On Loving (and Editing) a Book to Death

Posted by on Nov 27, 2015 in Advice, Encouragement, From the Editors |

Image via Examiner

Image via Examiner: click for link

Cait and I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the ensuing whirlwind of tidying at my house, I emptied out over ten year’s worth of binders. The binders were stuffed with handwritten pages of stories, journaling, and printed copies of stories and plays.

As I emptied out the binders, I kept coming across copies of the same two books. I wondered if I had accidentally started sorting the wrong pile. But, no. They were the same stories printed a dozen times, stuffed into binders spanning across the years. Two stories alone took up half of the binders. Even a slightly different draft earned the project a printed copy, as if something astoundingly new was coming out of the printer.

It was so obvious, with time between me and the stories, that the stories had become like the crib bumper I toddled around with as my childhood security blanket.

I found the remains of that bumper when I was cleaning stuff out, too. My mom had slowly cut away parts of the bumper until only a small square was left, so well-loved that the sheep on the fabric was nearly rubbed away and you could see the polyester filling inside.

I’d obviously loved those two book projects. But the stories had been loved–and edited–to death.

The harder I fought for them, the limper they got. I hadn’t moved on, let the story live and breathe in the form my abilities had been capable of conveying the first time. I’d smothered them with attention, cut them to bits, left jagged scars across the pages. There was nothing breathing there anymore.

As a writer-editor, I’ve become increasingly careful about preserving the writer’s voice, keeping the pages breathing even if the prose isn’t perfect. With more experience, I discover the power of a light hand–and the power of moving on.

Finishing a project and moving on is crucial to learning.

It’s the learning experience that counts. There are flaws within each story–but they’re not always flaws. Sometimes those flaws are like the flaws in emeralds, serving as essential character, the fissures of work behind the stone’s gorgeous green glow. Not every story is a glittery Gatsby diamond. It’s important to know what you’re working with.

If you pick and polish and indiscriminately nag your story, you could end up with a sorry caricature instead of an imperfect masterpiece. (That’s why it’s so important to NOT follow every piece of editing advice you read, and not follow every suggestion your CPs or editors gives you.)

With these things on my mind, I suggest this:

Do not edit with a mind to fix problems and eradicate mistakes.

Yes, there will be grammatical errors and smarter ways to phrase sentences. But fixing all of those “mistakes” could wipe out any hint of voice the book has. And that shouldn’t be the mindset behind the work anyway.

Think to yourself instead: Am I making the story stronger? Am I highlighting the good, using the unique features of my words to their best advantage? What is special here, vivid, brilliant, beautiful, amazing? Why did I love this idea so much?

Without new projects and new ideas, you won’t be able to grow as a writer. No matter how hard you try or how thickly you spackle on the paint, it just won’t work.

Embrace what makes the project lovely: don’t make it be something else. And then move on.


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How to Hire a Freelance Editor (Wordstock Re-cap)

Posted by on Nov 10, 2015 in Advice |

Hello! We’re back on the blog today to re-cap our adventures at Wordstock on Saturday.

Wordstock was a Portland institution for many years, until the festival ran into financial difficulties. The name was then taken up by Literary Arts, a Portland non-profit, and they went to work re-launching the beloved festival. B&BD exhibited at the book fair, an absolutely bustling marketplace of publishers, literary magazines, organizations for writers and readers, and more. Our goal was to spread the word about B&BD, our services, and answer questions people might have about editing and about working with freelance editors.

One of the most frequent questions we got was, how do I even hire a freelance editor? When? Where do I start?

So, I figured this would be a good thing to tackle on the blog. Take this as a loose guideline–your mileage may vary.

When do I hire a freelance editor?

We at B&BD generally recommend that you go through at least two or three revisions on your own before even thinking about editors. After that, it’s best to seek feedback from peers–beta readers or critique partners. An editor, freelance or with a publisher, is not a peer in the context of your book.

With that in mind, you should hire a freelance editor if a) you’re self-publishing, or b) you’ve been querying for a long time and only gotten rejections, or c) want professional feedback on your manuscript.

What’s the first step?

As with many things in publishing, the first step is research. There are a lot of freelance editors on the internet these days, and you should vet them just like you would an agent or publisher. Read through their website and online presences carefully. Some things to think about:

Do they work in your genre?

