Marcy Kennedy

How to Punctuate Dialogue

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

It’s easy for fiction writers to get tripped up on when to use a period, where that comma should go, and how to even use all the other forms of punctuation correctly. The truth is, you don’t need to know what every piece of punctuation does when you’re writing fiction. But you do need to know a few important aspects (your proofreader or copy editor can handle the rest).

(If you’re curious about why you should even hire a proofreader or copy editor, stay tuned—I’ll be writing about that soon.)

Today I’ll be walking you through the basics of how to punctuate your dialogue correctly.

Although it might seem nitpicky, incorrect punctuation in dialogue can have a significant negative effect on your writing. Choosing the correct form of punctuation for your dialogue will make your writing smoother, more professional-looking, and easier to understand.

First up is dialogue ending with a tag.

When writing a snippet of dialogue that ends with a tag (a word such as said or shouted), you should end the dialogue with a comma. For example:

“I love watching football,” Chris said.

When writing a question or exclamation, use a question mark or exclamation mark without a comma. For example:

“Do you like watching football?” Chris asked.

(Note that I could have swapped “asked” for “said” and still been correct.)

Next up is dialogue split by a tag.

When writing a sentence that is divided by a tag, use a comma after the snippet of dialogue (even if a comma wouldn’t naturally go there without the tag in place) and after the tag. For example:

“I almost hate being a Redskins fan,” Chris said, “because they haven’t been good in a long time.”

If the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence, use a period after the tag and start the subsequent sentence with a capital letter. For example:

“I love the Redskins,” Chris said. “I’ve been a fan since I was five years old.”

Next up is ending a piece of dialogue with an em dash.

You should use an em dash for dialogue that is cut off. Make sure that you don’t use any other punctuation with the em dash. (An em dash is the longest of dashes: – is a regular dash, – is an en dash, and — is an em dash. If you want to know when–and how–to use all these different dashes, let me know in the comments.) For example:

“I love—”

“We don’t talk about Dallas in this household, and you know it.”

Next up is dialogue that trails off. You should use ellipses ( … ) in these situations.

“But I don’t…” He averted his eyes. “I know you hate Dallas. You don’t have to keep reminding me about it.”

What punctuation do you struggle with the most? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll address it in the future.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is my Homophone of the Month (complement vs. compliment).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/






Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: GOAL


By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The foundation of every functional novel is goal, motivation, and conflict. What your character wants, why they want it, and what they’re willing to endure to get it.

Sounds simple in principle, right? But I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with this, so over the next few weeks, I’m going to walk you through each point. If one of these core concepts isn’t working, your whole story falls apart.

Your character’s goal is their external, conscious desire. It’s the thing they want to achieve over the course of the story.

(We’ll get to their internal, subconscious need next time.)

Their goal MUST…
•      be important
•      be urgent
•      be concrete and specific

Let’s break this down.

When I say the goal is important, I mean that there will be big, negative consequences if your character fails to achieve that goal. In order to reach their goal, your character should have to suffer and struggle, so if the goal isn’t important, your character isn’t going to be willing to keep pursuing it.

I’ll talk about this element a bit more when we get to motivation, but I want to say one more thing about this here—the goal needs to be important to your protagonist, not necessarily to the world. A story about a woman whose goal is to adopt a child can be as powerful and captivating as a story about a woman whose goal is to locate a terrorist cell and stop them from bombing the U.S.

It’s the character who drives the story and so the goal needs to be personal and relevant to that character, regardless of how the rest of the world feels about it.

And if the goal is big like “save the world,” you’ll still need to find a way to make it personal for your protagonist (for example, by showing a person they love who will die if the big, bad thing happens). This is why so many “save the world” movies and books show you the protagonist’s child or wife or husband or brother first. It always starts by being personal, then it becomes business too.

An urgent goal is one your character has to act on right now. If they can wait a few months or a year before pursuing their goal, then it’s not an urgent goal. Another way of saying this is that the goal needs to be time sensitive.

Humans don’t tend to like change. Unless there’s a reason we need to act on something immediately, we’ll often put it off because we’re comfortable the way we are, even if the way we are is actually hurting us. We’re afraid that if we try to change, either we’ll fail and make it worse or the change we attempt will make our life worse than it was before. We don’t trust change.

