Discovering Your Narrative Voice

Now that you know what voice is, it’s time to find your own. This may seem intimidating at first, but really it just comes with knowledge and practice. Remember, narrative voice is made up of point of view, story structure, and pacing as well as the author’s and characters’ voices. As you begin to explore what your own writing voice sounds like, take risks and try different things. Your voice should be unique and stand out among other writers, but it should also still be accessible and match the theme and genre of your story. Think about writers you admire. What makes them stand out to you? 

Ernest Hemingway, for example, is known for a concise, straightforward, and realistic writing style that moves the narrative along quickly. Despite a lack of flowery language, his simple descriptions still paint a clear picture and reveal deeper meanings underneath. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, describes her own writing style as “enchantment,” in which she blends historical realism with myths and supernatural tales. The overall effect is accessible language blended with varied sentence structure that brings a sense of magic to the words themselves. 

These are just two examples of how voices in writing can be unique and how particular authors develop their own personal styles. Finding your own is an important step in establishing yourself as a writer. 

Steps to Discovering Your Voice

  1. Experimenting

In order to discover your own writer’s voice, you need to try out different things: points of view, tones, styles, and pacing techniques. Find what feels comfortable to you but also don’t be afraid to try new things and take risks. Writing regularly will help with this. The more time you spend writing, the more you’ll experiment with different techniques, and the further you’ll get on your journey to discovering your voice. 

  1. Self-Reflecting

As you embark on this journey, continuously self-reflect by asking yourself questions about your writing style. What feels natural to you? What seems to best fit your story? Which point of view do you like reading the most? Which do you enjoy writing the most? Would you call yourself more of a flowery, descriptive writer or more of a Hemingway-esque writer who lives in brevity? Answering these and other questions about your own writing style will help you on your journey. Journaling and having free-writing sessions regularly can help you with this.

  1. Reading Widely 

Only by studying different authors and genres can you begin to get a true grasp on voice. Read diverse works from authors of all genres and areas of the world to influence and inspire your own work. For aspiring writers, these short stories are a good starting place for discovering distinct voices: 

  • A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner: Faulkner is known for his distinct, flowery writing style that involves long-winded descriptions and lots of adjectives. It’s not for everyone, but the style lends itself to the stories he tells. 
  • The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin: Science-fiction is known for its concise sentences and world-building. This short story embodies both while teasing out the deeper meaning hidden between every line. 
  • Bloodchild by Octavia Butler: This science-fiction piece, which explores the power dynamics of pregnancy and horror that can be childbirth, is set in first person, taking us directly into the eyes of the main character. 

Take a look back at examples we’ve drawn on for this series if you’re looking for additional inspiration and voices to study. Plus, you can subscribe to F(r)iction for further reading!

  1. Staying Consistent

One way to help establish a strong, unique voice is by remaining consistent with your voice throughout a piece. While experimentation is a great place to get started and find your niche, the final product of a story must have a consistent, established tone in order to impact readers the way you want it to. Your voice should feel purposeful throughout every part of the story. In order to maintain a consistent voice throughout a piece, keep these three tips in mind:

  1. Stick to one point of view. Whether you choose third person omniscient, first person, or any other point of view, don’t switch between them in a single piece. Shifting point of view can be done, but it’s difficult to pull off and must be carefully planned—and very purposeful. 
  2. Maintain a consistent tone. Whether you’re writing science fiction or literary fiction, stick to the tone that you start out with. If you’re going for a dark comedy, keep it dark and humorous until the end. If you’re writing suspense, maintain that air of suspense throughout the entire piece. Tone blending can, of course, be done, as many books and films demonstrate. But doing it successfully is difficult, and failing at it hinders a story.
  3. Be purposeful with your writing style. If you’re a more flowery, descriptive writer, make sure each word and description has a purpose within the narrative. On the other hand, if you prefer a briefer writing style, don’t avoid necessary descriptions just because you’re trying to keep it concise. 
  1. Being Authentic

What does it mean to be authentic? It doesn’t necessarily mean you can only “write about what you know,” although that can be a part of it. What it does mean is that you should balance originality—original characters following an original plot and worldbuilding—with relatability—characters who act like real people, motivations that make sense, and actions that have realistic results. If it doesn’t feel real and authentic to readers, they might not stick around for more. 

  1. Getting Feedback and Revising

Use feedback to help refine your voice. It’s essential to the writing process to share your work through workshops, writing groups, and beta readers. The iterative process of writing and revising is how you will ultimately establish your unique writer’s voice and have a final product. For tips on finding a writing community to workshop with, check out this blog!

Employing Voice by Genre

Genre is another important aspect that will help define your voice. While each specific genre doesn’t have a strict rule for what voice can sound like, there are some styles of writing that tend to better suit specific genres: 

Science Fiction

Many sci-fi stories employ shorter, choppier sentences to help move detailed descriptions of imaginative worlds, complex technology, and speculative concepts along. It’s important to utilize precise language and clear descriptions to craft vivid images of the futuristic setting, advanced technology, and alien cultures that you are introducing to readers. Sci-fi stories must also balance fast-paced action scenes with slower, more contemplative moments that help build tension in the narrative and maintain reader engagement. Additionally, clear explanations are necessary for depicting complex scientific concepts and implementing technical terms. 

Literary Fiction

Works in this genre tend to embrace flowy, stream-of-consciousness, or flowery language. Again, there are exceptions—Hemingway, for example—but because literary fiction lends itself to more real-to-life stories and familiar, relatable worlds, it’s easier to embellish the text without confusing the reader. In general, you can get away with a more experimental writing style when it comes to literary fiction. Ultimately, literary fiction tends to be more about introspection and character depth, diving into the inner lives of characters, more than other genres. Crafting dialogue that feels natural and true to life and weaving recurring themes and symbolism throughout the narrative will give it depth and intrigue beyond the more ordinary narrative. 

Fantasy

Like science fiction, fantasy relies on heavy worldbuilding and immersive descriptions to develop a richly detailed world with its own history, cultures, and rules. Descriptive language is important here to paint vivid pictures of fantastical settings, creatures, and magic systems. Giving each character a distinctive voice that reflects their background, role within the world, and personality will help readers maintain a level of familiarity with it. Additionally, it’s important to balance action and description in fantasy, keeping the narrative engaging and dynamic. Use action to drive the plot forward while allowing descriptive passages to build the world and deepen character development. 

Mystery, Thriller, and Horror

The goal of these works is often to create suspense and tension through pacing and tone. Authors like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Allen Poe have mastered the use of things like subtlety, foreshadowing, urgency, atmosphere, and the use of graphic and sensory details in order to imbue their stories with a sense of mystery, thrill, and horror. Throughout all of this, they maintain a consistent tone—one that aligns with the genre’s specific mood—ensure that each character has a distinct voice that reflects their personality and role in the story, and, most importantly, utilize the rules of “show, don’t tell.”

Exercise 

Write down three to five books with an authorial or narrative voice you especially admire. Then, looking at a chapter or short section from each book, examine the parts that you think are making this voice particularly compelling: What POV do they use? What kinds of characters do they feature? Is the writing fast- or slow-paced? What kinds of conflicts are present in the story? Stylistically, what kinds of nouns, verbs, and adjectives does the author use? Are the sentences short, long, or mixed? Do they use a lot of metaphors and other figures of speech or are those sparing? 

Practice Makes Perfect

If you take anything away from this blog, take away that in order to establish your own unique writer’s voice, you have to write. While there are plenty of tips I can give you, workshops you can go to, and exercises you can do, at the end of the day, only through practicing your writing—and reading a lot—can you truly implement a voice of your own. So don’t be afraid to journal every day and practice different styles! Take a look back at all the exercises we’ve featured in the Facts of Fiction series and tackle them with a new eye for voice. 

A Choir of Words: Understanding Voice in Storytelling

How does one differentiate between two impressionist artists like Monet and Van Gogh? Well, aside from seeing their signature on their work, each artist has their own particular style of impressionism that anyone who has studied the arts would recognize. Similarly, writers also have distinct writing styles that we define as voice

The writer’s voice is part of what makes two authors in the same genre unique and how some writers make themselves instantly recognizable to the well-read. But what is voice and how does one accomplish it? 

What Is Voice? 

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, syntax, punctuation, and rhythm that makes up phrases, sentences, and paragraphs within a work. Novels can have multiple voices, including the author’s, the characters’, and the narrator’s. Together, these all make up the overall voice of a story. 

Author’s Voice vs. Character’s Voice

Tone, word selection, sentence structure, and punctuation all comprise the author’s voice. This voice makes each author unique and is how we differentiate Jane Austen from Emily Brontë or Stephen King from Shirley Jackson. 

Character’s voice, on the other hand, is conveyed through the author’s voice whenever the author expresses a character’s individual thoughts, personality, and speech style. Each character’s voice should be different and easy to distinguish. Readers should know when we are in one character’s head over another, which is where point of view comes in. Depending on the author’s voice and what best benefits the story, point of view will be essential to each characters’ voice.

Things like point of view, story structure, and pacing make up what’s referred to as narrative voice, which plays a key role in character development, reader engagement, and conveying the important themes and emotions of the story. A strong narrative voice can elevate the impact of the story, creating a more memorable experience for the audience. 

One other thing to note about voice is that it’s not just used in literature. While we may be largely referencing and speaking to the writer’s voice in this article, even movie directors have distinct “voices” or directorial styles that they use to better tell their cinematic stories. The same ideas expressed here can be used across all kinds of storytelling genres. 

Points of View From All Perspectives 

As mentioned before, the perspective from which a story is told, also known as point of view, makes up a portion of the narrative voice. There are four kinds of points of view, which can be broken down as such: 

First Person

The first type of perspective uses “I” or “we” as pronouns within the story, implying that the narrator is also a character within the story. They are often but not always the main character in first-person narratives.

This point of view is especially effective for stories that seek to fully immerse the reader in the narrator, making them feel as though they are seeing the story and its entire world through the character’s eyes. First person narratives lend themselves to a closeness between the narrator and the reader, and thus can also be used to provide a very close, one-sided, and perhaps unreliable perspective throughout the story. If you wish to tell a story wherein certain aspects are hidden from the reader until the exact right moment to reveal them, first person is a good choice for a narrator’s voice. 

First person narratives can sometimes be tricky to get right; if done poorly, readers may find themselves confused or bored by such a limited perspective. However, this kind of narration provides great opportunity for introspection and internal transformations. Stories that focus on one particular character and their personal journey over the course of the story may find that first person point of view is the best choice. 

