Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 01•20

The Writer’s Way: Decisions, choices and moral dilemmas

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 16•20

The cornonavirus pandemic news is nonstop and unnerving as death tolls rise and the federal government’s woefully weak response is causing panic buying and mass confusion. I’m not going out much these days, but when I’ve ventured forth in the past few weeks the eerie, nervous atmosphere is unsettling.  A spooky, living-in-a-sci-fi movie state of mind.

Meanwhile, timing be damned, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s apocalyptic  novel Wanderers about an epidemic of sleepwalking. Well, it’s not exactly sleepwalking, but a group of people are flocking together on a silent, trance-like, mystifying quest. They cannot be stopped; their blank-faced stares are as vacant as empty tombs, their condition a mystery, their destination unknown though they’re heading west. Did I mention it’s almost 800 pages?

The wanderers don’t eat or sleep and attempts to gather blood samples are unsuccessful because their skin can’t be penetrated. If someone attempts to stop them, amid soul-shattering shrieks, their temperatures rise and they explode. As in unthinkable bloody splatters.  Did I mention the story will not ease your worries, because as you read (it was published in July, 2019) the plausibility is skin-prickling and the science well researched?

I’m mentioning Wanderers because it has multiple viewpoints and the main characters are revealed and defined by the decisions they make in response to moral dilemmas. Because fiction tests characters. These difficult  choices between right and wrong, opposing desires and options cause tension and drama.  Because fiction provides no easy answers.

Moral dilemmas reveal:

  • backstory influences
  • convictions, positions, and beliefs
  • loyalties
  • characters’ investment in outcomes
  • character growth, arc

Back to Wanderers, because weighty decisions are made throughout the story. Compassion, common sense, and human rights are on the line. Scientists are struggling mightily with understanding the frightening behaviors. Hysteria and bigotry fuel the whole.

I’m mentioning Wanderers because moral dilemmas shape and deepen so many good plots.

The story begins with Shana waking to find her younger sister Nessie missing. The girls already have enough problems since their mother walked out on them. Nessie, 15,  is walking along a road as if in a trance, but there is no waking her, no touching her, no stopping her. As she trudges along barefoot other walkers begin joining her, mostly one by one.

Benji is a disgraced former CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) scientist and virus-hunter. His backstory is key: while investigating the conditions in a giant hog-raising operation, he skewed his findings to stop the horrendous conditions he finds. Readers learn about the crowded, diseased animals living in a nightmare, the potential for a disease outbreak seemingly inevitable.

He’s pulled into the story when a computer called Black Swan insists that he join the scientists and government agencies attempting to solve the situation. Can he redeem himself and learn why the wanderers are afflicted before its too late? Since he’s broken the rules before will he break them again?

Shana, terrified for her sister,  chooses immediately to stay close to protect her mile after mile. At first her father begs her to return home, back to the obligations of their farm and cheese-making operation, but she insists Nessie needs her and the police escort cannot keep her safe. Even though her sister is unreachable, even though she’s scared. After Shana and her father argue and she tells him they feel abandoned by both parents, he buys a ramshackle RV and joins Shana and the shepherds. Shepherd is the term applied to family members and others who accompany their loved ones.

Then there’s Matthew Bird, a small-town pastor who is inspired to preach about the wanderers, connecting them to the End Times and satanic influences.  Unfortunately the conservative preacher has played into the hands of right-wing extremists.And who will stop the extremists who want to take out the wanderers?

A brain-injured former cop is drawn to the pilgrims and immediately risks all to stop a shooter.  An aging rock star comes aboard. He has a deeply-held secret that threatens all aspects of his life. In fiction, it’s important to force characters to choose when he or she would rather avoid it.

A few more thoughts on tough choices:

  • Principled choices and decisions will always create actions and consequences. They always drive the story forward.
  • Unprincipled choices and decisions typically cause chaos, pain, and also propel the story ahead. An example from Jurassic Park happens when the park employee-computer whiz leaves the grounds to sell off dinosaur DNA. His actions, taken during a horrendous storm, opens a Pandora’s box of disasters and life-and-death consequences.
  • The ramifications from all important decisions should be long lasting.
  • The higher the stakes, the higher the drama.
  • The choices often underline the genre type. A suspense story is often based on finding justice so decisions will hold a lot of weight and consequences.
  • Don’t provide characters easy answers. Corner them, stress them out, push them past their limits.
  • Know your fictional casts’ moral codes.

