Tag Archives: Fiction

Guest Post: Crafting a Powerful Set-Up by Becca Puglisi

Guest Post: Crafting a Powerful Set-Up by Becca Puglisi

Thank you to Becca Puglisi and to Writers in the Storm for these strategies for grabbing your readers in the first few pages. Puglisi is one of the founders of Writers Helping Writers and One Stop for Writers.

As authors, we all know the importance of engaging our audience within a book’s first few pages. It’s called grabbing the reader: captivating them in a way that makes them want to stick with the story to its end.

Michael Hauge prefers the term seducing:

“Everybody likes to be seduced; it’s a gradual, enjoyable, and emotionally involving experience that thoroughly captures our attention.” (Writing Screenplays That Sell)

Whatever your terminology, drawing in readers is a vitally important process that needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Also called the set-up, it’s everything that occurs before the all-important catalyst that propels your character out of his regular world into a new one. According to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), the set-up should consist of roughly the first 12% of your story. This is a guideline that you can set in stone or take with a grain of salt, depending on your plotting/pantsing style. But 12% is a good rule of thumb because it’s enough real estate to set the stage and draw readers in without it dragging on and putting them to sleep.

Unfortunately, we can get the length of the set-up right and still not achieve the goal of pulling readers in. To do this, we have to tap into their emotions. If we don’t make them feel, they won’t be invested in the character; if they’re not invested in the character, they won’t care what happens to him and won’t keep reading to see if he succeeds. So it’s incredibly important that the set-up elicit emotion from the reader. There are a few things you can include in your opening pages that will help accomplish this.

woman typing writing programming

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Character Empathy

Readers start reading a book for a variety of reasons: they liked the premise, it was a recommended by a friend, they’re a fan of the author. Readers keep reading because they connect with the characters. We have a very small window—that first 12%—to achieve the reader-character connection, and eliciting empathy is a great way to make it happen. Here are a few ways to encourage that special something between the reader and your protagonist.

  • Universal Needs. Readers like characters they can relate to in some way. One way to bond your audience of unique individuals to the protagonist is to remove one of her basic human needs, such as belonging or surviving. Because everyone understands these needs, taking one of them away from your hero can endear readers to her. This is one reason Katniss Everdeen was such a successful protagonist. Most readers couldn’t relate to her circumstances of having to kill others to survive, but they could understand needing to protect a vulnerable loved one or providing for one’s family. If you want to increase your reader’s empathy for the hero, try taking away a universal need, and the reader will stay tuned to see if she can get it back.
  • Admirability. People are drawn to those they admire, so it’s a good idea to give your hero some qualities that readers will appreciate or aspire to themselves. Intelligence, a sense of humor, kindness, generosity, honor—these are attributes people long for. Seeing them personified in the hero opens us up to them, making us want them to do well. Notice that I didn’t say a protagonist must be likable (though that works, too). As a selfish and manipulative character, Scarlett O’Hara isn’t exactly a glowing role model, but people relate to her because of her shrewdness, tenacity, and confidence. It’s her admirable qualities that win readers over.
  • Uniqueness. Readers, along with editors, agents, and publishers, are tired of seeing new versions of the same old characters. We want someone who surprises us with something new. A janitor who anonymously and effortlessly solves impossible math theorems at M.I.T. (Good Will Hunting). An art student in Prague who collects teeth for the demons who raised her (Daughter of Smoke and Bone). When you’re creating your protagonist, see what you can do to make him or her stand out from the crowd and be remembered.
  • Remarkability. Few people truly excel in any area, but most would like to. Characters who are remarkable in some way speak to our need for esteem and recognition, whether it’s because they’re intelligent, incredibly talented, or have an unusual ability. Make your character extraordinary and readers will often respond.

To continue reading this article, click here.

Elements of Fiction

elements of fiction

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

If you are writing a story, you must consider how you will handle these seven elements:

Plot—is what happens. It is the action that starts in the beginning, continues through the middle, and wraps up at the end. Action adventure novels and thrillers are often plot-driven, as are some mysteries.

