Category Archives: Writing

A Return Engagement

My last appearance on the Fully Booked podcast went so well, hosts Craig Tuch and Roland Hulme invited me back for another chat. This time, we talked about the importance of story stakes. We talked about why the stakes in Jaws and The Hunger Games were so effective, why Jack Reacher will never have a girlfriend, and how you can raise the stakes in your novel, no matter which genre you’re writing.

We touched on a lot of the things you can find in NO HERO WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD. We also went beyond what’s in the book, to discuss some brand-new things!

You can watch Fully Booked on YouTube (look for episode #35). But this is a podcast, so it’s much, much better to listen to it. Here is the direct link to listen online. You can also find it on apple podcasts, Amazon podcasts, and Spotify, or wherever you like to listen.

Happy listening!

Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between Conflict and Story Stakes?

Dear Alex,
I know that all stories need to have conflict. That’s what makes a plot, right? My novel has lots of conflict. But my critique partners say my story is “flat,” and “lacks tension.” They keep talking about story stakes, but I don’t really see a difference between conflict and stakes. As long as I have two opposing forces both trying for the same goal, I have stakes, don’t I?

–Levi

Hi Levi!

It’s great that you’re thinking deeply about what makes a great story, and I’m glad that your critique group has been helpful to you. You’re correct that a story needs conflict, but it also needs stakes. Think of it this way: stakes are what gives conflict meaning.

If you’ve written a story about two boys racing each other home from school, you’ve written a conflict. After all, only one of them can win the race and be first through the door. The other will lose. Perhaps the winner will have first pick of the snacks or he’ll get to the TV first. The winning boy might taunt the loser, but can’t do much more. This is a contest without stakes. The reader won’t really care.

Story stakes are a way to make your reader care.

Let’s reframe that footrace. Let’s say that these aren’t two random boys, but brothers. Their parents are dead and they’re set to be put into foster care today at three o’clock. They’re going to two different households, although the fostering families don’t really care which boy goes where. They’ll take whichever boy gets into their car first. One of the families is nurturing and kind. The other treats foster children like abused servants.

Boris, the elder brother, is cruel and manipulative, and is determined to get to the good family before his younger brother Lars can. Lars has been living with his brother’s brutality for years. If he can just get home before Boris does today, he’ll go to a nicer place where he’ll never have to deal with his brother’s nastiness again. However, if his elder brother beats him home, Lars will be going to a family that will treat him worse than Boris ever did.

Now the race home from school has stakes. Not only is there a life-changing reward for winning, there are terrible consequences for losing. The odds are also stacked against our hero. Lars is younger than Boris, so he’s smaller and weaker. Boris has put rocks in Lars’s backpack and also slipped out the back door of the school before the final bell to get a head start.

Readers of this second scenario will be rooting for Lars to win. At the same time, the reader will be afraid he’ll lose. Worry about the outcome will make them turn the pages faster. As a writer, that is the way you want your readers—interested, worried, and desperate to learn the outcome.  That’s what story stakes can do for your novel.

To give your conflict stakes, first make sure that your hero wants something. He wants it desperately, more than he wants anything else. Spell out the specific reward for achieving that goal. Most importantly, make sure there are terrible consequences for failure. Finally, make sure that this goal isn’t easy to reach. This goal is going to take one hundred percent of your hero’s time, effort, and will to accomplish, and even then, the odds of success are low.

You need to do this work on two levels. There need to be high stakes in the overarching plot of the entire novel. Also, each scene has to have stakes. The hero begins each scene wanting something and uses that scene to try to get it. If you can keep feeding readers those high-stakes scenes, they will follow your story right to the end, so they can find out what happens. And if you resolve the stakes in a satisfying way, readers will close your book feeling happy. And then they will buy your next book.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of No Hero Wants to Save the World, a book all about story stakes.

Ask the Editor: How Much Research is too Much?

Dear Alex,
Is it possible to do too much research for a novel? I want my story to be as realistic as possible, so I keep stopping to do research, and I end up going down rabbit holes and spending all my precious writing time just getting my basic facts right. How do professional writers do it? There aren’t enough hours in the day to learn everything I need to know to write this book and also write the book.

–Wendell

Hi Wendell!