Concrete is the one that trips a lot of people up because it’s easy to confuse an ambition with a goal. An ambition can’t carry a story because we don’t know what to watch for and we don’t know when we’ve reached it.

Ambition: Get healthy.

Goal: Workout five times a week.

How do you know when you’ve achieved the ambition? What does it look like? It’s too nebulous and the end point isn’t clear. This is why so many people fail in their New Year’s Resolutions. They set ambitions rather than goals.

You know exactly when you’ve achieved the goal. It’s measurable. It’s external. It’s visible.

Right now someone is sure to object that their character’s goal is internal. Even if our character’s goal is internal change, we still need to create a concrete, external signpost of what this looks like to them to achieve it.

Here’s an example. Let’s say at the start of the book, our character struggles with an anxiety disorder and it’s ruining her life. She doesn’t like to leave her house, and her relationships are falling apart.

Ambition: Overcome my anxiety disorder.

Internal Goal: Learn to manage my attacks when they happen so that they don’t spiral out of control and prevent me from doing the things I want to do.

External Sign: Be able to volunteer at the hospital like I’ve always wanted but couldn’t because the blood, wounds, and fear of catching something have always triggered my anxiety.

Internal goals are absolutely fantastic when coupled with an external sign this way because then you’ve got plot and character arc working together.

Extra Tip: One area where a lot of writers get confused is that there’s a big-picture story goal, but each scene also has a goal. Our character is going to have smaller-scale goals along the way, and those goals will be steps to achieving their big-picture goal.

Have you struggled with creating a goal that meets these criteria? Or have you seen now that your book’s current goal isn’t a workable goal at all? Feel free to share in the comments!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Image Credit:Jacek Raczynski/





Should Fiction Writers Care About Grammar?

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Some people believe that, when you’re writing fiction, you can throw all the rules of grammar out the window. We’ll call this the It’s Not Important camp. They say that grammar is too fickle—the rules of grammar are seemingly in constant flux, and they’re too nitpicky to begin with, especially for fiction writers. Nobody speaks with perfect grammar. Nobody writes perfectly. In their view, what you say is more important than how you say it.

Another camp (we’ll call them the Grammar Police camp) believes that grammar rules are absolute—fixed, unchanging, the Ten Commandments of writing (regardless of type or genre of writing). I always goes before E, except after C, or in words such as neighbor and weigh. The rules are the rules, and should be followed to the letter.

Both of these camps have the potential to hurt fiction and fiction writers if their views are followed. I personally fall into the Be a Master First camp. Those in that camp believe that it’s okay to break grammar rules as long as you’ve demonstrated mastery of the language, because doing so earns you “street cred” in terms of getting away with breaking rules. You’ve shown that you are a master of following the rules and have only broken the rules for dramatic or emphasis purposes. It also means you actually know when it’s okay to break the rules, what rules can or cannot be broken and when, and which rules should never be broken.

Being a master first allows you to create fiction that is clear, easy to read, and approachable.

And let’s face it—showing mastery of the language will make readers much less likely to put down your creative effort and blast you for poor writing on social media and in reviews. The thing that will get you poor reviews the fastest is poor editing. If you want people to appreciate your efforts, you need to ensure that your work is grammatically correct. Your ego—and hopefully your bank account—will thank you.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is How to Punctuate Dialogue.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/







How a Novel Is Like a Human Body

how-a-novel-is-like-the-human-bodyBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve come to believe that part of the reason writers can work for years on a book and still have it be unready for publication is because we don’t always understand the different layers that need to go into a great story.

A lot of this happens because most of us learn writing piecemeal. We read a blog post here, attend a writer’s conference workshop there. We don’t usually have someone sit us down and explain the anatomy of a book to us in a 101 type fashion.

(If you’re an experienced writer, don’t click away. This might be a refresher for you, but it might also help you understand story in a new way, or it might simply give you another way to explain it to a newer writer.)

So today I want to break down the anatomy of a story for you using the analogy of a human body. I’m going to start from big picture and work my way down.