Setting—is where and when the story happens. The story is profoundly affected by the setting. A story that happens in a suburban town in the present will be very different from a story set in the past on a distant planet.

Character—is who the story is about. The people doing the doing. You need at least one. Most novels have an extensive cast of characters. You have a protagonist, and antagonist, the people who support each, and some random individuals. In order for the characters to be believable, they must each need something, and usually what one needs is at odds with what another needs. Each character’s back story (his life before the beginning of the book) must be considered, even if it isn’t shared with the reader. Each person is the way she is because of something that happened in her past. Many, many novels are character-driven. In my opinion, characters are the most important element of fiction.

elements of fiction

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Point of view—is the perspective of the person narrating the story or scene. It’s okay to have multiple narrators, but make sure it’s always clear to the reader whose head he’s in at any given time. Generally, it is confusing to change POV within a single scene.

Point of view can be first person, second person, or third person.

First person is when the story is being told by a character, either the protagonist, the antagonist, or a secondary character, using his own words and voice, using the pronouns I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, and ours.

Second person is when the story is being told about and to a person: you did this, you said that. The second person is rarely used in fiction, because it is hard to pull off for a long period of time, but I have seen it successfully used in a memoir that a parent wrote for his child, specifically about the child’s childhood.

Third person can be the viewpoint of a person removed from the story, the invisible author. Pronouns used would be he, she, him, her, they, their, etc. The third person narrator could be omniscient, all-knowing, like God. God knows everyone’s deepest thoughts, and the omniscient narrator does, too, and shares them with the reader. This is the way classical literature was written.

However, contemporary fiction favors an objective third person view point, where the narrator tells only what is observable. That means the writer is very limited about how thoughts are shared. Generally, if a character is alone, we can hear her thoughts. In other scenes, a viewpoint character can be selected, and the story is told through what he can observe, and possibly also through his thoughts. But again, it must be clear to the reader whose head he’s inside. And also, if the reader wonders how a character knows something based on what should be observable to him, the reader will disconnect from the story.

elements of fiction

Conflict—there is no story without conflict. There are two types of conflict, external and internal. An external conflict involves a problem which exits outside of the character, such as a problem with another character or an institution, or a dangerous situation, like wartime or an avalanche. An internal conflict is a problem or need within the character, such as an addiction, or wanting the object of her desire to notice her. In good full-length fiction, the main character, the antagonist, and some of the supporting characters all experience external and internal conflict. In short fiction, there might only be one conflict.

Theme—is a universal truth that your story illustrates. The theme can be as trite as Believe in yourself or Love makes the world go round, or it can be something the writer is passionate about. You don’t have to beat your theme into the reader, but every chapter should reflect the theme, even subversively, in order to have continuity. If you do not chose a theme for your story, or the story does not adhere to a theme, the reader will sense something is missing and try to find her own theme in it. Do not allow your story to be pointless; your reader will be disappointed.

Symbol—is an item that stands for something else. A ring that stands for power; an heirloom teacup that represents love of family. It’s hard not to include a symbol in fiction. If you don’t consciously put one in, your readers will unconsciously find one. (When I wrote worship drama for my church, my ministry partner was constantly finding symbols in my skits that I hadn’t purposely put in.) So you might as well choose a symbol that relates to your theme, and be sure to refer to it several times in the story.

elements of fiction

Depending on your story, certain elements may fall into place easily, while others may challenge you and send you to the library or a writer’s workshop for help. However, to write successful fiction, you must give consideration to them all.

An Interview with Author Victoria Thompson

An Interview with Author Victoria Thompson

Victoria Thompson is the popular author of twenty-two romance novels, the historical Gaslight Mystery series (twenty-two books and counting), and the Counterfeit Lady novels (Book 3 coming out soon).

I have to brag that I’ve know Vicki since 1982. When my second child was born, she was my La Leche League leader. Soon afterward, she started a Bible study group for young mothers, and she was instrumental in leading me back to the Lord.

She was also the first person I’d ever known to actually have a book published.

Vicki graciously agreed to be interviewed for ARHtistic License.

What was your undergraduate major?