One of the best things about being a writer is that you get to learn so many interesting things. You can study the history of photography, or French baking styles, or starship propulsion technology, or Celtic swords. You’re not just learning these things for fun, but because it’s your job, which is actually very cool.

Some genres rely heavily on facts. If you’re writing a thriller and you get your guns mixed up, you’ll lose readers. If you’re writing historical fiction, you need to know about dresses, meals, and carriages. If you’re writing fantasy, you’ll need to get your swords correct, and also research things like horses and boats.

Readers of genre fiction are passionate about the details and they will savage you if you get them wrong. Even contemporary novels will often deal with areas outside your expertise. Is your heroine a musician? You’ll have to know (or learn) about musical notation, performance venues, and artist management. Is your hero a barista? You’d better know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte.

The danger is when writers start to think of the research as an end in itself. You think you need to read just one more article, or buy one more book, or travel to one more place, and then you’ll be able to write your novel. It seems very efficient to do all the research up front and then go write, but this always backfires.

For one thing, this is a spectacular form of procrastination. The research feels like a necessary step, and it takes forever, and you’ll convince yourself that you’re making progress. It’s a little trick our brains use to fool us into thinking we’re working without actually doing the harder and scarier job of making up a story.

And you’ll most likely research the wrong thing. Since you haven’t written any of your story yet, you don’t know what you’ll need. You could do hours and hours of research into the dresses that upper-class women wore in the Regency period, only to decide later that your heroine is a middle-class merchant’s daughter, and therefore needs to dress completely differently.

But the biggest danger is that you’ll end up with a very developed world and no story to tell in it. This is a hard problem to diagnose because all of these facts are fascinating to you, the author. You might be riveted when reading back your own work because you love these details you dug up. But when a reader reads it, she’s bored because you’re talking about places and objects, and she just wants to get on with the story. Remember, story is always about conflict between people.

You need to have a deep understanding of your story and also a deep understanding of how much detail your audience expects. How much detail do you actually need at this moment? Enough to immerse the reader in the story world but not so much that she gets bogged down. It’s a tricky balance.

The best way to find this sweet spot is to write the scene (or the chapter, or the section) first and then go research what you need. When you’re writing, and you get to the part where you have to put in the name of a carriage, or what kind of coffee the barista is making, you put in a placeholder. I like to make mine all caps and in a bright font, like red or orange. That way, I can easily find them later. Like this:

Rebecca carried her violin case into NAME OF ORCHESTRA HALL IN ANN ARBOR and greeted the conductor and the concertmaster. She couldn’t believe she’d be playing in front of an audience of NUMBER tonight, and she was so nervous she thought she might puke.

Later, you’d go back and research what the venue for classical music is in Ann Arbor and how many seats it holds. I just did that. It took about 20 seconds.

Rebecca carried her violin case into Hill Auditorium and greeted the conductor and the concertmaster. She couldn’t believe she’d be playing in front of an audience of 3500 tonight, and she was so nervous she thought she might puke.

If you stop every few sentences to look up this fact or that fact, you’ll constantly be pulling yourself out of the story. However, by using placeholders, you won’t lose your forward momentum. This will also teach your brain that there is a time for writing and there is a time for research, and the writing comes first.

There will be times when you’ll have to set aside the writing to go on a longer research quest, either because the fact you need isn’t readily available or the ideas are too complex for a one-click Google. In that case, you’ll have to set aside some time to find the facts you need. But put boundaries on it so you don’t spend all your time researching. Learn new things, then apply what you’ve learned to your manuscript, using placeholders to stand for any gap in your knowledge. You’ll fill in some of those placeholders in your next draft, and more in the draft after that, until your book is a seamless whole. And you’ll do it by spending more time on your story, and less in rabbit holes.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of two books of writing instruction: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist and No Hero Wants to Save the World.

Ask the Editor: How Should I Begin Revising My Novel?

Dear Alex,
After months of writing, I’ve completed my first novel. I’m proud of myself and I guess I’m proud of my book, but at this point, I can only see its flaws. I know I have to edit it. I want to make it better! But I don’t know how to start. Do I start with chapter one? Or do I start by fixing the things I know are wrong? Or is there some secret editing technique that professional writers will only share if you knock in a specific sequence and know the secret password?

–Doreen

Hi Doreen!

