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


  • 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!

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.


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. 


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..


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. 


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.

Choose Your Own Adventure, Hero!

Take your life and choices into your own hands, reader, as you embark on a Hero’s Journey with us

In our previous installment of this blog series, we explained what the Hero’s Journey is, and why it’s such a great storytelling template to build from—particularly when it comes to character arcs. In this blog, let’s take a closer look at the Hero’s Journey as you, the reader, become Hero, the protagonist of your own story. 

Who are you? You’re a protagonist named Hero, and you’re just a regular person with a Job living in a City, who does regular things. That is, of course, until one day when everything changes—and you get to decide how and why. Take your fate into your own hands as you complete a Hero’s Journey from beginning to end!

As you read through this blog, select whichever choice you like the best (A, B, or C). You don’t have to stick with one letter throughout the blog; you can choose any option you like at any time. At the end of the blog, review your choices to determine what kind of Hero’s Journey you took.

The Call to Adventure

One ordinary day, you’re brushing your teeth when you get a sudden chill down your spine. You can’t explain it, but you know that everything is about to change. How and why, you don’t know. As you watch toothpaste swirl down the drain, like it does every day, you wonder why you feel that way. Nothing in particular comes to mind, so you shrug and move on about your day. 

You proceed throughout the day as normal: putting on a suitable outfit for the chilly but clear weather, going for a walk through the City streets, drinking cold brew with oat milk for breakfast, and working on your computer for a while. But then, around noon, something happens. Something happens that never happens, at least not to you. What is it? 

A) You fall asleep at your desk and have a strange prophetic dream in which an ethereal voice tells you to find and take a secret passageway in the City. In your dream, the voice guides you on the path to finding it and tells you that evil lurks at the end of the passageway and you must defeat it. 

B) Your email dings with a new message. When you check it, there’s no sender—and the message gives you directions to find a secret passageway in the City. The email warns you that if you don’t take the passageway, you will die. 

C) There’s a knock on the door. When you open it, a friend you haven’t seen in years is waiting on the other side with a grim expression. They tell you that they need your help saving the world from disaster and urge you to come with them to a secret passageway in the City. 

No matter which Call you choose to answer, ultimately you… 

Refusal of the Call

Refuse to find the secret passageway. You’re very content with your current life and have work meetings to attend later in the afternoon anyways. Evil, death, disaster? Sounds fake to you. Besides, you already went on a walk today. Why would you go on another one? You shrug off the Call and go about your regular life. If you were to dig deeper, you know that the reason you want to stick to regular life is…

A) You’re worried about getting fired from your job if you step away from your desk. You need this job because you have a lot of debt to pay off. 

B) You’re suspicious of scams and this definitely feels like one. You got scammed out of a lot of money earlier this year and you aren’t going to entertain anything like that again. 

C) You seriously doubt the existence of a secret passageway in the City. And even if one existed, where would it go? Probably somewhere dangerous, which you definitely don’t want. 

Nonetheless, you can’t forget the message you’ve gotten. What if there is a secret passageway? What if you die or the world ends because you don’t do this? Curiosity may have killed the cat, but didn’t satisfaction bring it back? You sit back in your desk chair and wonder if you’ve given up on a big opportunity to bring some excitement into your otherwise very boring and stagnant life. 

Meeting the Mentor

With doubt lingering in the back of your mind, you decide to get some advice. How do you go about doing this? 

A) You turn to tarot cards. You’ve often used these to help guide your choices in regular life, so why not now? When you give yourself the reading, turning each card over, there’s a clear message that sends a thrill down your spine. 

B) You call your older sister. She’s always been there to give you advice and talk you out of making stupid decisions. This time, though, her advice is unexpected. 

C) You decide to get some fresh air and walk to the nearby park. There, you sit on a bench. Soon, a man joins you there, sitting down next to you. He looks old and wise. You strike up a conversation which ultimately leads him to advising you… 

In the end, the message is clear: you should definitely go find this secret passageway. If you don’t, you’ll be curious about it forever and you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Also, according to the message, dire circumstances will take place if you don’t. So there’s also that.

Crossing the Threshold 

Filled with a new sense of determination, you decide to find this secret passageway. Just in case, you pack up a backpack with some snacks, a water bottle, and an extra sweatshirt. You put on your best walking shoes and head out the door, making sure to lock it behind you. Then, you head out into the City, trying to remember the directions you received. As you reach the place where the secret passageway should be, you see: 

A) A strange ripple in the stone wall between two dumpsters. As you get closer to it, ignoring the stench of garbage, you put your hand out and it goes right through the wall. Suddenly, another hand grasps onto yours and yanks you right through!

B) A small door camouflaged into the wall by a mural. When you press your hand against it, it creaks open and you see a dark, winding hallway beyond. A head pops from around the corner, startling you. The person grins. 

C) An open sewer entrance in the ground. You wrinkle your nose; there’s no way you’re going down there. But then it begins to glow and you realize it doesn’t actually stink—perhaps it’s not a sewer after all? Then someone pushes you into it and you fall down, screaming. 

On the other side of the threshold, you meet someone else from this strange new world. Will this person be a friend or foe?

Tests, Allies, and Enemies 

Your first challenge reveals itself: whether or not to trust this new figure in your life. After all, they are the reason you find yourself in this situation. You face each other. An unknown emotion flickers over their face as they introduce themselves. As it turns out: 

A) This person is your Ally. They are here to aid you on your journey. Their first step in doing so is taking your hand and guiding you through the darkness. 

B) This person is your Mentor. The magical voice from your dream has come to life, your older sister has joined you on the journey, or the old man from before has now appeared in front of you to aid you through your first obstacle. 

C) This person is a Trickster. First, they bargain with you, causing you to give up your snacks to them. Then, they help you through the first obstacle. 

Whoever they are, you have help on the first part of your journey—which is going to be important for overcoming your first obstacle. As you and your new companion make your way through the passage, you encounter: 

A) A troll blocking the way forward. The troll demands a toll for continuing forward. But you didn’t bring any money with you! Thinking quickly, you and your companion trick the troll into believing that your extra sweatshirt is a magical object that grants the wearer invisibility. The troll takes the sweatshirt as the toll but then threatens to kill both of you anyway! However, you ask the troll how he can do that when he hasn’t even tested his hard-earned prize. How does he know that you’ve been truthful? The troll becomes agitated and squeezes into the sweatshirt, slightly ripping its seams. You wince. That sweatshirt actually belongs to your sister. The troll looks at you and your companion triumphantly as you both pretend to be unable to see him. He swings his large club at you; you stumble aside, making it look like an accident. The troll trips over his own feet, smashing his head on the ground. As quickly as possible, you grab his club and whack him over the head with it. You and your companion move on safely. 

B) A huge metal gate that has been shut for one thousand years. Your companion tells you no one has been able to open it, but if you don’t both of you won’t be able to leave this place and you’ll die here like the others. Skeletons piled against the walls make you gulp in fear. But you’re Hero so you decide you absolutely won’t die here. You then realize that a riddle is written on the lock holding the gates shut. It just so happens you know the answer to this riddle because of your varied interests: A human, time, courtship, and I haven’t the slightest idea! To the shock of your companion, the gates swing open. 

C) A large, rushing river separates you from the next part of your journey. Your companion worries that you’ll both be swept away if you try to swim across it. Then you spy a boat sitting on the opposite shore. You find a fishing line and use it to reel the boat in. Then, you and your companion get into the boat and perilously travel through the water to the other side. 

After overcoming this first challenge, you meet a new companion. Whether you rescue them from the troll, the gate, or the river, they immediately pledge their loyalty to you and the three of you depart on the next part of your journey. But first, there’s something that’s been bothering you… 

Approach to the Inmost Cave

You ask your companions what this is really all about. Why have you been sent on this journey when you’re just an ordinary person, albeit one named Hero? They look at each other with apprehension, wondering if what they tell you will send you running back the way you came. Then, your first companion reveals that:

A) An Evil Wizard is using his powers to suck the City of its power. This passageway leads to his secret lair. Long ago, a Good Witch prophesied that only a Hero could defeat him and so you received the Call.

B) It turns out that your Boss from your everyday Job is actually a God who has decided that this City and everyone in it must be destroyed. This passageway is a bridge between the mortal and immortal realms. Only a Hero can enter it and survive, so you have been tasked with defeating her. 

C) An Ancient Magical Creature has discovered that the City’s lifesource can bring it back to its original power and form, so it is slowly draining energy from everyone and everything. This passageway leads to where the lifesource is, and only a Hero can find it. 

Whatever the main conflict is, you as the Hero must try to defeat it. With new resolve, you approach the place where you will face the ultimate ordeal and decide to: 

A) Defeat it using stealth. You know you have a way of sneaking about and you can’t see yourself facing this task head-on. You’ll sneak in and defeat the evil before anyone even knows you’ve been there. 

B) Defeat it using diplomacy. You know that you’re amazing at speaking. You feel you can convince anyone of anything, and you can use this to amend any situation, even the crazy one you’re currently in. 

C) Defeat it by facing it directly. In life, you’ve always found that it’s best to face problems head on. You’ll cut the head right off this evil!

Depending on the path you have chosen, your newest companion equips you with the means to complete it: 

  • If you chose path A from the options above, you receive a cloak of camouflage
  • If you chose path B from the options above, you receive a shield of stone
  • If you chose path C from the options above, you receive a sword of slaughter

The Ordeal

You brace your shoulders and clench your sweaty palms as you turn to face the main ordeal. There’s no turning back now, even if you sort of wish you could. But no, you shake your head, you couldn’t do that after already going through what you’ve gone through! You’re ready to confront your enemy. You take up your new magical item and jump into action. After a (sneaky, compelling, brutal) battle, the result is: 

A) You defeat them successfully with the help of your companions and supplies. 

B) You fail to defeat them, losing one of your companions after the other betrays both of you. Your method of confrontation turns out to be the wrong one and you are left to despair. 

C) You and the great evil fall deeply in love and you decide to join them in their evil doing. Your companions are left flabbergasted and betrayed. 


You’ve made your choice. Whether you succeeded, failed, or switched sides, now that you have faced the ordeal it’s time to reap the rewards. In this case, the reward is: 

A) Newfound friends and allies and the knowledge that you have saved the City—plus a sense of confidence and greater maturity in yourself. If you can do this, you can do anything! Including deep-cleaning your apartment. 

B) MONEY. Enough to pay off your debts and invest in your future. You feel a sense of excitement for life again and your anxiety decreases. You could even go out for a nice dinner if you want! 

C) Power and skill. You are in control of yourself like you never have been before, plus you have a power you didn’t know about. You can abandon your old life and embark on a new one—this time as the master of it.

The Road Back 

Now that you’ve overcome the main ordeal, no matter the outcome, it’s time to head home—even if it’s because you’re planning to destroy it. What obstacles do you face on the way? 

A) The passageway has closed itself off and you’re trapped in this new world with no way to get out.

B) You take the same way back that you came, but now the passageway seems winding and endless. You can’t find your way back to the same entrance you came through.

C) The new world you’ve entered begins to shake and smoke. It’s destroying itself and taking you with it! 

Before you can get back to the other world—whether to return to your old life, try to forget what happened in this place, or to destroy it with your new love—you first have to face this new obstacle. This time, how do you overcome the challenge? 

A) Using the power of friendship (along with the magical item you gained), you are able to open a new passageway back to your world. 

B) Using the knowledge you’ve gained in this new world, you realize the situation you’re facing is just an illusion and all you need to do is realize that it’s not actually happening. 