Famous examples of a first person narrator used well include The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. In F(r)iction, you can check out Summer Home by Brett Riley for a great example of first person narration. 

Second Person

This unique point of view addresses the reader as “you” throughout, making the reader feel as if they are a character throughout the story. Second person is often used in epistolary writing but is not a popular form of point of view in general. It is exceedingly tricky to get right and feel natural rather than gimmicky. However, some famous novels have managed it, including If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. You Die In the End by Nicole Hebdon also uses second person effectively. 

Only use second person if you’re sure it will add to your story rather than take away from it. Sometimes, it is a great way for an author to get at a particularly personal subject by addressing a “you” directly in the text. 

Third Person Limited

This point of view uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” and any other identifying pronoun that applies to the character to tell the story. Unlike in first and second person, the narrator remains outside of the story but they are limited to expressing one character’s thoughts and experiences at a time. Perhaps the most popularly used perspective, third person limited offers more flexibility in terms of storytelling than first and second person while still allowing for a level of unreliability and closeness to the narrator throughout. You can tell your story from multiple perspectives using third person limited, but you have to change up the perspective and character’s voice each time you do. 

Examples of third person limited POV from popular novels include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1984 by George Orwell, and A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin. Check out The Forgiveness Machine by Joy Baglio from F(r)iction for an idea of what this point of view looks like in flash fiction. 

Third Person Omniscient 

This point of view utilizes an all-knowing narrator who can access multiple characters’ thoughts and perspectives. Like third person limited, it also uses “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they” throughout the story but the narrator in this case can tell us information about the entire story from a bird’s eye point of view. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is a great example of this, as the narrator can not only tell us what is happening throughout the story, but they can also read people’s thoughts and tell us about events that individual characters wouldn’t necessarily know. 

Third person omniscient is the ideal storytelling type for big, epic stories where hiding information from the reader would be more of a hindrance than a help. It can be ideal when there is a large cast of characters with separate storylines or when you are creating an entirely new world for readers to be immersed in—with an omniscient narrator, you can tell them just about anything at any time. Other examples of third person omniscient include Beloved by Toni Morrison, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guinn. An example from F(r)iction: Disappearing Act by David Galef. 

Choosing an appropriate point of view for a story may come naturally, as most authors have one that they are especially comfortable with, or it may require a lot of thought as you consider what would benefit your story the most. Generally speaking, third person limited and omniscient tend to be the safer choices and first and second person should only be used in very particular cases. Always remember that the story itself must come first: if you cannot come up with a good reason to use a particular point of view, you probably shouldn’t use it. 

Other Types of Narrative Voice

Free Indirect Discourse

Many famous authors have an incredibly distinct and recognizable voice that sets them apart from other authors. This is especially the case for those who have invented or popularized particular writing styles. One such style is called free indirect discourse, the hallmark of Jane Austen. 

Free indirect discourse is a form of narration written in the third person that maintains some essential elements of a first-person narrator. Through it, an author can describe the inner workings of characters, revealing their private thoughts and emotions, while still remaining at an observational distance. It allows the author to head-hop from one character to another at their discretion. In this way, it is similar to third person limited, but it is distinct in that it allows the author to change perspectives within the same paragraph or even sentence. This makes it a form of third person omniscient, but compared to most uses of third person omniscient, it is more discerning in how and when to be omniscient. 

Today, free indirect discourse is used almost without thought, but during Austen’s time it was a new and emerging style of writing that she explored voraciously in her works. Here is an example of how it is used in Pride and Prejudice as Elizabeth contemplates her family: 

“They were hopeless of remedy. Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his younger daughters; and her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely insensible of evil. Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavor to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement? Catherine, weak-spirited, irritable, and completely under Lydia’s guidance, had always been affronted by their advice; and Lydia, self-willed and careless, would scarcely give them a hearing. They were ignorant, idle, and vain. While there was an officer in Meryton, they would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, they would be going there forever.”

While this excerpt is clearly told from the point of view of an omniscient third person, that narrator is nonetheless sharing with us Elizabeth’s private thoughts and feelings on her family. 

Writing Style and Pacing

Along with point of view, style and pacing affect the voice of a story immensely. A story that moves along quickly, taking its audience from plot point to plot point with little time wasted feels actionable and hurried. A story that takes more time, lingering in certain spots and places asks the audience to slow down and enjoy the story at a most leisurely pace. Either choice can add to the overall narrative effect of the story and says a lot about the writer’s own style. 

Writing style also pertains to things like word choice, length of sentences, setting and character descriptions, story structure, and more. 

Speak Now

Voice is an essential and often misunderstood aspect of writing. Some aspects of an author’s voice are innate to that author. But voice can be curated and adapted when needed in order to bring out the overall narrative voice that will tell a story best. As you embark on your own writing journey, experiment with different narrative voices to see what best fits you. Read some of the examples we’ve provided to get a better idea of how to establish a strong narrative voice and make sure to tune in to our next blog in Facts of Fiction to discover your very own narrative voice.

5 Common Literary Themes and How to Use Them

What Is Theme? 

Have you ever asked yourself: Why am I writing this story? 

In storytelling, the answer to that question is usually the theme. Theme is an essential part of ensuring a story feels impactful, layered, and relevant. If the plot is the events that take place throughout it, the theme is its topic and message. 

Literary themes are the underlying meanings of a story as explored by the author. They are presented through the other elements of the story, such as character, voice, language, and conflict. Together, all the elements of a story add up to explicate and explore the story’s themes—most stories have more than one. 

Knowing the themes your story is trying to explore may not come immediately or even as you finish up a first draft. But once you take a step away, reread what you’ve written, and ruminate on its meaning, themes should begin to emerge naturally. Further drafts should aim to emphasize, elevate, and enhance these themes without making them either too obvious or too vague. To get started on thinking about themes, learn about five of the most popular literary themes and how best to utilize them in a story. 

  1. Good vs. Evil 

Despite being one of the most popular and well-explored themes of all time, getting good vs. evil right can be difficult. Stories that explore good vs. evil look at the moral conflict between opposing forces. Often, these forces are depicted so that one is good and one is bad, with the audience rooting for the good side to win. 

But good vs. evil as a theme is best explored when it is not clear exactly what is good and what is evil. Characters who are considered “good” can still make poor choices and do bad things, just as characters who are considered “evil” can do good things. Classic examples of good vs. evil in stories may seem to explore this kind of conflict only on a surface level: the wicked queen poisons the good princess; the evil witch lures the innocent children into the forest; the ugly ogre blocks the way of the chivalrous knight. Underneath, however, all stories that seriously explore good vs. evil as a theme should seek to expose the truth of human nature and its complexities. Even the most villainous of characters need to have motivation for what they do, and all characters and conflicts should have layers of depth. 

Good vs. evil is found across all genres and mediums as a theme. In literature, it can be found in stories from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Both novels explore good and evil on multiple levels and in very different but effective ways. In film, good vs. evil appears in most action and adventure films, including those such as the Star Wars series, as well as in sagas like The Godfather. Television has series such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The Sopranos. Even video games, such as the Mass Effect series, and comic books, like Batman, feature themes of good and evil explored on multiple levels. But what do these examples do right and, perhaps sometimes, wrong? 

The Dos and Don’ts of Good vs. Evil

Do: Explore this theme both at a high level (such as through epic battles) and at a personal level (internally in characters), as Tolkein does in The Lord of the Rings. To really get at the heart of this theme, it should play out in multiple ways throughout the course of your story. 

Don’t: Take it just on a surface level, making everything black and white. The best stories explore how good and evil is found in all of us and in everything. Nothing is truly just good or just evil. Your characters and plot should reflect this in small and big ways, showing how ambiguous the concept of good and evil really is. The TV series Game of Thrones does this well, with characters taking actions throughout the series that can be considered good or bad for different reasons. 

Do: Subvert expectations. This means to set the audience up to anticipate something they have already seen many times before, and then pay off that anticipation in an entirely different way. For example, let’s say you create a character who is very hero-coded: they get the vocation to the hero’s journey, have special powers, and are seemingly “good.” Then, instead of making them the hero of the story, they become the villain instead. You can surprise readers and capture their interest while still exploring your theme. 

Don’t: Fall into clichés. Subversion is one way to avoid this, but make sure you don’t just make your evil characters dark, ugly, and pointlessly cruel in opposition to a “good” character who is light, beautiful, and constantly kind. These characters are tropey at best and offensive at worst. Add complexity to yours!

  1. Love

As one of the most popular themes of all time, love shows up in many ways: romantic, familial, platonic, and more. Using love as a theme means diving into the complexities of relationships, the pitfalls of communication, and the ways the humans interact with each other. Love is a great theme to use if you’re particularly interested in depicting different kinds of character relationships. It can also be used as a great motivator to set many different story lines into action—why did that character do that thing? Because of love, of course. 

Countless works across different genres and mediums explore love as a theme in profound and diverse ways. Literary works such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the ubiquitous Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare depict some of the greatest love stories of our time. Movies like Titanic and The Notebook also heavily feature love as a theme. Love appears in music, artwork, TV shows, poems, and so much more. 

When utilizing love as a major theme in your work, think about both the good and the bad that it can bring. While love can bring people together, it can also tear them apart. It is a powerful force that has the potential to change things dramatically for your characters and plot. In using love as theme, think about these three things: 

  1. What does love say about your character(s)? The best works that feature love as a major theme use it to analyze the internal workings of particular characters. How they love, who they love, and what they do about that love is an essential component of who they are as a person. 
  2. What consequences does love have in your story? If your story is ultimately about love, then there must be some kind of consequence or cost associated with it. Whether love is viewed very positively or very negatively, or somewhere in-between, since it is such a powerful force, it must have some kind of effect on the conclusion of the story. In Harry Potter for example, Harry’s mother’s love saves him from being killed, setting off every following event that happens in the story. Thus, love is the ultimate consequence for both the protagonist and the antagonist. 
  3. What forms does love take in your stories? Remember, not all love is the same. In a story, it’s a good idea to contrast forms of love with one another to highlight how they work and what message they’re bringing out in your story. For example, let’s say one character has unconditional love for another. In order to show this, have another character show what conditional love looks like in contrast. 
  1. Redemption

Everyone loves a good redemption arc. An antagonist making up for their wrongdoings? A hero overcoming their fears? It’s a tale as old as time, and a very effective one at that. 

