May 14, 2021

By Ellen Buikema

Returning to the United States after more than two years of wandering through Mexico was a great joy, even in pandemic times. Living once again in a country where I had a good grasp of the language and general culture provided a relief I didn’t anticipate. I discovered that the life of a gypsy is not good for me. I needed a home base more than I knew.

Within a month of our return, my hubby discovered that he’d require back surgery to alleviate a “strangled” sciatic nerve, followed by a dental emergency for me. Next came a race to obtain the plethora of documents required by the state to be worthy of a driver’s license before my birthday, which approached with lightning speed. And, we needed to find a permanent place to live.

I couldn’t think beyond what felt like moment-to-moment emergencies. I was pretty much flailing at the end of this whirlwind.

Grasping for prose and finding nothing but critters

I turned to writing to sort myself out, plunking down in front of my PC, and attempting to focus on what to write next. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. A jumping spider appeared to have taken up residence on top of my workspace while I’d ignored my computer for several consecutive days.

 Another, slightly larger jumping spider scurried around the other side of my PC. We regarded each other. It pumped two front legs up and down. I blew a bit of air in the spider’s direction. It hurried away. The smaller spider on the other side of my computer repeated the stare-off and leg-pumping maneuver.

They won that round.

I left the workspace to them for a while. Besides, I was too distressed to write. Either my muse had forsaken me or I needed to do something about my stress level and find my creative flow.

Note to self: Raise moving higher on the priority list!

Meanwhile, I focused on breathing and really examined this stress roadblock. My research turned up some interesting information.

Not all stress is felt equally.

Negative stress

Negative stressors wall off your creative mind, allowing fear and stress to smite the ability to be creative.

Common effects of negative stress on mood are:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness

I was saddled with all six! It was time to find a way out of this quagmire.

Reaching for control

While stuck in a difficult situation, finding activities that provide control helps people cope. Everyone needs to feel some sense of control.

Finding control through creative cookery

Baking is aces for stress relief, and it provides an inexpensive reward. We can control what we make. During quarantine many people, myself included, devoted time and energy to creative cooking and/or therapy baking, like the sourdough craze.

I became adept at making vegetarian curry dishes.

Other ways to stop the stress tailspin

  1. Slow the heart rate using four-square breathing. Inhale through the nose to the count of four, hold to the count of four, exhale through the mouth to the count of four, hold to the count of four. Repeat as necessary.
  2. Get enough sleep. You know you’re not getting enough sleep if your mood is negatively affected. You may not think there is enough time in the day to get everything done, but sleep deprivation makes the brain wonky. (I've found meditation can help bridge the sleep gap.)
  3. Schedule some relaxation time. Dance, watch something fun, call a friend, book a massage, read a good book, listen to music.
  4. Learn to say "no." Or at least say, “Let me get back to you on that. It sounds intriguing.”

Beneficial stress may jump-start your creativity

Positive stress helps with:

  • Developing and transforming ideas
  • Generating alternative possibilities to solve problems
  • Executing those ideas to transform dreams into reality
  • Redirecting and focusing the mind and keep from overthinking

Three different kinds of positive stress and their connection to creativity

  1. Task-Switching Stress

Recent studies show that frequently changing gears causes a different view of a task. This rearranges the thought process, nurturing creativity, avoiding the rigid thinking that happens when you focus too long on the same thing.

Changing the subject refreshes your view, and it's a great cure for writers’ block.

2. Meaningful Stress

Two stress conditions known to nurture creativity are “on an expedition” where work is low-pressure but highly meaningful, and “on a mission” with high-pressure, high-meaning work.

When people achieve meaningful goals, they feel good and are inspired to carry on. Perception of the stress people are under determines the relationship between stress and creativity.

If you can set or follow goals that have meaning, that positive stress may help you see a novel answer.

3. Deadline Stress

Small doses of stress like multi-tasking projects or having tight deadlines, sometimes produce great ideas because they spark the brain to power through to specific goals.

Some people thrive on this one, procrastinating until there is little time left. A time-sensitive environment can force focus and wall off any distractions.

If you can’t find enough time in the day, try these suggestions from 5 Ways to Carve Out More Creative Time for Yourself

Now it's your turn. Which type of stress helps you in your work? Do you think that the right stress can bring out the best in us? Please share your stress tips with us down in the comments!