Congrats on finishing your first novel! You should be proud. You’ve shown that you’ve got what it takes to bring a novel to completion, which is a rare thing. And I bet your novel isn’t as flawed as you think. The problem is that you’re looking at the novel as a whole, so you’re seeing all its flaws at once. However, when you actually do the edits, you’re only going to tackle one problem at a time.

Starting with chapter one and doing your novel’s edits chronologically seems like a good idea. However, there are two problems with this approach.

First, you might end up in a revision loop that’s hard to break out of. Many writers want to get chapter one “perfect” before moving on to chapter two. Then they want to perfect chapters one and two before moving on to three. This cycle repeats and repeats and many writers won’t get past the first few chapters.

Second, if you drill down to individual chapters and scenes and start picking them apart, you’ll always be focused on the small problems. You’ll be fixing things like awkward dialogue or a bit of bland description, and you’ll never see the big picture. Taking it chapter by chapter means you’ll never tackle the big, structural changes that your novel might need.

Instead, I suggest taking a step back and looking at your novel as a whole. Specifically, look at the turning points. A good plot doesn’t go in a straight line from beginning to end. There are turns along the way, plot complications and character changes that shift the course of the narrative. If you tackle those big turning points first, the rest of the edit will be much, much easier.

Does your novel begin with a “hook” that will intrigue readers and draw them into your book? Do you introduce your hero and his world in a dynamic way that starts the story moving? Be sure you don’t drag your opening down with backstory or static description.

Look at your “doorway of no return” scene in the first quarter. This is the scene that truly propels your heroine on the story journey. In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy takes that first step onto the yellow brick road, she’s on a one-way trip to the Emerald City. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when Charlie Bucket enters the candy factory, his life is going to change forever. Does your novel push the hero forward at this point?

Next, examine your midpoint scene. Do you have a strong scene in the middle of your novel that is filled with action, emotion, and drama? This should be a major turning point where things get dramatically worse.

Then revisit your “all is lost” scene, which should fall around the three-quarter mark. Are things as bad as they can possibly be? Is your heroine feeling utterly defeated at this point? Is she worse off now than when the story began? In the final act, she’ll find the solution to the story problem and once again will be proactive, but at this moment, she should be wallowing in misery.

Finally, look at your climax scene. Is it an epic climax—according to your genre’s definition of epic? For some genres, this will mean chases, shootouts, and explosions. For other genres, this will mean tears and reconciliation. For others, it will mean a grand gesture of love. Whatever your genre is asking for, have you delivered all the action, emotion, and drama that you possibly can?

Of course, there is much more to editing a novel than just looking at the five biggest scenes, but this is where you should begin. Once you’ve edited big turning point scenes, the edits for the rest of the novel are much more straightforward. The big scenes do the heavy lifting, and the surrounding scenes will either be lead-up to the big turning point, or the fallout from it.

A novel is a big thing. It’s too big to hold in your head all at once. But starting with the five biggest scenes in your novel will make all of your edits go more smoothly.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of two books of writing instruction: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist and No Hero Wants to Save the World.

Ask the Editor: Must I Write What I Know?

Dear Alex,
My English teacher keeps telling us to “write what you know,” but this seems very unfair. I doubt that most mystery writers have discovered a dead body, and nobody has lived in a world of magic and dragons. But we have stories about these things and someone wrote them. If I had to stick to writing what I know, I’d only write about swim team practice and visits to my grandparent’s house. Why can’t I write what I imagine?
–Yasmin

Hi Yasmin,

I’m going to give your English teacher the benefit of the doubt. Your teacher isn’t trying to restrict you, but rather empower you. Everyone is unique, your experiences are valuable and interesting, and you know more than you think you do. Most of us have never been on a swim team. What does the water feel like? What does the coach sound like? What does the locker room smell like? And I bet you could tell amazing stories about your grandparents.

You can also write about dragons if you want to. Or dead bodies. Or dead dragon bodies. The trick is not to write what you know, but rather what you’re passionate about. What do you really, really care about? More importantly, what emotions do you want to feel—and what emotions do you want to make your readers feel?

Those two things, passion and emotion, will carry you far. If you’re interested in something, whether it’s mythical creatures, forensic medicine, or the best way to make pasta Alfredo, you’re going to want to learn about it. Most writers have spent many happy hours researching things for their books. And then, suddenly, those writers are writing what they know.

