How to Increase Tension in Stories Using Character Contrast


Contrast is one of my favorite buzzwords when it comes to character creation. Using opposites to force character growth and make characters stand out is one of the easiest and most effective ways of getting reader attention and making sure your story keeps moving.

Today I’ll give you an easy way to implement that in your own stories. It involves using what you already know about your characters and turning the tables to make those qualities pop.

Here’s how I often organize characterization:


The fun thing about characters is that, like people, they have layers, and a great way to create a layer is to create a clash or conflict between at least two elements of characterization.

Superheroes do this all the time. Take Superman/Clark Kent, for example:

1.) Appearance – Handsome
2.) Career/Job/What They Do – Saves the world (a lot)
3.) Personality – Strong and determined, generally introverted in most incarnations
4.) Motivation – classic Hero Archetype – because someone has to + because he can + to prove his worth
5.) Worldview/Beliefs – classic down-home American values combined with whatever he got from Krypton

In order to do achieve his goal and try to live a normal introverted life (which his personality demands) and to show humility/protect loved ones (which those down-home American values dictate), Superman has to lie about his alien identity and live as Clark Kent. This deception is totally at odds with the rest of his all-too-heroic demeanor and is often something played for humor and conflict as he sneaks around to save the world (and different versions of Superman emphasize the Clark Kent side vs. Kal-El side to a greater or lesser degree).

Superheroes often use dual-identity to create conflicts and layers within character, but this concept can work in any situation. All you need is to tweak one aspect of the environment or one essential layer.

Tweaking your characters’ core layers to oppose each other is a great way to create internal and external conflict (Click to Tweet).

Another example is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games:

1.) Appearance – Ordinary
2.) Career/Job/What They Do – Takes care of family, hunts, spends time with Gale
3.) Personality – Strong and determined, generally introverted in most incarnations, not interested in being heroic
4.) Motivation – The Explorer – individualist + wanderer + freedom to do what is necessary to get things done and operate their own destiny
5.) Worldview/Beliefs – rugged American individualism, plus independence, personal freedom, and devotion to family

So of course, author Suzanne Collins plunks Katniss in the middle of a dangerous political/literal game that requires playing within the rules of a flashy world comprised of the socially-adept. Of course Katniss’s entire being opposes this, but her core worldview means that her family must be kept safe. Threaten Primrose Everdeen, and suddenly Katniss has to bite the bullet and endure a host of trials and difficulties. To make it worse, she manages to gain a following based on public perception of her personality. For this reason, I’ve always found book two of trilogy, Catching Fire, to be the most compelling, because it features the strongest conflicts for Katniss in terms of characterization.

The more you tweak a character to be out of odds with a fundamental part of their own personality, their required role, or their environment, the more tension you build into the plot, and the more you provide opportunities for growth and change.

What about you, #plothoppers?  Anything to add on characterization? Who’s your favorite character with strong contrasts?

Drafting 101 – There’s No One Right Way to Write


As I considered the next stage in the Fundamentals of Writing: Inside Out series, I got a little hung up on drafting, because drafting ultimately is up to you. The writer.

You can read all the writing craft books you want, but ultimately, your writing process is unique to you. And that is 100% okay (Tweet This).

There are plenty of books to teach you the “winning way.” Trust me, I’ve read through a ton of them. I’m a massive improvement junkie who is always eager to learn new ways of doing things.

Crank out 5,000 words an hour! No, wait! Five pages a day. How about the “write something every day” method? Surely that works? But what about on days when there’s a death in the family, or you’re revisiting your lunch in the bathroom, or you just can’t find the words? Do you just force it? Maybe not. Maybe you should just slow down. Maybe you should outline more. Maybe you should–


This is where I ended up going to Twitter or Facebook or getting chocolate or potato chips. Or exercising (irony there, I know). Or doing anything other than facing that blank screen with all those well-meaning voices in my head, trying to sincerely to help me, the same way I try to help you.

Here’s the best piece of drafting advice I can give you: have fun. Life’s too short for anything else (Tweet This).

Center yourself. Do whatever you need to do. Pray.  Write and try and fail and make mistakes and start all over again. Throw things if you need to. Eat chocolate. Give someone a hug. Watch TV. Be alone. Be around people. Mix things up. Try again.

Never forget to enjoy your writing, your research, your art. Whatever you want to call it. Find reasons to fall in love with your worlds all over again (Tweet This).

And never give up.

3 Reasons to Add A Little Love to Your Story (and World-Building)


All right, I’m still going forward with the Fundamentals of Fiction: Inside Out, but my world-building side has been itching to make a comeback, so why not do both?