VT: English/Secondary Education; I like to say I’m a retired teacher—I taught one year and retired!  This was in a public Middle School in 1970.

You teach writing popular fiction in the Masters program at Seton Hill University. How did that come about?

VT: I was invited to teach in the program when it was just getting started in 2000.  A writer friend recommended me.

I’ve heard your books characterized as “cozy” mysteries. What constitutes a cozy?

VT: A “cozy” or traditional mystery is defined as a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. That doesn’t mean a small town, necessarily, although many traditional mysteries are set in small towns.  It just means the group of suspects are members of a small social community, i.e. friends, family members, members of a church or club, etc.

Murder on Pleasant Avenue

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

VT: Yes. My process is actually somewhere in the middle. I come up with my victim and the cast of suspects before I start writing, but I have no idea who the killer is or what exactly will happen, so I just wing it from there.

Why historical fiction?

VT: I love history and I love exploring how human nature has not really changed ever. The technology is different, but people are not. They are still concerned about the same things now as they were a hundred years ago. I have tried writing contemporary novels, but they just never quite click, for some reason. I think I just have a naturally historical voice and sensibility.

How do you do your research?

VT: I have three sets of bookshelves full of reference books in my office that I consult, but it’s also very easy to use Google for things as well. I don’t even have to get out of my chair! Google will often lead me to a specific reference book and if it’s not available any other way, I’ll get it from the library or inter-library loan.


How long does it take you to write a book?

VT: Around 6 months, including research and “thinking.”

What is the most fun part of writing a book?

VT: Getting to that point in the book where you realize you’ve got all the clues in place, you know who the killer is and why they did it and all you have to do is write it up so others can read it. For me, this usually happens around 2/3-3/4 of the way through the manuscript.

Who is your agent, and how did you connect?

VT: My agent is Nancy Yost. We have been together about 25 years (neither of us remembers exactly when she took me on).  She was originally my editor for two books I wrote for Avon.  I had just hired a new agent when she told me she was leaving Avon to become an agent.  Two years later, I fired that agent and went with Nancy.

Victoria Thompson photo

Victoria Thompson

What is something about your books or about yourself that you wish your readers knew?

VT: I have very little control over the cover art (I do get to approve it or suggest changes), and no control at all over when or how often the books are published and how much they cost. Also, I’d love to write 12 books a year, to keep my fans happy, but that’s physically impossible.


Monday Morning Wisdom #220



Interview with Author Ryan Dalton



Ryan Dalton is the author of three YA novels, the Time Shift trilogy: The Year of Lightning (2016), The Black Tempest (2017), and The Genesis Flame (2018). He recently agreed to answer questions for ARHtistic License.

