks.

Questions to consider when plotting:

Is the cost justified?

Will readers realize the cost or sacrifice is too great before the protagonist will?

Does the protagonist understand the cost involved or is he or she naive? Untested?

Can you make the toll affect several aspects of the protagonist’s life? Can the plot exact physical, emotional, financial tolls?

Will the cost involve another character? A vulnerable character?

Will the protagonist be exposed, peeled bare while paying the cost?

Will other characters try to dissuade the protagonist from paying the price?

Can you make the cost or sacrifice or pain visceral and believable?

Can you identify the cost in stories you read and films you watch?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Yoga for Writers

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•19

I don’t know about you, but I spend time every day trying to undo the effects of sitting in front of a computer. Always stretching and bending and taking breaks.

Here’s a yoga routine suggested by one of my medical providers from Yoga With Adriene.

The novels I remember best

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•19

“The novels I remember best have empathetic characters whose motives I understand–even if I don’t agree with them–and a plot I can’t stop thinking about. The best novels make me think–that could happen, and what would I do if it happened to me?”  ~ Amanda Patterson

Reading Deeply and Roddy Doyle

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•19

Bleak November skies this morning and the impeachment inquiry is airing on television. These days I feel like I’m taking a law course by following the news and activities across our government. Make that several courses.

When I’m reading a new author or a beloved author with a new book out I often research the author, reading interviews, articles, reviews. Usually I wait until after I’ve read the book, but sometimes, especially if I’m disappointed in the book, I’ll read reviews wondering what others have thought of the story.

While a compelling novel or insightful nonfiction book stands alone, there’s so much to be learned by following an author’s career and knowing more about his or her background. It’s akin to listening to a performance of a Beethoven symphony and knowing that he was deaf or near-deaf when he composed it. Adding the context of his handicap and daily life deepens your appreciation.

All writers need to read deeply. After reading for enjoyment, we read to discern themes and techniques, structure, and language. Study how author’s create secondary characters in a few deft strokes. Or how the story moves in and out of time. Study techniques you’re trying to strengthen. I’m certain I learn something with every book or short story I read, not to mention a well-written opinion piece or investigative journalism. This means I underline, make margin notes, jot in my notebook (there is one in every room of my house), ponder reasons why the writer made certain choices. I’m always analyzing and it adds a lot to my enjoyment.

Now these points  probably aren’t news to you. But also consider my suggestion about researching authors. What risks did the writer take telling the story? Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge is a good example–a woman’s life told in 13 short stories. Olive is a singular character–waspish, difficult, enormously complicated, and a fascinating oddball. And Strout creates her with fascinated empathy and the more we read about Olive, the more compassion we feel toward a character suffering from unspoken grief.

What obstacles did the author overcome along the way? Stephen King has been open about his addictions and physical ailments and tedious recovery after being hit by a drunk driver. His omnivorous reading habit.  What habits sustain your favorite writers? Who has influenced them? What place has shaped them?

And while you’re at it, whenever you’re hanging out with a family member or friend, ask him or her what he or she is reading. Then ask why and what they think about the book, what they’re learning and taking away from it. Ask what single word defines the protagonist.

I’m currently reading, Smile by Roddy Doyle. And here’s an article about his career that was published in The Guardian in 2011. I was struck by his comments about how Dublin and Ireland were modernizing as he was growing up. It reminds me of his earlier book The Commitments.

Writers follow threads. Writers read for meaning.

PS The Guardian regularly publishes an excellent series featuring writers, called A Life in Writing.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•19

End Strong

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 21•19

We’ve had early rains this autumn, but the colors splashed around are russet, lemon, gold and scarlet.

I’ve officially turned into one of those cranks who complain about how fast time passes. Typically, October has found me gob smacked because once Halloween is over, the runaway slide toward the holidays seems to pick up speed.  Meanwhile, I want this season to linger with its burnished hues, last farmer’s markets, dahlias still blooming.

And I want to end strong.

Unless you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo, I encourage all who stop by here to nail your writing goals before the year ends.  To not allow the frenzy of feasts and gift giving and gatherings steal your writing time and productivity.