Protagonist and Plot

Our protagonist is the character whose goal drives the actions (plot) of the story and whose life changes through those events.

Where this tends to trip writers up is in a fundamental misunderstanding about how the two relate. The purpose of the external plot events is to force the protagonist to change. Throwing random events—however interesting we might think they should be—at our protagonist doesn’t make for a good plot. Throwing events at our protagonist that don’t force them to think, feel, and grow doesn’t make for a good plot. Our protagonist should change somehow through the pursuit of their goal.

The protagonist—with their individual backstory, personality, and brokenness—also needs to drive the plot forward. The choices and decisions they make need to matter. And if anyone else were the protagonist of the story, that plot should play out differently than it currently does. If you could swap your protagonist for someone else without anything significant changing in your plot, then something is wrong.

I look at these like the muscles and bones in a body. If the muscles in a limb atrophy, the limb doesn’t work. If the bones in a limb turn to jello or break, the limb doesn’t work. In other words, if there’s something wrong with the muscles or the bones, it doesn’t matter how amazing the other layers are.

And one is not more important than the other.

Sentence-Level Writing Craft

Sentence-level writing craft is elements like showing vs. telling, dialogue, point of view errors, and so on. It’s what most people think about when they talk about learning to write. It also tends to be what we spend the most time on, especially in the beginning.

In our human body analogy, this is the skin. People can be distracted by the condition of our skin regardless of how strong our muscles and bones are. Like it or not, people judge us by how our skin looks. A kid in high school with bad acne is less likely to be popular than a kid with flawless skin. It can happen, but they have to be absolutely amazing in some other way.

It’s the same with our books.

Grammar and Punctuation

Grammar and punctuation is what a copy editor works on. It’s the small-scale details of commas, typos, misused words, and awkward phrases. Most writers think of this level when they think about hiring an editor. 

If we’re talking about a person, it’s the hair, make-up, and clothes. It’s the polish. In our lives, if we were walking into a professional situation where we wanted to be taken seriously, we wouldn’t show up in ratty sweats and bed head, smelling of BO. We’d try to make our best first impression by taking care with our appearance. That’s what good grammar and punctuation do for our book. If it’s not working, readers are less likely to take us seriously. They’ll be distracted by it.

(I spend most of my time on this blog teaching you about the two higher levels, but I want to help you in all ways so I’ve enlisted a regular guest columnist. Starting this Saturday, we’ll have The Editor’s Corner, where you’ll learn about grammar and punctuation for fiction writers.)

Do you have another way of thinking about story that helps you understand it better? Or do you think one level or story is more important than the others? I’d love to hear your opinion!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Want to Make Revisions Easier? Create an Editorial Map

The tables are turned on me today. Normally each month I head over to Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (and I will still be there next week), but this month I also have the extremely nice and talented Janice Hardy here to share her knowledge with all of you as part of her blog tour for the release of her new books. The internet can be a funny place when it comes to writing advice. There’s just as much flawed information out there as there is helpful information. The teaching Janice shares is the kind you can trust.

And that’s why I’m so happy to have her here with us today talking about a way we can make our revisions easier. Take it away, Janice!


Want to Make Revisions Easier? Then Create an Editorial Map

This is Janice.

This is Janice.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before starting a revision, it helps to create an editorial map. An editorial map (also called an edit map or book map) lets you know exactly how the novel unfolds and where it needs tweaking. It’s also a handy reference tool when you need to check when or how something happens without having to search through the entire manuscript.

Even if you’re a fast drafter and completed a manuscript in a few weeks, odds are you don’t remember everything that happens in every scene. Without a clear understanding of what’s in your novel, it’s harder to know the best way to revise.