C) You don’t… this time, you die!


Whether you live or die, you still need to face a final test. What is this test? 

A) In order to leave, you must give up everything you’ve gained along the way—including your memories of your entire journey. With a heavy heart, you do this. 

B) In order to leave, you must master a whole new power, which takes over two weeks! But you do it and are able to escape into your previous world. 

C) In order to leave, you have to come back from the dead. Heavy ask on that one! Nonetheless, it works, somehow, and you find yourself back in your living, breathing body.

Note: You can choose this option even if you didn’t choose option C before. It just means you died after choosing option A or B previously.  

Once you face the final test, you find yourself spat back out into your previous world, a changed person. Even if you don’t remember anything that’s happened. 

Return with the Elixir

You take the long walk through the City, breathing in the fresh (and somewhat stinky) air. You unlock your apartment door and are greeted with your familiar hallway. Pictures of friends and family hang on the walls. Once there, you find that: 

A) You feel a poignant sense of triumph. You overcame so much to be here and have truly grown as a person. You’re ready to tackle real life again with a newfound sense of confidence and power!

B) You feel a deep sense of loss. Loss of memories, loss of companions, loss of innocence—whatever it is, you’re a changed person and your grief is palpable. 

C) I don’t know, reader, what do you feel after everything you’ve been through and all the choices you’ve made?


However you chose to end your story, you can see how the Hero’s Journey is a great template for creating compelling stories and characters. Go back and reread the one you just created. Is there anything you would change? I encourage you to take the journey over and over again, exploring different paths and outcomes as you do. Add your own twists, turns, challenges, and characters along the way just to see all the different places you can take your story. 

Keep an eye out for the next installments in this blog series as you write, using the information to craft your perfect story. Once you’re done, consider submitting your work to F(r)iction!

Explaining the Hero’s Journey

A Deep Dive into Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

Since its publication in 1949, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces has been a hugely influential work in the field of comparative mythology and storytelling. It explores the common patterns found in myths and legends across diverse cultures throughout history. And, most importantly, it introduces the concept of the “monomyth,” or the Hero’s Journey, a narrative structure that Campbell argues transcends cultural boundaries and forms the basis of many of the most compelling and foundational stories ever created. 

The Hero With A Thousand Faces provides a comprehensive cross-cultural framework for understanding what makes a story a story. Its impact, particularly that of the monomyth, has shaped the way we perceive and create stories in literature, film, and beyond. In fact, after reading this article, you may find it difficult not to see the monomyth coloring stories all around you. 

But why is the Hero’s Journey so important for storytelling? Anyone can write a story. But writing something that captures the attention of readers means knowing how to craft it in a way that will tug on their emotions and stay with them long after reading. The Hero’s Journey is one of the most important structures and tools we have for creating compelling stories. In this edition of Facts of Fiction, you’ll learn what it is, how to use it, and what narrative structures lie beyond. 

The Hero’s Journey Demystified

The Hero’s Journey encapsulates a common narrative archetype, or story template, often used in storytelling, particularly from a Western perspective. In it, a hero first departs (or separates) by going on adventure, is initiated into a new world, and then returns home. 

In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, for example, Gandalf calls upon Bilbo to join the dwarves of Thorin’s Company on a quest. Thus, Bilbo leaves his peaceful hobbit hole and finds himself on an adventure where he learns and struggles a great deal. Throughout the story, Bilbo gains a new level of maturity, competence, and wisdom—the skills he needs to secure his own kind of victory in ultimately leading to victories against the dragon Smaug, and at the Battle of Five Armies. Bilbo then returns to Bag End with some treasure and more stories, ultimately setting up for the beginning of Lord of the Rings in which Frodo also follows the call to adventure—once again led by Gandalf. 

We see here the “nuclear unit” of the monomyth in its full form: separation, initiation, and return. 


The first stage of the monomyth, also called the “departure,” has five stages wherein the hero: 

  1. Receives the vocation to their journey, signifying that destiny—in the form of the “herald”—has summoned them. This may appear in the form of a problem or threat, or as a person, such as Gandalf in The Hobbit
  2. Refuses the vocation, thus seeing for themselves the banality of their normal life. Campbell notes that “the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest.” In stories that take on the full Hero’s Journey, the hero always ultimately accepts the call. 
  3. Receives unsuspected assistance from a supernatural force, usually a protective figure—often a little old crone or old man—who provides the adventurer with tools against the forces the hero is about to face. 
  4. Crosses the first threshold, officially departing on their heroic journey.
  5. Enters the realm of the night, also known as the belly of the whale.  Here, the hero faces the first of their trials and enters into the unknown. In fairytales, for example, this may be an ogre guarding a bridge that the hero must outwit, bribe, or use the tools granted by the supernatural aid to defeat.  


The second stage of the monomyth details the trials and victories of initiation. Our hero must overcome great challenges to fully come into themself as a hero and a person. In this stage, the hero: 

  1. Takes the road of trials, a series of ordeals they must survive in order to reach the next stage. These include trials that test them both physically and emotionally and serve as a means to help the character grow. 
  2. Meets the “goddess,” in which the hero meets the allies who help them on their journey. 
  3. Faces temptation to abandon their journey and must avoid it. Campbell also refers to this stage as “Woman as Temptress” but it signifies any kind of temptation leading the hero away from their fate. 
  4. Atones with the father, or faces a major turning point in the story and discovers the ultimate reason for their journey. This may manifest in a face-off with a villain or a moment of internal doubt, or even a conflict with the herald who issued their quest. 
  5. Reaches the highest point of development or apotheosis—the climax of the story wherein the hero learns how they will face the rest of the journey and gains knowledge that will help them continue. 
  6. Confronts the ultimate boon, fulfilling the reason for their journey. 


Finally, at the end of the hero’s journey, the hero must return home and reintegrate into society. During this time, the hero: 

  1. Refuses the return, as they are reluctant to end the journey and return to the banality of real life.
  2. Goes on the magic flight, or is chased by those who would prevent them from returning home. 
  3. Is rescued from without by an outside force or mentor who guides them home and rescues them from whoever is chasing them.
  4. Crosses the return threshold and returns to the world they lived in previously.
  5. Becomes the master of two worlds, learning how to balance the mundane world with the one discovered on the journey.
  6. Finds freedom to live. The hero acclimates back to their mundane life and lives peacefully. 

In short, the Hero’s Journey is a common narrative archetype, or story template, in which a heroic character—the protagonist—goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory, or victories, with that newfound knowledge, and returns home transformed.

Character Arcs and Turning Points

Perhaps the most important aspect of Campbell’s monomyth is how it serves as a classic structure to develop characters. Here at Brink and F(r)iction, we place a lot of value on character development and see the monomyth as one of the ideal ways to bring a character through a fully thought-out and satisfying character arc. 

The Hero’s Journey as outlined above doesn’t have to be a physical journey. It doesn’t have to take the form of fantasy, as it does in The Hobbit or classic fairytales and myths. It can start with a character getting the call to adventure by accepting a new job or starting at a new school. It can be mundane and every day, but the point is that it changes the protagonist as a person, amplifying both their good traits and their flaws, and bringing them full circle emotionally, mentally, and sometimes spiritually as well. 

A great example of the Hero’s Journey outside of genre fiction is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Our hero, Elizabeth Bennet, lives her ordinary life until she is “called to adventure” by the arrival of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. In this case, the adventure is love, and most of Elizabeth’s trials are internal. But ultimately, her story follows the structure of the monomyth and brings her to the full circle of “returning home,” only this time, it is her home with Mr. Darcy. 

Most importantly to Elizabeth’s Hero’s Journey, however, is her overall character arc. The title Pride and Prejudice gives us a clue: is Elizabeth the prideful one or the prejudiced one? In the end, she is both, and the journey she takes leads her to growing as a person, shedding her pride and her prejudice, and finding love—the very thing she refused at the beginning of the novel. 

The point of the character arc in the monomyth is that the hero changes. The stages of the Hero’s Journey amplify this change, unearthing the character’s greatest strengths and weaknesses and how they may use and overcome them, respectively. The transformative power of the Hero’s Journey for character is what makes it so compelling to readers. For example, think of how Aang in Avatar the Last Airbender changes over the course of the show. He goes from being a scared twelve-year-old boy who ran away from his problems (so effectively that he vanished for one hundred years) to accepting his purpose, overcoming his fears, and becoming the hero he was always meant to be. 

Or, take “Amorpho & The Leering Freak,” a short story by Jason Baltazar, for example. The protagonist, Amorpho, begins the story feeling uncomfortable at being observed “like an ant under a magnifying glass” as he performs his set at a freak show. He hates being watched and lacks personal connection to most people. By the end of the story, Amorpho has come to accept his new roommate “The Leering Freak” as a friend and has even stood up for him, relishing in The Leering Freak’s watchful gaze. 

The Monomyth in Action

Many famous stories adhere to the Hero’s Journey framework. You may begin to notice them all around you. The most popular examples include The Odyssey, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, Star Wars: A New Hope, and many more. If you recognize and enjoy any of these stories, consider revisiting them and examining how they adhere to the monomyth. Or, pick one of your favorite stories and track it to see if it follows the monomyth’s structure. If it does, how? When does the hero get called to their journey? When do they enter the belly of the whale? How do they return home? If it doesn’t, what makes it different from the Hero’s Journey? What does the story do, or not do, that makes it a different narrative? 

As outlined with Pride and Prejudice above, the Hero’s Journey is not only used in fantastical stories, but can also apply across genres. Filmmakers, writers, and storytellers all around the world constantly use the framework of the monomyth to create compelling stories that capture an audience and make us care about their characters and plots. Utilizing the monomyth is a sure way to create an engaging narrative, as it truly lends itself to rich character development, drama, and a strong ending that feels complete. 

Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey

However, just because the Hero’s Journey is a popular framework for storytelling doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there. Alternative narrative structures, from the three-act structure to a classic tragedy to the anti-hero’s journey and more do exist. 

The three-act structure divides a story into three parts, often called the setup, confrontation, and resolution. Films and screenplays often use this structure and it can feel very similar to the Hero’s Journey as it is also made up of three parts that mirror the separation, initiation, and return. However, in the case of the three-act structure, not all of the elements from the Hero’s Journey may be present. Examine classic movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Titanic as prime examples of the three-act structure in action. 

Classic tragedies tend to fall into five stages: anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, and destruction or death wish. In these stories, the tragic hero has a goal but ultimately fails to get what they want, and the result is complete undoing. In this way, a tragedy may reflect a Hero’s Journey but end in its opposite: the monsters win, the hero dies. Classic examples would be Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, but modern examples such as horror movies and organized crime films also often follow this structure. 

Deviating From the Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey provides a solid structure for telling a story that is recognizable across cultures and time. It has been amply analyzed and used to tell all kinds of stories for all kinds of characters. In this sense, the Hero’s Journey has pros and cons to using it as a writer. The pros are that you know it will result in a compelling story. The cons are that it may not feel original. Because of this, we don’t recommend viewing the monomyth as a paint-by-the-numbers template, but rather as a roadmap for sketching out a particular kind of story—one focused on a “hero” character who goes through an impactful change. In the end, storytellers can use what they like and change what they need to to tell their best version of their story. 