Stories about redemption show how people can overcome failures, wrongdoings, or mistakes. This theme is inherently intertwined with the concept of transformation, since in order to find redemption, characters must go through some kind of personal transformation. This is why these stories are often centered on one character who goes through a character arc in which they learn to overcome a past mistake and make up for it. An iconic example of what this might look like is Jean Valjean from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Valjean starts the novel by stealing silver from a priest who has helped him. Wrought with guilt after the kindness of the priest, Valjean vows to spend his life making up for it and becomes a beloved father, savior, and overall good man. Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender is another great example of a well-executed redemption arc. He begins the story as the bitter, exiled prince of the Fire Nation who is desperate to capture the Avatar and restore his honor, and he ends the story having fought his father and sister head-on in order to restore the world to balance. 

But redemption stories don’t always have to end on a good note. For some, the message may be that nobody is beyond redemption. For others, it may be that some people are irredeemable. The message that you chose to give in your story depends on where you want it to go. When taking on a redemption story, ask yourself:

What Makes a Compelling Redemption Arc? 

  1. Character Growth and Transformation: A character who is able to overcome whatever it is that requires them to be redeemed is the apex of a good redemption story.
  2. Acknowledgement of Faults and Mistakes: Usually, redemption stories require characters to face their faults, mistakes, or past wrongdoings head on. This acknowledgement is a crucial step towards seeking redemption and often involves feelings of guilt, remorse, or regret. 
  3. Facing Consequences: Redemption often involves characters facing the consequences of their past actions, which can be the reason why they realize they need to be redeemed. These consequences may look like punishment, societal judgment, or personal repercussions. 

Remember, while characters who are looking for redemption may seek forgiveness from those they have wronged, the point of redemption is not always to be forgiven. Sometimes, redemption is found in other ways and you, as the storyteller, get to decide how that is. 

  1. Coming of Age 

What does it mean to “come of age”? In literature, coming of age stories focus on characters’ physical and emotional transition from adolescence to adulthood. An extremely popular theme that has been explored by various works across genres and mediums, coming of age stories lend themselves to rich storytelling opportunities. They are also often taught during middle and high school as students themselves begin to make this transition. 

Books such as The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and the aforementioned To Kill a Mockingbird both explore the coming of age of their main characters. Films like Stand By Me (1986) and Lady Bird (2017) also explore this theme. TV shows that focus on a younger cast, such as Stranger Things and Reply 1988 are also coming of age stories. All of these works seek to capture the complexities and universal experience of growing up, from facing challenges and uncertainties to having moments of self-discovery, friendship, and personal transformation. They are marked by how much the characters change throughout the course of the story as they grow up. 

Coming of age is a popular theme for short fiction as well, as seen in The Pillars of Creation by Walter Thompson. Three things found in this story that often define this theme type include: 

  1. A Young Main Character: In order to work as a coming of age story, it must center around one (or several) young character(s) who start out still having childhood innocence and naivety and who must discard that over time as they become adults.
  2. An Inciting Event: Similar to the Hero’s Journey, coming of age stories are often marked by some kind of event that transpires, forcing the character to change from adolescent to adult. In The Pillars of Creation, this is the narrator’s father dying. 
  3. A Struggle to Grow: Stories should never make it too easy on the characters to go through what they must go through. Coming of age stories, in particular, usually highlight the struggle it takes to shed that childhood innocence and become an adult and accept all the burden that comes with being one. 

If you’re considering writing a coming of age story, think about what you went through as you became an adult. Coming of age stories are popular because they feel so universal. Lean into those memories and get writing!

  1. Revenge

You have to be careful with revenge, as if you let it get too far, it may consume you… 

As a theme, revenge drives intense, gripping narratives that also explore what justice truly is and what the cost of vengeance is on the soul. These stories are often fueled by intense emotions of anger, hatred, betrayal, and a desire for justice, driving the protagonist or antagonist to seek retribution for perceived—whether real or not—wrongs. 

Stories of revenge also often delve into moral ambiguity, raising questions about the morality of seeking revenge, the consequences of violent actions, and the ethical implications of pursuing justice through personal vendettas. Revenge narratives often explore the theme of cyclical violence wherein acts of revenge lead to further retaliation, perpetuating a pattern of retribution and escalation. 

The best stories that ruminate on revenge should involve complex character motivations, explore justice and retribution, and seek to determine if revenge can be taken too far—and what happens when it is. Consider exploring these famous examples of revenge narratives if you’re going to explore revenge as a theme: 

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: Considered the greatest revenge story ever written, this iconic novel follows protagonist Edmond Dantés’ quest for vengeance against those who wronged him. It showcases the psychological and moral complexities of dedicating your life to revenge and the consequences that follow. 
  • I Saw the Devil (2010): In this South Korean action-thriller film directed by Kim Jee-woon, an NIS agent embarks on a quest for revenge when his wife is brutally murdered by a psychopathic serial killer. The story and its horrific conclusion reveal the consequences of what can happen when your thirst for vengeance is greater than your morals. *Warning: This film is extremely violent and not for everyone, take caution before watching. 
  • Vinland Saga: Written and illustrated by Makoto Yukimura, this Japanese manga series follows Thorfinn, a young boy whose father is murdered by mercenaries. As he grows up, he trains in hopes of killing those who murdered his father. Thorfinn’s journey shows what can happen when you dedicate your life to revenge and the twists and turns that follow. 

Exercise

Choose a theme outlined above. Write down a list of words and comparing/contrasting notions that come to mind when you think of that theme. Then, write a passage or short story that utilizes those words in order to express the theme throughout.

Staying On Theme

Whatever your story is, it must have a deeper meaning—a message that you’re trying to speak to your audience through its other elements. This message is your theme (or, in some cases, themes) and everything in your story should layer up to explore this theme in multiple ways. You can start out with a theme in mind and imagine how you might tell a story that speaks to it, or you can start telling a story and then go back and figure out what messages appear along the way. Take a look at the kinds of stories F(r)iction publishes to see if you can figure out the themes of each!

Living the Fantasy: Worldbuilding 101

What Is Worldbuilding? 

Worldbuilding, or the process of constructing an imaginary world or setting, is an essential part of creating believable and compelling fictional universes. It is most often used and associated with genre fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy, but can be an important aspect of almost any kind of storytelling. Without worldbuilding, a story will lack context and consistency. The world your story lives in provides a foundation for the rest of the story, and helping your audience understand that world will encourage them to continue interacting with the story. 

Here, we’ll dive into the essentials of worldbuilding and how to do it effectively. 

When to Worldbuild 

Many stories take advantage of worldbuilding, although it most notably appears in science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. However, even stories set in a familiar place to the audience and the modern day require some worldbuilding. You have to craft where a person lives, how they make money, who their family is, and what their culture looks like. Depending on what genre your story lives in, this could be relatively simple and recognizable when compared to the real world, or it could be completely made up. But thoroughly building your world from the foundations up will help it feel real. 

When getting started with worldbuilding, ask yourself these questions: 

  1. What genre is my story? If your story takes place in a sci-fi or fantasy world, you’re going to have a lot more work to do as you have to create technology or magic for it.
  2. Where does my story take place? Determine the specific setting of your story so you can begin to build around that. For example, if your story takes place in a made-up city, the city needs a name, buildings, a reason for existing, and more. Figuring out all of these things can help you get started on crafting your world from the ground up. 
  3. Who are my characters? This can be an important question in determining how your characters fit into your world and vice-versa. If your world has magic, is your main character familiar with that magic or do they have to be introduced to it? Sometimes, it’s a good idea to have at least one character who is, for whatever reason, completely unfamiliar with the world you’re building so that they can ask questions the audience might also have. 

Once you have these basics down, you can begin to stretch your imagination and continue building out your world. The more thorough your worldbuilding is, the more real it will feel on the page, so don’t be afraid to know things about your world that don’t even appear in the story. Maybe you have created three different religions for this world, but not all of them appear in the text. Knowing that there are at least three, and how they work, can help you create cultural aspects of your world that go along with these religions, even if they aren’t explicitly stated on the page. 

How to Worldbuild

Aside from answering the questions above, there’s a lot to consider when building your own world. Keep a document that is somewhat separate from your actual story as you determine details about the world you’re creating, but make sure everything is in one place—the same folder, a document with multiple pages, et cetera. Staying organized will be a huge help in bringing your world to the page. 

Creating Effective Magic Systems

If you’re creating a fantastical world where magic exists, you’ll need a “magic system.” This is how your world’s magic actually works. Think about the magic in the Harry Potter series versus in The Lord of the Rings. Sure, these stories take place in very different worlds, but they both have magic. The difference is in how the magic works in each of them. 

Magic systems also come in hard magic and soft magic. Hard magic is when the system is explicitly defined and has concrete rules, like in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. In these worlds, only certain kinds of people can use certain kinds of magic. For example, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, firebenders cannot bend water. 

Soft magic, on the other hand, is present in stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Fire and Ice. The rules are less clear and the magic is more imbued into nature and the world itself. Oftentimes, the major difference between the two is that hard magic can be more overtly used to solve problems. Soft magic, on the other hand, can’t really be used in that way. It usually exists as a source of problems. Sometimes it happens to help solve them, but generally speaking it cannot be wielded to do anything specific.

When choosing between the two types of magic for your own story, as Brandon Sanderson says, it really comes down to what helps tell your story best. Once you’ve determined that, consider the three major elements of magic systems:

  1. Rules: These are going to be the governing tenets of your magic. How are spells cast? Do characters have to say magic words in order for them to take effect? What is needed to enable magic and who can use it? For example, in Harry Potter, the characters need wands and only certain people have magic. 
  2. Abilities: These are the actual things you can do with the magic in the story. Harry Potter can create a Patronus to drive off Dementors. Radagast the Brown can commune with and control animals as well as use herbs and his powers to heal people. What does the magic in your world enable characters to do? Can they raise the dead? Can they wash the dishes without lifting a finger (a personal dream of mine)? 
  3. Restrictions: Magic without limitations in a story has the potential to cause a lot of problems on a basic storytelling level, as it can mean that characters have unlimited power, or at least a confusing level of power. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, waterbenders cannot produce their own water. This is a limitation that requires characters like Katara to carry water on themselves at all times or find other means to produce it. It also means that if they are completely separated from water sources, they can more easily be controlled. If, in your story, you wish to explore the idea of “absolute power” by giving a character no restrictions in their magic, it can be a compelling conflict. But not all characters can be at this level. By building in restrictions to how and why your characters can use magic, you create more opportunities for conflict and resolution. You also avoid completely confusing your audience. A good example of this is Michael Myers from the Halloween horror film series. His magic allows him to travel great distances and appear anywhere the victimized characters are effortlessly, and this power functions well in the series by creating a sense of true fear, anticipation, and suspense. In Star Wars, however, the worldbuilding around the Force feels muddy at times. It’s unclear if there are true restrictions and, if there are, what those restrictions truly entail. What can you do and not do with the Force? Is it entirely driven by little creatures called Midichlorians or is it accessible to everyone? 