But even more important than the facts, writers have to bring authentic emotion to the page. Readers are reading to have an emotional experience. Readers pick up a romance to feel the flush of first love. Readers pick up thrillers to feel a rush of danger. Readers pick up science fiction to feel the excitement of exploring far-off worlds.

You don’t have to write what you know so much as you have to write what you feel. I’m guessing you’ve never discovered a dead body, but you’ve had something unexpectedly horrible happen to you, whether that’s a bicycle wreck or getting kicked out of your friend group. How did you feel in that moment? Can you recreate those emotions on the page in this fictional situation? You’ve never ridden the back of a flying dragon, but you’ve probably ridden a roller coaster. That same exhilaration and terror should be on the page in your dragon story. Don’t just tell us what your heroine feels, show us her body sensations—her pounding heart and dry mouth, the way she has to close her eyes against the wind and can barely catch her breath before the dragon swoops upward again.

Small touches of what you know will seep into your writing, whether you’re aware of them or not. If your heroine falls off a boat, you’ll know what it feels like for her to swim to shore, and how much her shoulders and legs ache when she gets there. If your heroine has a big family, you’ll know how to write about grandparents—the beautiful accent that Grandpa brought from the old country or the cringeworthy jokes that Grandma tells. Don’t be afraid of putting too much of yourself into your stories. That’s what readers want. They want to know what you know, what you care about, and what you feel.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How Can I Force Myself to Use an Outline?

Dear Alex,
After “pantsing” my way through a NaNoWriMo novel, the entire thing is a hot mess. I’m afraid it’s hopeless—no amount of editing can fix it. Moving on. For my next novel, I want to become a “plotter” and actually use an outline. The problem is, I hate the thought of an outline. I can never stick to one, so why should go through all that work for something that I’m going to abandon halfway through?
–Jason

Hi Jason,

Congratulations on finishing NaNoWriMo! Hot mess or no, writing 50k in a month is something you should be proud of. It seems like participating in National Novel Writing Month has taught you some valuable skills, and made you eager to try again with a new story idea.

However, I worry that you’re thinking of an outline as a rigid document. Perhaps you’re thinking of the kind of outlines we wrote for our student papers, with Roman Numerals and indented numbers—the kind of outline you got graded on.

But a fiction outline is for your eyes only. It doesn’t have to be a color-coded spreadsheet with different fonts for each point of view character. You can scribble scene ideas on index cards and then move them around until you find an order you like. You can make a “mind map” with arrows pointing to the relationship between events. You can jot ideas in a notebook as they come to you. Bullet points are fine. In fact, the looser the outline, the better.

As authors, we get very attached to our first ideas, visualizing exciting scenes on a very granular level. But what comes in the first flash of inspiration might not be the best thing for our novel-in-progress. When you’re crafting your outline, only concentrate on what happens. Leave the how for later.

For example, let’s say that at the midpoint of your outline, your hero and heroine—we’ll call them Abid and Josephine—are trapped in a dungeon. You want them to escape the dungeon and have a chase through the marketplace before boarding a boat. Way back when you first thought of this story idea, you visualized this scene perfectly, including Abid charming the guard while Josephine steals the keys. But when the time comes to actually write the scene, none of it fits. Abid isn’t the guard’s type, the guard doesn’t carry the keys, you’ve put the marketplace on the other side of the city, and they’re nowhere near a port.

Does this mean your outline is useless? No. It means your outline was too detailed. Instead of writing all this at the outset, your outline should simply say, “Abid and Josephine escape the dungeon.” This gives you the flexibility to write the best scene, not the first scene you thought of.

But what if Abid and Josephine never end up in that dungeon at all? What if your novel took a different turn and instead, the midpoint scene finds them on trial in the king’s court, having to prove their innocence? Does this mean you’ve “abandoned” your outline?

Here is where some writers get into trouble. They beat themselves up, asking “why can’t I stick to an outline?” Or even worse, “Why can’t I write a decent outline in the first place?” But there’s a better question to ask here. “How can I change my outline to work for me?” An outline is never one-and-done. And changing things halfway through doesn’t mean the original outline was useless. It got you started. It helped you write your first few chapters until the story got up to speed and took on a life of its own.

