"You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke."
– Arthur Plotnik
I’m a creative, and I love the craft of writing fiction. I have a personal goal of getting better at writing fiction because not only do I want to feel awesome for being able to create great stories, but I also hope to someday build a career from my fiction.
This focuses primarily on how to make a story you've created better, not how to create one from scratch. However many of these ideas are needed to create a solid story.
I started writing this non-fiction work for multiple reasons:
- I’m an independent learner. I’m not taking a course from an institution on creative writing, but I do believe some of the traditional learning techniques have merit. Writing this out will help solidify the topic in my mind and make me a better writer in turn.
- I will be able to use this as a reference guide for my own fiction. And, if my storytelling efforts grow to involve more people, it will be a company reference tool.
- I want to help other writers who need it. I’ve spent a lot of time collecting this information through reading fiction, writing craft books, and writing my own fiction. If you’ve come across this in search of help, I hope my transparency helps make the world a better place.
- When the time comes, I may repurpose this into various forms of content. Blogs, Podcasts, YouTube Videos, and an actual, publishable book can all come from this. Heck, if somehow I ever need to teach a class or do a lecture, I can use this as material. Because of this, I do ask that you do not copy or repurpose this material directly for your own profit. But feel free to use it to tell better stories.
I’m not an expert in the writing craft. I hope to someday position myself as an authority in creative writing, but I still have much to learn and many words to write in order to get there.
So, it’s important to know that in its current form, this is not meant to be purely instructional.
This is an ever-growing work and will continue to evolve as I learn more about the art and craft of storytelling. The material here will change as I see fit to change it.
I hope you enjoy and learn a lot!
The Plotter vs. The Pantser
You may be familiar with the two primary types of writers.
On one side of the spectrum you have the plotter. A plotter is a writer who, as part of their process, plan, plots and prunes to perfect a picture of end the product previous to pushing the project to first draft (wow… lots of P’s there). In other words, a plotter outlines (often quite extensively).
On the other side is the pantser. A pantser is a writer that proceeds with a premise without pre-contrived plots, and ends in place they hadn’t proposed or predicted (sorry… I had to do it). In other words, a pantser wings it.
The Type A personality may be the plotter. Plotters will often know every single scene and what exactly happens in them before they even begin writing. Pantsers (likely to be Type Bs) will write ‘by the seat of their pants’ moving where they’re characters and sporadic ideas take them.
Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time, Mistborn Trilogy) is known for being a plotter and Stephen King (The Shining, The Stand) is a well known pantser. Both of these writers are very successful and both have very different approaches to their first drafts.
Personally (and many of you will fall into this category) I’m somewhere in the middle.
I plot a little and pants a little. I will write a summary of what I think should happen, then pants my way to each place. Before I start a scene, though, I make sure I know what I want to accomplish in it so that I don’t end up with a lot of scenes that I’ll need to cut.
At times, I’ll realize that I don’t know enough about what’s suppose to happen or change it completely because what I plan will no longer work. I’ll pants my way through it by plotting only a few steps ahead of myself until I get to the next part I know well. I’ll write in characters that I never planned to exist but decide to see where it takes me. If I like them enough, I’ll plan something for them.
The takeaway here is that you don’t have to be on one side. It’s a spectrum that most people fall somewhere in between. Just like Type A and B personalities, Left wing and Right wing politics, ____ and ____, you don’t have to pick a side.
Do what works best for you and helps you create a story you love.
Those who fall closer to the pantsing side of this spectrum will more likely need to engage in major story revisions.
It stands to reason that the more you plot, the less you’ll have to revise, but this isn’t always the case. Often, as you write your first draft, you’ll realize that something you planned isn’t working how you want and you’ll need to change your outline. This may result in breaking other parts of the story. Don’t avoid this if it’s what you need to do to make your story better.
Pantsers are at greater risk of their stories spiralling out of control or writing themselves into a corner without knowing how to end the story they started. If you’re far on the pantser side, you may want to start planning your end once you get far enough to know what might be cool.
Not everyone has the luxury of having a bunch of writing buddies who can help you see what your story is lacking. Writers tend to be solitary and our friends often have to come to our houses and make sure we’re still alive and getting enough sunlight.
If you do have a few writing friends, form a writing critique group. But if you don’t, try to find some. These can be people you know locally or (if it works for you) online.
So what makes a good Alpha Reader?
A good alpha reader writes stories and are familiar with the levers behind the curtain that make stories work. Beta readers (and I’ll get to that in the next section) are the readers that read the story after you’re pretty certain you’re done with any major revisions and you’ve done some self-editing. They may be writers too, but it’s good to find people who just love to read and can give you their genuine reader responses.
It’s often not easy to find Alpha Readers. They’re a special breed and might be holed up inside the apartment next to yours and you didn’t even know it. You probably didn’t even know someone lived there.
Since you may not know where to look, I’m going to give you a few places to start:
- Conventions, Conferences & Seminars
- NaNoWriMo Forums/Meetups
- Writing Social Networks and Forums (writerscafe.org, duh!)
- Facebook & Google+ Groups
Once you have your Alpha Readers, send them your draft and let them have at it.
I Have Alpha Readers. Now What?
It’s important to know how to take critiques from them. They’re not trying to crush your hopes and dreams or tell you that your baby is doomed. They’re just trying to help you move your work to the next level.
I've compiled a few lessons that I've learned about receiving critiques. This comes from the advice of master creatives as well as my own experience with critique groups both online and in person.
The first rule of taking Alpha Reader critiques is:
Critiques are additive, not competitive.
This is an idea I learned from Ed Catmull's book about Pixar called Creativity, Inc. Ed calls his Alpha Readers by a different name: Brain Trusts.
Your Alpha Reader's comments are not an attack on you or an attempt to belittle the ideas you put into your story. Do not make the mistake of thinking that your critiquers have an agenda to crush you.
This is a chance to see your story through the eyes of another. Take what's said and use it to hone your story.
The second rule of taking a critique is:
Don’t defend or explain your work.
When an Alpha Reader says “I didn’t understand ____,” or “This scene didn’t work for me because ____,” it’s not your job to explain it to them. Just say thanks, and find a way to remedy it.
When you publish your book, you won’t be able to sit with every reader and explain what they didn’t understand. Instead of trying to explain to your critiquer what you meant, just put it in the story itself.
A caveat to this rule is: if you’re explaining it so that your Alpha can help you identify what’s going wrong.
The third rule of taking critiques is:
If two people tell you that something doesn’t seem right, you need to take a closer look. If three or more people tell you something doesn't seem right, that's trend, and you should address the issue.
Everyone has their reader quarks and preferences, so you might get different responses from different readers. Sometimes you won’t agree with what they say and that’s okay.