Editors often specialize, and this can be important. If you take your high fantasy to a thriller editor, there will be some edits they give that don’t match the expectations of your genre (pacing, for one!). Most editors work in multiple genres, it’s true–we’re versatile that way. But the genres we specialize in also tend to be our favorite genres, and the more we love your book, the better the working experience is for everyone.

On that note, some editors have specific pet peeves, and if you’ve got one you’re not willing to change, you probably shouldn’t hire that editor. Ash and I did our editing styles posts for that reason.

Are their prices reasonable? 

Now, you probably have a different interpretation of this question than the one I’m about to give. Writers often balk at how expensive freelance editing is, but my colleagues and I have discussed this numerous times. Editing is hard. It takes a long time, it’s often frustrating, and it’s mentally exhausting. This gets lost in a lot of conversations about editing, but it’s specialized work that many of us have been trained for–and our expert skill set is what you’re paying for. And, for freelancers, the fee you pay supports us, not only during the 55+ hours we spend on your manuscript, but in the rest of our lives. Your $1200 is our salary. That has to cover food, rent, insurance, and all the other myriad costs of living.

All that said–you can find editors charging $300 for a full manuscript edit, and many of them are probably perfectly competent, but many are not. So, when I urge you to ask yourself if an editor’s prices are reasonable, you should really be thinking is this editor an expert, willing to charge what their expertise is worth, or are they underselling themselves just to get clients? We at B&BD charge what we charge so that we can give your manuscript the full attention it deserves, and not have to chase down three times as many jobs to earn the same wage.

B&BD and many of our colleagues offer payment plans on large editing projects in order to relieve some of the burden. Make sure to ask, if such isn’t stated on the editor’s website.

Do their services suit my needs?

At B&BD, we offer a wide range of services at a variety of prices so that we can be flexible within your goals and your budget. Not everyone needs a full manuscript edit. Queriers especially might need only a reader report; many writers benefit from partial editing packages, since many pervasive mistakes manifest right from the beginning.

The service you need depends on where you are in your own revision process, what your publishing goals are, and what your own skill level as a writer might be. Experienced writers can take the observations in a reader report and turn them into actionable revisions. Newer writers might benefit from developmental and line editing that breaks down the story-building process for them. Self-publishing authors will appreciate the two-level Twice Tried editing package, and so on.

What is their turnaround time?

Editing a full manuscript of average length can take about 1-2 months, and many editors aren’t able to start right away because of the jobs already on their schedule. This is why, if you’re self-publishing, you should line up your editor early in the process, and build the release schedule around the editing timeline you work out with them.

If you’re querying, or just want feedback, and can’t wait for the full edit, many editors (including B&BD) offer packages with quicker turnaround times that may suit your needs better. Reader reports take 2-3 weeks. First five pages can be done in a few days.

Then what?

Communicate. Email them an inquiry and tell them about your manuscript, your publishing goals, and what you want/need out of an editorial relationship. If the editors offer a free sample edit (as any reputable editor should for big projects), take it! Ask for references, and contact them. Talk about payment plans. Read their contract.

The important thing here is to gather responses from all the editors you researched and reached out to. You don’t have to hire the first one who gets back to you and seems reasonable. It might be that another editor would be a better fit. Maybe their editing style gels better with you; maybe they’re a huge fan of the particular niche you’re writing. You’ll never know if you don’t get the sample edit, or if you don’t wait to see the sample edits from all the editors.

Hiring an editor is not a race. Take your time. Find an editor you click with and who will love your book. The process will go much better for everyone involved, I promise.

What if I click with multiple editors, you ask? Then the tie-breaker is up to you. It might be price, it might be turnaround time. You might flip a coin. But in this scenario, at least you’ve had them both do samples and you’ve discussed your goals with them both and you know that either one will be a good fit for your project.

Hopefully that answers any questions you might have about how to hire a freelance editor, but if I’ve missed anything, please feel free to ask in the comments! And now, I will leave you with some pictures from our booth, which we shared with REUTS Publications. I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have because we were too busy, haha. And thanks to guest editor Sara Pittock for manning the booth with me!