Crafting Your Own Journey

It’s good practice to study and even create your own Hero’s Journey narrative if you plan to be a writer. Like with all skillsets, storytellers must first master the basics and fundamentals in order to refine and upgrade their craft. Try using the outline below to determine the course of your next story, no matter what world you set it in. Come up with a character who you envision embarking on the monomyth and see how your story develops from there. You may find it’s the easiest story you’ve ever written. You may struggle to differentiate it from others you have read. In the end, doing it for yourself is the best way to see how it serves as such a great formulation for a story—and how it can be adapted to suit many genres and themes. 

Hero’s Journey Template

Act I

  • Step 1: Ordinary World
    • Establish your hero and what their everyday life is like. 
  • Step 2: Call to Adventure
    • Have your hero encounter an event, problem, or person that forces them outside of their comfort zone/everyday life. 
  • Step 3: Refusal of the Call
    • Make your hero reluctant to leave behind their everyday life to embark on the adventure.
  • Step 4: Meeting the Mentor
    • Have your hero meet with a mentor who will help them face the challenges ahead. 

Act II

  • Step 1: Crossing the First Threshold
    • Have your hero officially depart on their journey and fully commit to entering the new world.
  • Step 2: Test, Allies, Enemies
    • As your hero enters this new world, have them encounter obstacles, enemies, and allies to help them on their journey. 
  • Step 3: Approach to the Inmost Cave
    • Have your hero approach the place where they will encounter their greatest fear or biggest threat/foe. 
  • Step 4: Ordeal
    • Have your hero confront whatever it is they were approaching above and overcome it. 
  • Step 5: Reward (Seizing the Sword)
    • Provide your hero with a light at the end of the tunnel: some kind of tool, belief, or resource that they need to finish their journey.


  • Step 1: The Road Back
    • Take your hero on the journey home—but have them encounter more dangers along the way.
  • Step 2: Resurrection
    • Make your hero face a final test before getting a happy ending. 
  • Step 3: Return with the Elixir
    • Finally, have your hero return home, changed in some way and with some kind of prize—either an insight or physical object.

Once you have mastered—or at least played with—the Hero’s Journey, try other narrative structures. Experiment for yourself to see what suits your style of writing and your characters. If you find yourself getting stuck, or not liking where a structure is taking you, change it up. There are many diverse narratives to explore. 


Think about your favorite short story, novel, movie, or series. What style of narrative does this work employ? Break it down into the “steps” of the Hero’s Journey as outlined above to get a better understanding of why and how it works as a story. An example you could use is Star Wars: A New Hope, which famously follows the Hero’s Journey very closely. 

Beyond the Monomyth: Exploring Diverse Narratives

Non-traditional narratives include the circular narrative, parallel plotlines, or a story told from an unconventional perspective, or that plays with time. 

In a circular narrative, for example, the story ends where it began. The characters still transform, but they return to the same place they began the story. While this may feel similar to the Hero’s Journey and, in some cases, a Hero’s Journey is cyclical, in a circular narrative the characters don’t necessarily go through all the trials and tribulations of the hero. A great example of circular narrative is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

In parallel structure, the story follows multiple storylines that are tied together through an event, character, or theme. Parallel narratives can be found everywhere throughout popular media, but a strong famous example would be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare. In this play, multiple plotlines take place at once: the love entanglement of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius; Titania and Oberon’s quarrel; the play being put on by Bottom and the other players; and the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. By the end of the play, these plotlines have connected and been resolved. 

Another type of story is interactive in which the reader chooses their own adventure, and the choices they make determine how the story proceeds and what narrative it takes. Video games often use this to make a compelling game that may end poorly for the player if they don’t make the right choices. The next blog in this series takes you on a choose your own adventure that will determine a hero’s fate—and hopefully help exemplify the Hero’s Journey as well as these other narrative structures!

Non-Western Narratives

We must acknowledge that the Hero’s Journey and many of the other narratives discussed today largely come from a western understanding of storytelling and literature. Although Campbell brings up non-Western examples of folklore and stories in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, there is debate over whether his analysis truly applies. Narrative structures outside of Western influence do exist. 

The East Asian four-act structure, for example, also called kishōtenketsu (Japanese), qǐchéngzhuǎnhé (Chinese), and gi seung jeon gyeol (Korean), is sometimes described as a “story without conflict.” This isn’t necessarily accurate, but it does pinpoint how this structure does not employ conflict to drive the story forward as it does in Western narrative structures. Instead, self-actualization, self-realization, and self-development drive the story. The four acts include the introduction, development, twist/turning point, and conclusion/result, although these can vary depending on the specific culture and story. Many popular manga, anime, K-dramas, and C-dramas utilize this story structure. Popular examples include the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, the Korean Movie Minari, and Nintendo’s Super Mario. Some argue that Pulp Fiction uses this structure and Michel He argues that BTS’s “Love Yourself” album trilogy also employs this.

Aside from East Asian four-act structure, Kim Yoonmi outlines multiple worldwide story structures that fall outside of the Hero’s Journey, including Bildungsroman (the coming of age story), Crick Crack or Kwik Kwak from the Caribbean Black community (a performance-based storytelling tradition that utilizes audience interaction), and Harawi from South America (storytelling through lyrical and other forms of poetry). We won’t go into every possible story structure here, but recognize their existence and that a story is a story whether or not it follows a structure we expect.

On Choosing A Story Structure  

I encourage you to experiment with multiple story structures but to always keep in mind one thing: be purposeful. Whether you’re choosing to form a narrative around conflict, actively avoiding it, or doing something else entirely, make sure that whatever you choose lends itself to telling the story you are trying to tell. This will result in your best-told and most compelling story. 


The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s famous monomyth, can be broken down into its nuclear unit of separation, initiation, and return. The hero is called to adventure, must overcome trials and challenges, and returns home changed for the better. The most important aspect of this journey is the way the character develops over it. In storytelling, the characters will always be the most important part of the story as they are what keeps readers reading. 

However, while the Hero’s Journey is a common and popular structure, it is not the only one out there. It can be used and adapted as the storyteller wishes for the sake of the story. As you write your own stories, explore multiple narrative structures and see what lends itself to telling your story the best way possible. 

In the end, Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has changed forever how we view and analyze literature. It has framed the way we see heroes and the journeys they face. This work has left an indelible mark on storytelling and continues to be an important part of learning how to tell great, compelling stories. After doing the exercise above, consider submitting your own take on the monomyth to F(r)iction and continue revisiting this series to learn more about the fundamentals of storytelling! 

Author’s Note: It’s worth pointing out that The Hero With A Thousand Faces does not just detail the Hero’s Journey that we have discussed in depth today. Although Campbell’s major argument and the majority of the work is dedicated to the monomyth and its role in storytelling, he also connects this to psychology in ways that we don’t often acknowledge or discuss today. This is in part because these connections don’t help us tell better stories. It is also because Campbell intertwines them with the Freudian take on human psychology in a way that is often rejected today for lacking evidence and considered a pseudoscience. To learn more about this, I encourage you to read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and check out this article. That said, the monomyth is still important to study when learning how to create stories and, importantly, how to write compelling character arcs. 

Writers Weigh In: The Writing Process

Writers discuss how they tell stories from start to finish

Now that you know what a story is, it’s time to start writing your own! But how? For many, getting started actually writing a story can be the hardest part. That’s why we’ve asked some writers here at Brink to weigh in with insight into their own writing processes. From coming up with ideas to how they tackle editing and so much more, here’s what they had to say. 

Q: How do you come up with ideas for the stories you write? 

In Short:

Our writers recommend using inspiration from life all around you: 

  • Read a book.
  • Listen to a song.
  • Collect metaphorical language and turns of phrase.
  • Eavesdrop on conversations in public.
  • Talk with other creatives.
  • Take inspiration from things that resonate with you online.
  • Excavate and challenge accepted “truths.”
  • Seek to preserve feelings or vibes. 

Check out the full interview with members of the Brink/F(r)iction staff below for a deep dive into their tips on coming up with story ideas.

Valerie, Brink Education Program Manager and published author: My stories usually develop in two ways. There’s the lazy, fun way: I chase things in stories that capture my imagination and make me ask “What if?” I’ll read a book, or listen to a song that stays with me. If I’m thinking about alternative possibilities a few days or weeks later, it’s worth pursuing. I guess the teen fanfiction writer in me never died.

The second way is more methodical, and usually only works for short fiction and poetry: I collect metaphorical language and turns of phrase, and then make them as literal as possible. For example, my mom used to say she was “raised by wolves” to explain her chaotic upbringing. So, I wrote a story about how my grandmother was a literal wolf living in our house. It works great for fabulism and surrealism, but it rarely has enough of an engine to support a story over 3,000 words. 

Maribel’s Note: That makes it perfect for flash fiction! Check out Brink’s flash fiction submission guidelines here

Nate, Communications & Marketing Director and author of One Person Can’t Make a Difference: One of my favorite things to do is just hang out in a public space and overhear other people’s conversations. Lots of times, I’ll note something that I never would have thought, felt, or experienced, and start digging into a story. Otherwise, many ideas come from talking with other creatives, mixing up concepts, and seeing what happens.

Evan, Editorial Director and author of Shed the Midnight: They come from a lot of different sources. I tend to write strange things so I’m often playing the “What if…” game. Like what if a random pebble fell from the sky into my mouth? What if a boy went into a field and discovered he had claws? What if someone stole a suit coat from a thrift store and found human teeth in the pocket? That sort of thing. I’m on the lookout for that strange bit that excites me. I collect those types of things and write them all down, even if I can’t get to it right then.

Inanna, Fall 2023 Intern: I wish I had a proper process for coming up with ideas, but they just come to me! Sometimes when I’m on a bus, sometimes when I’m in the shower. I’m currently working on my first novel, and I actually saw the title I’m using for it online—it’s a song title—and came up with the entire plot based off of that. It felt very otherworldly.

Sara, Fall 2023 Intern: Most of my ideas for my poems and stories come from my refusal that the world will always be the way it is, and we have to accept it as such. To me, writing is a process of interrogation or manifesting magic where it might not otherwise be observed. One of my never-ending works-in-progress is a short story that satirizes the way the political, healthcare, and justice systems work in tandem to consume marginalized bodies. Another short story of mine flips the alien-invasion trope on its head to explore themes of colonization. I don’t think we should be forced to accept these things as necessary yet flawed parts of our humanity, and writing is my way of excavating and challenging these “truths.”

Aubrey, Fall 2023 Intern: For me, stories start as a desire to preserve a certain feeling or vibe. If it sticks in my mind for longer than a week, I’ll begin turning the sensation around in my mind. Sometimes it’s associated with a specific memory or idea and sometimes it’s not. The historical fiction novel I’m working on right now explores Japanese American identity in Hawaii, cultural memory across generations, and colonization. It started as a spark of grief and awe when I learned that my grandfather’s childhood nickname was “Cherry.”  

Q: Do you have a set routine for where and when you write? 

In Short:

  • Try out a few different times of day and see what works best for you.
  • Or maybe you’re the type to write whenever inspiration hits. If that’s the case, take Gina’s advice below and use the Notes app on your phone to jot down new ideas whenever and wherever they strike! 
  • Every writer’s routine is different. 

Valerie: Unfortunately, I write best between the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Midnight is the golden hour. I go to my office, light some incense, and write until I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m perpetually exhausted, and I do not recommend this approach.

Nate: My routine used to be to write for one to two hours after school or work each day, especially if I was working on something long form. I would put classic Twilight Zone episodes on Netflix for background noise, and just burrow into the world of the book. My favorite part of that routine was when, in wintertime, I would look up after two hours of work and see that the world had gone dark. These days, I don’t have a specific routine, but when I start a new project, I always fall into one.