It’s your story and ultimately you’re the only one who has the final say. You have to live with knowing your name is on it.
However, if multiple people tell you that your opening paragraph isn’t hooking them in, or that pages 45 through 58 are lacking focus and conflict, you should heed those signals and try to find to root of the problem.
The fourth rule of taking critiques is:
Though your critiquer's reaction to your story isn’t wrong, that doesn’t mean what you wrote isn’t right.
As I said above, you don’t have to agree with every critique you receive. If you can’t live with changing a particular detail in your story, you don’t have to, but know that it is unwise to ignore every comment you receive.
Just as your Alpha Readers aren’t perfect, you aren’t either. Let them help you evolve.
The fifth rule of taking a critique is:
Your critiquer may not give you the right solution to the problem, or even the right problem to fix. It's up to you to find the root of the issue.
This goes hand-in-hand with rule four.
What happens a lot is one of your critique partners will tell you that they don't understand or like something about your scene or story. They'll point to a certain element and say "This is what's broken."
But I've found that a lot of times what they think is causing the issue in the story isn't what's causing the problem at all. It's a mis-diagnosis. This doesn't happen because your critiquers are poor craftsmen (though this does happen less frequently when you're being critiqued by veteran storytellers), it happens because on the surface, a story issue can appear to have a number of different causes.
Sometimes your critiquer will say that they don't think something is working correctly and you disagree. That's fine and you may leave it at that. But I recommend taking that critique and putting a pin in it. Revisit it after you've taken some time to allow yourself to see the story with fresh eyes. What did this critique really mean? What problem was the critiquer actually picking up on?
When Do I Look for Alpha Readers?
Alpha Readers aren’t necessary in order to write a good story but they certainly help. If you’ve just finished your story, try to find some writers who are willing to read and give you feedback.
If you’re in the middle of writing your story, it’s not too soon to get feedback! I (and many great creatives) believe you should show your work early. If you are still writing your story, I personally advise that you don’t focus on fixing everything they point out until you reach your story’s end. Some writers can revise as they draft, but I don’t recommend it for new writers.
On the other hand, some think that you should not show your work until you've made your first pass. Stephen King's book On Writing talks about how you should write the first draft with the door closed and the second with the door open. Stephen King is one of the best, and it's not my place to say he's wrong.
In the end (like with most things in a creative field) you may need to experiment, and then do what's best for you.
Beta Readers are those you let read your book as a completed work. You'll probably not want to give it to these readers before you've completely finished the story and fixed all the major problems and possibly even after editing is complete.
Beta Readers don't need to be writers. In fact, it's good to have at least some, if not most of them, not be writers. It does help if you find people who actually read recreationally and like the genre of the book you've just written. What you want is the reaction of a reader.
Beta Readers are much easier to find. Go to a library or bookstore, and spark up some conversation with someone in the section that you think your book fits in. Or go to a reader convention and see if you can find a few people interested in reading your story. If you have friends that read fiction, they may also be a great resource.
After you send your book out to your Betas and receive their feedback, you’ll do your last revision and edit cycles before moving to the next step in your book’s life.
Where exactly your betas fall in you revision and edit cycles can be varied. You may find that you get the most use out of beta readers right after you finish your first revision cycles and cleanups. You may also find that you want to wait until you finish all your revision and right before you send it off to editors. You may also decide to do it after you’re completely finished and (if needed) doing one last tweak pass before you prepare to submit to agents, editors or publication.
You can also layer your beta readers in two steps. Split your betas in half and use one group for one section of the process and the other for the next. I can’t tell you what will work best for you, but if you have more than one book in you, it’s worth experimenting and trying different things.
Getting the Most Out of Your Alpha and Beta Readers
People have a wonderful habit of being really nice and not wanting to hurt your feelings, especially if they’re your friends or family. Often, when you have a test reader read a scene or story they’ll tell you how wonderful and talented you are and that it’s so cool you actually finished that book you said you were working on.
Unfortunately, this is hardly useful. You already know that you’re wonderful and talented. That’s why you’re writing in the first place. It is nice to hear that you’re wonderful and talented though. In fact, if anyone would like to compliment me, please, feel free.
Ego boosts are great and help keep you working hard when you’re unsure if what you’re doing is actually worth it. But that’s not all the information you want from an Alpha or Beta Reader. That’s what you want on your reviews at Amazon.com or Goodreads.
Other times you’ll get reviews that look like:
‘on page 21 line 6, you spelled coffee wrong’ or ‘You dropped a comma a few times in chapter 8.’
While these things are useful (more so from Beta Readers than Alpha Readers), they are the least important type of feedback you can get from a tester. It’s good to know these things before you send it off to your editor, but you’re in revision mode, not editing mode (but save those comments for when you’re in editing mode! it’ll make your life a bit easier).
Alpha Readers, if you picked them correctly, are less likely to just say: ‘That was neat,’ but they may not give you the info that you need to push your book to the next level.
Beta Readers are more likely to give a more shallow insight into what might be wrong, but you do want an honest reaction and review from them.
So if everyone’s so freakin’ nice, how do you get them to give you the dirt you need?
Elementary, my dear reader:
You ask specific questions.
If you just ask something so general as: ‘What did you think?’ or ‘Did you like it?’ you’ll probably get a ‘It was really cool!’ or ‘Yeah! It was awesome!’ respectively. These are somewhat useful as an ego boost and may actually be a true statement, but they’re not the types of comments that will help you fix the potential problems left unsaid.
I have a few questions that I ask now that are all useful when I’m ready to revise:
- What is this story about to you?
- What is confusing?
- What worked and didn't work in this scene/story?
- Could you see the scene/story in your head? If not, what was distracting you from getting into the scene/story?
- What questions, thoughts, and feelings arose when reading this scene?
- What do you think about the character(s)?
- What promises have I made to you with the story that I need to fulfill?
- What opportunities am I overlooking?
If I’m concerned with something specific, I may include that as well, but beware being overly specific. Pointing out what you think might be a flaw may flag it for certain readers and they may try to suggest fixing something that may not need fixing.
Editing and Editors
[Now that I have worked with an editor for an extended period of time, my notes have to be revised.]
Making a Bug List
Bug lists are a tool that programmers have be using for years to make sure they clear every flaw in the system that they find.
If you go on Facebook and report a bug, it goes onto a list of also reported bugs where they are sorted, ranked and delegated to the programmers who type furiously behind the curtains to make sure the platform stays functional.
Either that, or they’re sitting around drinking margaritas.