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Disembodied Dialogue

Posted by on Jun 12, 2015 in Advice | 2 comments

I love dialogue. I love writing it and I love reading it, and I love how versatile it is. It’s one of my favorite things about shows like Buffy and more recently, The 100 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I love Tom Stoppard’s works more than life itself. And in our glorious age of cinema, I think it’s easy to be influenced by the dialogue styles of our favorite screenwriters and playwrights, and to try and write novels as if they’re screenplays with just a little more description.

Novels are a different medium than scripts or screenplays, though, and this 90% dialogue approach doesn’t work for every (I’d say most) manuscript(s). I’m not saying that a lot of dialogue is a bad thing. I’m saying the ratio of dialogue to description should be better balanced in novels than in scripts meant for visual mediums.

Based on the manuscripts I’ve seen and worked on, I have to assume that a lot of writers these days are dialogue-first writers, which is a great strategy for first drafts because dialogue can be a really effective and interesting way to give information and move the plot forward. However, subsequent drafts need to add more details, otherwise you’re left with disembodied dialogue that fails to elicit a reaction in the reader. When dialogue stands unconnected to subtextual characterization (behavior, internal emotions/thoughts), it makes it hard to connect to a character because they’re basically just this disembodied voice, just a collection of words arranged into sentences without any indication of how to interpret or contextualize those words.

I encourage authors to add more of what I call transitional details. I call them transitional because their job is to lead the reader through the escalating plot and character arcs in a calculated way; generally speaking, I put them in the following categories. [Disclaimer: as with all writing advice, apply in moderation. Too many of these details will bog down a manuscript. Always strive for dialogue and description that is relevant to the scene, adds to the character arc, and/or moves the plot forward.]

  • Stage direction. This includes not only blocking (where characters move in the ‘set’, crosses, etc) but business (what characters do where they’re sitting/standing/lying). So for example: “Bob went to the sidebar [blocking] and poured himself two fingers of Scotch [business].” This is important to include, not only to keep track of where everyone is, but to characterize them (what do we learn about Bob from his drink choice?) and to add authenticity to the scene. As the wonderful Chuck Wendig says, “Characters don’t stand nose-to-nose and take turns speaking.” They move, they fidget.
  • Emotional context. Usually (especially in the case of dialogue) this means an emotional response to what was just said or done that precedes and gives context to the POV character’s next action or line of dialogue. Your Love Interest just accused your Protagonist of cheating on them–odds are they’re going to have a physical/emotional reaction before speaking (though if words fly out of their mouth first, that’s characterization too–but don’t forget to let emotions catch up soon!). It doesn’t have to be an in-depth reflection, and probably shouldn’t be. But as you can see in the following examples, even a handful of words can give different characterizations:

My jaw drops. “How could you think that?” Here the character is shocked, or at least pretending to be.

I grit my teeth. “How could you think that?” The character is angry! What kind of character gets angry at an accusation of cheating?

Bewilderment numbs my mouth for half a breath. “How could you think that?” I whisper as my lips tingle back to life. This character is dumbfounded and seems non-confrontational.

  • Thought processes. If your character is having an epiphany, show us how they get there! Some characters talk through their epiphanies or decision-making processes, which is fine, but for the ones who don’t–you can still show us, especially if you’re in a close POV. This, again, helps to characterize your POV character and helps to smooth any apparently illogical intuitive leaps, which keeps the story realistic and immersive. You don’t want your reader going “Wait, what, why are they doing this now, what the hell are they talking about?” Describe how they get from A to B to C, etc.

I spotted Mrs. Jones and her tiny dog, farther up the sidewalk, just as her dog was coming up from a squat and kicking out its bony legs in some kind of victory dance. She didn’t even look down; my eyes widened as Mrs. Jones and the little beast just walked away from the poop without picking it up! [A] There was a free poop bag dispenser not two feet from where the damn thing did its business. My jaw dropped and I ran over to the small pile of fecal matter. As I stared down at it, I realized it was rough the same size and consistency of the piles that had dotted the community lawn for months. [B] This isn’t the first time she’s done this–and my Yorkie’s been getting blamed for it the whole time! [C] This was the last straw. I’d get proof–next time I’d photograph her–and then we’d see what the leasing office had to say about it. [D]


To illustrate the phenomenon of disembodied dialogue, I’ve edited an excerpt from an old short story of mine down to resemble some of the manuscripts I’ve noticed this in, as they are when I first read through them. Version One has had most of the transitional details removed. Compare to Version Two, the original, and discuss!