Evan: I used to before I had kids. Now things are a bit more wild. But my preference is to write in the morning after I’ve read for about a half hour. That reading time is crucial. If I’m not reading I’m not writing. Now I steal time when I can.

Inanna: I wish! I’ve tried sticking to a routine before and that just does not work for my brain. I write whenever I’m in the mood. I’d like to try again to establish some sort of discipline though.

Gina, Junior Editor: I wish I could say I was organized enough to have a writing routine. I tend to be loose and follow inspiration when it hits. When it comes, it comes. Even in the middle of the night—thank goodness for the Notes app! I’m most consistent in writing where I’m comfortable: on my bed and writing late at night and way past my bedtime—from midnight to 2 a.m., for example.

There’s something to be said about the saying “write drunk, edit sober”—but in my mind, it’s a metaphor for, essentially, loose writing. (Drink responsibly, please!) Late at night, after a long day, when everyone else is asleep, my writing is more uninhibited than usual. I don’t overthink what I write because I’m exhausted. It’s easier for me to tap into the story and get into the “flow.” I remove myself from the equation and let the world and characters speak for themselves—I’m just writing down what I see. So, that’s what works best for me! Also, routine-wise, I have memory problems, so I use trackers to see my progress and pace. It’s fun to look back and see how far I’ve come. Or what problems I continue to make. 

Sara: Setting up a consistent writing routine is one of my eternally unresolved New Year’s Resolution items! I do set aside at least half an hour to read everyday, which has been so helpful in my growth as a writer. I took an amazing poetry workshop with Jenny Qi, and learned that you don’t have to write poetry everyday to be a great poet—it certainly helps, but a lot of the work is subconscious, and discovering new poems to read and engaging with the world around you is just as important.

Aubrey: These days I try to write in the early mornings before work. Doing this during summer was very doable for me but since Daylight Savings ended, I’ve been struggling more and more (it’s too cold to leave my bed).  

Q: What happens for you first: determining characters, plot, setting, theme, or other?

In Short:

  • It happens in different ways for different writers. 
  • The important thing is, once you have a story, grab onto it and write it out as soon as you can so you don’t lose that thread of motivation.

Valerie: Usually a concept seed comes first. But then, because my longform fiction is voice-driven, I’ll free-write diary entries that channel a specific voice. That voice creates the character, the conflict, and the world.

Nate: I usually start with the theme. One of my books is about the disillusionment of late-20s/early-30s adulthood, another is about a gig worker who has to work just to literally recharge his synthetic body each week or he’ll die, another is about a future utopia and one person who selfishly brings back individualistic capitalism. When I know what a book is about thematically, then I start to imagine the world, the people in that world, their pasts, their legacies, and their individual motives.

Evan: For me it’s all about the characters and setting, which I guess equals situation? I don’t tend to know what characters are going to do before I start writing, but if I have an idea of who they are and where they are, the rest comes together. I know “situation” isn’t one of the options but that’s what I’ll go with.

Inanna: For me, my characters always have been and always will be the most important part of my stories. While I do sometimes come up with vague plots first, more often than not, I get ideas for characters, relationships, and/or character arcs and build my worlds around them. They are what’s important, so they are in control.

Sara: Typically, the theme or idea comes first; it’s usually something that’s been swimming in my head for weeks, and as soon as it comes to me more developed, I can’t focus on anything else until I get a first draft down! Otherwise, the characters come first. When I discovered the theme for the most recent cycle of Dually Noted was “When Memories Become Currency,” I immediately had this idea of an artist who hoards her memories like one would hoard money or property. I had been primarily writing poetry at that time, but as soon as that character came to me, I knew I had to write a prose piece about her before her story escaped me.

Aubrey: For me, characters and theme develop first and simultaneously. I also usually have a general sense of setting, but I don’t refine it until after I develop characters and theme. Plot typically comes last; I struggle with it the most. 

Maribel’s Tip: The best way to get started writing is to just do it. Check out the “Exercise” at the bottom of this blog to put what you’ve learned to the paper!

Q: What does the outlining process look like for you? 

In Short:

Whether you spend a lot of time outlining or very little, having some kind of structure for your story—whatever form that story takes—can help you write it. A few ways to help yourself do this:

  • Stay tuned for upcoming additions to this blog series that specifically go over story structures, such as the Hero’s Journey, and outlining. 
  • Concentrate on one or more of these story essentials: character, setting, theme, and/or plot. 
  • Decide if you want a long, detailed outline or just a basic one. 
  • Remember that outlines are malleable and ever-changing—don’t be afraid to adjust it as you write!

Valerie: I was a diehard pantser for most of my life, but now I outline religiously. I write story beats on index cards. Each card answers two questions: what does the character want here, and why don’t they get it?

Nate: Once I have my theme, characters, and setting, I start plotting. My outlines are often a loose flow at first, just to get all the ideas and events out of my brain and onto the page. Then I refine the outline, identify the themes of each chapter or section, and cut or alter scenes and moments. Then I test the whole thing for flow and consistency, and revise. Even when I’m writing the draft, I will reference my outline while also changing it whenever characters say things or take actions I didn’t anticipate that require altering the course.

Evan: For longer projects I tend to work toward images. I know I want a random static-y TV set in the forest. Or I know I want a sunbather to be approached by a man made out of hooks. But how we get there is always interesting. I wouldn’t recommend this process because it leads to a lot of rewriting and removal of scenes, but part of the joy for me is the discovery along the way.

Inanna: For me, the outlining process is very messy and very long. I don’t like starting anything unless I think I know every single thing that’s going to happen from beginning to end. I have google docs that I call “messy outlines” and go wild in there, dropping screenshots from conversations and bits and pieces of ideas until I can make something coherent. Outlining is the best part for me!

Sara: For poetry, it is incredibly messy—picture scattered bits of paper scribbled with incomprehensible notes or transcribed phrases from my phone’s Notes app. I prefer writing first drafts by hand, so I’ll stitch all those messy thoughts together in a notebook, or if I’m really struggling, cut phrases out with scissors and glue them on the page until I’m satisfied. Between the first draft and revision, I like to take a long break; I find that grounding myself back in the real world and letting my ideas settle over time helps me refine what I really want readers to take away from a poem.

Aubrey: My outlining process is Virgo chaos. I have a really hard time writing when I don’t know where I’m going, so I need to have a solid outline before I can write anything. Characters, scenes, and bits of world float around in a nebulous haze as I figure out my theme. Then, when I’ve marinated a story for long enough I’ll try to fit everything into a preexisting plot structure (Three Act or Kishotenketsu) just to get a semblance of pacing. From there, I develop the first act then draft, then rinse and repeat with the next act and the next act until I have an outline and a finished draft.  

Maribel’s Note: What’s a “pantser,” you may ask? The Write Practice outlines the three different kinds of writers here, but essentially, a panster writes without a plan, a plotter works from an outline, and a plantser does a little bit of both. All three ways are valid, especially when you’re first starting out, but at some point it does become useful to have an outline of your work—particularly if it’s longer, like a novel. 

Q: To you, what makes a good story? 

In Short: 

Great stories tend to have these three things in common: 

  • They stay with you after reading. 
  • They have strong characters. 
  • They feel both inevitable and surprising. 

Below, our writers expand on what this means and why these things lend themselves to great stories. 

Valerie: A good story stays with you. From a craft perspective, that means that the reader needs to be invited into the story experience enough that they are personally invested in the outcome.

Nate: I think if a story sticks with you after you finish reading it, it has succeeded. There are a lot of books written with differing levels of difficulty, vocabulary, and allusions, but when you step away from it feeling something, that’s the success. I’ve mourned the end of my time with characters. I’ve wanted to reread a story hoping it would end differently. I’ve spent days and weeks feeling personally changed by a story. That’s the success right there. That’s all I ever hope to do for a reader when I write.

Evan: I like to be engaged emotionally and intellectually, which can take many forms. I like experimental work if there’s a reason behind the experimentation, or better, the story is best told that way. I also love pretty writing and if there’s strong images and beautiful language I’ll be hooked. There are so many ways to tell a story and I generally am drawn to situations and characters I haven’t read before. I love to read work in translation, and I read a lot of new poetry. If I feel like I understand the world the author has put me in and that the author is in control of where we’re going that’s normally enough to keep me reading. If the ending is perfect after looking back at the whole story then I’ll be in love.

Inanna: Characters are what make the story. There is no such thing as a good story without strong, well-developed characters. It doesn’t matter how good the plot or the idea is. If there aren’t good characters to follow, I won’t care about it. 

Gina: Character, no question. As humans, I think we connect with others’ stories and find that social connection is key—regardless of what species the characters are, or if they’re sentient at all. I need a good character to latch onto, whether it’s apparent through the story’s voice, the character’s actions, dialogue, or more. Thankfully there are so many ways to establish character. Characters are the most important story element to me because other story elements usually follow them—plot happens to or because of a character or is connected to a character in some way, for example—so character(s) take the lead. Establishing compelling characters early on and giving readers a reason to care about them, generally by showing a bit of vulnerability and/or showing their motivations, is, to me, the best way to keep readers coming back for more.

Sara: I took a class on the Latin American Short Story, and my professor suggested that a successful short story ending should feel shocking, yet inevitable. I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head ever since! In my favorite short stories, every word counts, or hints at its inevitable ending. For longer pieces, like novels, I still really admire elements of surprise or horror, but I also enjoy feeling connected to a character. My favorite novels have all left me feeling sad that I have to leave its world and characters behind, longing for the opportunity to read it for the first time again. For novels, short stories, and poetry alike, I adore works that haunt like a ghost and linger in my head for days, or even weeks, on end.

Aubrey: In writing, I think it’s the sincere desire to explore. In reading, I think it’s anything that stretches the way you think or feel, whether that’s changing your world view or making you feel a delight that you didn’t know you had in you.  

Q: What approach do you take to editing your work? 

In Short: 

No matter how you approach editing, it is an essential part of the writing process. After you have a first draft, the majority of the rest of your time will likely be spent editing. You can: 

  • Utilize other readers to help you make edits.
  • Tackle it yourself slowly over time.
  • Employ other tools to help you edit your work. 

Valerie: I’m a huge fan of shitty first drafts. Write a flaming pile of garbage, and then edit it toward your intentions. Editing is more important than drafting, but you can’t edit unless you draft. I’d say I spend 85% of my writing time editing.

Nate: The main things I utilize for editing are time and trusted readers. To avoid being precious about my work, I have friends who will read for me and tell me straight to cut a paragraph, a page, a chapter. It’s never fun to hear, but I always listen because my readers get what I’m trying to accomplish and have the distance to look at the work objectively. Time is the other key. I will usually set a book aside for one month after I finish a first draft. Then I can go back and read it almost anew, see the holes, find the places where the bones need more meat, and see where there’s excess.

Evan: I write and rewrite and rewrite. My normal process looks like this: Write the bones of a scene. Go back now that I know what I’m writing about and flesh out that scene. Go through again and add more. Put in too much and cut some out. Realize the story doesn’t need that scene and put it into a different folder.

Inanna: This is something else I’m working on right now. I used to micromanage every little sentence as I wrote, editing things before and after writing sessions over and over again. It was a hellish loop. Now I’m trying to just write and ignore what’s been previously written, and add new ideas or portions to separate docs. That way if I have an idea, that’s fine, but I won’t go back to what I’ve already written and get stuck in another loop.