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at or on Amazon.

Top Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

May 12, 2021

By Margie Lawson

The rhyming vowel sounds of assonance aren’t always quirky-smirky. But I wanted to grab your attention. It must have worked. You’re here!


Rhyming vowel sounds are as cool as a school of dolphins.

As smart as a cart full of bestselling authors.

As right as your brightest writing.

I’m having fun with you all. Hope this style made you smile.

Assonance and alliteration can carry a subtle power or an in-your-face power. We’ll do a deep dive into both.

Alliteration and Assonance:

You all may know alliteration and assonance, but do you choose to use, or do those rhetorical devices fall on the page on their own?

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty.

Hmm… Notice the last six words and where they’re placed in that sentence.

…serious or silly

…whimsical or witty

Deep Edit Analysis: 

           Structural parallelism

          The number of beats matches – 3, 1, 2, and 3, 1, 2

Double Alliteration – s, s, w, w

          Assonance – silly, witty

The first sentence has double alliteration too -- a, a, s, s.

And the paragraph sounds cool. Right?

Wrong. Almost right.

Read it out loud:

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty.

I hear the beats in a missing third sentence.

How about:

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty. But only if you write them well.

Just a little teachy-preachy. 

Ha! I could become an assonance addict. But that sentence carried a truth.

Which segues into two important teaching points.

Alliteration and assonance are cool writing tools, but beware:

1. You could overuse, but I’m betting you wouldn’t. I’ve never seen them overused.

2. The words you choose must be the right fit. They need to fit the scene, fit the character, fit the style.

Did you notice I just used the rhetorical devices anaphora (Triple Beginnings) and asyndeton (The No And)?

Why use rhetorical devices like alliteration and assonance and others?

  • Add power.
  • Set the mood.
  • Enhance your voice.
  • Provide a stylistic boost.
  • Treat the reader, provide an uplift.
  • Help you stand out in a talented way.

Read the examples and you’ll find more reasons why.

The first two examples are two of my favorites.

I Do Not, Rhay Christou, Multi-Immersion Grad

          I bolted from the desk before her prying and my lying got out of control.

What if Rhay Christou had written:

I bolted from the desk before her questions and my lying got out of control.

     Or, what if Rhay had written:

I bolted from the desk before her prying and my fibbing got out of control.

    Not close to the power of her original sentence:

          I bolted from the desk before her prying and my lying got out of control.

It’s the assonance that makes it a strong sentence. That subliminal power.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Assonance – prying, lying
  • Power Words --  bolted, prying, lying, out of control
  • Compelling Cadence

Under a Mason-Dixon Moon, Susan Donovan, Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller

Round and round through time, violence would give way to silence.

Wow. So powerful.

No need to analyze that one. You see what Susan Donovan did. And it’s brilliant.

The Girl Who Cried Banshee, Kim McDougall, Virtual Immersion Grad

1. My stomach churned with garlic and guilt, but I’d get over it. I always did.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  •  Alliteration – garlic and guilt
  •  Zeugma – garlic and guilt
  •  Visceral Response – Those two rhetorical devices made that visceral fresh.
  •  Compelling Cadence

2. But since returning to Montreal—with all the post-war magic flying around like explosive shrapnel—I’d learned to ward myself against such an awful alchemic assault. I took a moment to reinforce that ward now, one psychic block at a time.

Breathe. Block. Breathe. Block.

Breeeathe. Breeeathe.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words – post-war, magic, explosive, shrapnel, ward, against, awful, alchemic, assault, reinforce, ward, psychic, block, breathe, block, breathe, block, breeeathe, breeeathe
  • Simile – like explosive shrapnel
  • Alliteration – awful, alchemic, assault, breathe, block, breathe, block, breeeathe, breeeathe
  • Visual Cue – Breeeathe, Breeathe
  • Strategic with Style and Structure – Used white space and stand-alone words.
  • Compelling Cadence

The Patient, Steena Holmes, 2-time Immersion Grad, 2-time Cruise Grad, NYT Bestseller

1. My voice sputters, splits, spirals into silence.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Dialogue Cue – carries powerful emotion
  • In-Your-Face Alliteration that works well!
  • Compelling Cadence