Version One [Disembodied]

“Oh good, Miles, you’re here,” the manager said. “Have you two introduced yourselves yet? Caroline, this is Miles. He’s our new night janitor slash cook. He’ll be doing all the prep work during the night, so our line cooks don’t have to come in so early and then work all day. Miles, this is Caroline. She’s one of the hosts.”

“Caroline. It’s a pleasure,” he said. His voice was…viscous. Thick, deep, smooth. Like honey.

“Nice to meet you,” she replied.

The young man looked at Caroline and took her hand; he turned it over and lifted it as he bowed slightly. Not quite a kiss, but gentlemanly all the same. He kept his eyes on her the whole time. She became very conscious of how often she blinked.

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” he asked.

“That’s an odd thing to say,” Caroline replied.

“Perhaps, but I often wonder it,” Miles said. “Well?” The single syllable oozed from his mouth.

“Well, what? Do you make me uncomfortable?” Caroline asked.

He nodded.

“No,” she said.

“Oh,” he said.

Caroline held her ground a moment, then said, “I’m leaving now.”

“Because you’re uncomfortable?” Miles asked.

“No,” Caroline said as she took her coat and walked away.


Version Two [Original]

“Oh good, Miles, you’re here,” the manager said. “Have you two introduced yourselves yet? Caroline, this is Miles. He’s our new night janitor slash cook. He’ll be doing all the prep work during the night, so our line cooks don’t have to come in so early and then work all day. Miles, this is Caroline. She’s one of the hosts.”

One of the hosts. There was that anonymity again. Miles had had a new position created for him and she was just one of the hosts. She already felt insignificant in his eyes.

“Caroline. It’s a pleasure,” he said. His voice was…viscous. Thick, deep, smooth. Like honey.

She wanted to say something classy and intriguing, but nothing came to mind; and instead of lifting her hand delicately, perhaps for him to lightly kiss, she stabbed her rigid phalange-carpal combo into the air.

“Nice to meet you,” she replied, a bit brusquely.

Miles looked at her hand, then glanced around. By this time Jennifer had wandered off. They were, for all intents and purposes, alone. The young man looked back at Caroline and took her hand; he turned it over and lifted it as he bowed slightly. Not quite a kiss, but gentlemanly all the same. He kept his eyes on her the whole time. She became very conscious of how often she blinked. Somehow, the average number of sixteen blinks per minute seemed far too many.

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” he asked.

“That’s an odd thing to say,” Caroline replied.

“Perhaps, but I often wonder it,” Miles said.

Caroline supposed that was acceptable. He released her hand and straightened. He was a good deal taller than her, and now that she was closer to him she realized that he gave off a strange odor. It was like a withering flower: sweet, but sort of sticky, with an underlying pungent sharpness, the kind of smell that went straight up your nostrils and stayed in the bridge of your nose, tickling you and ruining all the things you smelled after it.

“Well?” he said in his sticky honey voice, brushing a lock of honey-gold hair out of his face. The single syllable oozed from his mouth.

“Well, what? Do you make me uncomfortable?” Caroline asked.

He nodded. She considered it.

“No,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. He seemed surprised. He took a step closer to her, and another, invading her personal space with clear deliberation. The action had a “how about now?” feel to it. Caroline held her ground a moment, then said:

“I’m leaving now.”

“Because you’re uncomfortable?” Miles asked.

“No,” Caroline said as she took her coat and walked away.

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Editing While Feminist

Posted by on May 20, 2015 in From the Editors |

One of the toughest things about editing is cleaning up the manuscript while preserving the author’s voice, and in the developmental stage, advising on the story to improve it without falling into the trap of changing it to suit your personal story preferences.

There are many potential pitfalls to this process, and I know for me it has been a constant struggle to strike a balance between my clients’ work and my feminist convictions. I’ve never had to deal with explicit (and uncondemned) sexism in a manuscript, but what I have sometimes seen is unintentional sexism in the form of unexamined tropes and turns of phrase, and occasionally, what’s known as “enlightened sexism.”