When it comes to magic systems, one thing you can do to get better at creating them is simply by experiencing more of them. Aside from the examples we’ve already mentioned, check out this media for examples of magic systems: 

Hard Magic Systems: 

  • Allomancy from the Mistborn books by Brandon Sanderson 
  • Alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist, an anime and manga series created by Hiromu Arakawa
  • Bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • The Grishaverse from the Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
  • Daemons in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  • Superhuman abilities in The Witcher (games and books) by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Chakra in Naruto as created by Masashi Kishimoto
  • Role playing video game Persona

Soft Magic Systems

  • The world of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
  • Magic in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • The Once and Future King by T. H. White
  • The worlds of Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Age
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkein

Mixed

  • Vampires and other magic from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guinn
  • Supernatural, the TV series
  • DC and Marvel comics
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

For short stories, flash fiction, and poetry pieces that feature magic systems, check out what F(r)iction has to offer!

4 Rules for Effective Worldbuilding

As you set out to build your own world, here are a few “rules” to keep in mind: 

  1. Establish internal consistency. 

The number one thing that will pull an audience out of your world is if they notice that things don’t make sense. Once you’ve set a rule in your world, don’t break it unless it’s necessary for the story—and even then, you must have a really good explanation to do this. 

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s a “rule” that, when separated from earth itself, Earthbenders cannot use their bending. This rule is important because it means that the Fire Nation has a means to subjugate Earthbenders. However, (CW: SPOILERS AHEAD!) Toph later breaks this rule by learning how to metalbend. Despite this “rule breaking,” it still makes sense in-universe and in the story itself to have her discover how to do this. Nonetheless, the limitation on Earthbending remains for most benders throughout the series.

  1. Balance realism and creativity. 

This is your world, so you get to be as creative with it as you want! But you still need to ground it in some reality, or else your audience may not buy it. Every rule in your world should make sense on multiple levels—why can one character do magic and another not? Why can’t magic be used for X [bringing people back from the dead, healing a wound, flying]? More than that, it should feel like the magic is being used in a way that feels real to how humans really work. It would make sense for it to be exploited sometimes and for it to be used for good other times. 

  1. Avoid common pitfalls.

The major issues that people run into with worldbuilding are: 

  • Info-dumping. Building in exposition is already difficult for writers, but when you’re introducing an audience to an entirely new world, it can be even more so. Although you may be tempted to put everything you know about your world on the page as quickly as possible, resist this feeling. It will feel more natural and make for a better story if information about your world is revealed in a way that makes sense based on the plot, setting, and characters. 
  • Exorbitant worldbuilding. Expanding on that, there is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. While it’s good to know as much about your world as possible, it’s not always necessary for all those details to go on the page. Only include the details necessary to telling your story. It’s easy to get caught up in frivolous details when you’ve spent so much time building your world, but really think through every detail and why you’re including it. If the reason is simply that it’s interesting and you thought of it, that might not be enough. Worldbuilding details should always have an impact on the story and characters themselves. 
  • Making purposeless choices. If you don’t know why you’ve made a particular choice, then you should probably reconsider it. Every part of your world needs to make sense for the story and the characters. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a world that doesn’t fit your actual story or a story that doesn’t fit your world. It will be difficult to have characters make reasonable decisions or experience conflict that has meaning. 
  • Lacking rich description. When building your world, don’t be afraid to describe it—literally. How does it smell, feel, and taste? What is the weather like? What time of day is it when your story starts? While not all of these details may make it into the final draft of your story, it’s important that you know they exist and those that do will help your audience feel like they are a part of the world you’ve created. Read our blog on mastering figurative language for a better understanding of how to write unique and detailed descriptions.
  • Lacking diversity. One of the greatest things about our real world is how diverse it is—there are multiple kinds of people, cultures, languages, religions, traditions, foods, policies, and more. When creating a fantastical world, make sure it’s not all the same: one kind of people, one kind of culture, one kind of language. Even if your story is focused only on one part of a larger world, leaving out any signs of diversity will make your world feel unbelievable and unrelatable. 
  1. Have fun!

Most importantly, you should love the world you’re building and want to build it out even more. Even if some of what you know about your own world doesn’t actually make it onto the page, knowing it should fill you with a sense of accomplishment and awe—you created that!

Online Resources for Worldbuilding

Don’t be afraid to use all the resources available. There are so many tools out there to help make worldbuilding easier and even more fun. Take a look at these resources as you get started on building your own world: 

  • ChronoGrapher: A worldbuilding webtool for writers and game masters that allows you to write detailed articles to keep track of everything in your world, create your own world wiki, link all of your articles together, and even save things to GoogleDrive.
  • Inkarnate: A website that allows you to build your own maps of fantastical worlds. The free version includes over 700 HD art assets and the ability to create up to ten different maps. 
  • World Anvil: Provides a set of worldbuilding tools that helps you create, organize, and story your world setting. Has features such as wiki-like articles, interactive maps, an RPG campaign manager, and full novel-writing software. 

Another important resource to utilize in worldbuilding is other people. There are plenty of communities where you can ask questions, discuss your world, and get feedback on your projects. 

Launch Your Own Worldbuilding Project

Now that you know more about worldbuilding, how about getting started on your own? Don’t forget to take advantage of the resources linked above and to consider all the questions asked in this blog. As you get started on writing your own world into existence, continue checking in with Facts of Fiction for more articles on writing basics. We can’t wait to get immersed in your world!

Mastering Figurative Language: A Guide to Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies

Writing is like cooking a meal; you need a balance of raw ingredients and spices to make it delicious. The proper cooking temperature and time is the editing process. Julienning the vegetables is the crafting of sentences. The recipe is your outline. It all comes together to create a perfect medley of taste in your mouth. 

I’m getting away from myself here with this analogy. The point is that you can use figurative language, words or phrases that have meaning while not being literally true, to elevate your writing. Figurative language includes idioms, hyperbole, and personification as well as figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, and analogies. These three terms all equate two unrelated things for emphasis, but they differ slightly in execution and effect. They also all help with showing, not telling, a topic we covered previously. 

In this blog, we’ll cover what metaphors, similes, and analogies are, how and why to use them, and examples of when they work—and when they don’t. Learning how to employ figurative language is one of the most fruitful and important ways you can begin to master writing, so use this blog as a helpful starting point!

When to Use Figurative Language 

Figurative language helps make stories more interesting. While literal language has its place, such as in legal documents, professional communication, and academic papers, figurative language is essential to creative writing. It also helps bring clarity to complex or abstract ideas by comparing them to simpler or more relatable things. 

Figurative language, and the figures of speech mentioned above, are especially good for writing descriptions. When describing a person, place, or thing, you can give readers a good idea of what it looks, feels, smells, and is like in general by comparing it to something else. 

For example, in Frank Herbert’s iconic space opera Dune, he describes an Arrakeen cavern for the first time: “…silent people all around him moving in the dim light of glow-globes. It was solemn there and like a cathedral as he listened to a faint sound—the drip-drip-drip of water.” This moment takes place on the fifth page of the book and readers have no idea what an Arrakeen cavern is. By comparing it to something familiar but not out of place in the world Herbert has created, readers are able to instantly envision what it might look and feel like, giving them something solid to cling to as they begin to walk further into this world. 

Understanding Metaphors

A metaphor is when the storyteller makes an exact comparison between two unrelated things. For example: “Her hands are magic.” Unlike similes, which we cover in the next section, metaphors do not call to attention the comparison they make. Thus, when used in a story, metaphors often blend in with the rest of the description and the reader may not even realize that the author has made this comparison. 

Metaphors have two parts: 

  1. A tenor, which is the object or concept being described. 
  2. A vehicle, which is what the object or concept is compared to. 

In our earlier example, the hands are the tenor and the magic is the vehicle.

Ex: Her hands are magic. 

Metaphors help readers better understand unfamiliar concepts or objects and paint familiar things in a new light. How easily readers can decipher a metaphor depends on the strength of the comparison. A strong metaphor will be surprising but accessible; it says something new without confusing the reader. A weak metaphor is usually a cliché like, “He bit the bullet,” or, “Life is a journey.” You want to avoid clichés as much as possible in your writing as they feel derivative, unimaginative, and unoriginal. 

Types of Metaphors

There are six kinds of metaphors that can be used throughout writing. Here’s a breakdown of each one: 

  1. Conventional Metaphor 

This kind of metaphor goes unnoticed in everyday speech because the concept of it is so common and accepted in our collective consciousness. This does not necessarily mean that it is a cliché, although it can be one. 

An example of a conventional metaphor would be saying something like, “I’m a night owl but she’s an early bird.” Most English-speaking Americans will instantly recognize this as meaning that the speaker of the sentence tends to stay up late whereas the “she” they refer to rises early. On the other hand, someone unfamiliar with English or this phrase may wonder why you’re comparing people to birds.

  1. Creative Metaphor 

Instantly recognizable as unique and original, creative metaphors are meant to be provocative and striking. Poetry very often makes use of creative metaphor. 

Hold fast to dreams
for when dreams go
life is a barren field 
frozen with snow. 

In this excerpt from his poem “Dreams,” Langston Hughes compares life to a “barren field frozen with snow.” From this, the reader can infer Hughes’s meaning that when someone no longer has dreams, their life becomes desolate and cold like a barren field. In this way, creative metaphors should always seek to shed light on complex ideas.

  1. Implied Metaphor 

Implied metaphors make a comparison without explicitly naming the vehicle part of the metaphor. For example, “She’s got her claws in him,” is a phrase understood to express that someone (in this case, “she”) has a strong emotional or manipulative hold over another person (in this case, “him”). But the comparison of “she” to an animal with claws is implied rather than stated directly, since most people understand this without clarification. If we were to add a vehicle, the metaphor may read more like: “She’s an animal with her claws in him.” 