2. I sat there, stone cold, a blank statue without facial features she could read.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Double Alliteration: stone, statue, facial features
  • Compelling Cadence

Stranger in the Lake, Kimberly Belle, 5-time Immersion Grad, International Bestseller

1. My gaze tracks to the lake, churning silver peaks on water that’s a gloomy, bottomless black.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words – churning, gloomy, bottomless, black
  • Themed -- Mood
  • Alliteration – bottomless black
  • Compelling Cadence

2. The creak of the body bag’s zipper is like a knife, cutting through the cold and crawling all over my skin.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words – body bag, knife, cutting, cold, crawling, skin
  • Themed – Mood
  • Simile – Amplified
  • Alliteration – body bag, cutting, cold, crawling
  • Compelling Cadence

The Last Breath. Kimberly Belle, 5-time Immersion Grad, International Bestseller

And then I remember something else. Something that shoots a shiver up my spine and slams my heart to a standstill.

So many “S” words! Seems like it would be too many. But that sentence carries amazing power. Why does it work?

The different consonant blends make it work:  so, sh, sh, sp, sl, st, st.

Never a Viscount, Sheri Humphreys, Multi-Immersion Grad

The past few weeks she had refused to let herself think of the last endless minutes of Nancy’s life, and the night she dreamed of her friend’s death, Anne woke and banished every lingering image from her mind. Permitting only tiny sips of pain worked.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words – refused, think, last, endless, minutes, life, dreamed, friend’s death, banished, image, mind, permitting, sips of pain
  • Alliteration – let, last, endless, life, lingering, dreamed, death, permitting, pain
  • Assonance – life, night, lingering, image, permitting, sips
  • Compelling Cadence
Hello Everyone –
This blog is dachshund-long. I won’t deep edit analyze the remaining examples.

Most Likely to Succeed, Monica Corwin, Multi-Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller

The feelings build in my chest brick by brick, the mortar just a smidge too tight. But the moment I let myself get close to that wall, it would crack and crumble and collapse.

Drawn and Buried, Dana Summers, Immersion Grad

He had the kind of blunt-featured face I'd seen in graphic novels. Like someone had slammed on the brakes in his brain, and all the weird crap from the backseat had piled up behind his smoldering eyes.

Morianna, Corinne O'Flynn, Virtual Immersion Grad

1. Standing at the stern of the dinghy, my head swam with dizziness and dread, distracting me from my deadly thoughts about my navigator.

2. His words slithered through his lips like serpents.

Tango Fuego, Terri Wilson, Virtual Immersion Grad

1. She instantly knew, if Hell served whiskey, it would be a fabulous fiery pit of fun.

2. On a good day, Orion’s quirky-smirky banter would be fun. But accounting day was never a good day.

Note: I was talking to Terri in Virtual Immersion class when quirky-smirky came out of my mouth. I told her it was hers if she wanted it. I love how she used it!

Magic and Menopause, Lisa Manifold, Virtual Immersion Grad

1. He’s attractive, a good five years older than my 26, and decidedly desirable.

Note:  We added that part about their ages in virtual immersion class. An easy slip in.

2. Maxim tends to keep those who work for him under lock, key, and concrete, if you’re not careful. 

Note: Love that cliché play!

J. D. and the Broken Promise, Dee Armstrong, 2-time Virtual Immersion Grad

1. The skin on JD’s arms tingled and puckered like a plucked goose’s butt.

2. Working with the Geezers was like working with two toddlers. Annoyingly adorable.

It Hurts, Robbin Luckett, Multi-Immersion Grad

1. Every unanswered question adds to my throbbing headache, a pounding and pulsating pain, as if the center of my brain is going to explode.

2. My heart rate slows to a dull delirious thump thump thump.

Neighbors That Prey, Robin Olson, Multi-Immersion Grad

  1. Dedication to my craft forced me to sit in front of my computer, but for every paragraph I typed and didn’t delete, I granted myself permission to sneak a peek.
  2. I didn’t have time for a stranger playing danger games.

Into the Shattered Night, Sia Huff, Virtual Immersion Grad

1. Agnes smiled and slipped a tip to the steward.
2. Her heart raced. Her mind raced, battling the erratic beat for first place.

Once Upon a Farm by Jacqueline Visconti, Multi-Immersion Grad

1. The German commander rode in the back of the topless Vauxhall like a king in a chariot, his grey coat a cape, his peaked cap a crown, and a target for Guy.