Because wouldn’t it be grand to celebrate your accomplishments as you sip champagne on New Year’s Eve? You could spend January 1 looking ahead and planning, feeling momentum as 2020 launches. Here are a few suggestions for getting there:

  • Figure out what matters most in the (gulp) next 9 weeks and narrow your focus. Revising a rough draft? Nailing 50,000 words in November? Executing a marketing plan?
  • Be realistic.
  • Acknowledge your kryptonite, then do something about it. I procrastinate, and sometimes after dinner, although I have plans to write or work, I dissolve into avoidance and complacency. Then I go to sleep feeling guilty and wake up unhappy with myself.
  • Recommit: Create action steps and milestones that prove you’re on track. All goals are measurable; either count the hours or words you need to get in.
  • Don’t fritter away the first hours of your day. It’s sooo easy to do. If you can, get up earlier than usual. Don’t check your phone, turn on TV, or meander around your place. Start the coffee or tea. Grab your laptop or sit at your computer and clock in.
  • Use Sundays to plan your week ahead, slipping writing time into the nooks and crannies of your schedule.
  • Join me in whittling down your procrastination list. These items steal your energy. Tackle them in small bursts and purges if necessary. Naturally your list will reflect your concerns. I managed to tame a seriously disorderly closet, and I’m hauling off stuff I no longer need. I’ve got trim to paint, raised beds to clear  out, research to complete.
  • At the same time, take some shortcuts. When you shop for groceries, add make-ahead entrees to your freezer. Buy gift cards and movie passes.
  • Take stock of your habits. Do you need to go to bed earlier, drink more water, eat better, stretch more? Do you need to spend less time on social media?
  • While parties and such might start filling your calendar, stay home on week nights whenever possible. Slip in some writing time.
  • Take care of yourself when you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed. This is when you’ll cave to another dessert; when you’ll stop in at the neighbor’s party even though your throat is sore and you’re beat; you’ll spend money because you’re feeling rushed or guilty. Holiday traditions sometimes turn into obligations. If they no longer fit your circumstances or budget, reconsider attending and practice saying no. Choose what’s most meaningful. And keep choosing writing.
  • Schedule meals, conversations, walks with people you’ve lost touch with. Reconnecting will make the holiday season more meaningful and your future warmer.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, focus on the finish

Talking about writing with Rachel Hanley

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 14•19

I was interviewed by the talented Rachel Hanley. A few thoughts on writing and editing and persevering.  With many thanks and yes, my head shot is dated.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

Ben Okri on storytelling

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 07•19

The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell. 


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•19

A painterly approach: more on using colors in your writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 30•19

I’ve been studying the history of the English language and am fascinated by the period after the bubonic plague of the 1300s.  After the Norman invasion and occupation of England in the 11th century,  French came to be the language of the  nobility, courts, and education.  English, much of it based on Anglo-Saxon origins, was considered lowly and inferior, and was most often spoken by farmers, herdsman, and commoners. Then the pandemic, or Black Death, wiped out 75 million people, or about one-third (some experts say almost one-half) of all inhabitants of Europe between 1340-1400. The plague began in China, traveled along the trade routes, and landed in Italy aboard merchant ships, then spread throughout Europe and moved onto Russia. The devastation meant that it took about 200 years for the world to repopulate.

Oddly, this was a boon for the English language because many of the French-speaking noblemen and women, knights, tutors, scholars, clerics, and  government officials succumbed to the hideous disease.  This was also the era of the Hundred Years War between France and England (1347-1453) and societal structures were shifting and breaking down. For one thing, there were no longer enough farmers and laborers, so they began demanding higher wages. As the serf-based system deteriorated, the lower classes started owning land. Prices soared, unrest reigned, and amid these shifting tides, the upper classes in England struggled to maintain power and the class system.

One odd result was  a law  that restricted the fabrics  the lower classes were allowed to wear—wool, hemp and  linen. Meanwhile, the upper classes could wear silks, satins, and velvets; fabrics that would take dye and produce vibrant shades. Restrictions were even made about what furs the commoners could wear–they were allowed rabbits and fox, for example, while the nobility were clad in ermine. Purple and sable could only be worn by the royal family.

Color is everywhere. Color hides beneath the ocean’s  roiling surface, creates a new canvass with every sunrise and sunset, adorns every season.

Color inspires, affects mood and emotions, and communicates meaning.  Color ranks among a writer’s most effective  tools to create subtext, symbolism, and resonance.

There are obvious uses and associations: when characters blush when flattered or pale at bad news. The ubiquitous dark and stormy night associated with gloom and danger is a much-used trope as are cheery blue skies, verdant green forests or pastures, and  red for passion.  These associations are centuries old and yet still effective. And a lack of color– bleachedpale, pallid, ashen– also communicates.