Step One: Identify What Happens in Every Scene or Chapter

Determine what happens in each scene, especially the plot-driving goals and conflicts, as these are the elements that create the novel’s plot. You can either list them or just think about them at first (you’ll summarize next). If plot mechanics are a common weak area for your first drafts, I recommend listing the goals and motivations of each scene. It’ll force you to be specific, and the act of writing them down crystallizes your intent, especially if you have trouble articulating what a scene is about or the goals driving it. Ask:

  • What is the point-of-view character trying to do in this scene? (the goal)
  • Why is she trying to do it? (the motivation for that goal)
  • What’s in the way of her doing it? (the conflict and scene obstacle)
  • What happens if she doesn’t do it? (the stakes)
  • What goes wrong (or right)? (how the story moves forward)
  • What important plot or story elements are in the scene? (what you need to remember or what affects future scenes)

Revision Red Flag: If you’re unable to answer any of these questions, that could indicate you’re missing some of the goal-conflict-stakes plot mechanics. Make notes of the problems so you can easily find them later.

Step Two: Summarize What Happens in Every Scene or Chapter

Once you identify the core elements of the scene, summarize what happens—the actual actions and choices made. This will be a huge help in analyzing the novel’s narrative drive and pacing.

Revision Red Flag: If you can’t summarize the action in the scene, that could indicate there’s not enough external character activity. Perhaps this scene has a lot of backstory, description, or infodumps in it. Be wary if there’s a lot of thinking, but no action taken as a result of that thinking. Make notes on ways to add the character’s goal back in, or how to possibly combine the scene with one that’s weak on internal action.

Step Three: Map out the Entire Novel

Go scene by scene and summarize the novel. By the end, you’ll have a solid map of how the novel unfolds and what the critical plot elements are. You’ll easily see where/if a plot thread dead ends or wanders off, or any scenes that lack goals or conflict.

Revision Red Flag: If you discover some chapters or scenes have a lot of information, while others have a line or two, that could indicate scenes that need fleshing out, or are heavy with non-story-driving elements that might need pruning. It could even show places where too much is going on and readers might need a breather. Mark the areas that need work, adding any ideas that might have occurred to you as you wrote your summaries.

Revision Tip: Try highlighting your notes in different colors to denote different elements, such as green for goals, red for tension. That makes it easy to skim over your editorial map and see where and what the weak spots are.

Revision Option: Map Out Any Additional Arcs You Might Want

Aside from the core plot elements, you can also include the pacing of reveals, discovery of clues or secrets, how multiple points of view affect each other, or whatever else you want to track. For example, a mystery might have one paragraph per chapter that covers what the killer is doing, even though that’s never seen in the actual novel.

These additional details can be woven into the scene summary or kept as bullet points or a subparagraph if that’s easier. You might even have two or three paragraphs per scene: One for the plot, one for the character arcs, and one for information you need, but the characters don’t know yet.

This additional information is useful for tracking subplots or inner conflicts, as well as critical clues or what the antagonist is doing off-screen that’s affecting the protagonist. Timelines can also appear here if you need to know when events happen to ensure everything works together and you don’t have any twenty-seven-hour days. Try adding a simple time reminder at the top of every scene, such as: Day One, Morning.

Revision Red Flag: If you discover you have no other arcs, that could indicate there’s not enough happening in your novel. A lack of plot could mean there are too many non-story elements bogging down the novel, such as an overload of description, too much world building, heavy infodumps, or even an excess of internalization.

The beauty of an editorial map is that once the hard work is done and you have it all mapped out, it’s a solid guide to the novel. If you get stuck during revisions you can open it up, see what happens when, clarify where the story needs to go, and get back on track.

Do you create an editorial map for your drafts?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

ryn-2x3Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at or @Janice_Hardy.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

*Excerpted from Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft





How to Use Layers to Create Rich Character Emotions

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of the least effective ways to convey character emotions is to tell the reader what the character was feeling: fear, love, jealousy, anger. Before I go on to look at how we can create a rich emotional life for our characters that will touch our readers’ emotions, I think we need to break down why telling an emotion doesn’t work.

When we’re in the middle of an emotion, we don’t stop to think about what emotion we’re experiencing and to name it—we just experience it. The nature of emotions is that they tend to inhibit our ability to think logically and rationally. So when we label an emotion at the time our character is experiencing it, it feels like someone else is talking about that character or like our character is unrealistically self-aware.

Labeling an emotion also strips out everything that makes that emotion individual and fresh. It takes the personality out of it so that it lays flat on the page. We don’t learn anything about the character.