None of the authors I’ve worked with intend to be sexist. But…when they recreate scenes in which men dominate the dialogue or come up with all the solutions (and have chosen their characters’ genders in such a way as to make this plausible), or relationships in which women are all mood swings and men are all jealousy or possessiveness. When a man gratuitously “once-overs” a woman he’s attracted to and explicitly admires tits and ass while the woman who’s attracted to him admires his smile and eyes. When a female character constantly questions herself, her actions, her looks, but none of the other, usually male, characters have the same struggle for self-worth.

Let’s just say that intent has little bearing on interpretation, especially for a reader who may never even meet, let alone get to know, the author of a book.

[Disclaimer #1: I believe in variety. For the purpose of this post, I’ll simply say there is no one “right” or “most feminist” way to be a woman, though I would say there are some benchmarks.] The issue I face, as a feminist editor, is that I am not seeing a lot of variety among female characters, particularly in certain genres and categories. What I see are regurgitated descriptions and ideas that convey the same old tired notions without even meaning to, and it’s lazy. It’s lazy writing. I know that’s hard to hear, but a writer may spend years on a manuscript, and if they’re not making clear decisions about every single word, they’re still leaving a lot on the table–not all of it pleasant.

[Disclaimer #2: more and more authors are giving their female characters due care and consideration and fleshing women who could easily be stereotypes into fully realized characters, and I am totally aware of and grateful for that, so please don’t tell me #notallauthors. Disclaimer #2.5: to my past and current clients, unless this is something we’ve talked about together, I’m not talking about you.]

My rule of thumb for writing is to question everything. Why is my character saying that? Why are they thinking/feeling/doing that? What is being conveyed here, really, truly, below the surface being conveyed? Asking these questions is often all it takes to diffuse the dialogue or description that is problematic, and get to a truer representation of what the character is going through at that moment. [Disclaimer #3: I struggle with this as an author as well, and can only do my best to tailor all my writing to the unique characters I strive to create.]

Back to editing while feminist. As a feminist, I want to challenge the kinds of unexamined assumptions about women (and others) that permeate our media, including the books we write. As an editor, my first duty is to the author’s story. There’s a lot that I don’t comment on, because if I did, I’d be crossing a line from serving the story to serving my story expectations–and in the past, there have been authors who still took issue with the comments I did think were worth leaving.

As always, the best I as a developmental editor can do is provoke deeper thought in the author about what they’re trying to accomplish with their story, and whether they’re succeeding, and how they can achieve those goals.

In our wonderfully thoughtful and aware internet writing community, I’m sure there are other editors who wrestle with this and authors who perhaps have faced comments like these. Let’s discuss and share strategies in the comments!

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Writing lessons I learned from forum RPGs

Posted by on Apr 9, 2015 in Advice, Inspiration, Resources | 1 comment

Let’s talk RPG.

Cait and I both cut our writing teeth on these. Also called play-by-post RPGs, they are a form of collaborative storymaking in which a group of people come together on internet forums with their own characters (sometimes predetermined by admin, but more often BYOC) and throw them into a world–unique or a fandom–where they can interact and create a story together. This taught us many great lessons that apply to traditional fiction writing.

Listed below in internet brief are just a few of these valuable writing lessons. With gifs!

Your character has to be interesting and tied in some critical way to the world’s story. Otherwise, no one will want to play with you. (Or read your book)

Via giphy

Collaborative writing can open up so many possibilities. In storymaking, two (or four, or six) minds really can be better than one. So don’t be afraid to call upon your writing group, critique partner, or editor to throw ideas at each other until rainbows of magic spout between your heads in rays of awesomeness.

Via giphy

There is joy and value in people breathing down your neck with a deadline. Writer’s block? What’s that? My RPG buddy editor needs a post book STAT!

Via giphy

When two characters are in the same scene, don’t rehash all the details. That’s Boooooo (wait for it) RING. Highlight the differences in their POVs and skim the rest. Keep the story moving!

Via giphy

Don’t put words, thoughts, or actions into another character’s head.  Especially when it’s impossible for the invading character to know the info. That’s just rude.