You appeared at Phoenix Fan Fusion this year. (Cool!)
RD-Yes, I was the moderator team manager for a number of years, and it was a great team to work with. When I got my first book deal and started moving in that direction, they were so nice and welcomed me back as an author guest, so I’ve been coming back as an author for a few years now. I’ll come back every year for as many years as they’d like to have me.
You’re a trained singer! 
RD-I really enjoy music. It’s actually a huge part of my writing process. Putting together a story project’s soundtrack is a big milestone and really helps me start nailing the tone. I often come up with entire scenes just based on hearing an inspiring piece at the right time. I took vocal training for fun, never really intending for it to be profession, but continue to love singing whenever I can.
Do you ever do karaoke? What’s your go-to song? What style do you like best? Show tunes? Pop? Jazz?
RD-Yes, I love to sing. My training was centered around stage and show tunes, so I have a special love for those. My favorite character to sing is probably Javert from Les Miserables. When I karaoke, though, it depends on the mood. Sometimes I’ll go with a blues tone like from Kenny Wayne Shepherd, or I’ll go with Shinedown to really rock out. Other times I want something lighter and I’ll sing something like The Fray. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll usually rock “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds. If I’m in more of a classical mood, I’ll go toward something from Josh Groban or a song from Phantom. Jason Mraz’s music is great for vocal warmups. Kind of like writing, my musical interests are many and varied.
lightning 1
Your books have a lot going on: teenage twin protagonists, villains from the ancient past, villains from the future. How would you characterize your books? Science fiction? Thrillers?
RD-Yeah, I threw many things that I love into these books, so they’re sci-fi but with other influences woven throughout. Lightning is a mystery, Tempest is a fantasy, and Genesis is a war epic, but they’re all sci-fi and they have common thematic and stylistic threads that bind them together. They each have scary moments, funny moments, hopefully touching moments, and I wanted the team dynamic to shine through everything else. The characters were always what mattered most to me. I’ve never wanted to write just one thing, and I suppose this series really demonstrates that.
You’ve written screenplays. (Did you write anything I might have seen?) Have you ever thought about adapting your novels for the big screen?
RD-I love writing scripts. Plotting and dialogue are strengths of mine, and the script format really plays to those strengths, so it’s super fun whenever I get to write one. Most of what I wrote were short format for little films that didn’t end up getting made, so I wouldn’t say my screenplay experience is illustrious or anything, haha. Working with Legible Scrawl, a collective of writers and actors, I’ve also written some fan scripts for live table reads. I’ve often been told my writing style is very cinematic, so I think the Time Shift Trilogy would lend itself well to screen adaptation, though probably more like a Netflix limited series than a film trilogy. [ARHtistic License: Netflix, are you reading this???] If someone ever wanted to make them, I would totally be down for it, and I would definitely ask to take first crack at the scripts. Then it would be awesome to collaborate with, and learn from, a more experienced screenwriter on subsequent drafts.
If the Time Shift trilogy became movies, who would you like to portray Malcolm and Valentine?
RD-I typically cast all of my characters, which makes it easier for me to envision them and describe how they move, how they speak, etc. Since I started writing this series nearly a decade ago, the people I envisioned would have definitely aged out of these teenage roles now. However, at the time I created them, I envisioned Danielle Panabaker as Valentine and Emile Hirsch as Malcolm.
How do you go about mapping out your stories?
RD-I’m a heavy outliner. I typically start with a story concept and build that into a loose collection of ideas. When that feels like it’s grown into something I want to pursue, I brainstorm and let my mind wander through possibilities of where the story might go, what the world might be like, what kind of characters we could end up following. I write those ideas down, and when I get enough of them, I start organizing them into a timeline. That’s when the concepts and the flow of the story start to solidify and move toward what they’re ultimately going to become. The world and the characters grow in tandem with one another and the individual plot and character development points start coming into focus and arranging into a logical order. Once I have a solid timeline, my next outline is a close-up snapshot of each major plot point, which includes a supporting outline dedicated to character arcs. When that’s done, I’m usually ready to start writing, but the outlining isn’t quite done. At that point, I do a beat-by-beat outline of between one and three chapters at a time, often including dialogue. When that’s done, I’ll go back and write those one to three chapters. If anything about my plan ends up changing as I write those chapters, I make sure those changes reflect in the higher-level outlines before diving into the details and writing the next chapters. I imagine this all sounds super overwhelming from the outside, but it feels like a natural part of my process. I write my best and most confident work when I know where the story is going. At the same time, I’m always open to better ideas if they present themselves while I’m writing (and this happens surprisingly often, considering how much I outline, haha).
Do you ever do school visits? What are your presentations like?
RD-I love doing school and library visits, they’re so much fun. It’s great getting to meet young readers and encourage their love of books from an early age. As for what I talk about, I generally leave it up to teachers or librarians what they want the students to learn. I can talk in general about what it’s like to write and be an author, or if it’s a group that wants to dive deeper, I can talk about any number of specific aspects of the writing craft. Sometimes I’ll make the visit a workshop, using audience suggestions to create and outline a brand new story right there in the room, and then breaking down the writing techniques I used to turn their suggestions into a story. I always leave room at the end for questions so the students can ask anything they want, and that’s my favorite part. Never know what they’re going to say!