2. They came that day. The Germans. With a stomp of boots and squeal of tyres and steel-hard commands.

Concrete Evidence, Laurie Dennis, Virtual Immersion Grad

1. His tone was slow, steady, strong, no doubt he was in charge.

2. What should have been an active site had the feel of an abandoned ghost town, hushed except for the whoosh of the occasional desert dust devils twisting across the dirt road.

Evil’s Deadly Divide, Book Four in the Alexis Black Novels, Jenn Windrow, 7-Time Immersion Grad

1. Crap on a crumbling cracker, I hated heights.

2. We had to keep our operation covert because Delano Melazi’s zealots saw any human stuck on their side as a walking talking snack pack.

Flash Point: Legacy Series Book 5, Luna Joya, Multi-Virtual Immersion Grad

To be released July 20, 2021 

1. Were her psychic powers on the freaking fritz as well? 

2. Delia’s yeah-right look was a speed dial straight to Mina’s self-doubt.  

3. The smell of spilled whiskey almost overpowered the stink of smoke and sweat. 

Wicked Crown, Redemption Series Book 1, Luna Joya, Multi-Virtual Immersion Grad, Future Release/Under Contract

1. Goblins and gold went together like supermodels and stilettos.  

2. He curled his far-too-sexy mouth into a sneer more bitter than goblin beer. “Why are you really here?”

The Six-Percent Baby, Jenny Hansen, Multi-Immersion Grad

1. We left the fertility clinic like car crash survivors, slow and staggering, our faces blank, our knees shaking.

2. I couldn’t think about anything but my dead womb, dead eggs, and the dreams she’d just demolished.

3. The hours were long, the coffee was strong, and still we couldn’t finish.

We’ll wrap up with this powerful piece from Cassandra Shaw, one of my many brilliant Aussie Multi-Immersion Grads.

Blood Ring: Book 1, The Vampire King’s Daughter, Cassandra L Shaw

Funny how a fragile, vulnerable, human could steal a monster’s heart. A cruel joke. I had forgotten the throbbing agony of loss that took a hundred years to heal. True, Tatum was not dead. But the wave of horror and hate, of disappointment and disgust, that warped her wonderful face when she’d realized what I was, was as true a death as any.

Powerful Alliterative Pairings:

  • horror, hate, disappointment, disgust, warped, wonderful

I‘m so proud of all these examples from my Immersion Master Class Grads. Stunning writing. Stunning people too.

Thanks so much for being here today. I hope the blog motivated to use alliteration and assonance in powerful ways.

Want to post an example of alliteration and/or assonance in the comments? I’d love to see them!

Please check out my next Dig Deep Webinar: Touché Cliché and Cliché Play! (May 20 and 21)

Don’t forget about Lawson Writer’s Academy courses. I’m so proud of all the smart classes we offer writers. Click that link to check out our powerful line-up for June!

  1. Dazzling Developmental Edits
  2. Write Backstory with Confidence
  3. Killing It with Conflict
  4. Flying Write
  5. Can We Talk? Dialogue the Write Way
  6. Crazy-Easy Awesome Author Websites
  7. Battling the Basics
  8. Six-Week Author Mentoring Intensive
  9. Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist
  10. Profitable Facebook Ads

Hang out with me at my monthly “Get Happy with Margie” Open House

Drop by and chat! May 18th, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time.

Thank you again. See you in the comments section!

* * * * * *

About Margie

Margie Lawson left a career in psychology to focus on another passion—helping writers make their stories, characters, and words strong. Using a psychologically based, deep-editing approach, Margie teaches writers how to bring emotion to the page. Emotion equals power. Power grabs readers and holds onto them until the end. Hundreds of Margie grads have gone on to win awards, find agents, sign with publishers, and hit bestseller lists.     

An international presenter, Margie has taught over 150 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as multi-day intensives on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Pre-COVID, she taught 5-day Immersion Master Classes across the U.S. and Canada and in seven cities in Australia too. 

COVID Update: Immersion Master Classes are now virtual, taught through Zoom. Virtual Immersion classes are limited to six writers. They're two days long—and as always, writers get one on one deep editing with Margie. 