Search out the important dilemmas in stories, noticing the enormous variety and possibilities. Are there shades in right from wrong? Is the crime story about sorting real justice from mob justice; truth from lies? Are actions based on loyalties,  faith, science?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep washing your hands

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The Writer’s Way: Perfecting Character Reactions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20

Overcast here this morning, the plum trees are blossoming in pale pink splendor,  and the few tulips that the voles didn’t eat are ready to bloom. I’m not above staging an all-out war on rodents, but I might need to plant tulip bulbs in pots from now on.

I’ve been working on manuscripts lately where I’ve noticed that the characters’ reactions to events, stress, or trauma are sometimes bland or repetitive. That is, every time a character is afraid, has misgivings, or worries he or she feels it in  his or her stomach. Or hairs on the back of her neck rise. Or eyes go wide with surprise.  Or worse yet, characters rarely react or react inappropriately as the dialogue just rattles along with nary a raised heartbeat or adrenaline rush.

But it’s in responses to pain, fear, and loss that make  a character indelible. Because characters are best revealed under stress. And as in real life, our responses to trouble define us. If your characters don’t feel, neither will your readers. And if emotions don’t lead to further actions, then part of fictional chain is missing.

This means a writer’s job is to garner emotional expressions from a variety of sources. One method is to study actors, observing facial expressions, gestures, and body language. This is especially powerful during live theater performances. I especially pay attention to how actors walk onto the stage conveying the essence of their roles with posture, costumes, gestures, voice quality. Try noticing your first impressions of every actor you’re watching in films and television. It’s also fascinating to notice if your first impressions are accurate.

I’ve seen two live relays  from Moscow of the Bolshoi Ballet at a local theater this winter. And I’ve come to understand why the troupe is legendary in their 243rd season. Before the performance a host explains the story that is about to unfold and interviews dancers and others involved in the production.  It’s fascinating to watch the dancers demonstrate how they’re conveying emotions via movement and grace. Embodied. Emotion in motion. Because ballet is about putting movement to the feelings expressed in the music and moment.

Choreographers don’t simply teach dance steps, they teach how to interpret feelings. I also saw a recent Metropolitan Opera showing of Porgy and Bess. Frederick Ballentine who plays Sportin Life explained how the choreographer Camille Brown taught him to become wolf-like and predatory via his body language. He creates such dynamism in the role and I couldn’t keep my eyes off his lithe, slippery moves.

There has even been a study done of human brains reacting to dance steps and the emotions they portray. The study showed that even when a dance wasn’t choreographed to depict emotions the audience still tried to create a narrative from what was unfolding. You can read about the study here.

Along with studying professionals and people you encounter in daily life, really  sink into your characters when you write. If your character is being chased by a monster where and how would he/she feel the terror and panic? What about handling a difficult physical challenge like climbing a rock face? If your character loses someone how will he/she react? Where does he/she hold grief? I recently lost a beloved aunt before Christmas and came to understand the expression heavy-hearted because it felt like there was a large stone lodged in my chest. When I read her obituary and studied the photo next to it with her smiling eyes, the reality of her death hit hard as a punch.

I’ve mentioned here before that often writing action scenes is akin to method acting, but this suggestion bears repeating. As you write the scene, you try to feel what the character feels. If you cannot conjure the emotion in the moment, then you dredge up memories. So if your character has just lost a beloved spouse, then you remember back to your own losses, especially the potent ones. If I was writing the scene I’d remember my mother’s funeral. I’d remember leaving behind a relationship and the bewildering grief of starting over.

Your next step is to find fresh expressions to convey the loss. This is where close reading and recording other writers’ language comes in. Expand your characters’  reactions by recording the best ones you encounter in your writer’s notebook. And while you’re not going to lift them word by word, I can assure you that jotting down examples will prime your creativity.

One more thought: read outside your comfort zone whatever that might be. I promise it will expand your repertoire of emotional responses.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart




Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20

Read Poetry Every Day

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 20•20

Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime shape.  It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand into gigantic shapes. 

      What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don’t force yourself too hard. Take it easy. Over the years you may catch up to,  move even with, and pass T.S. Eliot on your way to other pastures. You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.

~Kurt Vonnegut

The Writer’s Way: Stocking your writer’s notebook

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 06•20

Before I went to sleep last night I paged through  my latest writer’s notebook.  The two tools that inspire me most are reading widely and analytically, and keeping a notebook. Writers need tools for flat and unenthused times, need word collections to spark fresh phrasing, and a place to secure inspirations and notes.  My writer’s notebook is my lens, my not-buried treasure, my portable sanctuary. Notebooks old school, companionable, easy to tote around.

The first page that fell open has only one paragraph: It was November–the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great swooping wind blow the fogs out of her soul. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

These evocative sentences create a tone and lovingly paint a place–Prince Edwards Island.  Montgomery’s descriptions of nature are one of her finest techniques that I study and sometimes try to emulate.