Despite this, many of us are tempted to label the character’s emotions in our writing because we don’t want to risk confusing the reader about what our character is feeling. We want to be sure they know.

Context should help alleviate confusion. (After all, if our character is grabbed from behind while walking down a dark alley, her racing heart probably isn’t due to love.)

But the real key to clear emotion that’s also going to resonate with the reader is adding in layers.

Layer #1 – The Physical Symptoms of the Emotion

Emotions affect us physically in visceral ways we can’t control. Our palms sweat. Our hands tremble. We gasp or yelp or screech. 

When we put these reactions on the page, we’re not only reminding the reader of times they’ve felt those same physical symptoms. We’re also bringing them in close to our character so they’re experiencing the emotion from the inside rather than simply watching it from the outside.

(If you want to know more about visceral reactions, check out my guest post over at Jami Gold’s blog.)

Layer #2 – Character Thoughts and Dialogue

What a character thinks and what they say can give away what they’re feeling as well. Even more interesting at times is when what they think doesn’t match up with what they say. In those cases, we’re showing their true emotions and how those emotions contrast with how they feel they need to portray themselves to the people around them.

Layer #3 – Actions Your Character Would Do When Experiencing That Emotion

Our bodies speak to our emotions in big and small ways. An impatient character might bob the foot of their crossed leg. A character who received shocking news might sink into a chair. A character who is desperate might stretch their hands out toward the person they’re pleading with.

Allowing our characters to transmit their emotions in this way helps the reader understand what they’re feeling and it also adds depth.

Let’s look at a quick example. To add some context, our viewpoint character Becky has been waiting by the window for her husband to come home. He’s late.

The Telling Version:

A police car pulled to a stop in front of their house, and two officers got out. Fear shot through her.

The Showing Version With All Three Layers:

A police car pulled to a stop in front of their house, and two officers got out.

Trembling started in her fingers and worked its way up her arm like some kind of a localized seizure. She dropped the curtain into place, and took one step, two, back away from the window.

Craig wasn’t that late. He was flat tire late. Or traffic jam late. Or the-meeting-ran-long late. He wasn’t uniforms-notify-the-next-of-kin late.

Not every emotion needs this much emphasis. Not every moment in your story will be important enough to warrant it. But if your characters feel flat or if your emotions are coming across muddy, especially at times when their emotions are essential, then try adding in more layers.

HowToWriteBox1Want more help bringing your characters and their internal lives to life for your readers?

I’m excited to introduce my first box set—How to Write Fiction: Busy Writer’s Guides Set 1.

Showing and telling, deep point of view, and internal dialogue are foundational skills you need to master to create vivid fiction that engages the reader emotionally.

The books in this set put writing craft techniques into plain language alongside examples so you can see how that technique looks in practice. In addition, you’ll receive tips and how-to exercises to help you apply what you learn to the pages of your own story. Most importantly, every book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series cuts the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.

In this box set you’ll find…


Showing and Telling in Fiction will help you clearly understand the difference between showing and telling, provide you with guidelines for when to show and when to tell, and give you practical editing tools for spotting and fixing telling in your writing.


Do you want readers to be so caught up in your book that they forget they’re reading? Then you need deep POV. Deep POV places the reader inside of our characters—hearing their thoughts, feeling their emotions, and living the story through them. In Deep Point of View, you’ll learn specific, practical things you can do to take your fiction to the next level with deep POV.


Internal dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal. It’s also one of the least understood and most often mismanaged elements. In Internal Dialogue, you’ll learn the difference between internal dialogue and narration, how to format internal dialogue, how to balance it with external action, how to use it to advance your story, and much more.

The box set is priced at $9.99, a 10% savings over buying the books individually.

You can grab your copy from…


Apple iBooks


Barnes & Noble




Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 3

Read Like a Writer Part 3By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my series on how to dissect books to understand how and why they work. In other words, how to “read as a writer.” (Here’s where to find Part 1 and Part 2.)

Last time we looked at plot. This week we’re going to think about characters and theme.

I’d suggest sticking with the same three books we selected last time. Just as a reminder, they were three of your favorites in your chosen genre, and they were recently written, highly rated, first in series or standalone books.