Sara: For poetry, it’s incredibly helpful for me to switch mediums between each revision. For example, if the first draft was hand-written, the next revision needs to happen on my laptop or typewriter. That way, it’s easy for my brain to catch any phrases that sound awkward or unpolished. I took a life-changing screenwriting workshop with Josefina López, and she said this is especially important for freewriting, because handwriting your first draft allows you to access your subconscious in a way that typing can’t. Reading your work aloud is also helpful, especially for poetry, where a piece’s musicality and sound can inform the poem’s content. Most importantly, I try to give myself a lot of space and compassion in between revisions. I can easily get consumed by my own ideas or (sometimes harsh) expectations, so forcing myself to take my time is essential.

Aubrey: I like to edit while drafting. I wrote a shitty draft for NaNoWriMo once, and then when I went back to edit the thing, I got so overwhelmed by its mess that I quit and felt horrible. Nowadays, I start a writing session by lightly editing the chapter once before going back to drafting. If I feel like my words are workable on a line level, it makes the developmental edit much more digestible for me.  

Q: How do you know when a story is finished? 

In Short: 

  • There’s no formula for this one. 
  • Usually it’s just a feeling, and that feeling isn’t always correct—that’s what editing is for!

Valerie: I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Nate: It’s weird. It’s a feeling. And it doesn’t always happen. I have had stories and books in which the final page feels so perfectly final. I’ll type that last sentence and feel complete. Other times, I’ll simply run out of momentum—not giving up on the story, but more that the story winds down in a way that feels less under my direct control. What’s funny is that neither case means the work is inherently good or that the feeling is correct, but I always chase that “perfectly final feeling.”

Evan: With shorter projects I’m looking for a moment when the narrator or main character makes a choice they can’t come back from, even if it’s small. Once I’m there it’s almost the end. Then I want that choice demonstrated through action. Once I know the end then I can go back to the beginning and plant all the little bits that make the ending resonant. At least that’s the hope. I’m a tinkerer by nature. I’ll keep messing with a story long after it’s reasonable, which is part of why I submit so much. Once I’m done, I give it another read and send it off and then start on the next one.

Inanna: To me, a story is finished when I can put my book down, smile, and say, “wow,” whether it’s one of the short stories I wrote or a novel I read. You get this feeling of emptiness because it’s over, but you still feel full because, well, it’s over.

Sara: My gut instinct is to say that I rely on my gut instinct, especially for poetry, but that’s not a very helpful answer! I think getting an outside perspective has been incredibly helpful for me, whether that’s sharing drafts with my partner or in my writing groups. I love to ask what people think my story or poem is about, or what main idea they’re left with after reading. Everyone will take away something new and different, but if no one picks up on the main themes or ideas that motivated a piece, I know I have more work to do.

Aubrey: I usually know a story is finished when I read it through and the vibes feel good (no nitpicks about pacing, description, or voice). 

Q: If you had to choose just one thing that is the most essential to your writing process, what would it be? 

In Short: 

Our writers find that their best tips for navigating the writing process is to ensure you:

  • Feel excited by the story. 
  • Have life experience. 
  • Read, read, read. 
  • Use a timer. 
  • Remind yourself why you write.
  • Listen to music.

Valerie: So, my partner does this thing where he laughs at his own jokes before he tells them. I know it’s going to be a good joke when he laughs so hard he can’t even tell it. It’s adorable. I try to approach my writing that way. If I’m not excited, on the edge of my seat, cringing with the character, or laughing at my own jokes, it’s not working.

Nate: Life experience. I mentioned eavesdropping for story ideas. The other good thing for stories and books is seeing the world, living outside your bubble, and doing things that make you a little uncomfortable. I’m not talking about thrill-seeking or abject hedonism, just that, as one of the best ways to know how to write a break up is to love and lose, the best way to write a feeling of exploration and curiosity is to go out and do it. Living life inspires living fiction and I believe that the best books and stories are the ones that feel honestly and truly alive.

Evan: Reading. I know when my writing is feeling stagnant or if I’m stuck somewhere it’s nearly always because I’m not reading as much (or as well) as I should. I have writing buddies who will ask me specifically if I’m reading something good when I’m stuck and the answer is always no. Then it’s time to head to the library.

Inanna: A timer, through and through. Oftentimes, knowing that there is a stopping point is the only thing that helps me get started.

Sara: I struggle with severe imposter syndrome, so what’s been most essential is to remind myself of why I write. I write because I enjoy it, I write to understand myself and the world around me, and I write to make others feel less alone. Literature provided me with so much solace when I was a teenager, and I want to extend that to others who may have similarly struggled. I often remind myself that if just one person reads my work and feels seen, understood, or less alone, then that is all that matters.

Aubrey: Music. Like a lot of writers, I like to make playlists that fit the vibes of the piece I’m writing! It helps me to relax and makes it easier for me to get into a flow state.  

Ready to tell your story?

When it comes to writing, there’s no one set process or starting point that will always work, 100 percent of the time. Every writer is different and so every process is different. But you can use the insights and tips above from our writers for ideas on how you might try to get started writing your stories—whether that means timing writing sessions, staying up late to make the most of your creative juices, or joining a writing group to get edits and inspiration. Ultimately, we recommend starting here—learning about what stories are and tackling monthly exercises with us as you commence your writer’s journey. 


For the next week, spend 20 to 30 minutes each day keeping a journal. You can write about your previous day, envision the day ahead, jot down ideas stuck in your mind, share opinions, recall a conversation you overheard on the bus, or anything you feel like writing about. On the final day, look back at what you’ve written and see if there’s a story somewhere in there.

What Is Storytelling?

A Comprehensive Guide to Telling Stories, Part One

Here at the Brink Literacy Project, we view storytelling as a key part of our mission. We are devoted to utilizing its power to affect the lives of people on the brink—anyone who is marginalized in society or otherwise lacks access to traditional means of learning about and employing the art of storytelling. But what exactly is storytelling? And how does it have the power to change lives? 

The National Storytelling Network defines storytelling as “an ancient art form and valuable form of human expression.” Telling stories is inherent to human nature. It has been around since the earliest humans roamed the earth. It is found in every culture and era of history. Storytelling has been a part of human communication for as long as humans have communicated. 

But that doesn’t mean stories have always taken the same form. Thousands of years ago, cave drawings emerged as some of the earliest forms of telling stories. From then, storytelling has evolved over time, taking shape through oral traditions, the written word, and, in today’s world, digital media. Stories are told in many different ways for many different reasons. In this new blog series from Brink, F(r)iction’s Facts of Fiction, we’ll be providing lessons each month on how to write stories from start to finish. No matter your medium—poetry, flash fiction, short story, novel, screenplay, or other—you can use this blog series to better understand storytelling and start writing. 

Embark on this epic journey with us now and discover what, exactly, storytelling is.  

Storytelling and Communication

Storytelling and human communication are inherently intertwined. A study in Nature Communications found that storytelling serves as a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms. Storytellers themselves also reap the benefits, seeing improved chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support, and having healthy offspring.

In short, storytelling is perhaps our most powerful and essential tool for forming communities. It has played a key role in human evolution, helping shape many of the behaviors, beliefs, and structures that make up the world we live in today. 

Storytelling and Psychology

Storytelling is also deeply entwined with the human psyche. Scholars have noted how human psychology and storytelling are connected, particularly from a teaching standpoint. An article in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology discusses the power of storytelling as pedagogy. 

Brink has seen this in practice first hand through our educational programs that center around storytelling, such as the Frames Prison Program, F(r)iction in the Classroom, and Publishing Internship Program. Through storytelling, we as humans learn how to think critically, express ourselves, empathize and connect with others, and aspire for new dreams.

The Impact of Storytelling

There’s no doubt that stories influence our emotions. Ever cried during a movie? Laughed? Got goosebumps? If so, the story has done its job of influencing your emotions. There’s also evidence that stories expand our ability to empathize with others. Given what we’ve learned about stories so far, this makes sense. Stories broaden our imaginations by putting us in someone else’s shoes through the narrative.

Stories also have incredible educational value. Storytelling has been used to teach people things for almost as long as stories themselves have existed. Think about Aesop’s Fables for example. The classic fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” has many interpretations, but today it’s often used in the classroom to demonstrate the pitfalls of arrogance and to teach the idea that “slow and steady wins the race”—don’t rush things or you may fail due to your own arrogance. 

Beyond this, stories are memorable. Because they’re memorable, lessons taught in the form of stories have a stronger chance of sticking with the reader. 

Storytelling for Change

Brink believes storytelling is a powerful transformative process—that is, the story the writer tells and the way they tell it transforms them. It is one of the most powerful tools we have for self-empowerment. By telling a story, especially one’s own story, our experiences can feel more concrete and valid. Beyond that, we can use storytelling to examine, connect with, and influence our experiences to better understand our trauma, choices, and who we strive to become. In that sense, storytelling can work as therapy created by ourselves.

Storytelling is also a powerful tool for empathy and social change. Narratives are a worldview. They start wars and save lives. At Brink, we do our best to elevate voices that might otherwise be neglected or silenced. In our educational programming, our students have explicit discussions about what stories should be told and the misconceptions they seek to correct. We hand them a megaphone and ask, “What do people need to hear?” 

Distant political decisions, the opinions of the public, and the judgment of strangers profoundly impact our students’ lives. Effective and empathetic storytelling has the power to change laws, unify a community, or help someone self-advocate for the care they need. In storytelling for change, both the writer and the audience are transformed in profound ways.  

Storytelling’s Impact Through Time

Storytelling transcends cultures and generations, leaving a marked impact through time. Let’s take Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory for example. This work is one of the first to take the many tales about the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and combine them together into a written work that forms a “complete” story. The Arthurian legend has had a clear impact on public and, particularly, literary consciousness, especially in the West. The lore has inspired multiple iterations and adaptations, from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King to the spoof movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail

There are countless examples of stories making an indelible impact on culture like this, from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights to The Odyssey to Journey to the West. Ultimately, while the details of these stories may transform over time, affected by the social and political environment in the moment, they are retold over and over throughout history and culture. 

Some argue, in fact, that there are only seven possible stories to write in this world. Others argue there are only three, or thirty-six, or six, and so on. However many there may be, storytelling has clearly been the crux of culture and communication for humans throughout history.

Storytelling Across Mediums

Stories can take many forms. We mentioned before that the earliest evidence of stories are drawings on cave walls. These pieces of past civilizations left behind prove that storytelling has always been a part of being human. But how has the form stories take transformed over time?

Oral Storytelling

Defined as “the telling of a story through voice and gestures,” the oral tradition of passing down stories has likely been around for as long as humans could speak. Even after the written word was created, stories have been passed down through generations by word of mouth. Think of the family lore learned from your grandparent over the dinner table, or the spooky tale shared over a burning campfire between friends.

Cultures from across the globe have a long and pronounced history of oral storytelling. Aboriginal Australians have storytelling rituals believed to date back almost 18,000 years. The Choctaw people, a tribe native to North America, have an oral storytelling tradition that goes back generations. West Africans, Jewish people, the seanchaí from Ireland, and native Hawaiians all have their own oral traditions as well.

The myths, legends, fables, religion, and more passed down via oral traditions have impacted the way people think, act, and tell stories—whether the stories themselves are true or not. Spoken from generation to generation, these stories are used to pass down cultural traditions and have helped shape society into what it is today. 

The Written Word

Evidence shows that written language dates back about 9,000 years. The earliest known examples of writing come from the Sumerians in 3400 B.C. Around the same time, the Egyptians began using hieroglyphics as well. 

