Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Gail Godwin on Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 08•17

     The characters that I write are all parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find what I don’t know yet. ~ Gail Godwin

NaNoWriMo tip: Feature your protagonist’s worst fear.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 07•17

Reading fiction makes us scared. And I’m not talking about only horror or thrillers. If a reader isn’t afraid about what awaits the central characters, and if the main characters aren’t vulnerable, then the story won’t work properly and readers won’t lose sleep to discover if the character survives.

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See readers follow a  blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, in Germany and occupied France. The backdrop for the story is the period surrounding World War II before D-Day.  Marie-Laure understandably fears being alone amid a world gone mad. And indeed, she ends up alone because the Nazis capture her Papa and she’s left to survive by her wits and senses and the lessons her father has taught her.

Werner and his sister are orphans and as a techno-prodigy who can build and fix radios he’s swept up into the relentless Nazi machine. He joins Hitler Youth wanting to escape his fate of becoming a coal miner–his chief fear.  However, he’s a gifted boy. His mind is too active, curious, and mechanically inclined for this dark and brutal work.  But will he survive while tracking down the Resistance radios operating in France? Will he come to realize the truth about the brutal regime he serves?

Another technique Doerr used was to introduce Marie-Laure and Werner during their childhood before the war. As in real life, meeting characters when they’re children makes readers invest more in them.

It’s an intricate and carefully plotted tale with many of the events drawn from history. Their paths collide by story’s end and the novel makes us think about the most vulnerable victims of war. Doerr discusses how he came to write their stories here.

Circumstances are a huge factor in creating fiction–in this novel Werner is born in a mining town and Marie-Laure loses her eyesight at six.  Circumstances will be linked to the trajectory of your plot. In All the Light We Cannot See the Germans occupy Paris  in 1940 so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. Her great-uncle Etienne lives there, but he’s a recluse suffering from the effects of WWI.  The French  oppose the Nazi occupation and form the Resistance. Marie is drawn to help and is an asset because of her blindness and youth. The story also includes a rare and cursed jewel that increases the ante because a Nazi  sergeant major knows of its existence. He’s been tasked to collect French artifacts that Hitler covets. And woven through the story is magic of radio waves and their practical role in the war.

She cannot say how many others are with them. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book to her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along  the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, ‘They’ll take the blind girls before they take the gimps.’ The first boy groans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.

NaNoWriMo tip: Plot is People. Give all your major players an agenda.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 03•17


Plot is people. Human emotions and desires  founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there is an explosion–that’s Plot. ~ Leigh Brackett




NaNoWriMo tip: Live your story

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 02•17

As a writer I need to have my story festering around in my head all the time, so that when I sit down to write its as though I’m writing from memory, rather than from imagination. ~ Ann Cleeves

If it’s November….it must be NaNoWriMo

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•17

It’s that time again. And I’m not talking about all the Christmas folderol in the stores already. Writers everywhere know that November is the month for joining National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Time to hunker down, write your heart out at a dizzying pace, aiming for 50,000 words by December 1. On November 1, 2015 I wrote a long, detailed, and dare I say, practical post about the whole matter of writing fast and smart. You can find it here and it’s called NaNoWriMo Hacks & a Bit of Tough Love.

And from October 31, 2014 here (Slightly Crazy: Map Your Course to Survive NaNoWriMo) is a list of the essentials every novel needs:

  1. A knowable protagonist who will fascinate readers.
  2. A problem that needs solving or a goal that needs reaching.
  3.  An understanding of your protagonist’s inner and outer desires.
  4.  An interesting/workable locale.
  5.  A menace/threat hanging over the protagonist.
  6.  An antagonist.
  7.  How it will all work out.

Good luck. Write fast, don’t edit, don’t look back, live the story. If you get stuck jump past that scene and carry on. Keep asking yourself: what does my character want. Then block that desire.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 01•17

Write for the night: Dire Consequences

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•17

With All Hallow’s Eve here I’m still reading the Shirley Jackson anthology (with growing admiration) and I’m still unsettled by what happens in her stories and how her twisted mind works. Reading along I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories function and how fear is wired into our bodies and brains. Some theories suggest our most primal fears reach back thousands of years when humans were prey. Gulp. You might argue in this era of terrorism and unstable people owning military weapons we still are.