  1. Extended Metaphor 

An extended metaphor, or conceit, is a comparison that is repeated several times throughout a work, usually in new ways. It can extend several lines or sentences or, in the case of many songs and pieces of literature, throughout the entire work. Extended metaphors can also be allegories, wherein the story uses symbols and figurative language to convey a hidden meaning that is typically moral or political. 

“Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickenson provides us with an extended metaphor:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune—without the words, 
And never stops at all, 

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm 
That could abash the little bird 
That kept so many warm. 

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land, 
And on the strangest sea; 
Yet, never, in extremity, 
It asked a crumb of me. 

Here we see how Dickenson compares hope to a bird, personifying it and extending the metaphor throughout the poem not only by referencing hope directly but also through words like “perches” and “little bird.” 

Other examples of extended metaphors appear throughout all kinds of storytelling, but here are a few that stand out: 

  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech compares the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the status of African Americans since then to cashing a bad check. 
  • Animal Farm by George Orwall is an allegory that uses farm animals revolting against the humans who run the farm to provide a lesson on authoritarianism, oppression, and tyranny. 
  • In Grief Is the Bird by Samantha Jean Coxall, we have a metaphor right from the start: Grief is the bird. The story takes this metaphor to heart and reflects on how a child feels after their father has passed. Read it here.
  • “She’ll forgive the grudges she’s borne like Sisyphean boulders,” is a line from the flash fiction piece The Forgiveness Machine by Joy Baglio. This piece uses a machine that can grant forgiveness as a vehicle to study the emotional turmoil of life. 
  1. Catachresis

Also known as a mixed metaphor, catachresis blends two well-known metaphors or aphorisms in a way that doesn’t make sense. The effect can be to show that a character is confused, frazzled, or perhaps not very bright. 

An example of this would be: 

  • “People in glass houses should not wear their hearts on their sleeves.” 

Let’s break down why this is a mixed metaphor and doesn’t make sense. The real sayings are: 

  • “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
  • “Wear your heart on your sleeve.” 

The first means that people with faults should not criticize others for having the same faults. The second means to make your feelings known rather than hiding them. Thus, the inferred meaning of the original mixed metaphor is that people with faults should not hide their feelings. The comparison doesn’t work because the two known phrases lose all meaning—or at least come together in a very confused one. 

Mixed metaphors can sometimes appear accidentally in writing, so make sure that when you’re making comparisons, unless done purposefully for characterization, the metaphor’s meaning is clear.

  1. Abstract Metaphor 

Finally, we have abstract metaphors, wherein the tenor and vehicle cannot be separated cleanly because the concept being expressed is too large or complex to distill into two distinctly related parts. A popular example of this would be equating light to knowledge or truth, such as when something “brings light to a situation.” By saying that, there is an accepted understanding that light is synonymous with knowledge or truth which, unless learned, is not explicitly obvious. However, the concept of light equalling knowledge or truth is imbued into our general consciousness and so a metaphor implying this can be understood without further clarification.

Exploring Similes

A simile uses “like” or “as” to show that what would be considered the tenor and vehicle in a metaphor are similar but not exactly the same. An example would be: 

  • Simile: She’s like a magician. 
  • Metaphor: She is a magician.

In this example, a simile would likely be the better option as it’s possible for someone to be a magician without it being a metaphor. In the simile version, it’s obvious that the speaker is not saying that person is actually a magician, but is doing something that makes her like one. 

When To Use Simile vs. Metaphor

Similes compare two similar things using “like” or “as,” whereas metaphors make the assertion that two different things are one and the same, as opposed to being like it. Therefore, metaphors are more direct. When you want a description to feel stronger or more forceful, use a metaphor. Metaphors don’t leave wiggle room. Something is something else even though it’s not. Similes, on the other hand, make it much more obvious that there is a comparison taking place. When you want someone to compare two things but not equate them, use a simile. 

Other Examples of Similes 

Similes appear in many places, and they can also be clichés. When writing similes, lean into creativity and specificity. 

  • Cliché: Her tears fell like rain. 
  • Original: A single tear skittered down her cheek like a droplet of rain on a car window. 
  • Cliché: They were as different as night and day. 
  • Original: They were as different as whiskey and wine; both alcoholic, but one went down easier.

Practice some on your own! Look up some cliché similes and metaphors and try your hand at coming up with more creative versions. In your own writing, remember that any metaphors or similes you use should also make sense in the context of the story. For example, if your story takes place in a bakery, using figures of speech related to baking, sweets, or cooking might make a lot of sense thematically.

Unraveling Analogies

An analogy extends a comparison by adding context, often by using a third element that two things share. For example: 

  • Metaphor: Her hands are magic. 
  • Simile: She’s like a magician. 
  • Analogy: She’s as crafty as a magician, always pulling solutions out of thin air. 

To construct an analogy, think about what makes two things similar and ask yourself why you’re comparing them to begin with. If you can’t come up with anything, it might not be a sound analogy and you should think of something else. Let’s examine a few examples of analogies from literature to better understand how to construct them: 

  1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare: In this analogy, Juliet compares Romeo to a rose by acknowledging that his name—and thus the feud between their families—really means nothing because he would be just as sweet, and she would like him just as much, were he called any other name. Romeo is the tenor, the rose is the vehicle, and the comparison between the two is the sweetness. 
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. 
By any other word would smell as sweet. 
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called” 
  1. “Migration Season” by Kelli Russell Agodon: In this poem, Agodon compares the families of patients to “snow geese in a flooded field.” She extends the metaphor made in the first three lines of the poem throughout it, providing the reader with an understanding of what it feels like to live that experience. 
    Read it here!
  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: This series of personal musings from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius has a lot of wisdom to share—which is one reason why we included it in our Literary Tarot deck! But the line below in particular provides us with an analogy that compares time to a river. Is it perhaps where we get the idea of a “time stream” from? 
“Time is like a river made up of events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”
  1. Macbeth by William Shakespeare: In Act V of this iconic tragedy, Macbeth recognizes and mourns the death of his wife, comparing life to a “walking shadow,” implying the meaning that it has no real purpose. Not only is the speech a perfect example of an analogy, but it also goes HARD. 
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing.”
  1. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost: This poem is both an extended metaphor and an analogy, using spring’s ending to reflect on how fleeting life is. It’s also famously used in S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders, which has a storyline that seeks to exemplify the poem and its meaning. 
“Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

4 Tips for the Effective Usage of Figurative Language

  1. Balance figurative language with literal descriptions. While using figurative language will imbue your narrative with beauty and depth, too much of it may result in confusion and clunkiness. The various metaphors, analogies, and similes will run into each other and confuse one another. Make sure every figure of speech is grounded in something literal that the reader can actually envision. 
  2. Avoid clichés and overused comparisons. Seek to make your metaphors, similes, and analogies feel unique rather than overdone. Some popular metaphors that have been overused and are now considered clichés include:
    1. Bite the bullet. 
    2. Turn a blind eye. 
    3. Give the cold shoulder. 
    4. Comparing tears and rain. 
    5. Comparing life to a journey. 
    6. Laughter is the best medicine. 

There are many more, but in general, if you feel you’ve heard it many times before, avoid it. 

  1. Experiment with figurative language to enhance your writing. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. (A cliché). Let me try that again: Don’t be afraid to melt a box of crayons together and write with a whole new color. Better? This is harder than it looks… 
  2. That’s why the most important step is to: Practice, practice, practice. Like with the other techniques we’ve covered in our Facts of Fiction series, the only way to get better at using figurative language is to practice doing it. 

Exercise: Practical Application of Figurative Language

Now that you know what metaphors, similes, and analogies are, let’s put them to use! Write a passage describing an activity you know well and do often. For example, maybe you’re a runner. What does it feel like to run? Describe the activity from start to finish, purposefully using as many metaphors, similes, and analogies as you can. While the final piece may feel overwrought with figurative language, it’s a good way to get the creative juices flowing and see what original comparisons you can come up with.

Cast the Spell of Figurative Language

Sprinkle your writing with a little magic with figurative language. When used correctly, figures of speech and other forms of figurative language add depth to descriptions, help readers better visualize scenes, evoke emotions, add symbolism and layers, and make a story feel more memorable and impactful. 

Keep tackling these monthly exercises with us as we continue our journey of becoming better writers! Follow @frictionseries on Instagram to be the first to know when we release new installations in this series. Plus, discover incredible stories in the Unseen issue of F(r)ictionavailable for purchase now!

Show and Tell: Why You Should Show, Not Tell!

Whether from a writing professor, workshop peer, or favorite author, you must have heard it before: the oft shared and somewhat dreaded advice of “show, don’t tell.” But what does this mean, and how does one approach doing it? 

The “golden rule” of writing, “show, don’t tell,” describes a creative technique, or style of writing, that enables the reader to experience the story rather than be told it. To achieve this technique, a writer must employ actions, senses, figures of speech, and other vivid details so that the reader is fully immersed in the narrative.

Even the best of the best writers struggle with showing over telling. But learning how to do it gives writing a sense of finesse, excitement, and reality no matter what genre or format it takes. Here, we discuss techniques you can use to avoid telling rather than showing and share examples of what they look like on the page. We also cover what filter words are and supply an exercise you can do to improve your writing instantly. Read on to keep learning!

The Power of Showing 

“Show, don’t tell” is not used only in literature but in every form of storytelling, including film, television, podcasts, stage plays, and more. Let’s show you the power of showing rather than telling through some classic examples from various forms of media.

Film

In Jurassic Park, the cup of water rippling before the T-Rex shows up exemplifies the idea of “show, don’t tell.” Rather than having a character suddenly exclaim, “Look! There’s a T-Rex heading right towards us!” and pointing in that direction, the vibration of the water indicating something large headed their way and the expressions on the characters’ faces when they realize what’s coming imbues the scene with a sense of fear and anticipation. The watcher already knows danger is on the way by the time the T-Rex shows up on screen. 

Books

Taking the same scene from the novel version of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton writes: 

Tim scanned the side of the road. The rain was coming down hard now, shaking the leaves with hammering drops. It made everything move. Everything seemed alive. He scanned the leaves . . .

Here, the reader is placed fully in Tim’s experience of the action. Words like “shaking” and “hammering” indicate the level of powerful vibration occurring from what we later discover to be the T-Rex’s steps. We are Tim, experiencing his growing anxiety and anticipation about his surroundings. Rather than telling us that Tim is getting scared, we feel his emotional state..