The evolution from oral traditions to the written word provided stories with permanence. Spoken aloud, storytellers have a lot of opportunity for change and embellishment. The slip of a word, the leaving out of a detail can mean a story changes a lot when it passes from one person to the next. The written word is less easy to change and more easily referenced. The creation of the printing press in 1436 further impacted the power of the written word. From there, newspapers, mass market paperback novels, science journals, and so much more have been key to spreading stories in the form of the written word far and wide. 

Digital Storytelling

Since the mid-twentieth century and the birth of the Information Age, we’ve introduced digital forms of storytelling. Social media has advanced and truncated stories in ways that are still being studied. The internet has allowed more stories to reach more people than ever before. New forms of storytelling, such as day-in-the-life videos, have allowed more people than ever to become storytellers themselves and on a broader platform. Brands themselves have become storytellers, as the world of business utilizes the power of storytelling to sell products and services. We live in an age not just of unlimited information, but also of unlimited storytelling. 

Types of Stories

In the best stories, a single line tells a story itself. A single paragraph contains a beginning, middle, and end. A single scene introduces and resolves a problem. Stories can be told in many ways, from visual paintings, sculptures, photography, and video to songs—whether they have lyrics or not—to poems and epic sagas. We can’t cover them all there, so let’s briefly dive into the different kinds of stories that F(r)iction publishes.

Storytelling Mediums in Short

Think of the different forms of written word storytelling as a Matryoshka doll. On the outside, you have the longest, fullest-breadth story you could possibly imagine—an epic saga like The Tales of Genji or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Within that, you have novels, such as Journey to the West or Don Quixote. Then, you have novellas—generally speaking, about 10,000 to 40,000 words in length. Many famous works, including Siddhartha, Animal Farm, and Bartleby the Scrivener technically fall into this category. Finally, you have the short story, flash fiction, and poetry as shown below. Ultimately, all of these are just smaller versions of each other. Or, you can look at it the other way—The Epic of Gilgamesh is really just a bunch of short stories put together into an overarching narrative to create an epic. Creative nonfiction and comics are just different forms of the other mediums that can be as long or short as needed. 


Think of a poem as a very, very short, lyrical story. Take Joe Dunthorpe’s “Boating” as an example. This poem tells the story of Charon, the ferryman that takes dead souls across the river Styx in Greek mythology, on one of his many journeys across the Styx. 

Here, we have an established character, Charon, in an established setting, on a boat in the river Styx, following the plot of dropping a fishing rod into the river, taking the souls across it, and then returning to find that he’s caught a fish. Each line that Dunthorpe writes in the poem lends itself to the telling of the story. No words are wasted, and the punctuation and spacing of the words on the page are a part of the story being told. This is poetry at its best, where form, format, and words come together to form a perfect story. 

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a very short story, defined by Brink as 1,000 words or fewer. Take a look at “The Forgiveness Machine” by Joy Baglio, a piece that follows the character Pam as she hesitates to use the forgiveness machine for a lifetime. Even though flash fiction tells a story in just a few paragraphs, it must still feel complete and contain both conflict and resolution. 

Short Stories

The short story has an interesting and often debated history. Prospect Magazine purports that the earliest modern short story is Walter Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” published in 1827. Whether that is true or not, the generally accepted length for short stories is about 1,000 to 10,000 words. F(r)iction accepts submissions between 1,000 and 7,500 words. Like flash fiction, short stories aim to tell a complete story in a shorter space than, say, a novel. Every line and scene must lend itself to telling the story because there’s no room to waste. Check out “Interstellar Space” by Scott O’Conner to better understand what a short story can look like. 

Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction (also referred to as CNF) tells a story just like any of our other genres. However, this story must be based in truth and reflect an accurate retelling of the author’s real-life experiences. Crucially, it uses craft techniques of fiction to tell nonfiction—unlike other forms of nonfiction such as biography. 

F(r)iction accepts work up to 6,500 words and, while it is nonfiction, we ask that it still contains a “weird” or “strange” element matching with F(r)iction’s other work. Read “To Get To Sleep” by Benjamin Kinney to get an idea of what we look for in CNF. 

Another note for this kind of story is that it can come in many forms of its own: flash fiction, memoir excerpt, personal essay, or braided narrative to name a few. The main differentiator from other genres is that it reflects true rather than fictional events. 


Comics are stories told using words and, importantly, pictures. When thinking about comics, perhaps the funny and sometimes silly comic strips published in newspapers come to mind, or else a favorite graphic novel. Either is correct, but comics as a medium take many forms. The MoMA in New York City notes that, “Any work of art that divides into two or more side-by-side parts is formally a comic.” 

F(r)iction publishes at least one every issue because we see comics as an essential form of storytelling. For this reason, our Frames Prison Program centers around our students crafting their own short graphic memoir. To get an idea of the kind of comics F(r)iction publishes, take a look at “Personal Mythology” by Tracey Maye, with art by Arthur Asa, Nakoo, and Florian Shahab. 

Crafting a Compelling Story

Today’s definition of a “story” feels quite set in stone. But this hasn’t always been the case. In general, stories seem to share three major elements: character, plot, and setting. These three pieces make up pretty much every story—and that’s why getting them right is so key to telling a good one. 

Let’s take a story that serves as the prototype for the modern novel as an example: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Written in 1605, Cervantes wrote this work to satirize the idea of chivalry and chivalric romance. Don Quixote tells the story of its titular character on his epic “quest” to follow the chivalric ideals of the books he’s read. 


Cervantes succeeded at creating a character in Don Quixote so impactful that it led to a new word: quixotic, meaning “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, and impractical.” This alone tells you all you need to know about Don Quixote as a character. In his impact, we see the effect that a good character has on an audience. People care about characters in a story more than anything else in a story. Characters serve as the heart of the story, and their relationships, personality, and struggles will keep us reading even if we, for example, aren’t an errant knight from the seventeenth century. 


Plot is the main events of a story devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence. Rather than a specific structure, plot is simply which characters need to be present in a scene in order to share information and have events take place so that the story follows its intended order. Most of the time, the plot comes together as it’s written and is not necessarily planned out before the start of a story. Of course, there are exceptions, but every good story needs major plot revisions after that first rough draft. 

Continuing with Don Quixote as our example, we know Cervantes wrote purposefully to illustrate the demise of chivalry. To do so, he created a character who lives in fantasy while fully believing and following the code of chivalry. Over time, the events of the story and the other characters present in it are used to burst his bubble. Every moment that happens in the story serves this purpose and leads to the conclusion. 


All stories must exist in a time and place. And the reader of the story must be privy to this information as near to the beginning of the story as possible. Whether that time and place is familiar to the reader or alien, the context that setting provides in a story is essential to the reader understanding it.

Don Quixote takes place in the early 1600s in La Mancha, Spain. The concept of chivalry would have been well-known to readers of the time. A modern adaptation of this novel may seek to translate the concept of chivalry into something more familiar to today’s audience, such as a set of religious ideals. Or else the storyteller would simply take the time to explicate the code of chivalry so that the audience understands it. Either way, key information such as the time and location will go a long way in ensuring a well-told story.

Pursuit of a Problem

There is one more essential aspect to storytelling that all of the above help make up. As Haruki Murakami puts it in IQ84, “the role of the story [is], in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form.”

For Cervantes, this problem is the illusion of chivalry and those who follow it. Don Quixote’s obsession with chivalry leads to the events of the story taking place and forms the central conflict of the novel. Every story must have a conflict, and that conflict must result in a resolution. Whether the resolution actually resolves the conflict is up to the storyteller. But the importance of conflict and resolution cannot be understated. Characters in a story are doomed to be constantly in conflict because this is what makes stories so impactful. 

F(r)iction’s Facts of Fiction: Your Guide to Storytelling

As you can see, storytelling connects all of us. It has the power to change language, unite communities, and move causes forward. It comes in many forms, from the novel to the poem to the comic strip and much more. It has been around since before the written word. It is an educational tool and a way to bring people together. 

Our goal is to empower you, reader, to be the teller of your own stories. This is part one of a series of blogs the F(r)iction Log is releasing over the course of 2024 that can serve as your Storytelling 101. Whether you’re a beginner writer who’s unsure where to start, a seasoned writer looking for a refresher on the things you learned in school, or just curious about what it takes to tell great stories, we’re here for you. 

Over the course of this limited blog series we’ll delve into topics such as story structures, exposition, character and conflict, description, editing, and so much more. Come on this journey with us! Write your own stories and consider joining the National Novel Writing Month challenge in November. Even better—once you’re done with all these blogs and have written your story, submit your work to F(r)iction

November Staff Picks

Dominic Loise
Doctor Who: The Star Beast

Doctor Who: The Star Beast just landed for the BBC’s sci-fi series sixtieth anniversary.  The Star Beast ties in a lot of the show’s history in the special. For those unfamiliar with Doctor Who, it’s about a runaway alien with two hearts and a screwdriver traveling time and space fixing things that have go wrong.

The sixtieth anniversary special has big connections to past Doctor Who eras like the return of beloved actors and showrunners. It wouldn’t be a recent Doctor Who landmark anniversary without David Tennant returning to the role of The Doctor like he did for the fiftieth anniversary. Also returning this time, we have Catherine Tate as companion Donna Noble and writer Russell T. Davies, who relaunched the show in 2005.

Davies, Tate and Tennant bring a satisfying conclusion to the Doctor/Donna cliffhanger from their original run on the series and Davies writes a show which has an updated queer perspective for 2023 just like he did during 2005. For example, Davies original run on Doctor Who gave us the lgbtqia+ iconic character Captain Jack Harkness, who went on to star in his own series Torchwood. Doctor Who: The Star Beast introduces us to Donna’s daughter Rose Noble and this special is Rose’s human story as much as it is The Doctor & Donna’s adventure tale.

The Star Beast also honors Doctor Who’s history by adapting the story from one of the classic comics book stories, which was illustrated by Dave Gibbons (The Watchmen). The look of this special is comic book bubbly as the creators remember that Doctor Who is first and foremost a kids show for the whole family. To quote The Doctor, “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.” Doctor Who: The Star Beast is just what this longtime Whovian needed for their inner child.

Kaitlin Lounsberry
BOOP! The Musical 

With the saturation of the music theater, it’s rare I find myself gob smacked by a new play.  I’ve seen a LOT of Tony-winning musicals in my life (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Chicago, and Wicked to name a few) so I feel as if I have a good sense when I’ve stumbled upon a stellar play. Enter BOOP! The Musical, which delivered one of the best theater experiences I’ve had in years. Currently on the pre-Broadway track, BOOP! combined everything I, personally, look for in a play. Stunning costumes? Check.  Engaging plot that didn’t leave me restless halfway through? Check. Musically gifted cast? Triple check. What, or rather, who impressed me most, though, was Jasmine Amy Rogers. She literally embodied Betty Boop. From Betty’s mannerisms to her voice to her sassy, but sweet attitude towards life, Rogers captured the character and reminded me why Betty Boop has been a beloved animated character for decades. So, if you happen to find yourself in the Chicagoland area sometime in December and are looking to be dazzled, swing by the CIBC Theater for a Boop-oop-a-doop time. 

Gina Marie Gruss
Scavengers Reign

I love aliens. Give me aliens of all types, but in my mind, the more experimental (and less humanlike), the better. Give me alien landscapes. Alien physics. Alien worlds. Aliens.

