Tag Archives: Stephen King

Which is Most Important: Character, Conflict, or Crisis?

Book with heart for writersAs I’ve been reading around in the Indie-verse, I’ve found a couple of books I’ve decided not to finish. As both a writer and a reader, I’ve thought about what triggers me to abandon a book.

One feature that has stuck as a cause for my reaction can be summed up in advice Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest provided at the Writing Day Workshop I attended in Indianapolis in October:

Begin with conflict, not crisis.

Typewriter with questions marks

In other words, writers I’m deciding sadly to give up on often begin with their characters in crisis. But Klems’s advice reminds me of a cruel but vital truth:

If I don’t know your character, I don’t care about her. If I don’t care about her, I honestly don’t care if she gets her brains blown out.

Sorry, but there it is.

Gangster with gun

When these writers begin their books, they have three Cs to deal with: Crisis, Character, and Conflict. It may sound counter-intuitive to state that, of the three, Crisis is the least important!

I know, I know: begin in medias res. But not when the folks in medias are just names on a page.

Can you pile on character, conflict, and crisis in opening scenes? I thought I’d try an experiment to find out.


Sally found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. She stumbled backwards. He fired. The shot narrowly missed.

Crisis, big time. And a couple of what Paula Munier calls “micro-story questions,” the elements that help to deliver what she calls “narrative thrust.” Who’s shooting at her? Why? Will she escape the next shot?


Okay, I’d read on to the next bit. But if the following three pages consisted of her efforts to flee his escape, I’d be flipping ahead to see whether things got more interesting than an abstract flight-and-pursue.

What if, instead, you read:

Of course Mark was going to pull the trigger. When he threatened, he always delivered. Sally flung her hands up, stupidly, since they wouldn’t stop a bullet, and sprawled on her butt on the wedding dress jumbled on the tack room floor behind her. The gun went off in a brain-numbing explosion, the bullet slamming into the row of bridles hanging just above her head.

Beautiful sexy girl with gun

Take that, Mark, you scum!

We still get to the crisis pretty fast, but now we have many more micro-story questions. First, we’ve got conflict: these people have a history. It’s not just a question of why he’s shooting at her, but what between them has happened before to trigger her recognition that this isn’t a joke. “Why and who?” becomes “How does she know this about him? What has he done to make her think this now?” There’s a whole history of people in those queries.

More importantly, that wedding dress. Wedding dress? How in the world did a wedding dress get in the floor of that tackroom? And why a tackroom? We now know that these people somehow connect with horses, and that someone (Mark? Sally?) has just been through (or approached) a wedding. And he’s the determined sort who shoots first and asks questions later, while she’s (at present) a bit reactive and self-derogatory (calling herself “stupid”). Conflict and character as well as crisis—leading to a cornucopia of story questions! And all in the same number of sentences, four.

Some of my writing group colleagues are absolute minimalists and would opt for the first austere and abstract version. But to me, pure action is not nearly as engaging as action involving people I know or people I’ve been made deeply curious about.

An experiment like this leads to me be suggest that if you must demote one of the three Cs, let it be crisis! What? Start flat, with just characters in conflict? Well, yes.

Torn up drafts

As Stephen King argues, narrative tension arises not from wild, boisterous action but from people in “situations,” where they must react to each other and to the problems their situation presents.

True, you can’t spend pages on this development. It has to happen in that medias res moment, through careful pacing and selection of details.

As an illustration of how little we need a doomsday crisis, consider these opening lines from Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist:

They said the typewriter would unsex us.

One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter, be it Underwood, Royal, Remington, or Corona, is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. Add to that the sheer violence of its iron arms, thwacking away at the page with unforgiving force. Unforgiving. Yes; forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty.

Typewriter publish

We’ve got character, even though we haven’t met the speaker. We’ve got conflict: That nameless “they” is already on trial! I haven’t yet read this book Will I? If it lives up to this crisis-deprived opening, you bet.






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How Do You Keep Up Your Writing Productivity?

