Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Fictional characters under duress, or better yet, miserable

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 18•21

Top-ranking fictional characters need to be uncomfortable most of the time. Better yet, miserable. Now, of course, your story can’t be a waterfall of tears and teeth-gnashing angst in every scene. That could lead to melodrama. But varying levels of misery should be trickling through causing tension, conflict, and uncertainty. And characters can be rattled, twitchy, discombobulated, awkward, uneasy, troubled and disturbed.

Misery can be writ large–he loves me; he loves me not. It can happen in high-stakes battles or life and death circumstances, royal rivalries, ugly divorces, or the murder of a loved one.  Your character can be lonely, unloved, and unappreciated. And whenever possible, in over his or her head.

Years ago I studied psychology and sociology in college because I was planning to go into law and I wanted to understand why people turned out the way they did.  It took a few years to realize that I needed to return to my first love, stories, poetry, and all things writing.  But in one sociology class an instructor mentioned it’s likely that at least one out of three people won’t like you. This insight, true or not, stuck with me.

Growing up  and feeling pretty insecure much of the time, I wanted people to like me and was easily hurt when they didn’t. With age that’s diminished, but of course, it’s not fun if someone dislikes you for no good reason, or a perceived hurt that didn’t happen, or for the many reasons humans just don’t get along. In fiction, this is magnified to create conflict, pain, and troubles.

Classic plot devices can be the perfect setup for this. An example is a character moving into a new place–the new kid in school {Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone}, or the newly hired personal assistant {The Devil Wears Prada}, boss, police chief {Robert Parker’s Jesse Stone series} or sheriff.

Same for the ‘fish out of water’ scenario–the device the Back to the Future franchise exploited as Marty McFly moves around in time. So-called ‘fishes’ don’t know the rules or standards or the pecking order in the new environment.

Your story might center around a Florida native taking a district attorney job in Alaska or a small town girl moving to Paris. Your character will always have a lot to prove and master, so naturally he or she can get off on the wrong foot and things can go downhill from there.

Which is where antagonists and secondary characters come into the picture to stir up trouble. It’s pretty simple: fictional characters shouldn’t get along. In fact they should clash. Often.  The mayor doesn’t trust the new sheriff, the cop who’s been with the force for ten years and wanted the chief of police job is sabotaging the new guy, and the 911 dispatcher just doesn’t care for him because he’s a dead ringer for a best-forgotten ex. Now, of course, protagonists need friends and allies, but if he or she doesn’t have frenemies and backstabbers, lying witnesses, out-for-revenge enemies, and other antagonists you’re overlooking a major source of conflict. The story will flatten and fizzle without these folks.

At the same time don’t overlook piling on smaller, everyday, annoying, makes-life-harder miseries.  And never overlook the potency of physical hardships to boost tension:  Sleepless nights or a shocking homicide case so there’s no time to sleep. Headaches, hangovers, thirst, hunger, sweltering heat waves, freezing temperatures, aching backs, old injuries acting up. Stir in claustrophobia, fear of heights, and never been comfortable in the dark. Pile it on.

One trick to increase tension is to keep track of the number of  your scenes, then track how many feature your protagonist in some kind of discomfort. Aim for high percentages. Make your protagonist worry and fear the worst.

A few more ideas for your stories: Create situational troubles. Coming-of-age stories generally focus on the main character’s emotional growth, typically moving into adulthood. However, growth is never easy and the character is often forced into challenges beyond his or her maturity levels. And the lessons learned will always be hard, harsh, or scary. The Finch siblings in To Kill a Mockingbird are a good example of this.

Adult characters can be coping with bitchy, hormonal teenagers going through a bad phase, demanding, uncaring bosses, impossible deadlines, a bad news relative showing up on your  protagonist’s doorstep looking for a place to crash. With a grimy, pathetic-looking toddler and an aggressive dog.