Many genres are embedded with doom and come with mega stakes: Horror, dark fantasy, thrillers, psychological suspense and thrillers, dystopian sci-fi.  Demons, monsters, murderers, computers gone rogue, soul-stealing dangers abound. Woven throughout the sense that something dreadful is going to happen…. which brings us around to consequences. The cause and effect of storytelling.  Our deepest-held fears, our night terrors come true. Justice or injustice delivered. Consequences whisper with every screeching floor board, every lurking shadow. Consequences too horrible to be entertained. Consequences torment the characters and thus the readers.

Consequences like Heath Ledger’s Joker knows where you live and what makes you tick, and has a sick prank in mind just for you.

Consequences like you woke up one morning and a huge dome has mysteriously landed on your town separating you and the townspeople from the rest of humankind.

Consequences like a man-eating shark is marauding the coastline near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Consequences like the White Walkers, a giant army of ice monsters who have the ability to raise the dead. Led by their king, accompanied by hordes of the undead, they are stalking humans, storming south.   Oh, and if they reach Westeros they could usher in a long winter that would wipe out everyone and everything.

Consequences are especially deadly in horror fiction because the monsters and bad guys seem unstoppable. The monsters can be lizard-like or zombies or heartless serial killers. The man-eating shark’s hunger is unquenchable. The killer’s needs and will seem boundless.

So how do you create compelling consequences? 

Establish what is at stake, the dreaded alternative. Consequences matter. The Game of Thrones series begins with evidence of the white walkers and the dangers they present. Some of the most powerful stakes are established before the story begins.

The protagonist has a lot to lose. His or her actions will always bring about consequences. Often  a test is involved.

Consider adding unintended consequences.

Your protagonist needs to experience consequences early in the story and then keep them coming.

At least one character must be especially vulnerable. In Game of Thrones think of bumbling Sawell  Tarly of the  Night’s Watch. As the series goes along he is saddled with Gilly, a wilding woman and her baby. Their relationship turns to romance and Sam is allowed to travel to the Citadel to become a maester. Despite an exhausting workload he begins searching The Citadel for a weapon or clue to fight the white walkers. Is the fate of the kingdom in his hands? Because Sam is bumbler. His father despises him. He doesn’t always listen to Gilly when he should. (Clue: as the series goes along men not listening to women creates serious consequences and ultimately starts shifting the power to women.)

Sam and Gilly and baby Sam also illustrate a simple dynamic: they love each other. In fiction if a character is loved or beloved the consequences have more weight.

Feature your protagonist screwing up. Just think of all the spats Harry Potter got involved with. Not to mention many of them were with his friends. And remember how many times he screwed up spells and other Hogwarts lessons.

Give your protagonist important decisions and moral dilemmas with mega ramifications. Protagonists always pay a price for success or goals accomplished.

Make the consequences visible, public, not only personal or internal.

If possible feature time running out or a deadline.

If possible feature poetic justice. In real life criminals often get away with crimes, incompetent politicians are elected to office. Fiction reinforces our moral codes.  Shakespeare’s plays often feature this device as does Jane Austen’s stories. This means that not everyone will live happily ever after.

Write for the Night 1: Pull readers in from the first sentence

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 24•17

Yesterday was dazzling and golden, the kind of autumn day many of us dream of.  I spent time outdoors deadheading flowers and sweeping up after a big storm blasted through over the weekend.  I drove through town after a medical appointment gaping at leaves transformed into burnished and magical hues.

I’m reviving an old reading habit, reading stories inspired by the season. In November I plan on reading Truman Capote’s The Thanksgiving Visitor and in December his A Christmas Memory. (‘Oh, Buddy, it’s fruitcake weather.’) Yesterday I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever gotten lost in. I read the final creepy 30 pages after dusk fell.