Suggestions for using color:

Give your main characters their own color palettes. If you write fiction know why your character wears earth tones or primary colors.  How does your female detective dress in her off-hours? Would she wear a deep wine-colored dress to a holiday party? Black? A tuxedo? Does she ever wear pink? Doc Martens?

Also, you can distinguish secondary and minor characters with color. What colors would her arty neighbor Rosalee wear? What colors does Rosalee use for decorating her apartment?

Along these lines, one of the most fascinating depictions of a character arc happened in AMC’s Breaking Bad series. In this hard-to-define series, seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White transforms after a cancer diagnosis into a meth-producing drug kingpin. All in the name of supporting his family. One way the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan showed his dramatic arc was to change the colors White wore from nerdy khakis and earth tones in the opening season to villainous black as he delved deeper into criminal activities.

Another TV series that created powerful associations between colors and characters is the period drama Downton Abbey. The fashion designers not only created sumptuous period costumes that reflected their status and the occasion, their wardrobes reflected temperament, and personality traits. Here is a link that discusses the early seasons and the Crawley daughters’ wardrobes. Each sister was given their own palette season by season, shifting as the characters evolve.

Since social ranking was extremely important in this era, the many characters’ color palettes and jewelry also reflected their position.

Color in your settings. Here’s the Crawley’s drawing room where they often gather before dinner. The hues, gilt, ornamentations,  and bejeweled chandelier create opulence and luxury.

The family’s dining room where so much gossip, backbiting, and witty repartee happens.

In contrast, here’s the servant’s dining hall. It’s simple, located in a lower level and serves as their dining hall, gathering place, and break room.

The decor, and textures couldn’t be more different from the upstairs dining room, including the lack of color. And then there’s the wall of bells that summon them.

Anchor your whole story world via color.  Colors give readers substance, reality. They inform, reveal if  it’s overcast, wintry, a pink-hued dawn or a sultry August afternoon. And you know something? Coloring in bedrooms and ballrooms, classrooms and boss’ office is fun. Even more fun: gardens, parks, enchanted forests, castles, state fairs and amusement parks, light houses, echoing caves, and impenetrable jungles. Learn to describe the hues of each season, rain, oceans, river, lakes, starlight, and skies in many moods.

Choose analogies and riches from the natural world. Golds and orange are linked with harvest and autumn.  Then there’s emerald, dandelion, lilac, moon glow, sea green, honey, egg shell, shadow black, poppy red, marigold yellow, iceberg cream,  champagne, pumpkin, grassy, sapphire, strawberry, bone, peacock blue, olive, smoke, moss, sea green, plum, blush.Moonlight is pearly, ocean colors are often ever-changing and can range from steel to turquoise. As can sky. A raging fire will blaze in red, orange, yellow, and white.  In fact, the dominant colors in a flame will change with the temperature.

Take care with skin tones and eye colors. While green eyes are rare (about 2% of the population) fiction is filled with green-eyed temptresses and the like. And if your character has green eyes, then you need to know how he/she got them–some DNA combinations will not produce green eyes. Mostly if you’re mentioning skin color, it’s done for a reason.Freckled skin could mean a character has a Celtic background. A mixed race character in the US in the 1700 and 1800s will have a significant backstory.

Use cultural, historical,  and gender associations. Brides in the West wear white because it connotes purity and white while Indian brides wear red because it’s a celebratory color. White is also recognized as truce. In Asian cultures white is funereal associated with death, mourning, and bad luck. In Western cultures red is linked to passion and excitement, and Christmas (along with green). It’s also coupled with danger as in stop signs. Chinese New Year is linked with red and it’s often associated with religion throughout the world.

Mourners at a funeral wear black or somber colors in North America while in the Middle East orange is coupled with loss and mourning. Westerners link orange to autumn, Halloween and harvest, while in Ireland orange is tied to protestants.  Purple has long been associated with royalty in Europe and North America, while in Asian and Eastern cultures  the color is yellow. In the West blue is considered masculine, while in Latin America it’s most linked with religion and the Virgin Mary’s robes. Black is often connected to masculinity and formality as in black tie events.  Black is also equated with bad luck, illness, magic and mystery. Green is the color of money, is linked to the Irish, jealousy, and the natural world. It suggests spring, fertility, and freshness.

Find fresh associations that create mood and emotions.  Clues can be found in advertising and design–there’s a reason why Golden Retrievers appear in commercials that suggest health, security, safety. Product packaging can also offer clues such as greens for natural ingredients. Pinks and bright colors can suggest a less serious product while yellow can suggest optimism and freshness. Silver and gold are linked to prestige, sophistication, elegance.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, use colors