After a year and a half of blogging and working on a non-fiction project for the future, this summer I’m getting back into a fiction routine. I’m remembering how writing an 80- or 90-thousand word novel differs from blogging or posting Facebook updates. It takes some pretty effective strategies to ward off boredom, burnout, and the temptation to clean house instead.

My strategies probably differ from most people’s. I don’t have kids, and I’m retired, which is actually the only reason I can work on a novel at all. When I was teaching, first light saw me reading student research and papers; the rest of the day outside of class went to administrative tasks. But finally, now! A new routine!

Woman writing

Wish it worked this way!

I did worry that my new lack of structure would undercut this new chance to write. So I made myself some rules. So far, good prognosis: My new “Sarah” book is coming, words sneaking out onto the page.

I’m wondering whether these are the same kinds of rules that work for you, or whether you have tweaks to make them work even better. Let me know!

Write FIRST.

Some people actually write before daylight. I wish! First I read in the bathtub and then read the newspaper online. But when I begin my self-defined “workday,” Activity No. 1 is WRITING. Not blog posts, not query letters, not emails: no, writing on the book.


Even on weekends. Okay, I confess, Saturday I’m going to a horse show, and I won’t write that day. Then there’s doctors’ appointments, taking the car for an oil change. Or the dog to the vet. Or, if you have kids, a thousand reasons to say, “I just can’t today!” But this next strategy is the one that keeps me writing almost every day:

Keep it DOABLE.

I developed this strategy when I was writing seminar papers in grad school and grading reams of student papers. Some colleagues would slog through twenty-five research papers at one sitting. Freed them up the next day, they said. But when you’re writing a novel, ten hours today won’t give you a free day tomorrow. And ten hours saps me, leaving me drained.

Man worrying about his writing

After 25 papers!

Instead, when I taught, I figured out how much I had to do each day to meet my deadlines. I’d do that, and no more. For my novel, I’ve been setting myself an easy, non-intimidating daily quota. Right now it’s one college-ruled notebook page. The secret, of course, is that when you get to the end of that page, you almost always keep going. But there are very few days when there’s not enough time to write just that one.


In Florida that good place was in my canoe tucked into a quiet elbow on the Hillsborough River. Those live oaks just seemed to drip words. Sure, I would get distracted when a gator cruised down the inky river, or a wood stork slow-walked past. These days, I sit on my back deck with my feet propped on the railing. I admit I got distracted the other day when a bald eagle flew overhead. But there’s something about being outside, enveloped by trees and sky, that gifts me with language. Don’t know yet what I’ll do when the snow comes. I have a nice chair with a nice window. If I can keep the dog and the cats out of my lap, there’s hope.

A good place to write

Hillsborough River outside of Tampa

Find something FUN TO WRITE WITH.

Okay, for those who compose on a computer, this one is moot. But I’ve always done creative first drafts in longhand. I love having margins for ideas, reminders, or metaphors to try out. Transferring text to the screen gives me an amazing edit. When you have to type a sentence, it isn’t all that hard to ask, “Do I really need this?”

For years I preferred Schaeffer cartridge pens, black ink, turning the nib upside down for a finer line. My handwriting is small, and I loved the actual shape of the letters as they flowed onto the page. Those days of near-calligraphy are gone; now it’s all barely decipherable scribbles. Schaeffers became harder to find. I’ve switched to a refillable fountain pen, still turning the nib upside down.


If I know, really know—that’s boring. But if I’ve created a situation, like Stephen King suggests, and plopped my characters on the verge of it, I seem to have given myself my own cliffhanger. Okay, Sarah and Nick have reached Enchanted Rock, and she worries he’s about to commit suicide. I know I’ll be back tomorrow to find out what happens next.

Bill, the dog, critiques

A dog in your face is always helpful

But here’s one of my main questions:

I’d progress faster if I wrote for longer stretches. Do you have a strategy for doing that? How do you keep yourself fresh to start again the next day? What other strategies help with your productivity? If you’re juggling family and a job, how do you get those words on the page?

Coffee mug for writers

Coffee helps!


Filed under indie publishing, Self-publishing, Writing, writing novels