Stir in emotional hardships. These typically come from your character’s connective tissue to his or her past. If your main characters don’t have baggage they’re flat. Typically your character’s fears or weaknesses will stem from trauma, failure, or a troubled or difficult past.  And whatever the baggage, it’s relatable.

Always know the forces that shaped your main characters. And then give them inner demons to overcome, such as intense abandonment fears, or a lie they’ve been telling themselves. While many stories are fueled chiefly by external conflict,  when internal conflicts are staged alongside external conflict mucking up things, the whole story gets more realistic and deeper.

Create insecurity–immigrants struggling to survive in their new country, business owners striving against impossible odds, a farm family trying to endure during years of drought, an unstable and volatile  home life, grinding poverty that seems inescapable. Often these stories will showcase the protagonist’s main personality traits and growth.

A few last tips. Small miseries amplify larger ones. Protagonists cannot always be in top form, primed for the next challenge. Sap their strength, will, confidence, and resources thus creating more uncertainty. Shape  obstacles  that wear down and weaken characters.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And please keep wearing masks

George R.R. Martin on why we need fantasy worlds

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 05•21

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real… for a moment at least… that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is  silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank. The smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is in the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they become true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangra-La.

The can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle-Earth.

~George R.R. Martin


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 01•21

Advice from Albert Camus

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 18•21

“Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers, and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.” ~Albert Camus, from Notebooks 1951-1959

More from Camus on making a life worth living at Brainpickings.com.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From an Editor’s Desk: Writing Suggestions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 09•21

I’ve been purging my office and as I  toss old receipts and rearrange books I’m finding scraps of paper with scrawls and tidbits on them. So I’m lassoing all these jottings. A single word on the back of an envelope says ‘waft’.  Now, waft is in my vocabulary, and I’ve used it in writing, but these lists always inspire me. Another envelope back includes: pinprick, squatter, fusty, quisling, shacky, gawk, wheedle, moonwalk, shirk, bupkis, wraith, servile, scuttle, torpor, badger. Because if you’re not constantly gathering words you’re not growing as a writer.

My next step is to figure out where to record these snippets.  If you’re an analogue type like I am, you might have notebooks stashed all over the place. In fact, I’ve decided to stash one in my car’s glove box. Wondering why I haven’t done this years ago since I often hear information on NPR that  I scribble on my hand as I’m driving. I’ve written here before about keeping a writer’s notebook, a lens to the world. Some jottings will land in my current writer’s notebook, while others will end up in specific ongoing projects.

Another notes says: Ruminate Productively. Question thought cycles. This one struck me hard. There was a tragic death in our family 3 weeks days ago and during the final weeks of  my niece’s life, my thoughts returned again and again to her suffering. And her parents’ suffering. And, of course, I suffered too, sad, worried for them all, grieving the unfairness of her shortened life.  I also tracked memories along years of family events and unearthed painful memories and tracked over old scars. In other words, unproductive ruminations.

The Poet’s Garden Vincent Van Gogh

Sometimes it felt like I needed a lifeline to yank me free of this painful undertow. So I’ve turned to poetry before falling sleep and reading verses during the day. Such solace. And I’m falling into the poems and marveling at the poet’s imagery and turns of thought. Poetry can teach all writers. Can help heal bruised and shattered hearts.

Here’s another morsel:  Track complicated emotions and contradictory thoughts. Since I’ve been quarantining for about a century now I’m getting worn down from too much time spent inside my head. Some days thoughts go skittering into strange places which then scare up unexpected emotions. Not always welcome emotions.  So, as I ‘hear’ unhelpful inner talk, I try to stop myself. Then I backtrack into whatever I was thinking or feeling. Slow it all down and linger there. Figure out where the thought originated. Listening in to a hidden (or noisy) part of myself. Then, as I’ve been telling myself for years, thoughts aren’t like the weather. I can do something about them; question or entertain them, discard, or act on them. Instead of allowing a storm to brew.