Via giphy


Writing on RPGs really does make you a better writer. So does writing fanfiction. So did writing that woodshed project you dust off every now and then. The lessons you learn from writing in these different modes will vary somewhat, but the ultimate outcome is the same: you’re a better storyteller by virtue of getting the words down, doing it a lot, and interacting with other writers.

Who knew learning could be so fun?


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2015 News & Announcements

Posted by on Mar 9, 2015 in News |

With the new year come changes. (Or at least good intentions for change: amiright, O Neglected Treadmill?)

New Years was always one of my favorite holidays. That probably has something to do with the big NYE parties in my parents’ garage and the 60 pounds of homemade confetti we would battle with at the stroke of the new year. That sense of excitement and newness was thrilling. I would start the new year in giddy asthma-inducing dust clouds, all-day Lord of the Rings marathons, and absurdly late nights with friends.


It is in that spirit that I think about 2015 and the goals Cait and I have for our editing business. I’m EXCITED about the plans we have for this year. ALL CAPS EXCITED. You know the editor is pumped up when they use all caps. If you’re not convinced yet…hey look, excessive use of exclamation marks!!!

Here’s what we’re making of 2015 at Bear & Black Dog.

More content and services provided specifically for self-publishing authors.

This includes the addition of proofreading services (a big welcome to our proofreader, Keith Barbalato!) and a discount on all of our services to anyone who is self publishing. The discount is going to last ALL YEAR. All year!! (Note: all caps, excessive exclamation points) Plus we’re going to be posting here on the blog about self editing, marketing, book design, and the other important self-publishing skills.

More content and services for authors seeking traditional publishing.

But we’re not leaving out the writers who are seeking a traditional publishing deal. We’re also offering query letter critiques and phone/Skype consultation services for those who need help hooking agents and editors. Pretty awesome, right?

Answers to more of YOUR questions about editing and publishing.

We’ll be starting a semi-regular video series called Ask B&BD, wherein we’ll answer questions from you. To submit a question, tweet at us with the hashtag #AskBBD, comment on our Facebook page, or email us at contact [at] bearandblackdog [dot] com with “Ask B&BD” in the subject line. We’ll also be using the videos to talk about some of our favorite writing and editing resources. The videos will be posted to Cait’s YouTube channel, so be sure to subscribe!

Another B&BD anniversary contest.

Last year we gave away a free twice tried edit. For B&BD’s two year celebration, we’re scheming to bring a free edit to a new author–so someone who hasn’t been published before and is working in that direction, whether self publishing or traditionally publishing. This edit will be at whatever level the author needs. Our editing services are like an in-depth writing course, so this could be a valuable step forward for the winner!

Personal development to improve your favorite bear and black dog’s editing skills.

We’ll keep you updated as to side projects, conference attendance, and activity in the Twitterverse. We always like talking with writers. Find Cait @CaitSpivey and Ash @AshyAslan, and give a shoutout and a follow to our new proofreader Keith @BooksellerKeith.


For more information about these services, offers, and changes, stay tuned to the blog here or our official B&BD twitter account. Our updated service packages can be seen now under the Services tab above.

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Using Stages of Plot as a Framework

Posted by on Feb 25, 2015 in Advice |

Plot is one of the four backbones of fiction (the other three being character, setting, and style), and it’s one we haven’t touched on much here on the B&BD blog. So today, I want to go through the traditional stages of plot.

When I edit my own work, one of the things I like to do is map where my chapters fall in these stages. Doing so really helps me visualize the pacing, and also helps me narrow in on what the tone of each section should be. Are my characters getting too much downtime in the rising action portion? Or, conversely, not enough? Does the climax or denouement stretch on for too long to be effective? These are the questions we can ask ourselves when we employ the stages of plot as a framework.

Like most traditional writing rules, these stages of plot are there to be experimented with. For practice, consider your favorite books, movies, and even TV shows and observe the way they utilize these plot stages. Compare to yours. This will help you learn to see the structure of your manuscript and revise for tension and a complete arc.


This is almost invariably the first stage: the introduction to the characters and the setting. In the exposition, you’re laying a foundation for the story. This section is important because it lets us bond with the characters before the shit hits the fan, and sets initial expectations for the rest of the novel. Once the stakes are raised, we know where the protagonist is coming from and what it will mean to them to succeed.