Scavengers Reign gives me aliens in all ways—and executes the concept of “alien” flawlessly. It’s set on a strange world with diverse landscapes and amazing creatures. It does centralize the human experience, of course—it sells me on high stakes and drama and humanity, following a crashed spaceship’s passengers as they try to survive and get back home—but it’s also set against one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. It’s a slowburn; it takes its time with the characters and environment. It’s rewarding. (I mean, I selfishly want more, but its ending is satisfying—it’s a miniseries.) And did I mention that it has one of the coolest aliens and planets I’ve ever seen? I’m so excited that there’s more mature animation being produced! (Though it is ironic that it’s published on Max (formerly known as HBO Max).) I came to Scavengers Reign for the aliens. I stayed for the humanity.

Nate Ragolia
The Glass Cannon Podcast

As a tabletop gamer, I love the collaborative storytelling that emerges in the boundaries of a campaign. Through the rules of a system like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or others, a group of creative people can create, shape, and thrive in a magical, mystical world just by bringing a character to play, embodying them, and reacting as they would to the chance inherent to each roll of the dice.

I’ve been listening to The Glass Cannon Podcast for a few years now. I got invested in their first campaign, Giantslayer, after listening to a few episodes in 2017, and immediately started working my way through the story from start to finish, some 326+ episodes later. Now, with a whole network to their name, the Glass Cannon Podcast family are embarking on a brand new campaign titled Gatewalkers. They are only 12 episodes in now, so this would be as good a time as any to jump on board.

If you love tabletop gaming, or you just enjoy the cozy vibes of friends crafting story together while fighting monsters, cracking wise, and crying out in joy and sadness, this podcast just might be for you. It’s full of laughs and well-constructed tension (both within the story and between the hosts), and they take their stories and characters seriously, imbuing them with meaningful arcs and character growth that can set this podcast apart from other tabletop gaming shows. Plus, they’ll give you thousands of hours of entertainment for free… so what do you have to lose in checking it out?

A Review of A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon by Jessica Bell

When I first received my copy of A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon by Jessica Bell, I was taken aback by its lightness—its thin pages, unadorned vocabulary, occasional playfulness, and digestible plethora of one-page poems. Despite that, Bell packs so much feeling, admission, and sincerity in the conciseness of this collection without dancing around the messages she desires to communicate. Threading motherhood and everyday life with the string of struggle on a personal and larger level, the character of the boy becomes central, often directly modeled after Bell’s own son, who inspired her to write this assemblage of poetry, her first in almost a decade. As the boy becomes the mother’s world, so too, does the larger world fluctuate to introduce moments of uncertainty and reflection that pervade this collection of untitled poems. 

That intersection of boy and world emerges from the very beginning. The first poem opens with a peaceful image of nature as a one-line stanza: “A breath of earth hides in shallow water.” But then, the breath can’t hide for long, as Bell writes in the following stanza, “A small boy disrupts its peace as he plucks it / from its bed of black sand / to use as a skipping stone.” Already the boy acts as a force of change. As the skipping stone skids across the body of water, the presence of the mother and father introduces itself later in the poem, but not in the physical sense. In fact, Bell writes, “It lands next to a shell / that shimmers with the dreams / of the boy’s mother and father. // They dreamed he would live in the colours / of a rainbow, and smile. // The boy looks up. // The clouds part.” The connection between boy and world and an accompanying shift reappears in the clouds’ response, but in this final moment of innocence, the uncertainty of the dreams sunken in the water (though it shimmers) lasts beyond the end of the poem. This poem sets up the rest of the book well by encompassing what Bell seeks to explore: the seemingly small, in-between moments of life that hold in their gravity the uprooting of change and the lessons that follow.

Take, for example, the poem on page 30, a poem where the boy is not present, but his attitude and perspective are. Bell begins by writing, “Yucca leaf shadows / spread like fingers / across the balcony. // They yearn for sunshine / and stretch their limbs / toward the scorching light.” With the personification of the yucca leaf shadows, a sense of childlike curiosity exists in the way they grow on the balcony and tend toward the light. Bell eventually establishes tension in the second half of the poem when she writes, “In summer the balcony drowns in shadows, / but not human ones. / In winter it longs to be stroked again, / with their feather-like souls. // Sometimes, / I try to cast mine. // But the trees seem confused, / and the dragon flowers hide.” The speaker shows the same attitude of curiosity when she, too, seeks to cast her shadow as if it were a game, almost a tug-of-war with the yucca leaf shadows. This game, however, fades away due to a lesson remembered in the last stanza: “Humans and nature / are not great collaborators.” Such is an example of how Bell sustains the voice of experience amidst change. 

For poems like the aforementioned, risk abounds in the absence of the son, and the poem may feel disconnected from the rest of the collection. Even with the noticeable, sporadic detachment of a select few poems (like one that focuses on writing after drinking red wine), vulnerability blankets each piece. Bell achieves this through simple, clear language that spotlights her reflections and emotions. The potency of this vulnerability and the structure of some of the poems contribute to the feeling that we readers embody the role of a close friend. The simplicity and clarity of the language never wavers, which left me wondering about missed opportunities for experimentation with more complex language and sentence structures to mirror the intricate reflections lying underneath the surface of each moment. This language, then, can lean toward being too safe, familiar—even occasionally cliché—but this simultaneously nurtures the vulnerability and the reality of motherhood and sheer humanity that is the backbone of Bell and this book. After all, who can deny the love evident in the following lines of the poem on page 49: “He turns to face the window, / pressing his cheek / to my breast. / His baby smell a memory. / Or perhaps…not just yet.”

A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon fully displays a mother’s honest love as it contends with her growing son, a changing world, and her shifting attitudes and beliefs. While the language left me wanting, this collection of poems still proves resonant in its weaving of themes and emotions, which brings me to a reflection on the book’s front cover. The boy, the sun, and the tidal waves are not as separate as I initially thought. All three rise and fall in one way or another, and they keep doing so as time passes, highlighting a type of change that is more patient, alluding to the little moments that build this change. In the poem on page 41, Bell understands this fact when she writes, “How long does it take / to live in the moment? // One second.” The following question might be, “Do we ourselves understand this?”

An Interview with Chloe Gong

Chloe, what inspired you to write this book?

Immortal Longings is my adult debut. So there were a lot of big thoughts I was having about what is it that makes an adult concept different to a young adult concept. I had to make a conscious decision to make the switch. My instinct growing up and writing books was always to go for young adult, because it was what I was reading. It was the type of genre categorization that I knew best. Whereas when the idea for Immortal Longings first struck, it was the first concept I worked with that I knew that didn’t really fit into that coming-of-age story arc. There was nothing about it that felt like a teenage story anymore. I think that was because I came up with the idea when I was in my senior year of college. It was still the midst of Covid. So, I had come back on campus because doing zoom school was horrifying and bland. And the time zone was terrible; I didn’t go to class. My professors let me skip class because my professors were like “oh you’re in New Zealand.” And it also meant I was not learning a single thing. So, I came back for senior year and during winter break I was alone in my school housing apartment because everyone went home for the holidays. It gave me the idea of working with a very dense city setting, I guess because I was so isolated. Thinking about what it means to live with people literally breathing down your neck, that presence of breathing down your neck at any point. It was that feeling that first came to me as a story idea.

I had always been very inspired by the Kowloon Walled City that was torn down in Hong Kong in the 1990s. I had always wanted to work with some sort of fantastical story to do with that. I had originally been playing with a portal fantasy that didn’t work and then some other fantasy in YA that didn’t work, and I threw them out. Finally, for this I was thinking what if I made an adult setting because I am exploring a dense city setting and the bad aspects that come with it if there is a system ruling over it and the very human things that come with trying to survive in a place. That just kind of erupted into the world and then that joined up with the fact that I had debuted into YA with Romeo and Juliet and I had taken a Shakespeare class sophomore year, where I really, really loved studying Antony and Cleopatra. I thought there’s something very meta about using the two star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare tragedy cannon, but Antony and Cleopatra are so firmly adult. They are about power and obsession and grappling with the sort of the tug and pull of love. So, there was a lot of like, “ooh, I am going to make this so that the books are in conversation with each other just like how Shakespeare’s plays are in conversation with each other.” 

Very early on in the book when you’re describing the setting it’s as if the setting is its own character. I found it fascinating that you built the city where it is so tight and there’s suffering, but there’s no relief because there’s not enough oxygen to create relief.

Given that San-Er was kind of based on the Kowloon Walled City, it is the exact same kind of thing, because there is no space for civil unrest, it is another arm of an oppressive system that just kind of goes “well, that’s too bad.” 

What was it like to grapple with an inspiration that is so unruly that critics can’t even decide what it is about.

I think I decided I wanted to pluck out the character study between Antony and Cleopatra first and foremost. People can’t even agree if it is a tragedy. Is it historical? There are so many aspects about it. Shakespeare is doing so much in the play. It’s not like Romeo and Juliet where the themes are blatant. I was fascinated by comparison essays I was reading about Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. That led to an idea of meta type engagement as well, because I was reading an essay about how Antony and Cleopatra are essentially the adult versions of Romeo and Juliet but, as what happens when you reach adulthood, things suddenly become so much more complicated, right? Not that children’s lives aren’t complicated, but in a way, your coming of age is very much funneled down into one simple sort of self-discovery type goal. Whereas you reach adulthood and it’s suddenly about nation, it’s about interpersonal relationships, it’s about everyone around you. So, it was the characters of the play that fascinated me the most. 

Not to say I don’t love the intertwining of history as well. Like I really love the rise of the Roman Empire, which is why there are kind of bits and pieces that find their way into the world building of Immortal Longings. Whenever I pitch it, it’s the 90s of Hong Kong meets the rise of the Roman Empire. People are like, “what does that look like?” Well, we’ll see! You know so history made its way in through those aspects, but as far as the inspiration of Antony and Cleopatra is concerned, it gravitates towards the interpersonal relationship between Antony and Cleopatra or how the other characters, it’s not in the play so much, but Octavia the wife he left behind and his relationship with Augustus and then Octavian and Cleopatra’s serving woman and all those little character interactions are my favorite parts of the play. When I wanted to adapt it, it was like “how do I make those little characters feel like the source material but plucked in a completely new environment?” to kind explore, like, what would they become if you completely merged that around.

Talk to me about your writing process. Are you the kind of writer who is like “okay, I’ve gone through the entire play, I’ve outlined exactly how it’s going to line up with my new plot and then I sit down.” Do you sit down and let the characters come to you? 

A bit of both, I think. I’m a very chaotic writer, but I’m also very orderly. By that I mean, before I get into a first draft, I have everything very organized. My planning document for Immortal Longings is 20 pages long, because it’s the outline of the play, outline of my story, outline of every inspirational subtext that I’ve got going on, and then it’s basically the outline of everything I want to have happen in the further series. But then I’ll write the book, I’ll get everything into its base shape, and then I throw it all out. I need to do it first just to see what works and what doesn’t. Because when I visualize it as an outline, sure it works, it kind of makes sense to lay it all out, but the magic I love about writing is that sometimes things just work and sometimes they don’t. You don’t know what that will be until you do it.  I don’t really discover what the story is trying to say until I’ve done it once, and I see that things are not corresponding as they need to. And I kind of rip it up and do a second draft. And that second draft tends to be what I’m trying to say, and then the further drafts I’ll clean it up, and so on and so forth. But I need that chaotic tearing a book apart stage most times, sometimes there’s a structured book, and I don’t tear it apart that much, but I find that’s rarer than not.