I gotta admit, in my other life as a fiction writer, love is a must in my stories. Even if it’s not the focal point, romantic entanglements offer ways to mess with character motivations and complicate plot points like nothing else. Now, in the speculative fiction world, romance can be viewed with suspicion–I was right there griping when paranormal romance starting ‘invading’ the urban fantasy section of the bookshelves. How dare it disturb the purity of science fiction and fantasy?

Then, I got over myself and realized that using romantic complications can be a great tool in all fiction writers’ tool boxes, including speculative fiction writers. I’m not saying it has to work out, and I’m not saying that it has to be more than a few hints here and there, but using romantic elements really can fit into any story.

Note: when I use the word “love” here I’m referring to desire, attraction, and romantic feelings. I’m aware of the other types of love and the nuances therein, but I’m keeping this to one manageable blog post. 😉

1.) Character Growth

Love makes people do dumb things in ways that the audience can believe. This is fantastic if you need an otherwise intelligent character to go off-kilter. It doesn’t mean they have to give in to the feelings or that those feelings have to take over the plot, but the existence of those feelings makes them more relatable and adds another layer to the character. In Blood Mercy:Thicker Than Water, protagonist Melrose Durante has to unlock the mind of an insane vampire to save a city; the fact that she’s his wife and he still loves her adds tension and stress to the workings of his otherwise rational thought processes.

2.) Major Conflicts

Love/lust makes things messy. Helen of Troy’s swoon-worthy beauty caused more than a few issues in Ancient Greece. Henry VIII partly broke off from the Catholic church because he wanted a second wife. Cleopatra’s political machinations and messy affairs with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar made all sorts of fun things happen between Egypt and Rome. And in The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan’s poor choices with Milady de Winter (as well as her past with Athos), makes her a great foil and troublemaker in the story.

3.) Cultural Issues

Introducing romantic affection can add really fun complications if the connection is cross-cultural. Love and affection can mess with divides of race, ethnicity, societal boundaries, religion, or whatever else. Or it can be something that goes against the dictates of society itself! In Voiceless, my steampunk fantasy, two main characters are deeply in love, committed, and destined to be together, but they have no idea, because their militant society has eliminated the concept of romantic love and devotion from the culture. It takes going to another culture (and having another man show up) to push this couple to see the truth.


Edgar the Plot Bunny is feeling the love!


What about you #plothoppers? Agree? Disagree? How do you use love in your story?

A Quick-Start Guide to Story Structure Methods


I have a confession: I used to write stories without any structure. At all. Granted, I was a teenager writing for play-by-post RPGs, so the structure was mostly a free-form (and sometimes free-for-all) game of “what crazy thing can happen next?” This made for fun times and fantastic characters, but not for lasting stories. Since that time over a decade ago, I’ve sought to rectify this shortage of plotting knowledge, and in doing so, the student has become a wiser master-student who wants to pass along all of the information she’s learned!

Problem & Solution

This is the absolute basic minimum you need to craft a story or any kind of narrative thread for stage or screen. When I’m just looking to “pants” a new idea, I frame out the problem and solution so I have something to shoot for. The problem and solution may shift or change, but they still work.



Freytag’s Pyramid


Remember this charmer? You might have learned it in grade school–I know I teach it every year! It’s a great little method for analyzing stories at their most basic level, although it lacks the nuances of the midpoint and other things that many other structure methods employ. Still, you can’t beat Freytag’s pyramid to confirm you at least have the basics of a plot going on. I find it especially helpful for nailing down short pieces, like short stories and flash fiction, just to make sure I’m not missing any essentials. It’s also one of the first things I’ll send over to clients to have them fill out. If you can’t pass the basics of the Freytag, then you need to go back to square one.

Three Act Structure


Welcome to Freytag’s complicated big sister. Actually, the Three-Act Structure is considered a standard for screenwriting that has hopped over into fiction writing and become quite popular. It’s very helpful for making sure your plot moves along briskly, and it is great for avoiding a sagging middle. How could your middle sag with all those disasters and obstacles? The big trick is to make sure to weave solid character arcs into all of that plotting. K. M. Weiland’s and James Scott Bell’s books below both make use of the Three Act Structure.

Bullet Point Method

This isn’t anything fancy. You just sit down and figure out your own plot in quick bullet points that go scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or plot point by plot point. While I’ll structure whole stories using a combination of the Three Act Structure and some of the methods below, when it comes down to actually writing I make a checklist of chapters or scenes to hit and go through them methodically, tweaking as necessary. When it comes to novellas and short stories, I sometimes even bypass writing out the structure in favor of a basic summary paragraph. I wouldn’t recommend this method if you’re just starting out and new to structure, but once you have a few drafts under your belt, it can be a nice way to switch up the routine.