After you’ve had your margarita, you should compile a list of issues that you and your Alpha Readers, Beta Readers and Editors have flagged. Because it is often more important to keep forward momentum than to fix every issue have as you find them, it can be just as important to keep your own bug list in addition to the list of issues that your Alphas and Betas will give.
Sort the issues in the best way you see fit, but be sure they’re all well labeled. If you have a POV issue on page 3 of chapter 7, make sure that doesn’t get lost in the mix. If you have a description inconsistency and a POV issue in chapter 7, you may want to split them into different lists so that you’re dealing with each type of issue separately.
You can use a spreadsheet to track every error you have and sort them. If you’re like me, you’ll likely gamify this by adding charts and graphs to visually look at what the ratio of issue types in order to decide what type to tackle first. Also, if I’m being honest, I’d do it anyway just because I’d find it fun to know that kind of data. In fact, that data can be very important if you need to assess what skills you need to hone the most.
If you’re using a word processor, check to see if it includes a markup or comment system where you can make notes by highlighting a selected bit of text. You may want to make notes in your own work as you pass them by when reading over what you’ve done. You can do this while you’re writing as well.
Make a note to yourself to research what a 1956 Ford F-100 looks like, and keep writing forward instead of stopping. Googling it and scanning the web for a few minutes to an hour (once you get distracted by Twitter and YouTube), will not only waste time, but dampen your creative flow.
If you can equip your Alpha Readers with the same power, you’ll have a very powerful tool for improving your stories.
Once you start creating a workflow that includes a buglist, you’ll wonder how you ever got anything done without it. Writing stories can take a lot of time and every minute you save by keeping a well organized buglist will you more time to work on your next and idea. more importantly, it will give you less headache.
First Pass Revision Cycle
Patch Major Known Story Holes
This would probably be my first action after I finish a story. You’ve just finished writing your 350k word epic and you know that a few things have changed since its first conception. Maybe your ending doesn’t match your beginning but you decided to write it anyway. Maybe you decided that you needed to cut a character that wasn’t working in the middle of the story. You did so, but decided not to go back and rewrite those scenes without them until later. Maybe your side story spun out of your control and went in a direction that didn’t add to the story at all. It’s time to fix those things.
Because of all the variables you could have experienced, there is no way I can address how to fix them all. Perhaps there is a simple method to fix these things, and when I figure that out, I’ll write that book (I’ll probably call it Three Simple Steps to Fix Every Manuscript Story Issue. Ever.) In addition to that, this book isn’t really about how to write a story.
This is where good Alpha Readers can really be key for you. Obviously, go back and fix the problems you know that you have and know how to fix first, but then allow your Alphas to find the Plot Holes you missed.
Sometimes there will be events that you know happened or elements that were supposed to be evident, but for some reason you forgot to include them or they don’t pop like you want. You’ve read and thought about the dang thing so many times that you didn’t even realize you didn’t put an important piece in. You’ve become somewhat story blind.
Remember those notes you made in your bug list to research a topic a bit more and add it in later? This might be a good time to do that extra research and start filling out those parts of the story.
I write a lot of fantasy, so sometimes I need to research pre-20th century technology, cultures and societies. I didn’t live during that time and I’m not an expert in that period, so I save the things I didn’t think I needed to know for later rather than stopping mid-sentence and mid-flow.
Add Needed Scenes
When you get to the end of the story and you’ve fixed the errors that you know exist in what you’ve already written, you’ll often find you’ll need to add entirely new scenes. This is a good time to go ahead a write those pieces. You’ll want to get most of the heavy drafting work out of the way before you move on to the more detailed oriented revision.
Sometimes you’ve added all new locations, restructured subplots, added or subtracted characters and events, or completely changed your beginning or ending. Make sure you add what you need to make these changes work before we move into the second revision cycle.
If you skip doing this now and go straight to editing medium sized and small problems, you’ll risk giving yourself more work in the end.
Cut Unneeded Scenes
What’s just as important as adding any needed scenes is cutting the ones that you don’t need. You don’t want any scenes in your story that don’t really move the story in its intended direction.
Ask yourself: ‘What is the point of this scene?’ If you can’t answer this question definitively (and don’t stretch too hard to find them. Be honest), you need to cut the scene.
This can be really hard for some of us. We write to express ourselves and to give our characters, worlds and ideas a life that no one else can but us. But it is far more important to keep your story trim and lean than bloated with unneeded fluff. Those scenes will stand out and undermine your story.
Maybe you have your character eating at her favorite restaurant and having a chat about her favorite ice cream with her best friend Eisley. This could be a very real conversation that your character (let’s call her Mia) would actually have. The dialog might actually be really good and natural. Heck, it might actually be entertaining to read.
Read it and ask yourself: ‘What is the point of this scene?’ If your answer is: ‘I wanted to have a chance to talk about ice cream and describe Mia’s favourite ice cream shop,’ then we might have a problem if you have no real purpose for this in your overall story.
When you cut these scenes, keep them. You may find use for them later in the revision process. Maybe you realized that you need to insert a very specific detail and plot point into that ice cream conversation about how Aaron (Mia’s love interest) is planning a skydiving trip and how concerned she is about his safety. This trip is where he nearly dies and breaks up with Mia because he has a life crisis. Bang. Suddenly this scene has purpose AND you got to talk about Mia’s favorite ice cream (which is pistachio, of course).
Arranging What’s Left
After you’ve written the scenes you need to add, and cut the scenes that distract from your story’s beauty, you may need to shuffle your scenes around a bit in order to make them flow better.
This may not be an issue if you only cut two scenes and didn’t add any. Sometimes, though, you’ll find that adding or cutting has disrupted the rhythm of your story. Read through your story and see if you need to rearrange any of your scenes for the sake of emotional resonance or pacing.
Once you’ve got your scenes shuffled into the correct placements, it’s time for one of the most important steps you can possibly take.
Take a Break
An often overlooked part of the revision process is to just get away from it for a while. When you finish your manuscript, it’s often a good idea to just stuff it in a draw and let it cool for a few weeks. The longer you let it sit, the more objectively you can analyse it.
If you have another story or book you want to write, this is a perfect time to get started on writing that. Start the first draft of something new while you let your previous story cool off. This way, you can keep working forward while still distancing yourself before you start digging in and getting your hands dirty with red ink.
If you want to be even more productive, this is a great time to send your manuscript out to Alpha Readers. This way when you come back to your story, you have a renewed outlook on it, plus some preliminary insights from writers you trust. You can do the same thing again between letting your Beta Readers review and delivering your polished product.
If you get a good system going, you’ll be constantly cycling through drafts and revisions like a well oiled writing machine — getting all the benefits of letting your manuscript cool and sticking to a tighter writing schedule.