She also founded Lawson Writer's Academy, where you’ll find over 30 instructors teaching online courses through her website. To learn more, and sign up for Margie’s newsletter, visit

May 10, 2021

By Sudha Balagopal

I wrote big, then went small. I discovered the art of writing small fiction or flash fiction after having two short story collections and a novel published. My first flash piece was published in 2016, when the form cast the initial spell on me, fascinating me with its versatility, immediacy and energy. Since then, I've written flash exclusively, with dozens of stories appearing in journals around the world. When I asked myself why I'm attached to the form, I came up with the following ten reasons.

1. The Word Count

I love writing flash because the stories are under 1000 words and, to me, small is beautiful. This form of fiction has also been called the short-short, sudden fiction, the postcard, and the miniature.    

2. The Brevity

I love writing flash because of the intensity in the brevity. The stories might be bite-sized but they contain an intensity and a succulence that satisfies the reader.                                                                           

3. The Challenge

I love writing flash because the style is challenging. The stories might be short, with few characters, but the size of a piece of flash does not make the writing easier. It takes practice and skill to condense, to weed, to excise, all without taking away the crucial elements to create a complete story arc.

Flash fiction is about compression, efficiently and effectively delivered.

4. The Strong Splash

I love flash fiction because the story starts in the middle of the action with no lengthy introductions. With this form, I arrive late to the party and exit early, but not without making a strong splash. 

5. The Experimentation

I love writing flash because the style lends itself to experimentation. I've seen flash written as a crossword puzzle and flash that masquerades as a review. I've also seen flash pieces that are entirely without dialog, and many that are one-sentence paragraphs.

The hermit-crab flash borrows a specific form to tell a story. One of my works in Matchbook Literary, Life Times Nine, uses the form of the times-table. In Lunate Fiction, I used anaphora, a repeated phrase at the beginning of each sentence, in Learning to Row.

6. The Impact

I love writing flash because of the impact of the story on the reader. A good piece of flash leaves the reader thinking about the story long after the story has been read. The punch and the resonance that a piece of flash packs is what makes the form so captivating.                                                                                 

7. The Blank Spaces

I love writing flash fiction because of the story that is not told. Flash fiction believes in an intelligent reader who can fill in the blank spaces, one who can make the connections within the story, between and under the lines. 

8. The Ease of Consumption

I love writing flash because the stories are easy to consume. In these fast-paced times, readers can read flash on their devices, while they're on the move, while they're waiting somewhere, or in the traditional manner. Well-respected journals like The New Yorker have published flash fiction.

9. The Uniqueness

I love writing flash because as Kathy Fish, teacher and flash fictioneer extraordinaire, says: "Flash fiction, I believe, is its own unique literary form, not merely a short story in miniature, and we should teach it as such."

Fish's article in full: Flash Fiction As It's Own Unique Form

10. The Profundity

I love writing flash because it is the arc of a captured moment, when the small becomes profound. As Nancy Stohlman has said, it is the cupcake of literature.                                                                               

# # #

Flash Resources:

Book: Going Short by Nancy Stohlman. 


Flash Workshops/Teachers:                                                                                                                                  

Flash Contests:

Examples of Flash Journals:

Have you written flash fiction? Do you have other flash fiction resources for us? Share your thoughts down in the comments! (And please welcome Sudha, our newest contributor at WITS!)

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Sudha

Sudha Balagopal's recent flash fiction appears in Monkeybicycle, Matchbook, Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine and Milk Candy Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can't Tell Amma, was highly commended in the Bath Novella-in-Flash contest and is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction. Her work will appear in Best Microfiction 2021. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. Find her on Twitter @authorsudha, or via her website at

Top Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

May 7, 2021
By John Peragine

There has been quite the buzz about Kindle’s new offering- Kindle Vella. It has not launched quite yet. Insiders tell me it will be in June 2021. But, authors can start creating stories right now. So what is Vella, and why all the hubbub?

Vella allows you to create stories as a serial- that is, breaking them into episodes. While this is not a new concept Amazon Kindle has gamified it.

The Cover

One of the advantages of coming out with a series is that you can publish it quickly. The cover is no exception. You can use a simple picture that they display in a round porthole style. Nothing fancy, and you don’t need a designer to create it. You just upload, and you are done. The only drawback is that you only have one graphic for the whole series, and you cannot add any pictures to your story.