Poetry

Poets often use rich metaphors to show the reader what’s happening. Take “Face Down” by Kelli Russell Agodon, the second in her suite of Three Poems. In it, there is the line, “he’s joking, his elbow baring / down on some back bedroom in the house / of my spine. He asks how it feels.” 

Through the use of words like “baring” and the comparison between the narrator’s back and a house, the reader experiences both the physical and the emotional pain the narrator does. Also, Agodon playfully blends the homophones “baring down” and “bearing down” to indicate emotional exposure or reveal and applying pressure, respectively. This shows the reader multiple facets of the moment for both characters at once. 

When to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” 

While the general rule of “show, don’t tell,” should be applied to almost all of your writing, there are specific places in the text where it’s typically used best.

Character Descriptions

When introducing a new character, you need to tell readers what they look like. On a TV or movie screen, this is done easily. But even when viewers can actually see the character, there are ways to tell the viewer more about them. For example, costuming is a huge part of letting the audience know more about a character. Someone who wears designer clothing may be rich or at least trying to appear it. If they wear only bright clothing, they may purposefully be trying to stand out. A character who starts out with long hair but chops it off halfway through may be going through emotional turmoil. 

In writing, picking and choosing what to show through character description depends on who is narrating and what you want readers to pick up on instantly. Here’s an example from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings of rich character description that supplies us with more information than just what the character looks like: 

Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too. I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.

An autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings follows the early years of Angelou. This moment describes her meeting Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who later becomes a mentor figure and savior of sorts to her. Examine the text and ask yourself: What does this description tell me about Mrs. Flowers as a character? What does it tell me about the narrator? What other information can I draw from it? 

Emotional Responses

The way that a character reacts to different situations says a lot about them. Describing their reactions in writing can be a tricky balance of being too on-the-nose and too vague. Rather than saying, “He was mad,” outright—telling the audience how he felt—try describing how he expressed that anger: “His face turned red and his nostrils flared. His breath blew hot against my face and I flinched back.” In the second version of the sentence, the reader sees how anger manifests in this person and also how the narrator reacts to this kind of anger, so you have two moments of characterization that you otherwise wouldn’t. Telling creates distance for the reader. Showing creates closeness, and even an emotional response, through specificity. It’s clear that he isn’t just mad, he’s livid and scary, and is potentially putting our narrator in danger. 

Taking this further, let’s examine an excerpt from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. In the first pages of the novel, we learn that a man has cheated on his wife. In this scene, she discovers it by way of a letter, and we get his reaction upon her discovery:

There happened to him at that instant what does happen to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in adapting his face to the position in which he was placed towards his wife by the discovery of his fault. Instead of being hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent even—anything would have been better than what he did do—his face utterly involuntarily (reflex spinal action, reflected Stephan Arkadyevitch, who was fond of physiology)—utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile. 

A few questions to consider post-reading: what does this short paragraph tell you about the character of Stephan Arkadyevitch? What does it tell you about the narrator or point of view in the novel? How might you expect Stephan’s wife to react to his “habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile”? We immediately understand that Stephan, caught in his adultery, calculates how to respond to his wife, indicating some falsity in his guilt. The fact that he can only muster an idiotic smile shows us that he’s terrible at being bad and something of a pathetic figure. 

Setting Descriptions

Giving readers a sense of where and when a story takes place is essential to them experiencing it. Setting goes a long way not only in placing the reader in a time and space but also in helping them understand the mechanics of your world. When describing setting, focus on the five senses: how does this world feel, smell, sound, look, and even taste? 

The goal with “show, don’t tell” is to better engage the audience in the story by making them feel like they are living it themselves. Using language that does this—and avoiding language that doesn’t—is key to telling a story that feels like an experience.

Pachinko, a novel by Min Jin Lee about four generations of an immigrant family set in twentieth century Korea and Japan, opens by telling us about the first generation of this family. One way that Lee sets the scene is through describing their house: 

The wooden house they had rented for over three decades was not large, just shy of five hundred square feet. Sliding paper doors divided the interior into three snug rooms, and the fisherman himself had replaced its leaky grass roof with reddish clay tiles to the benefit of his landlord, who lived in splendor in a mansion in Busan. Eventually, the kitchen was pushed out to the vegetable garden to make way for the larger cooking pots and the growing number of portable dining tables that hung on pegs along the mortared stone. 

Let’s think about what this excerpt tells us about the rest of the story. What can we assume about the characters? What do we imagine the characters might do in this house? How does describing the house help place us in the story? Through “showing” language, an author can imply a great deal about the characters and world to the reader without ever saying them overtly. In Min Jin Lee’s passage, we infer the passage of time and the growing of the family because of the descriptive details about the house. We may also infer information about how rich or poor this family is and how they feel about their landlord.

These examples of “show, don’t tell,” help us understand why it’s such an important part of telling a good story. It gives mere words the power to turn into felt experiences for a reader. Next, we’ll cover ways you can start to imbue your own work with the “show, don’t tell” style of writing.

Understanding Filter Words

Filter words increase narrative distance in writing by placing the character in the spotlight rather than the experience. They put a barrier, or filter, between the reader and what the character is experiencing. Generally speaking, filter words relate to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. 

Common examples of filter words include: 

  • Saw, look, see
  • Hear, heard, listen
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Felt, feel
  • Realized, knew
  • Remembered
  • Decided
  • Noted

When looking for filter words in your writing, search for places where you say things like: 

  • I saw the open window in front of me. 
  • I tasted copper on my tongue. 
  • He remembered when his brother was alive. 
  • She noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground.

In all of these instances, the reader is being told what happened rather than experiencing it for themselves. Try to replace areas where you notice this happening with things like: 

  • A light breeze rustled my hair as I approached the window. 
  • A bloody glob of spit dripped down my chin, staining the ground copper below me. 
  • His brother had once walked these halls, the winter chill seeping through the hard granite and into his toes.
  • The paper, rough and dry against my fingers, was stained brown and wet from the mud.

In replacing these moments, remember to stay true to the experience the character is going through. For example, to build a sense of anticipation and fear in a scene, you would use different language than if you are describing a tranquil moment. 

This all said, you don’t have to ban the use of filter words in your writing entirely. They can be used intentionally to enrich your writing, mix up your narrative style, or say something simply. But in all these instances, they must have a clear purpose and should be used sparingly. For example: 

  • The midday sun beat down on his shoulders, dampening his shirt. When an arresting stench drifted up to his nose, he realized that he forgot to put on deodorant, and wondered if his date with Marguerite was already over.

In this short paragraph, we get moments of both showing and telling. Balanced together, they work to create characterization while providing us with minor expositional details at the same time. All in all, the effect is that the narrative continues moving forward while we remain fully inside the narrator’s point of view. 

Four Practical Tips for Showing, Not Telling 

Learning how to show and not tell takes time and practice. But aside from eliminating most or all filter words from your writing, you can also take these steps: 

  1. Use sensory details. 

Instead of using sensory verbs, which can become filter words, appeal to the reader’s sense of taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound through description. Some examples of sensory details include:

  • Her cheek blushed bright beneath my lips as I pressed them to her pillowy cheek.
  • A strange rustle altered me to movement. I turned. There, bathed silver in the moonlight, stood the unicorn, its long horn cutting a sharp shadow through the meadow.
  • A burning, smoky scent hit her nostrils and the back of her throat as soon as she entered the car.

In all of these examples, details relating to the senses add to the scene by avoiding things like, “I saw a unicorn in the meadow,” or “I smelled the scent of cigarettes in the car.” 

  1. Utilize dialogue. 

How characters speak can reveal many things about them, such as hints as to where they’re from, how old they are, and what they do for a living. In screenplays, the use of dialogue is often the best way to build exposition in a scene. Throwing us back to Jurassic Park, this scene exemplifies dialogue used exceptionally well to not only feed the audience important information, but also to help us understand the characters in the scene. 

  1. Use action to convey emotion. 

When a person in real life is joyful, upset, or otherwise experiencing a strong emotion, they don’t always express themselves through words or simply think “I’m sad.” Instead, what they do and say shows us how they’re feeling. Try doing this in your writing. For example, saying: “She slammed the door shut, threw herself on the bed, and burst into tears,” provides readers with a much more immersive experience than, “She was frustrated and sad.” 

  1. Create atmosphere through description. 

In literature, atmosphere is the feeling or sense evoked by an environment or setting. Why does a science fiction novel feel like science fiction? How does a writer build a sense of horror when telling a scary story? Many things can contribute to this, but one major way is through the story’s overall atmosphere. To build atmosphere, you use descriptive language. We dive deeper into this in the next installment of this series, but the simple answer is that you can use figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, and analogy as well as the sensory type details mentioned above. 

For example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula brings out the spooky atmosphere through the descriptions, figures of speech, and sensory details used. One example is: “The grey of the morning has passed, and the sun is high over the distant horizon, which seems jagged, whether with trees or hills I know not, for it is so far off that big things and little are mixed.” The words “grey” and “jagged” stand out in particular as adding a sense of building eeriness as our unwitting protagonist Jonathan Harkness nears Count Dracula’s castle. Additionally, the phrase “big things and little are mixed” speaks not only to Harkness’s perspective on the landscape, but also to his confusion about it. Most people are capable of sorting out relative size and distance when looking at a landscape—the mountains are bigger than the buildings in reality, despite appearing smaller because the buildings are closer—so knowing that Harkness cannot indicates the supernaturality of his experience.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

As mentioned earlier, it takes time and practice to master the art of showing rather than telling throughout your writing. But there are some common pitfalls you can avoid to help yourself along the way. 

  1. Overusing adverbs and adjectives. 

Adverbs and adjectives are both used to modify, qualify, and describe other parts of speech. They can work well to enhance the experience of the reader and provide a sense of atmosphere. However, they should be used very purposefully and sparingly, as they tend to slow down the narrative and can be an indication of places where the author is telling rather than showing. 

For example, “She walked clumsily over to him,” is more simply and viscerally said as, “She stumbled over to him.”

  1. Relying on exposition instead of action.

Exposition is an essential piece of any story, but it can be tricky to implement it without giving the reader an info dump. You want to provide the reader with necessary background information as well as give them details on the setting and characters, but you don’t want them to get bored or be taken out of the story because of it. Try providing exposition through action to make it feel more natural. Some ways to do this include using dialogue, narration, internal monologue, or special devices. 