(1) How does the writer make you care about what happens to the main character?

Notice I didn’t say like the main character. Likeable main characters are easier to sell, but successful fiction has been written with unlikeable main characters.

So look at the techniques the writer uses to make you sympathize with or like the main character. Look at what makes the main character interesting or compelling. Think carefully about why you’re willing to keep reading about this character.

Does the writer use the character’s actions to gain your sympathy? Do they use hints of backstory? Do they use dialogue by other characters or other character’s internal perceptions of the character?

Create a practical list of techniques that you can use in your stories. This should be a list of techniques, not a list of things to copy.

So if the main character in the story you’re analyzing gains your sympathy by helping an old lady cross the street, that doesn’t mean you need to have your character help someone across the street. It means you write down “show the main character doing something nice for someone else.” You want to deduce general principles from specific examples.

(2) How did the writer show the importance of the story goal to the main character?

If the main character cares about the goal and has a strong motivation for pursuing it, the reader will also care. Study how the writer brought out the main character’s goals and motivations in each scene as well as in terms of the overall plot.

How did they show the importance of the goal? Did they use physical symbols? Did they use conversations with other characters? Did they use internal dialogue? How much of each did they use?

In other words, how did they make you care about the story goal?

(3) Does the character grow over the course of the book?

Not every story will have a character that grows and changes over the course of the book, and this can be genre-specific at times. For example, James Bond is basically the same in every book.

Take note of how the writer shows the character’s internal state at the beginning. If the main character is afraid of a committed relationship, for example, how has the writer shown that?

How has the writer woven that internal growth in with the external conflict? Look at the ways that each major external challenge also forced internal change. 

(4) If the book had a theme (and most books do), what helped you see that theme?

Themes in fiction can be broad—for example, justice will prevail. They can also be narrower—for example, being a parent is worth the cost.

Could you identify the theme in the book? If so, how did the author make it clear to you? Themes aren’t usually stated explicitly. They’re generally woven in through action and through the growth of the character.

If you want a copy of this series that you can download, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be making it available to my newsletter subscribers as a PDF in the near future.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Showing and Telling in Fiction, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/

Tools to Help Bring Your Setting to Life

A tool that I regularly recommend is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Rebecca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus helps writers with building character emotions and showing rather than telling. So I’m very excited that these two ladies have come out with a pair of books that will now help writers with describing their setting. (And you know how important I think description is to fiction.)

Today, as part of their launch, I’ve allowed Angela to “hijack” my blog as part of the festivities they have planned. 


As we storytellers sit before the keyboard to craft our magic, we’re usually laser-focused on the two titans of fiction: plot and character. Yet, there’s a third element that impacts almost every aspect of the tale, one we really need to home in on as well: the setting.

The setting is so much more than a painted backdrop, more than a stage for our characters to tromp across during the scene. Used to its full advantage, the setting can characterize the story’s cast, supply mood, steer the plot, provide challenges and conflict, trigger emotions, help us deliver those necessary snippets of backstory…and that’s just scratching the surface. So the question is this: how do we unleash the full power of the setting within our stories?

Well, there’s some good news on that front. Two new books have released this week that may change the description game for writers. The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces look at the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds a character might experience within 225 different contemporary settings. And this is only the start of what these books offer writers.

In fact, swing by and check out this hidden entry from the Rural Setting Thesaurus: Ancient Ruins.

And there’s one more thing you might want to know more about….


Becca and Angela, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus, are celebrating their double release with a fun event going on from June 13-20th called ROCK THE VAULT. At the heart of the Writers Helping Writers site is a tremendous vault, and these two ladies have been hoarding prizes of epic writerly proportions.

A safe full of prizes, ripe for the taking…if the writing community can work together to unlock it, of course.

Ready to do your part? Stop by Writers Helping Writers to find out more!

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Description in Fiction Shouldn’t Be Boring

Description: A Busy Writer's GuideBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Description is often the unloved step-child of the writing craft. It’s undervalued and almost feared because writers tend to believe that things like dialogue and action are inherently better. We start to believe this because we associate dialogue and action with being active and interesting and we associate description with being static and boring.

Those are false dichotomies.