Second Pass Revision Cycle
You’ve taken a break and maybe even gotten some feedback from a few people. Now it’s time for your second pass revision cycle. Experienced writers may not have some of these issues, but always be conscious of them. A slip up in these areas will usually result in knocking your reader out of the story and questioning your competence as an author.
Revising for POV
One common issue that many new writers have is sticking to a consistent POV.
POV is an acronym for Point of View and refers to how a story is narrated. Keeping a clear POV is important so that you don't confuse your reader. If you’re writing in 3rd person and suddenly switch to 1st person, your reader will be very confused about what viewpoint the story is told.
First, let’s look at the different types of viewpoint. There are many different ways this can be done, but I’m just going to cover the most common because if I dig too deep, I’ll be eating a can of worms I don’t think I can finish. There is also slightly different terminology depending on who you ask, but again, let’s not open that can.
- First Person: This POV is easily recognizable by the use of 1st person words like “I” or “me” when narrating the story. This is the character telling you the story directly and is often the only viewpoint character with some exceptions.
- Second Person: This is the “you” story telling type. It’s often used in the “choose your own adventure” type stories or in non-fiction. This book is written (mostly) in second person.
- Third Person Limited: This is the “he” or “she” viewpoint where the narrator tells the story of someone else. The narrator is limited to the thoughts and feelings of one character in that scene, but it’s common to have more than one viewpoint character in the story overall.
- Third Person Unlimited: This is another “he” or “she” style that is exactly like number 3, only the narrator is not limited to the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time and may jump between characters.
- Third Person Objective: This is the “he” or “she” type where the narrator never dives into a character’s thoughts or feelings and merely tells the story cinematically.
Like I said, there are other variants such as First Person Unlimited and First-Second Person, but if you understand how to do these basic five, you’ll understand how to tackle something more complicated. If you don’t think your story fits into one of these categories, you may have an exotic POV or you’re jumping between more than one.
The general rule of thumb is that if you start with one and stick with it. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule and it’s okay to make exceptions. But if you do break the rule, you need to make sure you have a good reason, and be very clear in what you’re doing so that your reader doesn’t feel disoriented for too long.
For example, most First Person stories never switch to a different viewpoint. It stays with that one character till the very end of the story. However, I’ve seen stories where that isn’t the case. If you happen to be writing a story where you have more than one first person viewpoint character, you’ll likely want to denote which character’s viewpoint you’re writing from at the beginning of the scene.
Third Person Unlimited can be the trickiest of them all because you need to make sure you avoid confusion between the various character’s thoughts. If you’d like to read a story where this is done exceptionally well (and one of the greatest Sci Fi stories on top of that), I’d recommend reading Dune by Frank Herbert. You never want your reader not to know who you’re talking about and Herbert handles this style with grace.
When you’re dealing with Third Person Limited or any POV where you’re switching viewpoint characters, be sure to clearly mark the changing of characters. This can be done a variety of ways. Citing the character, line breaks and chapter breaks are the most common and simple solutions.
You’ll want to fix this before giving your story to your Alpha Readers, but if you happen to slip up, your Alpha’s will likely point out the error.
Beta Readers (depending on who they are) may not pick up on the error, but they will likely have a feeling that something isn’t right with the story. You’ll want to catch this before and during your Alpha stage so that your Betas can give you feedback that’s more important for Betas to give.
Revising for Tense
Tense revision is just as important as POV.
Tense refers to when your story takes place as indicated by verb form. As I’m sure you can see, it’s easy to lose your reader in time if you’re not consistent with this.
Let’s look at your options:
- Past Tense: This is pretty much the most common form in fiction where the verb suggests that the action has already happened: Kevin kicked the can.
- Present Tense: This is a much less common type, but can be used to good effect. The verb suggests that the action is happening right now: Kevin kicks the can.
- Future Tense: Even rarer than Present Tense, this form suggests that the action has yet to happen, but will: Kevin will kick the can.
If you have a pretty good grasp on verb conjugation in the english language (which, to be fair, isn’t really simple if you’re not a native speaker), then you won’t have too much trouble tracking down and making sure this is all consistent.
If you find that your story doesn’t have a consistent Tense, you’ll need to pick. Just as sticking to one POV is generally the rule, sticking to one Tense is also most common (with some exceptions).
If you have a story where you need to swap tenses, be very careful how you do it and try to swap during your line breaks and chapter breaks. Have your Alpha readers tell you if and when those changes become confusing or if they’re effective at all. If you find that they’re not very effective, you’ll be better off sticking to just one.
Third Pass Revision
I think it’s important to point out that the information that follows isn’t in the order that you necessarily have to or should tackle your revision process. You will need to find a process that works best for you and for your story.
For example: if you’re the kind of person who wants to knock out the hardest parts first, you might want to focus on the ‘M’ factor first if that’s what comes hardest to you (I know that’s confusing, but I will explain it soon).
Another example: if your story is a ‘M’ story first, then it may benefit you to start with this and work your way into the less and less important parts.
I tackle it the latter method because I find that it’s more important to address the highest focus of your story first before you touch the other elements. Doing so might fix the other pieces before you even get to it.
Another disclaimer: revise to your style and genre. What I give in the following parts is just general revision advice. Depending on the style of your writing, the genre, and the target audience, you’ll want to shift how much time and effort you spend on each.
The kind of revisions you do for a Science Fiction story would likely differ greatly from a Harlequin Romance. And to that same sentiment, the kind of revisions you do for an Adult story would differ from a Young Adult and a Young Adult would differ from a Middle Grade.
The best way to know if you’re doing it right is to be very familiar with fiction of a similar audience as yours. If you’re writing a Young Adult Urban Fantasy, you might want to pick up Harry Potter and other successful titles like it and see how they approach writing to their audience.
The purpose of doing this isn’t to emulate or follow a formula set by a previous writer, but rather to get a sense of what is necessary, and what crosses into the unnecessary. A focused and lean story is always better than one with too much fluff. There’s no need to add what you don’t need. Fluff is great for pillows because it helps you fall asleep. Don’t let fluff put your readers to sleep.
Defining the MICE quotient
Orson Scott Card is the author of many Science Fiction works that you might be familiar with (his recently film adapted Ender’s Game is a book he released in 1985). In addition to being a kick-ass author, he has also written some excellent books on the craft of writing. In those, he talks about the MICE quotient.
The MICE quotient is a tool in which to determine what kind of story you want to write or are writing and helps guide you to write it more effectively. It’s an acronym where ‘M’ stands for Milieu, ‘I’ stands for Idea, ‘C’ stands for Character and ‘E’ stands for Event.