tempest 2
What is your day job?
RD-Being an author is my day job. 🙂 That’s one of the reasons I moved out here to Missouri. At the end of 2017, I was finally at a point where I could leave the corporate world behind and dive head-first into writing as a career. Leaving the big city for a while made the transition easier financially. I could not be happier with the change, and I sympathize with all aspiring authors that still struggle with a day job they find unfulfilling. For over a decade I worked a corporate career that paid well but didn’t offer much in the way of satisfaction. At least, not the kind of satisfaction I was looking for. I remember when I turned in my notice, my boss (who was always very supportive of my writing, which was super refreshing) wished me well and said that it had always been obvious where my heart really was. I should send that guy a book, haha.
What types of books do you like to read? Which authors do you admire?
RD-I try to read books from just about every genre. Whatever genre an author writes, they can always learn good writing lessons from other genres, and I think it’s fun to mix the styles. My all-time favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo, and my second favorite is The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I’m a huge fan of Abigail Johnson and Tom Leveen’s contemporary YA books. After Zero by Christina Collins and The Zanna Function by Daniel Wheatley are my most recent MG favorites. James Islington’s The Shadow of What Was Lost brought some interesting ideas into adult fantasy, and Brandon Sanderson’s new sci-fi Skyward is one of the biggest thrill rides I’ve read in quite a while.
What is the most difficult part of writing a book? What is the most fun part of writing a book?
RD-For me, the toughest parts are the in-between moments. When I finish a first draft, I take a 2-4 week break from the book, which allows me to come back to it with fresh eyes for the next draft. Waiting is really hard. 🙂 So I use that time to occupy myself with other ideas I’ve been toying with. Then, when the book is ready for beta readers after a few drafts, it’s pure agony to send them the story and wait for their feedback. I’m typically pretty confident in my writing, but every stray self-doubt and insecurity rises up when I’m waiting to hear if they liked it. The most fun parts are the initial stages of development when bursts of inspiration help me build a story or a character, and the points where characters are finally face to face and talking to each other. That’s when they start to reveal who they are, and it’s a thrill when they become real people.
What sort of research did you have to do for your Time Shift books? Do you have a science background?
RD-I’m a science geek with no formal scientific training. 🙂 I would describe my trilogy as science fantasy since it involves time manipulation, but I still wanted to use actual science as a foundation where I could. I studied how lightning and other weather patterns work, since they play a heavy thematic part in all three books. I read about basic quantum theory, what we know and don’t know about gravity, and the general theory of relativity. These books were a great excuse to read up on things I was interested in anyway.
How do you go about world building?
RD-I typically start with the story concept. As that’s developing, I start thinking about what kind of world would need to exist for this story to happen. How far away from our world does it need to be? What’s the same, what’s different, and how big are those differences? For example, the Time Shift Trilogy’s world is quite similar to ours in many ways. It’s not until the big stuff happens that we realize there’s much more going on under the surface. My next projects are similar in that way – the worlds share many commonalities with ours, but they’re skewed enough to accommodate the fantastic elements. I’m toying with ideas for future projects that will require more complete construction of new worlds, and it’s been daunting but also really fun and rewarding to create the pieces of those worlds and put them together.
flame 3
Do you have an agent? Who is your agent, and how did you connect?
RD-Last year I signed with Tricia Skinner of Fuse Literary. She is made of pure awesome. We get along amazingly well, and she continues proving herself to be the perfect partner for me. We connected through the querying process. I always wanted an agent, and although I ended up selling the Time Shift Trilogy on my own, I knew I’d go back to querying. Last year I wrote Remember Me, Archie, a middle grade about a boy whose grandfather is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so the boy creates shared fantasy worlds for them to have adventures, as an attempt to bring back in his grandfather’s memories. After The Year of Lightning got so many agent rejections, it was refreshing for Archie to receive a few offers of representation, and Tricia immediately stood out to me. She’s everything I hoped for in a partner.
You’ve written comedy. Do you have a funny story about any of your books or about the writing process?
RD-I mostly like to write in public places like coffee shops (cliche, I know, but they’re awesome). However, I’ve learned the hard way not to write the intense scenes in public because I make faces and emote along with what’s happening. Fight scene? Angry faces, flinching at particularly hard hits, rocking out to heavy music. Sad scene? Sad faces, sniffling, teary eyes, all while sipping a festive coffee drink as college students work on their homework around me. I got enough weird looks that I now save those scenes for night writing at home. Also, I have one true story that I want to incorporate into a book somehow. A number of family members have read my books, and many them are book geeks, so I end up getting insightful feedback from them. I have one relative, though, who would otherwise never read the kind of books I write. This is not a problem for me at all, but they insisted on reading the books. I imagine this was to be supportive, which is super nice, but they’re reading the books very slowly because they aren’t all that interested, and now whenever we meet, I get to hear about how the books aren’t their thing. I continue imploring them, “Please stop reading the books, you’re clearly not enjoying them.” But they insist on soldiering forward. So while the support is appreciated, I’d rather they just move on and read what they like and then we don’t have to talk about this anymore, haha.

