Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 13•21

{creator unknown}

Fiction = punishment

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 11•21

Fictional plots punish the protagonist. Again and again. Weaken him or her. Again and again. Force the protagonist into situations, alliances, and conflicts he or she would rather avoid.

Plots are designed to whisper or shout ‘no’ or ‘get outta here,’ or ‘you’re not enough’ to the protagonist.

These punishments are often tests. The outcome should always cause doubt in readers, not to mention your cast members.

These punishments often dredge up ghosts from years past–the kind best left undisturbed, buried in the dusty caverns of memory.

Often the most compelling protagonists are already scarred when the story begins.

Often the most compelling protagonists are fixer-uppers.

Punishing forces, paralyzing decisions, moral dilemmas, and devious opponents are crucially linked to structure. All the snarls, twist, secrets and lies are also linked to structure.  Without solid underpinnings, a plot can easily falter.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Quick take: Descriptions work best when they stir readers’ emotions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 07•21

This one is haunting. From Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina:

I stopped. The music coming through the cottonwoods was gospel. Gut-shaking, deep-bellied, powerful voices rolled through the dried leaves and hot air. This was the real stuff. I could feel the whiskey edge, the grief and holding on, the dark night terror and determination of real gospel.  

Notice how dark night terror can refer to enslavement or the KKK or other vigilante groups?


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 06•21

Don’t be Afraid to Pause or Slow Down

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 03•21

Good fiction pushes, propels, and prods characters along through twists, crises, and intriguing scenarios. A tricky part of writing fiction is determining when to speed up or slow down  the pace. Drama contains high points, low points, and points in between. If you treat every moment in a story equally spending the same number of words, the whole will be unbalanced and false. Some actions need to be compressed or summarized such as when characters are traveling across town.  If your character has arrived in Rio de Janeiro or Paris for the first time, readers want to see and experience what your character is experiencing. But you might want to skip transitions and use scene cuts to simply launch your character into a new location.

Now, genres like page-turning thrillers and action adventure typically race along lickety-split. Because characters are running for their lives, saving the planet,  or foiling a coup. The plot is roiling with suspense and tension and often time is running out to increase both.  They’re meant to be read in a few sessions or on a long plane ride or two. These stories are meant for entertainment not pondering life’s grave issues.

But not all stories are fast paced or should be. And sometimes stories need to slow down or pause so readers can take a breather or turn off the bedside lamp. While readers are often warned away from using ‘info dumps’ fiction requires context and information. It needs to offer insights into your characters and why they do what they do.

In my chapter on pacing in Between the Lines: How to Write the Subtle Elements of Fiction, I wrote: “There are plenty of times and reasons for slowing down, especially to emphasize a moment so  readers can experience its emotional impact. There are also times when a sedate or dignified pace is called for and instead of jumping into the midst of action; you want to slowly build a scene to maximize the pay off. Readers want to relish love-making or wedding scenes, especially if they come after hundreds of pages of the characters too afraid of their feelings to venture into the bedroom or walk down the aisle. Readers also want to spend time at celebrations — parties, balls, and graduation ceremonies, as well as funerals, births and in the kitchen when characters are gossiping or struggling with difficult decisions.”

These pauses don’t always happen naturally when you’re creating your first draft. This means you’ll likely add them after a careful read-through and then tackling a second draft revisions. I suggest as you read your first draft (a printed version in a different font from the one you used for your first draft) you make a scene list. Then determine which ones to zip along to the next scene or scene cut, which one needs  an aftermath, and which ones need to happen moment by moment, almost in slow mo. Some events are momentous and require a sequel that nudges the plot forward. For example, a character might make a hard decision  while emotions are inflamed based on the previous scene.

As mentioned using a pause or slow pace can emphasizes significance. They can also be used to increase anticipation of what is to come. Often using heightened or lush details accomplishes this.

Here’s an example from Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly is not a Mystery. It’s the second story in a fresh series that takes place in the 1960s with a complicated, witty, scrappy,  often out-of-her-depth protagonist. Knecht uses a slow burn approach through much of the story–until she doesn’t.  Vera is searching for a missing boy in the aftermath of the Dominican Republic unrest. She arrives at the boy’s family home using the pretense that she’s scouting for locations for an upcoming film. Did I mention his parents have disappeared?  But first Vera and a hired driver travel further from cities into a low mountain range.