You see, I collect word pictures and suggest you do too.

Another page hosts a typical, but delicious word list because I’m always compiling words: spawn, behemoth, bleak, lament, sneeringly, grapple, succor, sprite, forsake, bedraggled, jagged, seethe, scuttle, garrulous, unmoored

Then there are word combinations jotted down: faceless behemoths, bone-deep despair, feral cunning, withering condemnation, toxic absurdity

Descriptions of characters, gestures, and mannerisms are scattered through the pages. I’m often  helping editing clients find fresh ways of expressing emotions and reveal the inner lives of their characters. Here are recent jottings: When it’s over she smiles a big hungry smile. She had a beautiful voice, burry and low.  Snores like a John Deere tractor. Shivering like a stray puppy. A weird flare of anger lanced through her. The laugh that came out of her was one of surprise. It was a pissed-off laugh, a bark of incredulity. The thought hit her in the heart like a fist.

A sound rose out of her. A low sound, an animal whine. A new fear buried itself under Shana’s skin like a burrowing tick. It was the sound of something in pain, alarmed, even full of rage.

I’m always studying and writing down all-important beginnings of essays, novels, and short stories, especially noticing the mood and tone expressed. It’s so important to establish tone in the opening pages–light, grim, unsettling–whatever is needed. When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child beside him.Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world… Cormac McCarthy, The Road

And, of course, my notebooks feature inspiring quotes: “Yes I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he can see the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Writers need to deepen as life goes along.

Some suggestions for keeping a writer’s notebook:

  • Be sure to use a notebook that feels right, invites you in. Shopping for a notebook is great fun, but comes with decisions. Leather cover? Lined or unlined? White paper, colored paper?
  • Have a plan to use your notebook to address deficits in your style or methods. Most writers need more varied vocabularies and more imaginative figurative language. Most writers need help crafting secondary characters and creating a potent sense of place.
  • Read other writer’s notebooks or journals for inspiration such as John Steinbeck’s above.
  • Describe seasons, weather, and the sky.
  • Collect smells.
  • Keep asking yourself: what does this remind me of?
  • Really notice the color, hue of things you encounter in daily life. Everything from blossoms, hair colors, and oceans.  Don’t wait to take a trip to notice intriguing details. Then find fresh names for the colors you encounter. Pearl. Alabaster. Rose. Cinnamon. Smoke. Wine.
  • Dig into memories, churning them over to notice your latest understanding of what happened.
  • Write reviews of books and films.
  • Track your word count.
  • Start your day with your writer’s notebook.
  • End your day with your writer’s notebook.
  • Carry it with you for the unplanned pauses and lulls.

The year is still  young. Plenty of time to develop new habits.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep gathering from all around you


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 02•20

Don’t Name Your Kids After Fictional Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 29•20

As a Game of Thrones fan, (more the books than the HBO series) I could have warned parents not to name their daughters Daenerys. Unlike many people, she was my least favorite character, but there was also a great deal of foreshadowing from the get-go indicating she was damaged, unstable, and blood-thirsty. And, of course, her father Aeyrus II Targaryen was called the Mad King. Hint. Hint.  Oh, and his wife Rhaella, was also his sister.

Picking up an author’s or director’s foreshadowing clues can be a fun exercise when you read and watch films or TV series. It can also distinguish smart plotting from hack plotting. In fact, I’ve written a whole chapter on the hows and whys of foreshadowing in my book Between the Lines. It’s necessary so the character’s actions, especially those in Act 3, are credible. Foreshadowing is part of creating a character arc and defining personality traits. It’s also the necessary set-up for the biggest events of your stories.

Back to naming: The best character names are suggestive and indelible. They have weight and suffuce the character’s identity with meaning.  Dracula. Beloved. Heathcliff. Jo March. Albus Dumbledore. Huckleberry Finn. Katniss Everdeen. Anna Karenina. Voldemort. Lisbeth Salander. Atticus Finch. Hermione Granger.

All indelible.

I’ve used the example of Dean Koontz’s she-villain Datura as smart character naming. Datura, also called Devil’s Trumpet,  is a fatally poisonous flower. Here’s an excerpt Begin with a Name with a further explanation.

When writers choose a character’s name its the readers first impression of the character and comes with associations and impact. The best character names have weight and meaning. Atticus Finch. James Bond. Scarlet O’Hara. Severus Snape. Lady Brienne of Tarth. Sansa and Arya Stark.

Character names deepen the world of the story, lending it authority and verve. I’ve recently read a manuscript where characters born in the early 21st century, all had names made popular in the 1940s and 50s. When I pointed this out to the writer, he hadn’t thought of the implications or accuracy of these names.