  1. Lacking subtlety in characterization. 

Authors tell us more about characters through the literary device of characterization. Physical descriptions of a character as well as their actions, dialogue, and affect on other characters all contribute to characterization. While you can use both direct and indirect characterization to describe someone, too much of either one may result in readers reading too much or too little into a character. It also feels clumsy to be too on-the-nose about who characters are. A character who is so overtly evil that they don’t feel real, for example, might take readers out of a story. 

Exercise

To practice showing, not telling, take a previous piece of your writing and go through it looking for places where you use filter words or that can be strengthened through metaphor, simile, or analogy. Highlight those moments and then rewrite them to “show” better. When you’re done, take a look back and re-read those selections in context with the rest of the story. How has it transformed the delivery of your story? 

The Path to Becoming a Better Writer

Mastering how to show, not tell is a key part of taking your writing to the next level. Use filter words sparingly, deliver exposition through action whenever possible, and rely on sensory details to imbue your writing with a sense of atmosphere. And remember, in this case especially, practice makes perfect. Keep an eye out for ideal examples of “showing” in works you love and think about how the author has achieved it. Plus, keep up with our Facts of Fiction series for more storytelling tips, tricks, and know-how. 

Crafting Compelling Conflict: The Heartbeat of Storytelling

The Importance of Conflict in Storytelling

Almost every kind of story—although not all—involves conflict, or a clash between two opposing forces that creates the narrative thread for the story. Ideally, the conflict of a story makes it feel cohesive while bringing out its major themes and messaging. 

Conflict can be weighted at different levels as well depending on the genre. For example, a contemporary romance likely doesn’t need a super high-stakes conflict. A ticking time bomb, war, or dramatic physical altercation may make the story feel too melodramatic. Instead, the conflict for this kind of story should revolve around the characters and their relationships with each other. On the other hand, a science fiction epic requires a larger scale conflict with broader consequences, such as an intergalactic war. Of course, there are some successful examples of high-stakes romance, like The Titanic, and low-stakes sci-fi, like The Murderbot Diaries series, that challenge their genres effectively.

So what is conflict and how can we create it successfully in a narrative? What kinds of conflicts exist? We’ll answer all these questions and more, so read on to learn about the importance of conflict in storytelling. 

Understanding Conflict

Conflict occurs when the main character in a story struggles with something or someone, either external or internal. Conflict serves as a literary device that builds tension by challenging the main character and forcing them to test their values. Stories benefit from conflict for many reasons, but the main two are: 

  1. Providing purpose: By establishing conflict at the beginning of a story and resolving it by the end, you give your story direction, momentum, and purpose. Without it, a story may feel untethered and structureless. 
  2. Creating compelling characters: Just like how in real life going through a conflict forces you to react in some way, characters’ responses to a conflict reveal their character traits and what makes them compelling. This is key to making them feel multidimensional and relatable to readers. 

In short, conflict helps propel the plot forward and provides a backdrop for character creation. 

Types of Conflict

As discussed in our Villains’ Voices blog, conflict comes in many ways, shapes, and forms. These are the six most common types of conflict found in stories and prime examples of them in various forms of fiction. 

Character vs. Self

Character vs. self takes place within a character’s psyche. They usually struggle with something like self-doubt, a moral dilemma, or their own nature. This form of conflict is often layered with a more obvious external conflict that forces the character to confront their internal one. At its core, the story forces the character to confront their own thoughts and actions.

A strong example of character vs. self from recent media is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although the external conflict of the series revolves around the ongoing war with the powerful Fire Nation, Aang’s internal conflict over his reluctance to accept his responsibilities as an Avatar is what sets the events of the story in motion. Ultimately, he must overcome these doubts in order to defeat the ultimate evil. (Also, if you haven’t yet, you should go watch the original cartoon version of ATLA!)

Falling into this category more obviously is The Picture of Dorian Gray, as explained by Dorian himself in our blog featuring villain’s voices. This iconic novel by Oscar Wilde truly encapsulates how a character can destroy themselves from within. 

When setting up character vs. self as the major conflict in any story, it’s important to hone in on your main character’s fatal flaw—what is it about themselves that causes or nearly causes their downfall? 

Character vs. Character

Perhaps one of the more obvious and recognizable types of conflicts, character vs. character relies on two characters struggling against each other. The conflict occurs because the protagonist and antagonist have the same goal, conflicting goals, or one has what the other wants. Confrontations between them may manifest in different ways, from physical alterations to irreconcilable differences in morals or beliefs. 

Examples of this kind of conflict include Harry Potter vs. Voldemort (Harry Potter series), Othello vs. Iago (Othello), Holt vs. Wuntch (Brooklyn 99), and Randle Patrick McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). In larger-scale stories, such as epics or episodic television shows, character vs. character conflict may be a smaller part of a larger piece—such as Katniss Everdeen vs. President Snow in the Hunger Games series. The conflict between them amplifies and connects with the larger conflict of defeating the Capitol as a whole.

In character vs. character conflicts, consider making the characters narrative foils for each other in order to further highlight why they conflict with one another as well as their strengths and weaknesses as people. Hint: If the conflict between two characters can be solved by a simple conversation, it’s probably not enough to carry an entire story. Therefore, it’s always best to have two characters conflict over something that is essential to the core of who they are.

Character vs. Society 

In this external-type conflict, a protagonist opposes society, the government, tradition, culture, or a societal norm of some kind. This opposition may spring from many sources including a need to survive, a moral sense of right and wrong, or a desire for happiness, freedom, justice, or love. Often, this kind of conflict is also layered with character vs. self as the protagonist grapples with their own motivations for their societal conflict. 

Popular examples of character vs. society include A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the TV series Glee, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and the X-Men from Marvel comics. In all of these examples, a person or group of people is discriminated against and must band together to fight against this discrimination. Other examples include “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short story by Ursula K. Le Guinn, and Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. 

Character vs. society is an incredibly important form of conflict for critiquing popular thought. Exploring this kind of conflict in your work can be tricky but also rewarding. Approach it carefully and do your research when it comes to understanding what your protagonist is working against. 

Character vs. Technology

A hallmark of the science fiction genre, this kind of conflict explores what happens when technology grows beyond its intended use. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley serves as one of the earliest and most prolific examples of this genre. 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic Stanley Kubrick film, also features a major character vs. technology conflict in the form of HAL 9000, a computer that grows to have a human personality and ultimately murders several crew members. Both of these examples ask poignant questions about what it means to be human and what sets us apart from machines. 

Other examples of the character vs. technology conflict include The Terminator, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and even our real life with the advancements of AI! Just kidding. Or am I? 

When thinking about this kind of conflict, consider why the technology you’re using exists: What kind of problem was it trying to solve in the first place? Then, consider the worst case scenario. When taken to an extreme, how does this problem-solving machine become a problem itself and what are the ultimate consequences of that? 

Character vs. Nature

Character vs. nature plots see a protagonist struggling against natural forces such as a storm, animals, or disease or plague. Essentially, whatever they struggle against must feel out of their control. 

We can find this type of conflict in works such as Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, and the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. All of these examples include the sea or a storm (and often both) as a huge source of conflict, but other places we can find this conflict is even in history itself. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe from 1346 to 1353, serves as a great example of this with real-life consequences. 

When it comes to character vs. nature as a conflict, one of the most intriguing aspects to consider is its origins. While a man-eating shark might be beyond human control, the mayor’s decision to keep lucrative beaches open for the summer, putting tourists at risk, in Jaws informs and intensifies the conflict. A real world example is the bubonic plague, which spread across Europe thanks to flea-infested rats, eventually infecting about half the population. According to scholars, climate change may have contributed to driving rodents to new places, leading to the plague. Other causes, such as the killing of cats, who were seen as the familiars of witches, and poor hygienic habits may also have affected the incredible spread of this disease. Human folly as a part of the cause of character vs. nature as a conflict can provide a unique spin to these types of stories. 

Character vs. Supernatural

In a character vs. supernatural conflict, the protagonist opposes a supernatural force of some kind. This could be fate, magical forces, otherworldly beings, religion or deities. Often, this kind of conflict is a major driving force in the fantasy genre. Similar to character vs. nature, supernatural conflicts are often layered with character vs. self as the protagonist goes through personal growth while fending off supernatural foes. The supernatural force likely highlights or brings out these internal struggles. 

Supernatural conflict is a common theme in horror stories and movies such as Dracula, The Exorcist, and, aptly, Supernatural. Teen Wolf serves as a particularly good example of supernatural forces and an internal struggle. In The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is a supernatural evil that Frodo and other characters actively fight. 

Ample examples exist, but the crux of a good character vs. supernatural story is that the supernatural aspect of the story serves to enhance the internal struggles of the characters within it. 

Tips for Writers: Generating and Developing Conflict

Coming up with a strong conflict for your story can be difficult. Sometimes, you have the characters, setting, and theme all decided but you just can’t figure out the right way to imbue your story with a sense of conflict to keep it moving forward. Here are a few tips to help you get started: 

  1. Know Your Characters

Conflict is often best derived from a deep understanding of your characters’ goals, motivations, fears, and desires. By creating characters with strengths and weaknesses, you can better formulate what they might want and how this can become a point of conflict. A good question to ask yourself about every character you create is: What do they want? Once you figure that out, put an obstacle in their path to getting it. Boom! You have a conflict already. 

  1. Identify Sources of Conflict 

Once you know your characters, explore potential sources of conflict related to their goals and motivations. Look at how your characters can interact with each other to create conflict. For example, let’s say you have one character who desperately wants to win a contest so they can use the money to better their life. Another character therefore can easily be used to create tension by also wanting to win the same contest. 

  1. Create Tension

Introduce obstacles and challenges that hinder your characters from achieving their goals. In the story where the character wants to win the contest, spend time preventing them from even making it to the venue in the first place. By building suspense and anticipation, you escalate the stakes throughout the story. For example, maybe the money the character wants to win is to pay for their sibling’s surgery. If the sibling doesn’t get the surgery, they’ll die. This adds extra urgency to the entire situation. 

  1. Use Contrast

Sometimes, conflict between two characters exists not because they’re both after the same goal, but rather because they have contrasting desires, beliefs, or backgrounds. Conflicting values or ideologies can lead to further tension and drama. In our ongoing example, maybe the sibling has no desire to live and doesn’t want the surgery. Thus, the lengths that the protagonist goes through to attend the contest and win the money could all be for naught. 