In the Meme Time: The Perils of Knowing the Author


Based on your kid

Monday Morning Wisdom #196



Review of Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

Review of Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

I actually read this book twenty years ago—and remembered nothing from it. But it was full of my underlining and border notes in my handwriting, so I definitely read it.

The late Jack Bickham wrote 75 novels (two of which were made into films) and six books on the craft of fiction. He understands how to write a story.

Yet, as I was rereading this book over the course of more than a year, I found myself resisting much of what Bickham expounds. For example, Bickham says every scene must end with a disaster. I rejected that idea, because many of my scenes don’t and I couldn’t picture what would have to happen to follow that convention.


Then I read Children of Blood and Bone. Every scene in Children of Blood and Bone ends with a crisis. (Except maybe one.) And I couldn’t put CoB&B down. The pacing was so fast. The problems were so compelling.

So I began to take Scene and Structure more seriously.

Some of the terms in S&S I’d seen before, but I thought they meant something different. For example, I thought a scene goal was the author’s goal for the scene. It’s actually the viewpoint character’s goal for the scene. I suppose I would have known that if I’d majored in creative writing in college instead of music education.

Here are some points I learned from Scene and Structure:

  • Moment by moment, transactions occur in your scene that involve this progression: stimulus, internalization, response. A cause and effect relationship exists between the stimulus and the response. The response should make sense as a reaction to the stimulus. If the response would confuse the reader, an explanation is necessary; this occurs while the character processes the stimulus during the internalization phase.
  • At the beginning of the story, the main character must state a goal. The reader unconsciously forms a story question: i.e. will the character achieve his goal?
  • At the beginning of each scene, the viewpoint character states a short-term goal related to the story goal, and the reader again formulates a scene question about its attainment. The next element of the scene is conflict. In order to keep the reader engaged, the scene must end with a disaster.
  • Each scene disaster is followed by sequel (sometimes with a connecting transition) in which the character processes what’s just happened. Sequel consists of emotion, thought, decision (creation of the next scene’s goal), and action, which launches the next scene.

Scene and Structure covers much more related to writing the novel, including suggestions on how to create a master plot for your book, and an appendix of excerpts of published novels illustrating some of the concepts introduced in S&S.

scene and structure

This was not an easy book to read. I often had to read sections over and over to understand them. I don’t know if my confusion was the fault of the author or of my own limited intelligence. However, I will be reading this book again, and filtering my manuscript-in-progress through all the bullet points listed. I would recommend Scene and Structure for authors who are not satisfied with their own work but don’t know what’s wrong with it: you may have structural deficiencies.

Comix 8

Comix 8


Ten Things Authors Do to their Characters (Roundup)

Ten Things Authors Do to their Characters (Roundup)

Who doesn’t want to be a fiction author? You get to create your own worlds and the people who live there. Then you dream up plots that push them to their limits. It’s like being a benign (or maybe evil) despot.

It’s also one of the hardest jobs there is. Sometimes the words on the page fall short of the scene you envision. Sometimes you get stuck in the middle without any clue how to get your characters to the end of the story—even if you know how your story ends.



Luckily, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Here are some ideas from some of the most creative writers on the internet. (Click on the links to see the articles.)