On the lighter side of things, here’s a fun piece by Julie Beck from The Atlantic on the perils of naming your progeny after fictional characters. The subtitle says: The Jolenes and Daeneryses of the world have some baggage to contend with. It warns that fictional or cultural names come with many associations, some unintended, some anchor-like.

And Vulture has another fun piece on the top 50 Game of Thrones-inspired baby names.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, take care naming characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 28•20

Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues on fire. ~ Gloria Anzaldua

The Writer’s Way: A secret to creating characters: Enduring Traits

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 12•20

A  rainy week in the Pacific Northwest with snow on the way (hooray!) and I’m starting slow today, drinking my morning Earl Grey tea. In my book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction I dove deep into the topic of character traits. I explained that main characters will possess a hierarchy of personality traits and their primary  traits–the ones that define them–will remain stable throughout the story.  And this is important: these traits will be tested again and again as a story progresses. While your protagonist might change by the story’s end, these traits will not. This creates the cohesion a story and character arc needs.

It also creates delicious tension. Because if a protagonist has a personal moral code, what will he or she do when faced with a moral dilemma?

I’ve been thinking about these enduring traits lately and how these traits are showcased again and again as the story progresses into Act 3 and the climax.

Here’s an illustration from Katniss Evergreen of The Hunger Games YA dystopian series with a focus on the first book in the series. I’m using Katniss (again) because she’s forced to survive under crushingly brutal circumstances,  and her traits, introduced in the first moments of the story, amplified in the inciting incident, are deepened throughout the story. They’re evident in the climax when Katniss and Peeta decide to commit suicide rather than live under a corrupt and depraved regime.

Profound questions hang over the story–why does a heartless society turn children into ruthless killers for the entertainment of elites? How do the citizens go along with it? What does this suggest about human nature or is this only a sick dystopian version of humanity? Can murder ever be justified?  Since this isn’t a happily-ever tale, what becomes of these killers when they return to  society?

With such extreme life-or-death stakes, it’s necessary to craft a complicated, bigger-than-life protagoist with complicated traits.  Suzanne Collins made Katniss lionhearted. How else could she survive in such a savage culture?

Katniss’ main enduring traits:

  • Courage
  • Intelligence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Loyalty
  • Integrity
  • Compassionate

The Setup: In the opening moments of the story, readers and viewers find Katniss heading out into the woods to hunt an illegal act made necessary for survival. This foreshadows her skills and reveals her grit and independence.

The inciting incident that kicks off the story happens during the yearly Hunger Games ceremony. Katniss courageously chooses to take Primrose’s place when she’s ‘reaped’ and participate in the deadly  Games in her stead. Prim is her younger sister, their father, a miner has died in a mining accident, and Katniss struggles to help keep the family alive. Luckily her father taught her how to hunt because he’d traded game in District 12’s black market.

Complications and Reversals: Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capital to begin training for the Games, gain notoriety and thus admirers and backers,

And then comes the dreaded test–because fiction requires tests–competing in the Hunger Games Arena. She avoids the traps in the first moments in the arena and takes off on her own, showing her strategic thinking.

Trapped in a tree by the Careers, her resourcefulness and prowess with a bow comes into play when she knocks down a nest of tracker jackers, deadly bio-engineered insects. The attack kills off some of her competitors as the survivors take off, desperate for relief.

She’s turned the tables with the help of Rue, and they become allies. But in a key scene, Rue is murdered and Katniss’ compassion comes into play when she honors her friend by laying out flowers on her body. These sort of gestures are naturally not allowed amid the barbarous Games.

Katniss’ courage is again displayed when after honoring Rue, she faces the cameras signaling her defiance and sparking a revolution. Because a protagonist’s actions should cause ramifications and consequences.

When Peeta, also an ally, who has befriended her family in past, is injured, Katniss rescues him and nurses him back to health.

Her courage and resourcefulness highlighted when she returns to the cornucopia, creates a distraction, and steals valuable supplies to keep herself and Peeta alive.

The Not-so Happy Climax: A moral dilemma further underlines her key traits and values as her and Peeta refuse to bend to the evil system of the ruling government.

Katniss growths throughout the story, but her enduring traits remain the same. It’s one of the keys of writing consistent and potent characters.

A side note: while Collins has been criticized for some aspects of her series, one thing that she gets right is her world building, how there is no safe place in this twisted culture. It creates nearly relentless tension and haunts every part of the story. If you’re working at increasing tension in your storytelling, her techniques are worth examining.

Here’s a link to Bullies, Bastards & Bitches on amazon.

Here’s a link to Bullies, Bastards & Bitches from Writer’s Digest that includes free downloads.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Stay inspired