If you’re not prone to rumination be on the lookout for these complicated emotions on a screen or while reading a novel. For example, don’t you love it when you witness a  cocktail of emotions flicker across an actor’s face? Maybe as a painful realization dawns or a joyful understanding  blooms. How would you write that? Sir Anthony Hopkins starring in The Remains of the Day as the fusty head butler is an excellent example of how tiny face muscles can express a wide range of emotions.

But let’s get back to contradictions. I taught online workshops last fall  and in one workshop on subplots I explained the potency of contradictions while writing fiction. Contradictory needs and wants (or desires) within your main characters create delicious conflict. In The Remains of the Day, Hopkin’s character  Stevens is at war with the truth. He’s blinded by his loyalty to his employer, a Nazi sympathizer, and clings to his duties instead of risking emotional intimacy–needs he dare not admit to. His elderly father dies alone while Stevens  tends to an important dinner party and ignores the housekeeper’s–played impeccably by Emma Thompson– interest in him. The film is based on The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and is written as a first-person account by  Stevens, a sometimes unreliable narrator.

You often see this dynamic at work in romance plots and subplots. For  example, a woman is attracted to bad boy types, but deep down she longs for marriage, stability, and kids. This scenario played out in Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Felding where readers and viewers recognized what was best for Bridget, but she did not. Bridget was beginning a new year and diary by vowing to cut down on cigarettes, alcohol and calories. Also on her  list was to find a stable man, but of course, chaos ensued in the form of  a fling with a bad boy. He was played with aplomb by Hugh Grant in the hit film version, while she overlooked stable lawyer Patrick Darcy (Colin Firth) until it was almost too late.

Or a former addict or alcoholic has become clean and sober. All is well, until he is somehow triggered and then slips back into the bottle or ends up visiting his dealer. Meanwhile, as your reader is begging “do not go into that liquor store. Do not screw this up.”  And this means  your reader might be feeling contradictory feelings too–sympathy for the addiction, but enraged at the character for buckling under pressure.

Contradictions create suspense and tension. Stay tuned because I’m going to cover this in more depth in the future.

This note was scrawled on a legal pad as I was reading a recent client’s manuscript: Villains MUST deliver. If you plop a villain or villainous group into your story they need to embody some form of evil and profound threat. He/she/they cannot remain offstage throughout.  If your villains don’t threaten or scare your protagonist up close and personal, then fix the bad guy or your plot.

These days my notebooks are filled with mannerisms and reactions from the novels I read. I’ve written here about crutch words, but in my work I notice that writers use the same emotional responses in their stories. Characters repeatedly look down, shrug, or are wide eyed. I read a novel recently where the author used ‘deadpanned’ five or six times. By the third deadpan, I was wincing.

Another reason to study other writer’s techniques is to create a more immersive reading experience. If you nail aftermaths or the viewpoint character’s experiences  they will resonate with readers.  Such as: startled chuff of laughter, a brittle silence settled between them, staring at him with dead, dark eyes, she flinches, settling uncomfortably, his heart started clattering around in his chest.

Here’s an easy one to adopt. As you build your career, beware of  comparing yourself to other writers. Especially writers who have been toiling away longer than you. Now, you can learn from other writers, emulate other writers. But if you read your favorite author and all you can do is groan about how you’ll never get to his or her skill level, then your thoughts are unproductive. Or if you’re stabbed by jealousy when friends land a publishing deal, you’re being small. Write more, envy less.

Write your first draft with everything you’ve got, but know this: you cannot revise a truly dreadful first draft. Just like you cannot breathe life into a corpse. Sometimes you need to start over. Or put the whole thing away for weeks or months. Or start a new story and let this one simmer on the proverbial back burner.  Making these hard decisions often come from honest, knowledgeable feedback. And sometimes, sadly, you sometimes need to pull the plug on a flimsy first draft.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 02•21

Words Matter

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 28•21

Writers need to understand the nuances of language, search out fresh expressions, and continually refresh their vocabularies. For me, language is one of the greatest joys of the writing life.  It’s hardly surprising when last month Merriam-Webster declared pandemic as the word of the year.  As if 2020 hadn’t already asked a lot of us. I don’t know about you, but the Black Plague always seemed so removed from our reality and the Spanish Flu a historical footnote. Yet here we are amid another one, masked and paranoid. Sheesh.