As a freelance fiction editor, I’ve more often seen people whose books lacked depth and emotion because they were dialogue heavy than I’ve seen people whose books were too slow due to excess description.

Dialogue doesn’t necessarily make our stories better. Good dialogue does. Bad dialogue makes our writing slow and boring.

Now here’s the fact we need to understand—the exact same thing is true about description. (And about every other element of the fiction writing craft.)

Good description is vibrant, interesting, and active. Bad description is slow and boring. Bad description is what readers skip over.

So what makes for boring description?

(1) A Flat Laundry List

Description should never be a simple list of objective facts. As long as we’re writing in first-person point of view or in a limited third-person point of view, description should be subjective, colored by our viewpoint character’s history, personality, and emotions.

(2) Description Whose Sole Reason to Exist Is to Show the Setting

Every passage of description should do two or more of the following things:

  • ground the reader in the setting (time, place, and/or culture) so that they know when and where they are
  • symbolize or foreshadow something important to the story
  • enhance the theme
  • add subtext
  • show something about the viewpoint character’s personality
  • show the viewpoint character’s emotions
  • add conflict or complications
  • hint at backstory

When we make our description serve multiple purposes, it becomes valuable to the story as a whole. If readers skip it, they’ll be missing something important.

(3) Purple Prose

Purple prose is writing that’s too self-aware. It uses fancy words when a simple one would do, it’s filled with flowery phrases, it’s laden with cliches and clumsy figures of speech, and it relies on adverbs and adjectives when a strong verb or noun would be better.

Purple prose can also be writing that’s there because the writer likes the sound of their own voice rather than because it serves one of the purposes I mentioned above.

(4) Description That’s in the Wrong Place

Description should happen only when the viewpoint character would naturally notice those things.

So, for example, if our character is running through the woods to escape a gunman, he’s not going to notice the nest of baby birds or the squirrels hopping from tree to tree. He’s only going to notice things that could either help him hide or help him take down his pursuer.

Much of the time, the feeling that prose is overwritten or boring comes from the writer describing things in detail that don’t need to be described at this particular point in time or which should have been described differently based on the situation.

Context matters.

(5) Description That’s Generic or Tells Rather than Shows

Showing is essential to strong description because it helps us be specific and bring the experience to life on the page.

I’ll give you a quick example.

Telling: He was ugly and deformed.

Showing: The skin on the right side of his face seemed to melt down like candle wax, and as he limped toward her, one leg dragged behind.

Just remember that telling isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a tool like showing and we need to know how to use it strategically. Description, though, usually isn’t the place for it.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!

Are you looking for a way to add new depth and re-readability to your writing?

Are you tired of description being “the boring part that people skip”?

Are you a writer who’s struggled with making their story world feel believable and three-dimensional?

Description in fiction shouldn’t be boring for the reader or for the writer.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide will help you take your writing to the next level by exchanging ho-hum description for description that’s compelling and will bring your story to life, regardless of the genre you write.

In Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you will

  • find the answer to the age-old question of how much description is too much;
  • learn how to use point of view to keep description fresh;
  • recognize the red flags for boring description in fiction;
  • explore how to use all five senses to bring your descriptions to life for the reader;
  • discover the ways metaphors and similes can add power to your descriptive writing;
  • gain the tools needed to describe setting, characters, and action in engaging ways;
  • learn how descriptions can add conflict, enhance the theme, and amp up emotion; and
  • much more!

Grab a copy of Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide at Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble. It’s available in print and ebook versions.

Creating Promotional Material That Works: Swag

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityOver the last two months during my guest posts at Fiction University, we’ve looked at writing a tag line for our books and writing our book description that goes up on retailers and on the back of our book.

This month we’re going to talk swag. Swag is physical items related to our book/series. It could be bookmarks and postcards, mugs or magnets with our book cover on it, or even jewelry based on something worn by our characters.

I decided to poll a group of authors for this post (thank you to the WANA group on Facebook!) because I suspected that experiences with swag might vary.

Please join me for “Creating Promotional Material that Works: Swag” where I’ll share what I learned about how to use swag to your best advantage and where to buy some of the fun items authors are using.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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