An outline shouldn’t be a cage to trap your muse in. It should be a comfortable house where your muse has everything she needs. If something isn’t working, go ahead and open the windows, put on a fresh coat of paint, or even knock down some walls. Modifying is not the same as abandoning.

At the end of the day, you might decide you’re happier as a pantser, and you’d rather spend your time revising your “hot mess” of a novel than trying to craft an outline. That’s okay! We all write differently. But I’m glad you’re willing to experiment with this new way of writing, to see if it works for you.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist which is out now.

Five Books You Need When Revising Your Novel

National Novel Writing Month is over and you did it! You wrote a novel. Congratulations, writer! But now you might be wondering…what’s next?

Perhaps you’ve written a novel that’s almost readable, but you’re overwhelmed at the thought of all the work that lies ahead. Many writers give up at this point, which is a shame, because often, with just a little tweaking, a novel can be transformed from ho-hum to wow!

The bad news is, you have to do the work. Revisions often take as long–or longer–than writing the first draft. And being in the revision trenches feels bad. You’ve traded the certainty of rising word counts for the uncertainty of cuts and changes. Some days, you might not know if you’re making your book better or just different.

The good news is, you don’t have to go through the revision process alone. There are very good guidebooks that will help you understand what you need to do and show you how to do it. Here are five of my favorites (with a bonus book at the end).

Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld
Obstfeld points out mistakes without being negative, and shows what works without being preachy. This book is filled with good examples to show you what to do and how to do it. You don’t have to know your novel’s exact problems in order to fix them. As long as you kind of, sort of, mostly know what your novel needs, you’ll be able to find the answers in Fiction First Aid.

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Sometimes, NaNoWriMo participants write so fast that they lose sight of their plot. Bell helps writers think in terms of structure, building the story with solid scenes that go together in a logical order. Plot and Structure is written in easy-to-grasp language that’s free of jargon. Bell starts with a basic overview, followed by detailed chapters on beginnings, middles, and ends. Each part of a novel has a specific job to do, and Bell details how to hook readers, elevate the stakes, stretch the tension, and satisfy reader expectations.

The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black
Writing rules aren’t meant to stifle writers. The rules exist because they are the best practices for communication. The better you understand the rules, the better you can apply them–or bend and break them when the time is right. The Anatomy of Prose will help you tighten flabby sentences, tune up rambling paragraphs, and shine a spotlight on the most important parts of your novel. Black covers when to show and when to tell, how to find your voice, clean up your style, and elevate your descriptions. She has tips for brighter dialogue, tighter pacing, and clearer transitions. This book covers a lot of ground in very short chapters that get right to the point.

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
Novels are emotion-delivery vehicles. We read nonfiction for information, but novels are all about going on an emotional journey with the characters. As writers, we can move readers to laughter or tears, limited only by our storytelling skills. The Emotion Thesaurus offers a list of a hundred and thirty primary emotions such as anger, dread, relief, shame, and satisfaction. Each entry gives clues about how to express the emotion with physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations. This book won’t do the work for you, but when you’re putting the finishing touches on your novel, this book can help your characters express their emotions in a believable way.

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth
In this short book, Gerth explains every facet of storytelling to explain how to show a story instead of telling it. Show, Don’t Tell begins with definitions to give a writer a firm grasp on exactly what showing is. Details, not conclusions. Concrete, not abstract. Dramatization, not summary. She explains how to get the reader up close and personal with the story and why it’s necessary to do so. Once a writer has identified the telling in her manuscript, Gerth gives examples and exercises to convert that telling into showing, concentrating on trouble areas like backstory, dialogue, description, and emotion. She gives before-and-after examples, helping writers truly see how it’s done.

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist by Alex Kourvo
You didn’t think I’d finish this list without mentioning The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, did you? This book is much more than a simple checklist. It’s a comprehensive step-by-step guide to the revision process in a very small package. With this book at your side, you’ll write more likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs. With in-depth chapters and examples from contemporary fiction, this clear-eyed manual gives you all the tools you need to bring your book to the finish line.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and book blogger who loves how-to books almost as much as she loves key lime pie.
Note: this site occasionally uses affiliate links.

The Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers

I’ve seen a lot of holiday gift guides for writers that promise “the most beautiful, unique, and necessary gifts for the writer in your life.” I excitedly open it, only to see notebooks, pens, candles and mugs. Those things are nice, but they are also super generic. And trust me, the writer in your life already has enough pens.

Your writer friend deserves better. Here is a list of ten thoughtful, practical, and fun gifts for writers.

1. A T-shirt That Says it All
Daydreaming? Woolgathering? Lost the thread of the conversation? No! You’re plotting.

2. A Soft Foam Footstool
This soft footstool elevates the legs to just the right height for a laptop to be comfortably perched on the lap. I have one of these under my desk and I don’t know how I ever sat for hours without it.

3. Storymatic
This is a little box filled with the most interesting writing prompts you can imagine. You can use Storymatic for brainstorming, writing exercises, cooperative storytelling, or just for fun.

4. Blue-Blocking Glasses
Blue light is the worst light, causing headaches, fatigue, and insomnia. These glasses block glare and blue light from computers and other devices. When I wear mine, I can write longer with less eye strain.

5. Light Therapy
Sometimes, it’s not too much light that’s the problem, but lack of it. Even those of us who don’t suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder can benefit from a few extra lumens in the winter months. Some therapy lights cost hundreds of dollars, but this one is small and inexpensive but still works great.

6. Typewriter Key Necklace
Every writer I know loves old typewriters. Typewriters aren’t practical, but who cares when they are so cool? Many companies make jewelry out of typewriter keys, so we can carry a bit of that retro chic with us. Here’s one of my favorites.

7. A Tote Bag That Tells the Truth
Writers make choices with each word they put on the page. If a book is problematic, that is 100% on the writer. Hold yourself and your fellow writers accountable with this awesome reusable tote.

8. Bathtub Caddy
There are writers who use a bath to relax. There are writers who read in the tub. And there are writers who actually write while submerged in water. Whatever kind of writer you are, this bath caddy will hold all the essentials.

9. Shower Curtain
Eureka moments and showers. The two naturally go together. Maybe our muses are activated by water, or maybe they just live in the bathroom, but either way, this shower curtain will show the muses that you respect what they do.

10. Library Due Date Notecards
These 3×5 inch notecards are the perfect size. You could use these to remind you which of your friends borrowed books from you, or you could turn them over and write notes on the back. Either way, they are adorable little blasts from the past, and a wonderful way to remember the books we cherish.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor and book blogger who doesn’t need any more notebooks or pens.
This post contains some affiliate links. (The author gets a tiny commission even though you don’t pay more.)

Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between a Trope and a Cliche?

Dear Alex,
I’m writing a young adult fantasy novel. I’ve researched the market, so I know what other authors are writing and I know what sells. My question is this: must I write the one thousandth novel about a “chosen one” who saves the world? It seems like such a cliché. On the other hand, if this is a trope that readers expect, what’s the harm in using it? Maybe I just don’t understand the difference between a trope and cliche, so I guess that’s my real question: trope, cliché, what’s the difference?
–Hashi

Hi Hashi,

A trope is an ingredient. Let’s say your son has asked for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. He wants bread, cheese, and butter, toasted up medium well. Think of those ingredients as tropes. They are essential to make that particular kind of food. In romance, you’ve got the meet-cute, the first kiss, the happily ever after. In mystery, you have the dead body, the misfit detective, and the midpoint plot twist. Other tropes, like the chosen one or the fired cop solving the crime anyway or the marriage of convenience are perfectly fine. They are the bread and butter and cheese of our books. You literally can’t make a book without them, just like you can’t make a sandwich without bread.

A cliché is like an ingredient that’s been sitting out on the counter too long. So long, in fact, that it’s gone bad. The bread is moldy and the butter is rancid. It might have been fine once, but now it’s spoiled. If you make a grilled cheese sandwich with moldy bread, it will still be a grilled cheese sandwich, but your kid won’t want to eat it.

Clichés are things that have been done to death, such as the villain’s monologue or the literal saving of a cat. These have been done so many times, in fact, that they are ripe for parody. So when we’re watching The Incredibles and Buddy says “You caught me monologuing,” we laugh because it’s such a cliché that it’s funny.