But English is an ever-evolving language and Merriam-Webster has also just announced that 520 new words have been added to the dictionary. I’m all for new words and word combos so we now have hygge,  second gentleman,  cancel culture, long hauler, and new meanings for pod and bubble. Somehow I missed that 535 words were added last April and include dark web, slow-walk, self-isolate, truthiness, deep fake, and PPE.  Apparently I was adjusting to self-isolating. This list was highly influenced, of course, by the pandemic.

If you want to hear about how editors decide on these additions, check out their podcast Word Matters. It’s a podcast for anyone who loved their English classes.

In case you haven’t read it, lexicographer Kory Stamper’s witty Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries it’s a delight. Part memoir, part expose’, we not only learn how she fell in love with language, but also how her gig entails spending a month refining a dictionary entry. And we’re talking words like take or do.

She writes, “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is that English is like a child. As English grows, it lives its own life, and that is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly as we think it should;  sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and learn French instead. But we will never be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.”

Here’s a link to Stamper’s TED Talk on dialects, You Speak You.

A bit of good news: Amanda Gorman will recite a poem at the Super Bowl. Poetry and football. I call that progress.

If you live in Philadelphia and love books, you can rent a bookstore for a COVID-style date.

Is your word list growing? As we head into February, in the midst of political turmoil in the US and other places, amid a pandemic, how are your writing plans going?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

A warning & some cheer from Lang Leav

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 20•21

There is one thing you should know about writing. It will inevitably lead you to terrible places, as you cannot write about something if you have not lived it. Though the most important thing to bear in mind is this: you are there as a tourist and must always remain one. There was a very specific reason why you were blessed with ability to translate your sentiments into words –it is to bring  a voice to suffering and torment. But do not be too indulgent with your experience of these things –despite how addictive suffering can be–how easy it is to get lost down the twisted path of self-destruction. You must emerge from adversity, scathed but victorious–to tell  your story and in turn, light the way for others. ~ Lang Leav

Words are Powerful

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 11•21

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling, like dew, upon a thought produces that which thousands, perhaps millions think”~ Lord Bryron

Give Sorrow Words II

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 10•21

The fog has lifted and a pale sky revealed, the tall firs that ring the neighborhood still. Looking out it seems as if the world is holding its breath.

I’ve written here before about following Shakespeare’s  advice in Macbeth to, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.” If ever there was a week to break our hearts we’ve just trudged through it.

Eyes glued to images of mayhem, violence, insurrection, lunacy. We’ve heard the lies, the gaslighting, the excuses, the demands. We saw the noose.  The marauding members of our military. Elected officials joining the throng. The Nazi symbols. The Confederate flag marched down the corridors of OUR Capital.

We’ve watched and heard with dread the shrill, unleashed madness in radicalized, far-right followers.

All seemed so inevitable, didn’t it? As if we’ve been long expecting this. As if we’ve been holding our collective breaths.

But when the TV is off, your head on your pillow, or you’re out walking your dog, what is your body whispering? Can you put words to that clenched knot in your gut?  Where does choking rage lodge in your body? Where is your sorrow housed or has it overtaken you at times?  How does your throat feel?

Write from your body.

Are you feeling strung out? Blurry? Limbs weighted down? Stirred up beyond reason?

Write from your body.

Which particular images and sounds most set your heart stampeding in your chest?

Write from your heart.

Because writers need to use all parts of life to tell their stories. Use the painful rawness of your emotions, the map of your body. Give sorrow words. Write them down. Day after harrowing or difficult day.  Loan them to your fictional characters. Track them for a memoir or essay. Store them in a place you can find them again. Because emotions such as these must be shared.

Meanwhile, please help instill hope in children whenever you spend time with them.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep finding wonder,  have heart