Character Arc Method


This method charts an entire story around the protagonist’s character arc. For some writers, this is the way to go. Allowing the growth of the main character, and perhaps a supporting character or two, is certainly a way to make sure your story has emotional resonance and potency. That being said, it is always important to make the growth external through the plot. The best way to make this method win is to combine it with some kind of plot structure, just to make sure your action/events and character growth tightly intertwine.

K.M. Weiland’s Methods

These two books come highly acclaimed and promoted. While I haven’t read either of them, I have read through her free eBook 5 Secrets of Story Structure and found it very helpful. She also has a great series on her blog Helping Writers Become Authors, that offers a streamlined process of How to Outline Your Novel for NaNoWriMo. Basically, she’s got great stuff, so check it out!

Write Your Novel From the Middle


This was one of my newest writing craft reads, and it was well worth it for the golden chapters in the middle on writing towards the midpoint of your novel. I already found myself doing this after a few drafts taught me I needed to put SOMETHING awesome in the middle to keep myself interested, but James Scott Bell’s book turned my rough muddling into a refined technique. Also has some useful tips at the end for beginning writers.

Snowflake Method

Randy Ingermanson’s methodical, step-by-step method really strips the mystique of novel writing down to a defined process. While it has a few too many steps for my easily-distracted brain, it’s great for pushing yourself to get moving on any story. Plus, he also sells software!

Take Off Your Pants


I haven’t tried this outlining book personally, but I know of other authors who swear in changed their lives–so maybe it could change yours! It’s on my To Be Read pile of craft books, since I’m always up for new ideas!

In this instructional ebook, author Libbie Hawker explains the benefits and technique of planning a story before you begin to write. She’ll show you how to develop a foolproof character arc and plot, how to pace any book for a can’t-put-down reading experience, and how to ensure that your stories are complete and satisfying without wasting time or words.

Hawker’s outlining technique works no matter what genre you write, and no matter the age of your audience. If you want to improve your writing speed, increase your backlist, and ensure a quality book before you even write the first word, this is the how-to book for you.

Take off your pants! It’s time to start outlining.

The Story Template


I had the pleasure of attending one of Amy Deardon’s sessions at my very first writer’s conference, and I have to say, this book did a great job of introducing me to plot break-downs and story structure. Definitely a solid addition to your writing repertoire.

World-Building Method

A method I’m developing specifically for speculative fiction that capitalizes on the story’s world-building to create irresistible, fantastical treats. Every aspect of world-building is woven into the plot so that your story becomes something more than just another piece of escapism. It becomes a compelling voyage into another realm that your readers can’t wait to dive into! Also useful for authors writing stories that strongly rely on setting, such as historical/period books. This is a work-in-progress, but if you hang around Write Inside Out and sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get exclusives!

What you, plothoppers? What’s your favorite story structure method? Please share in the comments!

Why Obsessing About the Opening Can Kill Your Story


I have the attention span of a small, sugar-crazed squirrel–at least when it comes to books. While I’ll try anything, my TBR pile is huge and my time is small.

When I worked at a bookstore and business was slow, I’d pause in organizing the shelves and pull random books out to flip open to their first pages. My only test was to see if it would keep my attention enough to get past page one.

Of course, if I got to page five or ten, then I’d have two other problems: a need to buy the book and a scolding from my boss. Then it was back to dusting!

This taught me one important thing: the opening pages are vital to catching audience attention. After all, that first scene, those first few paragraphs, are what agents, editors, and publishers ask for queries. They’re what potential customers seen when they open your book for the sneak peek on Kindle. It would stand to reason that, above all, those opening scenes are critical.

Then, I ran into a problem, one that got me kicked out of consideration at appointments, and made me throw out draft after draft. And it’s a problem I’ve seen since seen in the work of clients.

Tweet: Beware of crafting a great opening scene for a story that fundamentally doesn’t work. – Janeen Ippolito

Last week’s blog post mentioned the framing block for all stories:

Problem & Solution

One reason I came up with this formula was due to drafting out story after story with all kinds of shiny world-building, unique characters, and clever dialogue, with scenes that worked–and with a plot that was fundamentally flawed because it had no focus and no meaningful purpose for existence.

I didn’t realize this was my issue until about 3-4 years ago, when a writing colleague whom I hadn’t spoken with a while read pages of my latest baby/short story and gave me a mercifully cutting comment – “what’s the point of this? Where is it going?”

Tweet: Never let good writing craft and fancy tricks distract you from the fundamentals of story. – Janeen Ippolito

Now, when I look at the work of potential submissions or of clients, I’m duly impressed by a shiny opening scene with all the bells and whistles and hooks. But the first question I ask them for is spoilers about the ending to make sure it lines up.