The sky was overcast here in the mountains. I hadn’t noticed the change until now. The air was still; the leaves were still; over the fields birds circled and dove. There was a man out there pointing a rifle at the sky.

After driving through an avenue of massive mahogany trees they reach a guard house.  Miguel slowed to a stop. I leaned forward in the back seat. He put the car in neutral and set the brake, I watched him and approach the smoked-glass window. The quiet of the mountains pressed in, even over the sound of the idling engine. A breeze moved through the caoba leaves, a faintly oceanic sound. Maybe a warning of rain. The guard house is empty so she urges him to drive on. Notice the mood and sense of remoteness that she’s creating along with a sense of a deepening mystery.

We drove through, past a turnoff for a dirt road that led across a field. I thought of the man with the rifle. The place wasn’t empty. But we saw no one now. Lawns opened up on either side of the avenue–lawns that had not been cut in some time. A red clay tennis court surrounded by low topiary with the net fallen in. At a turn, a horse stood across the road. It shied back when we stopped, and ambled away through bushes dotted with fruit. 

“You’re sure there are people here?” Miguel asked.

“I don’t really know,” I said. “I just heard it was a nice estate. Maybe I’m too late.”

“People leave, sometimes–they leave suddenly.”

The car emerged from the avenue into a circle drive, and the house rose up before us. Miguel and I both sat back involuntarily in our seats. The car coasted to a stop, as if too shy to approach the house. The yellow stucco of the guardhouse was repeated here, but on a grand scale, fringed with palms, circled by a double role of verandas. Knecht goes on to describe a grand house that’s seemingly deserted, or is it? The last sentence is: Concrete urns ran along the front of the house, some empty, some filled with a flowering bush I didn’t recognize, some broken, one hosting a ravaged stick netted with spiderwebs.

Notice how the descriptions are getting darker? Vera gets out of the car and approaches the house noticing chickens on a veranda and  grazing at the foot of  a gazebo that could have housed a modest orchestra. 

I climbed the left staircase in front. Water pooled on the steps. The veranda, I saw when I reached the top, was silted in with dead leaves from the tree in front. It had not been swept in a long time. But on a round patio table near the door, an empty bottle of rum, some jam jars, and a mango skin attracted a fresh cloud of flies. I lifted the iron knocker and let it fall twice. There was no answer. I tried again. Over my shoulder, I could see Miguel in the car, leaning on the wheel, looking left and right. 

It was at that moment that the man with the rifle walked up the driveway behind the car. 

The novel is 249 pages, and the trip from Santa Domingo  to the house takes up twelve pages. I’m expecting danger ahead aren’t you? And if you’re expecting the pace to quicken and Vera to be ensnared, you’d be right.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•21

Quick, as in really quick take:

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•21

        Some of the best stories begin with wreckage. All stories need to begin with threat.


Couldn’t agree more because verbs are the ENGINES of your sentences

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 27•21

“Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: was, did, had, made, went, looked….One size fits all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to really lift some weight for you. ” ~ Janet Fitch

Might I add: saw, see, put, hear, a nd sit? And I haven’t thought about runs in my nylons in a long time… I used clear nail polish to stop it so I wouldn’t need to throw them away.

Be kind out there.

Quick Take: Stand Your Ground

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 23•21

Actually I’m talking about the people or story people in your stories. Readers need to know exactly where these folks are located. At all times. Is he or she  standing on a dock watching a purple-hued sunset, or  on a beach gazing in wonder at a  forever sky, or a character waiting impatiently in a crowded grocery store  line with bad music playing too loud while a baby’s wails grows louder and more shrill?

Where is your character located in relation to others? What does the distance between them suggest? Are you suggesting intimacy or hostility by the pair’s posture and body language?

And what  else does his or her body communicate? Does she feel safe in this place? At peace? Or eyes darting around, searching out dangers? Arms akimbo or wrapped across her chest?

And speaking of grounding readers in your story, pull in other aspects of the scene.  Use details to paint the emotional tone, whether it’s tension or gloom  or terror or joy.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, invite magic, stay inspired

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 22•21

Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble. ~ Catherynne M. Valente