Without going into too much detail about each piece, I’ll describe what each piece means:
Milieu is french for setting or environment. I suppose you could use a less fancy word, but then you’d have the SICE or EICE quotient and that’s not very memorable. A Milieu story is one that focuses on the setting of the world. It often begins with an outsider entering a strange world and then, in the end, exiting it (or, alternatively, deciding to remain within it).
Two good examples of a Milieu story are Alice in Wonderland and Dune.
Idea stories are centered around questions. This one is usually the hardest to describe but a good example is your typical Crime or Mystery story. The story kicks off with a question or several questions and concludes when those questions are answered.
Two good examples of an Idea story are the Sherlock Holmes books and The Sentinel.
Character stories are centered around — you guessed it — characters. Almost all stories have characters, but these stories make the characters the most important element. Character stories usually deal with a character moving from one state to another. I’ll be referring to this from now on as Character Arc.
This is such a big topic that I’ll be getting to later, but generally most arcs look like this: Someone is dissatisfied with where/who/what they are and tries to fix it. In the end, that character succeeds in changing where/who/what they are or returns to the status quo. This is a bit oversimplified, but, as I said, I’ll be dealing with this later.
Two good examples of a Character story are Pride and Prejudice and Flowers for Algernon.
Event stories can also be confusing… I mean… If nothing happens in a story, is it really a story? In an Event story you have something wrong with the world and someone or someones have to do something to fix it. They may not succeed, but this kind of plot driven story is focused on a external issue that a character needs to to overcome.
Two good examples of Event stories are The Lord of the Rings and Macbeth.
If this is the first time you’ve encountered the MICE quotient, I suspect that you’re a bit confused about what category your story falls into.
Likely, It’s because:
- I haven’t explained MICE well enough. If this is the case, You will have a good idea of each by the end. If not, The appendix will have a few resources to help you figure this out.
- Your story is a rambling, in-cohesive train wreck. If this is the case, you can either chuck that story and write a new one, or use MICE to find your center and begin rewriting from there. Still finish this, though. It’ll help you with that rewrite.
- You feel like your story isn’t singularly one of these types of stories. This is the one (if you’ve either written a full length novel or your story is complicated) that I’m suspecting is probably the case for you.
I’ve pretty much given you the answers to problems 1 & 2, so let’s move on to problem number 3.
What’s cool about writing is that problem 3 isn’t really a problem unless the framework of your story doesn’t match. What I mean by that is that if you have a story that is heavily ‘C’ and heavily ‘M’ and quite a bit of ‘I’ and it’s flash fiction, you’re probably going to have a lot of trouble making it work and will likely need to trim it of some of these features, or expand it to a larger work.
Most novels tend to be more than one of the MICE quotient. Most (if not all) of the stories I listed as examples are more than just that type of story.
Let’s take The Lord of The Rings for example (and though this story has been available to the world for many years now, I’ll try not to ruin it for you).
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic story, we have a big Event plot where a couple hobbits are tasked with the dangerous mission of taking a dangerous ring to Mordor.
We also have an extensive Milieu story because we have to learn a lot about the setting in order for the world to make sense. The fact that he’s fleshed out the Milieu aspect so elegantly is why the story is works. You’re completely immersed in this setting.
Let’s not forget what’s going on between the characters. We have very interesting character arcs with Frodo, Sam and Gollum and other characters that are drawn into the adventure.
So what if your story covers a lot of bases? How do you know what kind of story you have?
The answer is simple: you don’t have to have a story that’s just one story type. And that’s a good thing because most stories (longer stories, novels, and epics, that is) aren’t just one type of story. If problem 3 is your issue, don’t worry. You’re golden.
What you do need to determine, however, is what type of story you have primarily. Often, there will be one of those types that are paramount above the other types. If you’re writing Romance, you’ll likely have a primary focus on Character even if you have a Murder Mystery element. If you’re writing a Murder Mystery, you’ll likely have a primary focus on Idea even if you have a Romance element.
If this confuses you, the best thing to do is envision where your book will sit in a book store. Would you search for your book in the Romance section or in the Mystery/Thriller section?
Still unsure? You might just need to pick based on what you think is most important. In some cases, you’ll have an element that is just as important as the other. In a rarer case (and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a book like this yet) you’ll have more than two that are equally important.
Once you decide which element is most important to the story, you’ll want to focus on revising for that element first. The reason for this is that you want to make sure you get the most important piece exactly how you want it before you move on to the next part. You don’t have to do this and find a different process altogether, but do so knowing that you risk having to backtrack and re-revise. Your primary story type is your foundation.
It is also worth pointing out that on a lower, scene by scene level, every scene should add to at least one element of the MICE quotient. If you can get a scene to add to multiple aspects of MICE, even better! If you’re not adding or addressing conflict, developing character, introducing or answering questions, or world building, that’s a clear sign that the scene either needs to be cut or you need to find a way to add one or more of these elements to the scene.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there’s a good chance that you’ll want to start with either ‘C’ or ‘E.’ Stories that are focused on ‘M’ or ‘I’ above all else are usually specialized tales like High Fantasy and Mystery respectively. Even then, these stories might still greatly involve elements of ‘C’ and ‘E.’
My edit cycle will most often be ECIM. Completely backwards of the actual acronym. CEIM is also a great order for me and the kinds of stories I write.
Since I can’t predict which element you should focus on first, the next few sections will be in the order of the MICE acronym. If you’re ready to revise and you want to revise as you read, I would recommend deciding what your order of importance is first, then read each section in that order.
The Milieu story type is focused on the world in which your story occurs.
The example I gave before was Alice in Wonderland. In that story, we have a girl who crosses into a strange and fantastical otherworld. The story revolves around the new and unexpected oddities that she encounters in her adventure.
Another story very much like this is The Wizard of Oz. We see a different girl enter an otherworld that's just as strange as Alice’s. At the end of these stories, we have the character come back to their own world and richer for the experience.
There are other elements of the MICE quotient running through both of these stories, but there’s a clear and very strong central thread of ‘M.’ You may decide that you need to start your story revision here for a few other reasons other than it being a M-type story.
Perhaps you "white-roomed" all or most of your scenes and you’re ready to rectify this. Sometimes description and setting is the hardest part of the writing process. For some, it comes as second nature, but others spend a lot of time toe-tapping and eraser nibbling while we try to figure out how to describe what a certain place looks like and what parts of that place are actually important to mention. If you find this particularly tough and you want to get the hardest part out of the way first, this might be a good decision for you.
It could be that you’ve already accounted for ‘I’ ‘C’ and ‘E’ and you just need to figure out your major setting and description issues. Then excellent, you’re almost finished! You didn’t really start here, you’re just ready for it.