Don’t worry about your opening scene at first. Get your story in line, and then edit your opening scene to invite readers into that story world.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when organizing your story and opening scene: 

  • What’s the story problem? Do you meaningfully hint at the story problem in the opening scene/chapter, or does your story problem inexplicably change later on? (Thanks to plot bunnies!)
  • How is your problem solved? Is the solution to your story’s problem at all hinted at in the opening scene/chapter? If not, try to do that. It can be really satisfying for readers.
  • Is the protagonist you’re introducing in that opening scene the person who solves the problem? If not, they aren’t your protagonist. They’re just a fill-in who is getting a lot of page time.

It is important to make those opening pages shine. But it’s equally important to make sure you have a solid story so that when you get a request for the full manuscript (or a customer clicks to buy your whole book), they realize that those pages were only a taste of the true awesome your work has to offer.

Edgar the Plot Bunny searching for awesome plots!


What about you, Plothoppers? Any further advice for opening scenes? Any opening scene snippets from WIPs that you want to share? Feel free to comment! 🙂 OR tweet online at #plothop or #edgartheplotbunny!

Major Editing Giveaway!

My friend Bethany A. Jennings over at is launching her editing career, and as part of that, is throwing one massive editing giveaway! I’m honored to be part of this. I’m giving away a print copy of my world-building textbook AND workbook:


Plus, I’m giving away two hours of coaching and two ten-page comprehensive content edits! Check out my Coaching/Editing page for more details on how I help writers unlock their potential and refine their work so that it’s irresistible!

Go to the to enter to win these and other awesome prizes, including posters, a coffee mug, blurb help, and more!

One Easy Trick to Frame Any Plot


Brainstorming is one of the coolest parts of writing. It’s the dreaming of all kinds of possibilities, whether or not you are writing speculative fiction. It looks at the world around you and says “what if?”

At the same time, brainstorming can be a wonderfully deep and limitless bottomless pit. Edgar the Plot Bunny bears witness to my own overly-ambitious brainstorming. Every single time I write a story or plan a story, I tend to imagine all possibilities–and one story multiplies into two–or ten!

And not all of them actually make usable plots.

Naturally, as storytellers, our ability to brainstorm and dream is truly a gift. I have a couple of stories on the back-burner that might never see the light of day, yet I enjoy knowing they exist in a corner of my head.

At the same time, brainstorming should also be useful. After all, you want to tell stories and share them with the world! So here’s a simple formula to transform a brainstorm into a story that you might write in the future:


This philosophy follows the simple concept of completion. It’s the same reason public speakers and teachers will often use questions. There’s something in the human brain that automatically answers to complete the thought. We like answers. We like completion.

Tweet: Readers like being invited into a conversation and a journey.

In a story everything is going well, until there is a Problem. Don’t think of Problem as a bad thing. It’s a Change. Something different from the reader’s normal life that they have to deal with. It can just as easily be winning the lottery as the death of a loved one. The key to the Problem is that it has to profoundly bother the protagonist, enough to set off a journey. Like sticking a grain of sand in an oyster, this Problem will force the protagonist to move ahead, to react, to do things.

Of course, they want a solution. It’s right there in the word resolution. Now, this solution doesn’t have to fix all of the problems. In fact, it can make some of them worse, especially if you’re writing a trilogy or a series. It can make the protagonist better, or it can make them far more terrible. But something has changed. Whether good or bad, there is a solution to the problem.

What this formula does is give your gem of an idea a very basic framework to play with. It can get intimidating to try and pin your beautiful butterfly of a story idea to the hard board of Plotting and Rational Thought. So don’t. Figure out a possible problem & solution and then go back to having fun with world-building and character creation.

That’s all there is to it.

Later on, you can add Freytag’s pyramid, follow the 3-Act StructureTake Off Your Pants, or check out 5 Secrets of Story Structure to figure out all of the nuts and bolts of your story. But for now, as long as you have a problem and a solution, you’re good to go.

Edgar wants to know your problem and solution! #edgartheplotbunny

Whether you choose to use the brainstormed idea now, or stick it in an idea box or folder for a later date, is up to you. Maybe you’ll pull it out in the future and go in an entirely different direction. But you’ll always have that problem & solution frame that gives you a foundation for a great story.

What’s your latest problem and solution, Plothoppers? What’s a great plot you have stored away–or what’s the basic problem and solution for your current WIP? Please share in the comments!

Also, feel free to follow plot and writing help on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at #writeinsideout, #inspirethewrite, and #plothop!