Often, writers spend too long in the exposition stage of the plot or they try to give too much exposition all at once. It varies from genre to genre, but you often don’t need as much exposition as you think.

Remember that your exposition can be a hook as much as any other plot stage. This is where style and character matter a lot toward engaging the interest of your reader. You’re presenting information necessary to contextualize the plot, but how are you presenting it? By the time you get to editing your draft, you should be thinking of ways to innovate your scenes, whether by an unusual exchange of dialogue or perhaps an unexpected setting or point of view.



Rising Action (First Phase)

Traditional ‘story mountain’ maps generally show rising action as one long climb to the climax, but I like to break it down a bit more, so I include what I call the first phase of rising action. This is the part of the story that grows out of the exposition and builds the tension. This stage usually includes the inciting incident, which is what gets your protagonist involved in the plot–but that’s one of the ways you can experiment. These days it’s very common to find the inciting incident in the first chapter, perhaps even the first page.

The exposition and first rising action phase work best when they’re blended in a steady ebb and flow that gradually carries your reader forward (or upward, depending on your visualization) into the story.

So when you’re mapping, how can you tell the difference between the two kinds of scene? Exposition tells the reader what the characters already know. It establishes the status quo, introduces things as they are. Rising action, in any phase, introduces something new in some way, whether it’s an attack or just news of an attack, or even if it’s just your protagonist learning something that may have been established in the exposition of another character (such as a villain).

The key in this phase of rising action is that each development should raise more questions than it answers, or otherwise muddle the plan.



This isn’t one that shows up on basic ‘story mountain’ diagrams, but I like to think of it as the event during the rising action that really kicks things off. This is that moment when everything changes, when the characters move from asking questions to actively participating. This is where urgency is introduced. Something must be done immediately!

Rising Action (Second Phase)

The second rising action phase is what I think of as the crisis stage. This is where characters are making and executing plans, experiencing setbacks and losses, and barreling along toward the climax. Tension should be high, both in terms of external stakes and between characters. This is the time to exploit relationships and dredge up secrets left unshared. This is the time for things to go horribly wrong.

This is also when your characters, protagonists especially, should confront their worst fears and attitudes and start to find the hero within themselves. How does your protagonist respond to adversity? And your supporting characters–do they cave or rally? Which of them can be trusted, or relied upon? Stack the odds against your players and allow them to surprise you.


Climax or Denouement

This is the point where everything comes to a head. The apex of the story mountain, if you will. I include both climax and denouement, because they sometimes overlap, but put simply: the climax is the high point of the plot, the most tense or exciting or active point.

A denouement can include or directly follow the climax, and makes clear or resolves the elements of the plot to that point. Think of it as the scene in a crime procedural when the detective is explaining the evidence against the suspect, and how they figured it out. Another fun example is the end of Louis Sachar’s Holes, when the main character realizes the connections between all the events and people at the camp.

The execution of this stage will vary depending on the genre of your novel. A fantasy denouement could stretch several chapters as part of an epic battle. In a contemporary, it’s more likely to happen in the space of one chapter, and be purely a climax.

Falling Action

In this stage, your characters are either solving the problems of the climax or processing the denouement and cleaning up after it. It depends on your genre. The Return of the King is an excellent example of extended falling action, if you consider the destruction of the One Ring the climax. There’s a lot of logistical housekeeping to be done, and even a little more action to be had when the hobbits return to the Shire and deal with the consequences of the battle at home. But it’s all downhill, nothing the hobbits can’t handle after what they’ve learned and been through on their journey.

Falling action is about consequences, and every book should have this stage even if it’s part of a series.



Like exposition and the first phase of rising action, falling action often blends with resolution. As your characters address the aftermath of the climax, they must either accept or reject what they’ve done and the way things end up, and make plans for the future. For series writers, this stage of reflection is how you build momentum toward the next book without utilizing a hateful cliffhanger. It doesn’t have to last long, and is often better if kept brief.

To use a film example, the final shot of Catching Fire shows us Katniss reacting very quickly to the news that the Games are over and she’s on her way to District 13. We see her reject her fear and become determined–to what, we’re not specifically sure (in terms of just watching the movies). But we know she’s made a decision and intends to do something about it, which kicks us toward the next film, while still feeling that this arc of her story is complete.

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