You might also decide to start here because ‘I want to try it differently this time’ or ‘You put this before the other sections of the book, so… I’m starting here in order to work as I read’ or ‘I’m an adult and I can do whatever I damn please.’
Whatever your reason, let’s dig in and refine the ‘M.’
Having a map that is mostly, if not completely, finished can be a very valuable asset to getting the ‘M’ of your story down. This isn’t relevant for every author. This is something that a Science Fiction or Fantasy author is more likely to consider with a few exceptions.
When you write ‘otherword’ fiction — as is common among Science Fiction and Fantasy — it’s sometimes hard to visualize exactly how things play out in your story. This is especially true for the travel-log story format where the story takes place while your protagonist journeys from one place to another.
For consistency's sake, you’ll need to have a good idea how long it takes to get from each point to the next so that you can account for temporal imbalances. If you write a story where it takes two days to cross a continent and five weeks to cross a city, you’d better have a really good explanation for that or be ready to radically adjust your story’s timeline.
In a perfect world, you would have already done this and accounted for these types of errors, but if you haven’t it might be a good idea to do it now. If you’re not a cartographer or geologist, you might find the idea of drawing a map intimidating. I recommend using a map of earth as a proxy to get it right.
You’ll want to avoid some glaring mistakes like a Hoth environment a couple miles west of your Tatooine environment. If you stick to what our world has given us as examples of where basic environments sit in relation to others, you’ll probably be fine.
If you know someone who can help you out — someone that may have studied this in school — this would be a good time take him out for a cup of coffee and pick his brain. If he doesn’t show up and you write Fantasy, you could write off your errors by pointing to the fact that you have magic in your story, but that could be taken as lazy. Science Fiction readers will likely be a bit harder on you when it comes to getting your facts straight.
Sometimes it’s useful to draw a map when you’re dealing with a city or building that is hard to hold in your head and it’s vital to the story that you don’t screw up whether The bakery is next to the pharmacy or the deli. Your Mystery Thriller might not come of as the masterpiece you want if you get things like that wrong and your hardened detective might have a hard time locating the murder weapon if the town keeps rearranging itself.
By the time you finish your story, you’ll know if you need a map or not because you would have become annoyed with trying to remember the specifics if they’re important to the story’s consistency or plot. So this is your call.
Find all settings and the scenes they appear in
Before you set out to revise the Milieu for each scene of your story, you might want to take a couple hours to scan through your story to catalog each of your settings and what scenes they’re featured in. Once you do this, you’ll make editing each setting far more time efficient.
You might want to get into the habit of doing this as you write your first draft in order to save yourself the hassle of doing it after you’re done. I have a spreadsheet of data for my stories where I put data like this.
Once you have each location listed and labelled with corresponding scenes, start at the top of the list and read each scene that involves that setting. Then start documenting the information in a file about that specific place.
Did you give any details about what it’s like? If so put them in the file. Keep track of how exactly you described it too. This can be especially important for those who write serials and series stories. Nothing’s more embarrassing than getting caught describing a place the exact same way in book 3 as you did in book 1. Well, actually, there are more embarrassing things, but don’t let this happen to you.
Did you have any contradictions? It’s time to decided whether or not your character’s blanket is blue or green. You may think little mistakes like this are trivial in the grand scheme of the whole story, but you’ll be surprised to find that many readers will actually pick up on something like this. Some super fans can tell you every time their favourite book gets something wrong or the typos they’ve made.
You will probably make a mistake at least once (and that's being optimistic) if you plan on writing a lot of books in your lifetime, but it only takes a couple of these to tip the scale from innocent oversight to careless storytelling.
Now that you’ve got all your settings organized and troubleshot, it’s time to make the most out of your prose.
Establish setting for every scene
When you open a scene, it’s often good practice to ground your reader in the setting. This isn’t a hard and fast rule (like every other rule in writing) and the degree to which you do so will vary based on your genre, intended audience, pacing and personal taste.
If you’re writing a Milieu heavy story, you’ll want to take this closer to one extreme. M-type stories and genres like High Fantasy and Hard Science Fiction can demand more from this front. It’s what they require to create the sense of immersion that these genres need to satisfy your audience.
But don’t underplay factor if you don’t write in these genres. Immersion is a powerful part of story writing. Whether you’re attempting to trick your reader into believing that the fictional world you’ve created actually exists, or evoking the feeling of Paris in the winter, you’ll need to use your Milieu to pull your reader into the setting.
If you’re writing a Middle Grade story, you’ll likely have a different amount and focus of description than an Adult story. It’s important to be well read in the age group you’re writing for. Not because you want to copy what Louis Sachar is doing, but to use them as a measuring stick for what is appropriate.
Being well read in the genre and age group of your novel will also allow you to find a sense of pacing for description. If you place it in weird and insignificant places, it’ll become distracting to the reader. Ask your Alpha Readers to point out if your descriptions are boring or keeping them from enjoying the story.
In the end though, this is your story and you have to stick to your internal compass when making the final call. Sometimes the unorthodox way is the best way for your story. Maybe you’re the next George R. R. Martin and no one understands your genius yet... Maybe.
The Term ‘white room’ is tossed around when a scene takes place without the context of setting. If you can imagine your characters standing around in a void and interacting with objects that magically appear as they need them. That’s what tends to happen when you don’t set up where your scene is taking place.
On a higher level revision for otherworld stories, it may be important to revise for your world setting. You may need to refer back to the section on maps to help with this. You may also have a otherworld that’s so strange that’s that you’ll need to take special care to let the reader know what kind of world the story takes place in.
Go back to that settings list you made and look at the first scene where setting #1 occurs (which will probably be scene #1). Did you properly flesh out the setting? The first time a setting is introduced is when you should do the most grunt work of describing it. If this setting appears again in another place in the book, use the information you gathered from those scenes to help you nail the first one.
Unless something significant has changed, the next time you encounter this setting in your story, you won’t need to spend as much time describing where your characters are because you’ve already addressed it. You may just need to give a nod to where they are and move on.
There are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes you’ll not want to do this and opt for a different approach.
For example: if describing the setting gets in the way of the pacing of the scene. Nearing the end of your story, many times you’ll have to pick up the pace in order for the tension to remain high. If you have to introduce a new setting during this time, it may pay to not spend time describing what the wallpaper looks like as your protagonist has his final showdown with the villain.
Time travel stories are complicated and hard to wrap your head around. You may be unintentionally writing one. Don’t confuse your reader by not allowing them to have a sense of time. This applies to both a higher level revision and lower level.
If it takes three chapters for the reader to figure out that your story is set in pre-industrial China, you’ll want to look into finding a way to clue the reader in earlier. You’ll want to establish the time period of your story as early as you can. Doing so will allow your reader to fill in some of the descriptive blanks themselves.