The Text

You have three choices for content. You can type the story directly into the box. You are limited to one font, but you have bold, italic, and underline options. The stories are read on Kindle devices, and so you could change the font as the reader. You can also cut and paste into the box as well. The third way is you can upload a .doc or .docx file. When I did this, I had to fix a couple of margins once it was uploaded. You can edit directly in the box.


You create a title for the series, and then each episode has its own episode name. You also make a short description of your series. In addition, you are allowed seven story tags- these are searchable words and are very important for people to search and find your story. In addition, you can pick two categories (genres) for your story.

What I have found interesting is that each episode has its own ASIN number. So I anticipate that each episode will be searchable on Amazon- both as a series and as an individual episode. However, these stories do not have an ISBN, which makes sense as they are only digital and only available on Kindle.


Each episode is 600-5,000 words. There doesn’t seem to be a maximum of episodes. They allow you to post content that is “not freely available elsewhere.” This means you can use already published work, but you can’t use work published elsewhere for free. Other than that, there are not too many rules concerning content. Every episode you create has to be approved by them, but it is not clear what they are looking for. I had one episode they would not publish without explanation. I changed the title of the episode, and it went through fine the next time.


This is where it gets a little tricky, so bear with me. The first three episodes of your story are free. You make nothing on them because the reader pays nothing. This is to test out whether they like your story enough to continue.

Here is the breakdown. A reader buys tokens, and a token is worth 100 words. So, it would take 6 tokens to unlock a 600-word episode. As a writer, you make 50% of what the reader paid for the tokens. They have different packages of tokens. For instance, it costs $1.99 for 200 tokens. Another package costs 525 tokens for $4.99 (therefore a little less per token).

If your episode is 600 words and it costs 6 tokens, then you’d make .03. My thought is to publish smaller episodes for the first three episodes and maximize the size of the episodes after that. The other thing is to work toward having many readers to maximize your return.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

One of the exciting aspects of Vella is the ability to add the author’s notes at the end of the episode. I can explain the characters, my thoughts, and the process for writing that particular episode. It allows me to speak directly to the reader.

Feedback from Readers

I am glad there is no star system or written feedback. (At least that is my understanding. If it is on Amazon’s catalog, I am not sure whether they will be able to leave a rating). The new system is a thumbs up for the episodes you enjoy. At the end of the week, a reader is given a “fave” crown that they can assign to their favorite serial. The stories with the most crowns for the week are featured as the top stories. This is a step away from the current rating.

I have my first serial ready to launch and plan on writing more before Vella launches. In part 3 of this series, I will talk about my favorite techniques for writing episodes and how to engage and keep readers coming back for more.

What are your thoughts about Vella? Is it something you are willing to try?

About John

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPostReuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine EnthusiastGrapevine MagazineRealtor.comWineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.

John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You can learn more about his books at

His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, was released on April 20, 2021. Click here for a free first chapter. 

May 5, 2021

By Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy)

Get your protagonist up off the couch and into the story.

When I was six, I wrote a series called Dog City that followed the adventures of a team of dog archaeologists as they searched for a lost city of, you guessed it, dogs. It was all of four books, bound in aged cardboard from the backs of legal pads, and custom illustrated.

Laugh all you want, but that series had a more proactive protagonist than the “real novel” I wrote twenty years later.

Those industrious little puppers had goals—to find that lost city and fetch a rare magical item that would save the world from evil dinosaurs (it really should have been mailmen, right?). My “real novel” had a protagonist who was being manipulated by gods for a variety of reasons, and there was a prophecy she didn’t want to be a part of, and some romance, and an evil sorcerer, and a curse…you get the picture.

Even written in crayon, the dog story was better because it had a protagonist actively trying to achieve a goal and resolve a problem, and not just a protagonist who only acted when something else forced her to. My six-year-old self knew what the story was about and who was driving that story. My older self did not.

That’s the difference between a proactive and a reactive character, and why some novels flatline even though the scenes are filled with exciting problems.

If your protagonist isn’t making the story happen, then why are they the protagonist?

A protagonist who sits around waiting for things to happen or just goes along for the ride when things do happen, isn’t doing anything to help advance the story. It might seem like it because they’re in the middle of everything, but if you took them out and put any other character in there, would things still unfold the same way?