In short, tropes are good. They are the healthy ingredients that make up our stories. Readers want them and love them. Clichés are tropes that have been on the shelf so long that they’ve gone bad. They are not healthy or good for readers, or for you.

And the terrible part is, we are never sure when a trope becomes a cliché. Here’s my thought. If you’re using a trope and still getting a good story out of it, something that feels like a fresh take (using fresh ingredients) then you’re absolutely fine. You don’t have to subvert the trope or turn it on its head, you just have to make sure you’re bringing something fun and new to the table. Maybe you’re writing the cynical detective story, but instead of a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, he’s twenty-two. Why such cynicism in one so young? That’s your story.

The other way to make a trope work for you is to reach deep within yourself to bring the most authentic, heartfelt version of that story into the world. Think of it as artisanal grilled cheese on sourdough bread with local farm cheddar and hand-churned butter. So to take our cynical detective story, perhaps he fits the stereotype to a T. He’s sixty years old, lives alone, trusts no one, keeps a bottle of Scotch in his file cabinet and a loaded pistol in his pocket, and solves crimes between benders. How did your detective get this way? What heartbreaking part of his backstory could you explore? (By the way, if you want to see this done well, read the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block. Tropes galore. Awesome books.)

You’ve got to go deep if you’re taking this approach to fiction, though, and it has to be one hundred percent sincere. You have to write that trope with all the honesty and emotion you have, because the moment you wink at the audience, you’re done for.

However, where things go badly is when you’re using a trope in a lazy way, just coloring in an outline that someone else has made, with nothing new and no sincerity. If you “write to market” in this shallow way, you’re using rancid ingredients and you’re going to end up writing a cliché.

So go ahead and use those tropes! They are the vital ingredients your story needs. Just be sure you’re using the best ingredients you can find and you’re treating them with respect. And then, cook them up and serve them to a happy audience.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How do I Make the Stakes Meaningful?

Dear Alex,
I got some disappointing feedback from my beta readers about my fantasy novel. They said they had a hard time getting into my book, and it didn’t hold their interest. I understand that story stakes are the way to make readers care, so I made the stakes as big as possible. If my heroes don’t prevail, the entire kingdom will fall. So why didn’t my readers care about my story?
–Daniel

Hi Daniel,

I’m sorry that your betas couldn’t get into your fantasy novel. I’m sure that feedback wasn’t easy to hear. But looking at the story stakes is an excellent first step toward a solid revision.

I admire your commitment to making the story stakes as big as possible, but the paradox is that bigger isn’t always better. As humans, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around mass suffering, and we tend to go numb when an entire kingdom is at stake. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.

Instead of trying to go bigger, I suggest the opposite approach. Bring your story stakes down to a human level. Make the stakes matter more by making them more personal.

Some genres have personal stakes built in. Maybe you’re writing literary fiction where the stakes are the heroine coming to grips with her family’s history. Maybe you’re writing romance where the stakes are a couple’s true love. Maybe you’re writing a YA novel about a kid overcoming a learning disability and finally getting that college acceptance. It’s awesome when the stakes are on that personal level, because when readers connect with the characters, they will care intensely about the outcome of the story.

But that’s not the kind of novel you’re writing. You’re writing a fantasy with much bigger things at stake. That means you’ll have to work even harder to make those stakes personal.

The only way that stakes matter to readers is if they’re brought down from the global to the human level. Do whatever you can to tell us why the fate of the whole world matters to this hero. Who is he fighting for? His family? His parents? His lover? In what way will those people have their lives ruined if he fails? Get very specific here. Give the readers enough details to truly understand how important this goal is to this very small number of people that the reader has come to love.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a sprawling, epic adventure where the entire fate of Middle Earth is at stake. If Sauron takes over, everyone will suffer for generations. That’s huge. But why do readers care? They care because of Frodo. He’s walking to Mordor with barely any resources, trying to destroy the One Ring, and for what? For all of Middle Earth? No. Frodo cares about his family and friends. He cares about the other hobbits. He cares about the Shire. That is who Frodo is fighting for.

You absolutely should have stakes as big as the world if that’s what your genre demands. Readers of fantasy love to see epic battles and political intrigue and great evil ravaging the land. But make sure that you’ve also made these things matter to one person, or a family, or a small group of heroes.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.