On a lower level, not knowing when in the story you are from scene to scene should also be addressed. If the scene before it was night time, then the next scene it’s morning, but the reader can’t identify that change very early into the scene, you’ll want to fix it. Confusion like this will cause a reader to frown and knock her out of the story.
Sometimes you have a time travel story or one that doesn’t occur in chronological order or one that that incorporates flashbacks. Unless you devise a clever way to ground your reader in each time, this will confuse your reader and make her want to rip out her hair. More likely, though, she’ll just put down the book and not read it again.
The what of your Milieu is one of the most powerful tools you have. Many times just telling your reader where they are means absolutely nothing to them. The "What" is when you talk about your surroundings specifically.
Sometimes the world might have magical creatures that the characters are used to, but the reader isn’t. This is a higher level revision issue.
For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive Series features a new magical creature called Spren. It’s addressed almost nonchalantly at first, but he slowly warms you to the idea of what Spren are without having to exposit at length or break viewpoint.
Not everyone will have radically new and fictional creatures to introduce, but this also applies to any setting element that you’d expect a majority of your readers to be unfamiliar with.
On the lower level, you can do very powerful things with your viewpoint character regarding the what of your Milieu:
- What can the POV character see, hear, smell, taste, or feel? You may not need to address every single one of these, but if you can ground the setting with multiple senses, your setting will become more real. We don’t just experience life with our eyes.
- Which of these are important to setting the scene? When you’re trying to figure out what observations to add, first consider what’s important for the reader to get a clear image of what setting they’re dealing with.
- Which of these are important to the character? What the POV character notices about the setting can say a lot about their personality. A detective would notice different things about a bedroom than an architect. And an architect might not notice the blanket your female character wrapped her newborn in the day she brought him home. What they notice (and the wording you use to describe what they notice) can also say a lot about their emotional state.
- Which of these are important to the plot? If there’s a gun cabinet in the room and you plan on having your character reach inside it to get a gun several scenes later, you might want to mention that it’s there instead of it conveniently appearing.
- Which of these are important to the Themes? This is one of those super literary ninja tricks. If you can find a way to let the setting resonate with the theme of the scene or story, you can add a lot of purpose to your descriptions. For example: if have a theme about new beginnings or life and you have a scene where there involves a river, you have yourself visual metaphor. You may have already accidentally placed some of these in. Play with what you have and see how you can use it to affect your characters.
When setting up your scene, you’ll likely want to mention who’s with your viewpoint character. This seems like a given, but you may not realize that you’ve set up a scene where the character appears to be alone in her study when suddenly her husband speaks out of nowhere. Your reader will be caught off guard and may attempt to circle back to see if they missed anything else. You don’t want this.
If you don’t notice this (after all, you know who’s in the room. You wrote the passage), hopefully, your Alpha Readers will notice the issue and point out that they were thrown off.
Remember that spreadsheet I use to keep track of my settings? I also use it to keep track of what characters are in each scene. If you do this kind of tracking while you draft, you can use it to be sure you have added all of the characters into the scene’s setup.
If we dig a bit deeper, we can find some in depth questions to ask that you may want to express in the narrative:
- How does the POV character feel about who’s in the setting? You may have described the who very well, but sometimes it pays to let the reader know how the character feels or reacts to who is there.
- How does the POV character's mood affect who they notice? This may seem odd, but consider a character is in a crowd of people in a strange place. How they view the people around them and who they pick out of the crowd might be very different from a character who’s in their favorite coffee shop.
- How do the other characters feel about the setting? This is something you might have to address if you’re writing in an omniscient viewpoint because you’re telling the story threw every present character’s eyes at the same time. But, less obviously, you’ll still want to consider how any other present characters feel about the Milieu because that may directly inform their actions and dialog.
Jumping back to the higher level revision: how the ‘who’ applies to your story on a high level is still something I’m not sure how to address or if the question is relevant. I’ll add that if I find a good answer for it. Likely, this will have to do with bigger socio-economic world building issues.
You’ll notice that a lot of this is closely related to the ‘C’ of your story, but that doesn’t make it any less important to consider. The cool thing about the MICE quotient is that they all interconnect and actually share characteristics of each other. This is another reason why starting with the most important part of MICE can get you further along in revision. Since they all share components, once you address the most important factor, you’ll end up revising for all of them in part.
Is there conflict in the setting?
If your story is truly a Milieu type story, more often than not, your primary conflict will stem from the setting itself. Even if your story isn't primarily Milieu, if you find that your story doesn't have enough excitement, you may want to explore how your character(s) surroundings can add a new layer of conflict. If there is a scene that doesn't seem to have conflict, look at the setting and see how the environment can remedy your problem.
An example of this is the first scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Here we have Luke Skywalker fighting against the cold, icy nature of Hoth as a point of conflict before the attack that kicks off the story. The writers probably wanted a way to show how Luke had matured as a Jedi and the relationships that had developed between the primary characters, so they used this small crisis to show these in action.
Setting with Emotion and Theme
Using your setting to pull forth an emotional response from your reader is a very high skilled method of using your setting. This is often done with a relatable contrast. It’s a method of symbolism that can be very powerful.
An excellent example of this is the Girl in Red from the film Schindler’s List. In this scene, you have a small child walking in a bright red coat among the chaos of a Nazi invasion. Schindler watches on, wondering if something might happen to her as he’s developing regrets for the choices that he’s made.
The reason why this scene is so powerful is because you have the visual of dark greys and blacks of a terrible war contrasted against the bright and emotional red of a small, unharmed, largely ignored child walking amongst a terrible scene.
Humans have a strong natural impulse to protect children. The director used this as symbolism for Schindler’s strong impulse to protect the small group of employees that he managed. Just like this girl is one of thousands being passed over, Schindler’s “list” was passed over as well. There are a few other ways you can look at this scene and analyse it, but no matter how you turn it, it is powerful and invokes emotion.
When dealing with a scene or event where you want your reader to feel a sense of horror, look at where you can contrast it with something of beauty or simplicity that refers to how life could be if things hadn’t gotten out of hand. Especially if your character needs something to turn to in order to cope with what he’s seeing.
Warning: Going Purple
While you revise for Milieu, it’s important to remember to steer clear of purple prose. The term purple prose means that your prose are written in such a way that they draw attention to themselves rather than serving the story. Much like a scene without purpose, purple prose distracts and weakens your narrative.
Note also that purple prose will mean different things for different writers and works. If you naturally and consistently write extravagant, flowery prose, continuing to write it won't be purple. There will be an apparent base line to your story’s flow that will dictate when your prose have gone purple.