When you write horror and psychological suspense it’s important to create a penetrating tone and establish intrigue from the opening page. I was yanked into the story’s disturbing reality within the first few sentences:

Notice: the protagonist’s last name is Blackwood not exactly a cheery moniker; her sister is Constance (a clue to her personality and role in the story) and the final word in the paragraph is dead–a deliberate, emphatic choice. Then there is her longing to be born a werewolf and a mention of poisonous mushrooms. Menace creeps in immediately and never lets go. And Mary Katherine is a fascinating character, an unreliable narrator, and a feral,  witchy young woman.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 20•17

A writer, like all artists, gives the gift of release to our audience by naming their feelings. We know light on water, the sight of a baby, the bucket that tips off the ladder, the pain of loss, the endless pain of injustice, but until it is written, it is just an impression that dances and strains under the surface of the brain’s sheath. By giving it the concrete form of language, writers light up the brain with yes. Yes! Yes! That’s what it looks like, feels like, tastes like, to be alive, thank you. The recognition is the release. ~ Nicola Wheir, The Nanny Diaries


Scene Tip: Opposite Emotions in Dialogue

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 17•17

Autumn has crept into our region with glorious colors and shades. We’re starting to get heavy rains here, but for the past few days the nights were crisp, days were sunny and mild, and leaves seemed to be changing day by day. Every errand, every trip around town is color-infused.  I feel like the autumnal palette of golds and scarlet and russet is lifting me up after sorrowful weeks and months in this country. I so appreciate how the seasons can anchor us, don’t you?

Last Saturday I met a friend and we attended a showing of the Metropolitan Opera transmission of Norma in a movie theater. I’ve never followed opera though it’s always interested me. In recent years I’ve been hearing haunting arias in different films and when the film ended I’d sit as the credits rolled trying to identify the music that had stirred me. I decided to learn more about opera and discover the source of those arias.

In this series a host is backstage at the Met and interviews the stars, the management, the director so the theater audience gets a delicious behind-the-scenes peek into how the show is staged, the director’s research, and how the stars prep for the performance. Joyce DiDonato is playing Adalgisa  in Norma and the host asked her about the highlights in the  second  act. She mentioned a duet that was coming up where two principles sing the sang melody, but are singing different lyrics and are feeling different emotions.

And her comments set me to thinking. I’d witnessed this dynamic in the first act, but her suggestion clarified the power behind those soaring duets. Something similar is happening in many fiction scenes if you think about it. Often the best scenes pit two characters with different agendas and reactions against each other. A classic is this “Snap out of it!” exchange in the romantic comedy Moonstruck starring Cher as an Italian widow and Nicolas Cage as a moody baker. She is engaged to his staid and hopelessly timid brother, Johnny, but she’s powerfully attracted to Ronny.  The morning after they had sex Ronny wants to pursue the relationship and she wants things back the way they were, to retreat into her safe existence.  You can find the scene here:

Good dialogue  is immediate, it reveals your characters, builds conflict,  moves the plot forward, and develops or exposes problems in relationships. The hottest dialogue exchanges place characters in the midst of a sticky situation or struggle.

  • Vying for power, dominance, a power exchange.
  • Arguing who is right, who is wrong.
  • High-stakes bargaining.
  • Reveals coercion and evasiveness.
  • Characters surprised by how they react differently to the same event or crisis.

If your dialogue seems sluggish, spice it up, pare it down, give it breath.

Other tips to keep the dialogue sizzling:

Cut to the chase–dialogue is real-life conversation on a strict diet.

Raise the stakes–make the characters’ differences key to the plot and the issues at hand important.

A well-written dialogue scene ends with one character somehow changed.

Avoid static conflict like bickering, irritation

Give each character an agenda–in fact give all your major characters an agenda throughout the story.

Give the character’s differing or opposite values.

Use dialogue to show a character’s evolution or arc.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by SNAP/Rex/REX USA (792986fu)

Use subtext to insert a layer of meaning and emotions beneath the conversation.  Unease, flirting, embarrassment, distracted–all can be shown in subtext.  If you’re into classic movies revisit some of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s scenes. Now that’s sizzle.

Keep it focused—don’t let your characters veer off on tangents as happens in life.

Use props to reveal subtext–there’s a reason characters used to smoke a lot in films and television series.

Avoid repetition of key words, ideas, statements.

No preaching. Unless it’s an actual sermon. No uninterrupted speech because it’s dull.

Engineer misunderstandings if it suits the plot.

Interrupt just as it happens in your life and mine.

Be wary of using  direct question and answer sessions. This works best in a courtroom scene.