  1. Balance Internal and External Conflict

Almost every kind of conflict is both internal and external to varying degrees. Without some of both, the story is likely to drag on or feel facetious. In our sample story, the protagonist must battle with the external forces preventing them from winning the contest while internally struggling with the fact that the person they want to win it for doesn’t want it. This naturally serves as a platform for character growth of some kind, whether bad or good.

  1. Experiment with Conflict Types

As you work on your story, consider what conflict types best help you get your message across. While you’ll have overarching conflicts that last the entire story, sometimes you may want to use other types of conflict for smaller moments. Think about an episodic TV show. Most of these types of TV shows have ongoing longer plots that span a season. For example, two people develop feelings over the course of the series and get together by the end. But in each individual episode, the characters overcome the smaller conflicts that appear only in that episode, which may be with another character, with themselves, with society, or with something else. Doing this adds layers of complexity to your story. 

That said, be careful not to introduce too many conflicts too close together. Dramatic tension is great, but you can easily confuse your reader by introducing too many conflicts and factors at the same time. You can also write yourself into a corner that way—how can all of these conflicts possibly be resolved by the end of the story? More on that later. 

  1. Maintain Consistency

Ensure that the conflicts you create arise naturally from the characters and world you’ve created. For example, introducing a supernatural conflict halfway through a romantic comedy that previously had no indications of supernatural elements likely won’t work well and will only confuse the reader. 

It’s also important to follow through with the major conflicts introduced at the beginning of the story to maintain coherence and believability throughout. Calling back to our previous example, someone has to win the contest in the story—whether it’s the protagonist or not. 

Balancing Multiple Conflicts in One Story

As mentioned above, stories often have more than one conflict in action at any given time. These conflicts include major overarching ones as well as smaller conflicts scene-by-scene. Balancing these many conflicts can be tricky. One thing to consider is how many characters exist in your story. The more characters, the more potential for conflict. Thus, in these types of stories there should be a strong and obvious overarching conflict that provides structure to the narrative and then smaller conflicts that break off from that due to characters’ relationships and actions. For example, in The Odyssey, the major overarching conflict is Odysseus’ struggle to get home over twenty years’ time. In the meantime, however, his wife Penelope at home struggles to fend off various suitors. 

Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Conflict Creation 

If the conflict in a story is weak, the story will likely fail to keep readers’ attention. Why? Because conflict is what drives the stakes up and keeps tension building. Reasons why a conflict fails in a story include:

  • The conflict feels forced, like it was added just for the sake of having a conflict. In this case, the fix is to look at your characters and setting again to make sure that the conflict feels natural when put next to them on the page. 
  • The conflict lacks stakes. If the conflict feels inconsequential to the characters, it will feel doubly that to the readers. Why does this conflict matter in the context of the world you’ve created? What will happen if it doesn’t get resolved? 
  • The conflict only exists externally. External conflicts such as wars or natural forces may seem like the best way to imbue your story with stakes. But if they don’t affect characters internally as well, they will lack emotional depth and prevent characters from important development. 
  • The conflict is never resolved or lacks consequence. If the conflicts in a story are resolved too easily or lack lasting consequences, they won’t feel earned or necessary. The reader might sit there after asking, “So why did I even read that?” Sometimes (although rarely) a conflict can be “resolved” ambiguously—but it should always serve the story in some way and doing this is very tricky to get right. 

Conflict Throughout Multimedia

Throughout our exploration of the types of conflict, we’ve provided examples of books, movies, and TV shows to showcase what conflict looks like in a narrative thread. Remember, whatever form your story takes, it needs conflict. Even poems and flash fiction, some of the shortest forms of stories, should have a clear conflict. In “Migration Season,” a poem by Kelli Russell Agodon, the conflict is that the narrator’s father is dying in the hospital. Compared to a larger work such as a short story or novel, this conflict feels brief. Nonetheless, the author creates tension and stakes through the use of metaphor and language. The desire to see what happens at the end of the poem drives the reader forward. 

Larger works require more kinds of conflicts. An epic like The Iliad, for example, features multiple smaller conflicts underneath the umbrella of a much larger one. Personal, political, and godly conflicts all come together to highlight and refine the ultimate message of the story which is about stubbornness, pride, hubris, and fate. Epic novels such as Anna Karenina utilize personal conflict—the affair between the titular character and her paramour—to dig into societal and cultural themes and questions. 

Final Thoughts on the Importance of Crafting Compelling Conflict

Just as humans in life must struggle and overcome challenges, characters in stories must do the same. The difference is that stories seek to use conflict as a tool to create a narrative thread that speaks a message or truth to the audience. If you’re struggling to imbue your stories with a sense of conflict, or find that your stories lack dramatic tension and stakes, take a step back and think deeply about your characters and their desires. Sometimes, you may need to tweak or invent characters to put them at odds with one another, with themselves, or with outside forces. Try out different things and see what sticks! And remember to continue tuning into our Facts of Fiction series to continue your writing journey.

The Shirt

The third time M sees an ad for The Shirt drift by on her feed, she buys it. Everyone’s been wearing it, or at least everyone that matters: the blonde swimsuit model who just got back from Mallorca, the brunette always posing with her pair of teacup dogs, even the redhead perpetually running in kaleidoscopic wildflower…

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Tristan’s Shadow

Outside of its size, the first thing you notice about Tristan is how quiet it is when it moves. I had always assumed before my first pilgrimage, when the news choppers would stalk it for us viewers at home, that each of its massive trunk- like legs would make the Earth quiver and shake. I couldn’t…

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Final Girl

They’d found her body in an empty field. A piece of her denim on a barbed wire fence. Her white handbag under a tree in the Cherokee National Forest, its kisslock loosely pecked. Days earlier, she’d begged me for ten dollars. I knew it’d go to the man who usually stood across the street watching us, but I cashed it out of my register and handed her the money. She looked ragged and tired, like she’d been running through the woods all night. Her arms were covered in scratches. I imagined her in danger and she suddenly became “Jessica.” When I first met her, she said that would be her horror movie name: Jessica. She said she might not make it all the way to the end of the movie—axe-beaten and swollen, blood on the brain—but she would at least be one of the final characters to die. You would definitely die in the first scene, she said. I didn’t want to believe her, but I feared she was right. She leaned across the bagging area while she talked, and my coworkers left their registers to come listen. There was no one in the store that time of day anyway.

You’re wrong about me, I said, and I tried to talk my movie character’s station up. I’d seen enough horror movies to know that the good girls made it through. The girls who had sex, the girls who smoked pot or got drunk in the basement, the girls whose boobs you saw while they changed clothes in front of a mirror—those girls were the first to die. I’ll be okay, I said.

Jessica did not agree. You’re too nice, she said. My coworkers, on the other hand, were tougher, and she thought some of them might survive but most would only make it about half-way through the movie. They were farm girls, girls from hollers. Girls whose fathers taught them how to throw a punch without telegraphing.

We were all impressed by Jessica. The loose men’s pants, the tiny tank top, all the rings she wore. The blue bandana around her neck. The homemade tattoo behind her ear. At first, we wondered if she was a thru-hiker. Middleton was a secret oasis on the Tennessee section of the Appalachian Trail, and MidMart was the only grocery store in town. We saw a lot of hikers, but Jessica didn’t carry a backpack, only a small white purse that she wore across her body. And she stayed around longer than any thru-hiker I’d met.

Over the next few weeks, Jessica began coming in early, just after the morning meeting when all the managers had headed back to their offices, to chat. We talked about horror movies, about the Poltergeist and Exorcist curses, the people who died or almost died, and about Jason Voorhees’s mother. One day I asked her about her own mother. Jessica didn’t look old enough to be on her own. She married her boyfriend, she said, and kicked me out.

We noticed Jessica wore the same two outfits over and over and every day that same blue bandana, so we all started donating to what we called the “Jessica Cause.” We gave her our old clothes and our books. We gave her lipstick and tampons, and a little of our money every payday.

But then she stopped coming around. We waited. We watched for her brown ponytail, her spaghetti straps through the sliding glass door. The man from across the street was gone. When the officers came in for Cokes just before they started their shifts, we always asked them about Jessica. That was the only name we had for her. They knew who we were talking about, but they never had news. We didn’t know for sure, but we got the feeling they weren’t really looking. But we didn’t stop. We kept watching for her blue bandana, her soft gait down the aisles. I’d stand behind my register, feeling transparent to the shoppers and my coworker, and twist the heart pendant on the necklace my mother had given me for Christmas. I’d twist it until I felt my fingertip purpling.

Then one day the officers said they’d found her. They told us she’d bled out. Later, one of the girls had to explain to me, Bleeding out means you bleed until you die.

We talked about Jessica all that day, but then much less in the days that followed.

All summer, I picked up shifts no one wanted and followed my parents around the house. Helped my mother repaint the living room. Chopped vegetables with my father for the stews he made. I dreaded being alone. I wanted anything other than to remain alone and unseen, hidden away in my bedroom. What had caused her to bleed out? There had to be an instrument somewhere that fit her wounds precisely. And the person who used it was still out there.

That fall, I would be going away to college, and I knew what sometimes happened to college girls—how quickly walking across campus at night could turn into its own kind of horror movie. I thought about Jessica’s prediction for me, my fingers rubbed raw from twisting my locket. I couldn’t stop seeing Jessica dying in that field alone at night. I could feel the blue of the stars above and the thin night air. I could see Jessica agape in the pale summer grasses, the dirt soft under her nails, the blood pooling under her shirt.

I twisted the locket, cinching it tight around my fingertip until a numbness came, until my hand felt as invisible as Jessica was, long before she’d been killed.

The Travails of Mr. Yazoo

My client wakes at eight on Sunday, so that’s when I appear in his doorway. The schedule says he has two hours of Mr. Yazoo time before he needs to get to Mandarin lessons. We eat our usual breakfast of gluten-free, high-protein, extra-calcium cereal. Despite its professed lack of sugar, he’s doing his I’m-wired-and-want-to-play dance in…

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Three Poems

Daughters of Ma-ao grew like stalks of rice, best left to fester in pools of rainwater. Tsoy will only pluck them out, when they begin to gourd on the dirt. Flies feed on the mud burying their bulbs into the plants whose roots blister. Stalks can also thrive in the heat, swollen, until the sun…

Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.