On the other hand, you also don't want your prose to be yellow (yes, I made this term up). Under-doing your prose relative that baseline will also stick out.
One of the important aspects of your first draft is establishing that base line with the narrative voice you establish throughout the story. Try to make your words feel like they're from the same story.
A good editor will tell you when you've gone purple or yellow. Be sure to pay close attention to these notes from your editor. She's not trying to ruin the coolest line of the book; she's trying to help the reader enjoy it more.
The idea of the story is usually the most abstract part of the story for most writers. I gave Sherlock Holmes and mystery stories as the kind of story that is idea centered. In a mystery or crime story, we have a big question: Who or What caused the problem? Finding the answer to this question is what drives the entire story.
Literary fiction is often Idea type as well. Literary fiction tends to be very character driven so it can also qualify as a character story, but quite often, literary works have a certain focus on theme and big questions that leaves you questioning your own beliefs and values.
If your story falls into either of these categories, you may just want to start your revision with this. You may decide that you don’t have much in this department, but don’t ignore it. If you do you’ll likely gloss over something you didn’t realize you needed to work on.
There are two major parts to the idea of your story: Theme, and Questions & Answers. This section is focused on those two elements and two address them throughout your story.
Find all your themes
When I was in middle school and our teacher taught about ‘theme’ in literature, I got the impression that it was the functional equivalent to the ‘moral of the story.’ Of course, during that time, I was flooded with assignments to read literary fiction as a part of the class and often literary fiction has strong themes that veer closer to a moral classification. I think this limited my perspective on how to write stories for a long time until I found authors who did it well without it being a focal point of the story.
While a central moral to a story can be a theme, a theme isn’t always about morale. It’s important not to confuse the two. For many people, fiction is a form of entertainment and fun. Of course, there are those who look for deeper meaning in books, but many genres don’t have a focus on ‘teaching a lesson.’
If you become too preachy with your themes, often people will take it as propaganda. Sometimes this can be a hard line to walk if you have a very theme based story, but if you have good Alpha and Beta readers, they should be able to talk you down from your high horse.
At the same time, you don’t want to ignore the themes you have. Sometimes you get to the end of the story and think ‘what the hell was the point of all that?’ That’s exactly the question you want to avoid popping up after someone reads your story.
If you want your story to have a lasting impression on the reader, you need to make sure all the themes you intend to shine through land effectively. Often the difference between an average and a great writer is their ability to use theme as a powerful tool keep readers thinking about their story for years after putting it down.
So how do you find your themes if your story wasn’t geared to really ‘teach someone a lesson?’ Start by reading your story from the very first page. Often, if you have any themes at all, they will begin to push through there. Sometimes we write stories to fight our own demons and those demons usually don’t take long to show up when you’re bleeding from heart to page.
Look at where and who your characters are at the beginning of the story and who they become at the end. Did they change much? Did they find a truth when they originally held fast to a lie? Did they fight to show the world a truth that only they or a few knew to be true? Did they hold truth and then discard it for what they know is a lie? These are all important character arcs that can help you hone your theme.
Once you examine who your characters have become, quantify and label those changes and keep them aside so that you can begin to find points of resonance within your story where you can ring that bell and add foreshadowing. Sometimes you’ll have to add some or all of those places, but that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you wrote a bad story. It only means that you haven’t said what you wanted to say yet.
Sometimes you might not be able to find your themes. This could be for a few reasons:
- You haven’t revealed enough about your characters to really know who they are.
- You don’t have enough conflict in your story.
- You don’t understand how to identify theme.
If you suffer from symptom number 1, Hopefully you’ll know those things when you’ve finished revising. Check out section ‘C’ and we’ll work through these together. It’s okay if you haven’t nailed all this down yet.
If you suffer from symptom number 2, keep reading. We’ll tackle that problem too. This is yet another issue that can often be fixed after the story is complete. Maybe you haven’t spotted all your conflicts.
If you suffer from symptom number 3, I’m about to really explain it to you so that you can nail down what those themes are.
Before we move on, I’ll leave you with a link to a list of themes that you can use as reference to try to find what themes you have in your story. There is no official list of themes and it’s arguable how many themes really exist, but this is a good starting point:
What characters connect directly with each theme?
Whatever is moving your characters to be/act/fight/fall/etc. is themeable. Jealousy, revenge, lust, loss are all both powerful emotions but also tie into your theme and who you characters are and can become.
As mentioned before, look at your character’s journey. That journey — between his beginning goal and what he receives in the end — is the theme that each particular character reflects.
Not every character may have a theme to connect to because not every character in your story will have a character arc. Because of this, Theme and Character arc are inseparable much like Electricity and Magnetism. Each have properties that seem unique but are really just opposite sides of the same mattress.
When making your story bed (I have no idea why I picked this metaphor), you may define your theme as the bottom of the mattress and your character’s journey has the top, but really, you’re talking about the same force.
Let’s say you have a story where your main character, Jill, is torn between being with a guy who’s rich and popular, but isn’t her type and a guy who’s not rich or very popular, but is the person she should be with. A little too generic for your tastes? That’s okay, this is a thought experiment to find theme.
Let’s make these characters adults and for an adult audience. Jill has been a working hard to become a partner in her firm. The rich and popular guy has the ability to really make her career and he’s not really bad on the eyes either. Let’s call him Andrew. The other guy is an activist against corporate pollution (the very type of client her firm tends to represent) He’s also not bad on the eyes and has been a friend since freshman year of college, but he doesn’t have the key to her career. In fact, being seen with him could cause her to lose her job. We’ll call him Paul.
Now, Jill doesn’t particularly agree with corporate pollution, and she understands why Paul does what he does, but she also loves her job and really really wants to be partner in the firm. Being partner with the firm and Andrew means a guaranteed healthy paycheck, the job she wants and, even though some might disagree, the approval of others (perhaps her parents) who always wanted the best for her. Going with Paul will mean finding her true love and maybe even fighting against the firm she actually believes to be innocent.
I don’t even have to tell you how this ends to pull out a lot of themes that are all related to the characters. First, and this is the obvious one, we have the theme of true love. More specifically, if things go as we hope, true love as conquering all. This is a pretty common theme and is a great one. We all want to believe in true love, right? Don’t answer if you’re a grinch.
But there are more themes going on here. We have a theme of power with the corporations and possibly the law firm. There is a theme of duty with Jill’s belief in a system that isn’t always fair. There’s even a theme of family because Jill’s family might want her to be with Andrew. And this is just one character. We haven’t even gotten into the other players. Once you get into each scene, you might find smaller and local themes that don’t span the entire tale.
Sit down and write a synopsis of your story. Look at what emotions and conflicts are at play and what themes they represent and how they tie into each character.