Photo credit: JON STUDIO

How much of that first draft do you actually end up keeping?

I tend to start fresh. I open a new document, but I’ll put the old one next to it. So, I will pull lines and paragraphs. Because the writing is still there. But I need the new document, so I don’t feel married to the old structure. Because I found that if I keep that old document in and edit within it, I will kind of wimp out sometimes and just let the things sit in their old structure. But if I open a new document, I can be like well these chapter orders don’t work at all. So, I’ll tear it apart and start again.

Your word-by-word writing is extraordinary, it’s lucious, it pulls you in. Is that something that comes through in the first draft and you know your voice immediately?

I do think my word by word tends to mostly come in the first draft. I think partially because I have been writing for so long now that it is a bit easier to get what I want to say out there into the sentence level form. When I was first setting out when I was much, much younger there was kind of a discrepancy between what I saw in my head and what eventually I put on the paper because I just wasn’t as practiced yet in describing the things that I saw in my head. But now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I think, the first go at it gets a bit close. There will be bits where there are just pieces missing, where I’m like “that doesn’t sound quite right but let me just put it down first.” So, when I do the second draft migration I tend to go back, I’ve got a fresh pair of eyes, because of the first draft. I’ll never go back and edit the first draft, I’ll either do it all again and I’ll go back. So, by the time it’s the second draft it’s probably been a few months since I’ve seen it and I can see what I was saying there now and I can kind of adjust the words slightly. But I would say that most of my wording, if I am keeping it, probably remains as is. 

You mesh so many genres in this story, you have historical geo-politics to fantasy to monarchy systems to sci-fi. Did all of those ideas come together in outlining? 

I’m a cross genre writer. Even with my young adult books I have always been doing that. So, with These Violent Delights I originally pitched that as just a historical and it was later on that I was talking to my agent and she was like “no, we can cross this as fantasy, you have a monster rampaging the city.” And I was like, “yeah, yeah, you’re right.”  These Violent Delights is historical sci-fi, and then Foul Lady Fortune, even more so, is a historical sci-fi thriller, which, I found that when you throw too many genres at people, their eyes kind of glaze over. So, we were like “yes, this is YA fantasy” to kind of tidy things up. It is kind of the same with Immortal Longings. It is pitched as my kind of official adult fantasy debut, but there is so much about it that is, it feels different than what you expect when you say, “I’m picking up a fantasy novel.” I knew from the get-go that I wanted the world to feel like something 90s inspired, there was technology, but there is not technology that we recognize for our modern day. There is a magic system of sorts, but it’s not magic, it’s genetic. It’s something just that is part of their world. So fantasy is kind of just the little slot that it falls into because it has the sort of archetypes.

So much of your work is deeply tied to what makes someone them. How does identity exist in this world? And what was it like to explore identity when you can literally discard your body? 

To me it was this investigation into how different people value their identity as it ties to personhood. It’s a reflection of our world where people don’t jump around, you just have one body, but I still think that sort of spectrum exists and is reflective of how people perceive themselves. Some people think of their mind as who they are, and they don’t care about outer perception. Other people are very very sensitive to external perception.

What do you think you would do if you could jump bodies?

I don’t know if I would. I might be a Calla. I might be somebody who is really stuck to myself. If I had to, would jump into any random man in the street, I just want to see what it was like.

Do you think you would choose a stranger over someone you knew?

If it’s someone I knew, I’d be controlling them, and that’s weird. A stranger, they never have to know.

How did the transition to adult feel for you as a writer, versus your preliminary work? Did it feel easier? Was it harder? Was it unexpected? 

On a craft level, I wrote the book in my usual voice. So, I don’t think it was particularly harder than any of the other manuscripts that came before it. But on an emotional level, it was hard, because I had a lot of self-doubt. Because I switched to adult and since I was still writing it at 21, it gave me a huge, crippling sense of imposter syndrome. But I was just really, really going through on a personal level, like, am I enough of an adult? Do I know how to do my taxes?  Which led to this new step in my career, where I was like “oh god, am I going to be able to do the adult genre?” So, I just had to do it; I just had to take the dive. I knew the story couldn’t be young adult, it just wouldn’t work, that kind of atmosphere is not something that feels like a teenager would care about it. I think it’s something very many adults care about more. So, I need my audience to be adult. Otherwise, it was a lot of fun getting that freedom to write for adults. I love writing for young adults, but there’s always a little box that I kind of refuse to step out of, because there are certain things that I don’t think are as interesting to teenagers. When you write for an adult sphere, and you can get a bit more morbid. The same way that growing up kind of unlocks a box for you to think of the world a different way. It was a lot of fun but also very scary.

Want to read what we thought of Immortal Longings? Check out Marizel Malan’s review.

A Review of Love Letters from an Arsonist by David van den Berg

Setting and self are at the center of David van den Berg’s poetry collection Love Letters from an Arsonist. Van den Berg’s poems are rooted in a southern gothic tone borrowed from generations of people who have been contained by their environment, just like the fantasy creatures he describes lurking in the dark shadows. The metaphysical and mystical are both misfigured by the surroundings of the Florida outskirts as van den Berg tries to process the environments around him: natural, unnatural, and familial. 

The collection is divided into three parts. The first two sections examine the anger in feeling powerless and the immobility found in the South. The third section travels past the self-righteousness of places rooted in traditional values when resisting the benefits of modernization, and moves on to confront the act of self-loathing. Each section excavates and explores loneliness until the only option is to rise above our environment and change the story, rather than continue the same narrative of previous generations.

Salt River Blues is the first section of poems and takes a closer look at the underbelly of what haunts us when reflecting on our monstrous selves. Among immobile people wishing for less enlightened times, it gives a sense that America has moved past the ancient deities—but some immortal legends such as European mythical creatures, voodoo spells, and Lovecraft tales still wander these backroads. There are allusions to this in the title poem of this section, “mudcats sing ‘bout mermaids what grow whiskers and choose tobacco over princes.” Van den Berg’s poems also give the sense of growing up around people pushed to the fringes of commercial society. The men are portrayed as sons of Argonauts, landlocked in trailers, narrating dated folklore around campfires. The women, on the other hand, appear as daughters of Circe who know the unspoken ways of dealing with problems. 

Mythical creatures are pickled and morphed while God drinks moonshine from empty mason jars as we transition into the second section, The Midnight Gospel, which has a more biblical approach with the poet as seeker. Here he is confronting the mystical head on—instead of it being an unknown entity—to explain the surroundings outside mainstream society. As the poet is a seeker on the way to understanding the self, he is no longer looking into the deep pools and caves of myth. Instead, he finds God and ends up disappointed that the almighty is like him, searching for reprieve in shallow liquor glasses. This leads to the realization that we need to face our own flaws. If God is man, then God is fallible. In the poems in this section, God is questioned in bars or whichever dirty dive the deity is found in and the answers received come short and direct like shot glass wisdom. In “Prayer For Peace,”the deity’s response to the question of peace is, “he asked if we had tried killin’ other peoples’ kid”, and“he said maybe if we kept it up we’d figure things out”, while walking off with his drink.

The third section, Pinecone Son, is about learning to lean on ourselves to make the changes we are looking for in life. The title of this section comes from the poem the book is named after. It borrows from Love Letters from an Arsonist’s opening line, “daddy was a wildfire burned hisself inside out / spat out pinecone sons what can only grow in flames’,which define how this section deals with the poet working to replant himself in a nontoxic environment and rise above the smoke screen of others to see the world clearly with his own vision. The poems hereare about breaking the cycle of parental expectations, overcoming the limitations of where we grew up, learning to set expectations for ourselves, and being open to help from strangers. The poem “Fly United”  appreciates a man from the Ivory Coast experiencing and expressing joy on an airplane with his plea, “and if you have that light in you, i ask you now share it just a little more often for those like me who live in darkness and spend our lives without”. “Mithras Rising” is about an unseen stranger helping someone after a night of drinking as “he stumbled out the door at 2 am,” and wakes up on the beach afterwards, discovering“next to the pants he found a full bottle of water and an unopened pack of crackers and on the bottle were three words, written in sharpie: ‘love yourself more’.”It gives the reader a sense that the poet has found a way out of the trap of generational patterns and that he can close the door on the past to start finding peace in the present.

Love Letters from an Arsonist is a poetry collection that can be read multiple times. David van den Berg has put much thought into how these pieces connect, and how they flow together not only as we read them in succession, but even when they are divided across three sections. Each part also portrays stories about where we come from, where we are going, or the consequences of staying immobile at the crossroads of indecision yet circumventing ‘The Fates’ of becoming immortal through passed-down stories. This last part the poet accomplishes by writing about breaking the cycle of family stories to tell our own, and how to cut off from the bad branch of the ancestral tree and not become another infamous character in local lore. 

I would recommend this collection for anyone haunted by their past and in search of their current self. In its whole, Love Letters from an Arsonist is a poetry collection that puts on paper a roadmap of growth for both a poet and a person.

Love Letters from an Arsonist is available now from April Gloaming.

A Review of Black Candle Women by Diane Marie Brown

Black Candle Women is a magical debut by Diane Marie Brown. Over 50 years ago, Augusta, affectionately called Nanagusta by her descendants, is cursed by her angry mentor, Bela Nova. Why? Well, that would be telling, but suffice to say the woman was angry enough to ensure anyone Augusta and her descendants fall in love with dies. Told from the perspectives of all the Montrose women, Augusta (the great grandma), her grandchildren Victoria and Willow, and Victoria’s daughter Nickie, the story switches between modern-day California and flashbacks to Nanagusta’s youth in New Orleans. When Nickie brings home a boy, blissfully unaware of the curse, she sets in motion a chain of events that reveals the secrets and lies cloaking the Montrose women. 

Secrets play a key role in the story, as the thing that the Montrose women believe will protect them. Although Nickie is 17, Victoria never warns her about the curse or fully explains the place of hoodoo in the women’s lives. Willow practices hoodoo behind Victoria’s (“the chosen one”) back, slipping remedies to her sister’s clients to more directly fix their problems. She also brings their estranged mother, Madaleyn, to California, hoping to repair their relationship. Nanagusta perhaps holds the biggest secret of them all—one that, if revealed, would alter her family’s estimation, and perhaps love, for her. Although they are under a literal curse, secrecy and lies become another generational curse as the things that they keep from each other become another means of isolation. 

There is a lot going on in this novel, which I found to be both a strength and a weakness. I loved the elements of family history and betrayal—each woman had their own story, which reveals them to be both different, yet similar in ways they would never guess. All long for companionship, but in doing so, become victims of the curse. This sets a pattern of inheritance that plays along nicely with the idea of curses and family history.

However, the use of multiple perspectives is also a weakness at some points of the story. In alternating so much between characters, it sometimes felt like pieces of each woman’s story were undeveloped. For example, Nickie’s boyfriend, Felix, still feels a little distant to me as a reader. While their relationship plays a prominent role in the book’s events, I did not feel like I saw Felix consistently enough to care too much about him by the point in the story where Nickie fears for his safety. Additionally, much of the past and present events are told in summary, especially Nanagusta’s point of view. As a result, some of her past does not create the impact that it could, especially in the earlier half of the story. Since Nanagusta in the past is vastly different from the great grandmother of the present, it would have been nice to see her more under those terms, especially as her character in the past is key to the curse being cast in the first place. 

Overall, though, this was an imaginative, emotional story in which the love of family triumphs. All the women have their own issues, but together they are able to leave a new legacy: one in which isolation, both physical and metaphorical, is no longer allowed.