With a reactive protagonist, the answer is often “Yes,” because the plot is happening to them, not because of them. They’re not making any decisions that only they could make, based on motivations unique to them. Anyone faced with X problem would make Y choice, because the author set it up that way so Z would happen. The character is irrelevant to how the plot turns out.

5 Ways to Have Your Protagonist Create the Plot

(and not just follow directions...)

1. Give the Protagonist a Goal that Matters to Them

The struggle to achieve a series of goals is what creates a novel’s plot. In every scene, the protagonist should want something (a goal connected to a problem) and work to get that goal. To be clear, avoiding something is also a goal, such as “try not to get killed” or “not getting emotionally hurt again.” Maybe they want to find something, or tell someone something, or create something, or escape something, etc. Your potential goals are limitless; they just need to be something the protagonist wants.

The second part is why they want it. It’s the why that really makes a protagonist proactive, because their actions stem from personal motivations to see the problem resolved. Without those motivations, the protagonist is just doing what plot tells them to.

2. Make the Protagonist Part of the Action

If you took your protagonist out of a scene, would the event in the scene still occur? Would it change how the scene unfolded? If not, that’s a red flag your protagonist isn’t adding anything to the scene, and plot is happening regardless of what they do.

A proactive protagonist is part of the action, even if they’re reacting to and trying to deal with something that’s just happened. They might fail, or make the wrong decision, but they’re not simply sitting off to the side observing or waiting for others to act or tell then what to do.

3. Make the Protagonist Influence What’s Happening

A proactive protagonist tries to direct how scenes turn out. Their decisions to act—or not act—have consequences on how the plot unfolds. They might screw it up, or things might go horribly wrong, but they’re trying to make a change through their actions. It’s that motivation to make a difference, or cause a change that matters.  

If your protagonist’s actions have no effect on the outcome of a scene, or the major events of the plot, there’s a good chance they’re not doing enough in the story to cause the story to happen.

4. Give the Protagonist Specific Expectations that Drive the Story

A protagonist who goes somewhere “to see what happens” with no expectations of what that might be is a sneaky type of reactive protagonist. It seems as though they’re being proactive since they have a goal, but they’re not actually trying to do anything. They’re simply waiting for the answer to fall out of the story and into their lap. And that usually happens, because the plot says they need to discover that answer in that scene for the plot to work. But there’s nothing specific that causes them to go where they need to go or do what they need to do.

The protagonist thinks, “Gee, I have no idea what to do next, so let’s go to the crime scene and see what happens.” And when they do, they randomly walk about and conveniently find a clue they didn’t even know they were looking for (this holds true for any genre, even those without crime scenes).

If your protagonist spends a lot of time “hoping to find a clue” about what to do next, try giving them a more concrete plan to work with. Give them expectations of what they specifically hope to find, or a specific reason they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing. “Let’s search his office and see what we find” is weak and reactive, while “Let’s search his office to find evidence he was at the bar last Saturday when the murder occurred” is proactive. There’s a specific goal.

5. Let the Protagonist Make Decisions that Affect Where the Plot Goes

Proactive protagonists make decisions that affect the plot, even if they have lousy options to choose from. Having to make a choice forces the protagonist to act, and that action moves the plot and story forward. If your protagonist rarely chooses the next step, or the choices aren’t really a choice (because there’s only one real option), you might have a protagonist who isn’t taking control of the plot.

If the answer on what to do next is obvious or feels forced, readers won’t wonder what will happen—they can see it, and see what’s coming a mile away (which is usually boring). If it makes no sense at all, readers won’t understand how the protagonist got from Point A to Point B. But when readers aren’t sure how a decision will change the story, and want to know where a choice might lead, they become curious to see what happens next. That keeps them reading and enjoying the story.

A protagonist who’s driving the plot creates a more compelling plot, because the questions they have and the answers they seek will also be things the reader wants to know.

Showing what the protagonist wants, why they want it, and what’s in the way of getting it not only creates the plot, but generates unpredictability and uncertainty for readers, which piques their curiosity. That keeps them invested in the story.  

A proactive protagonist doesn’t have to be in control all the time, but even when things are out of control, they’re still trying to get something done. They may just be puppers in pith helmets digging in the sand, but make sure events are happening because of what your protagonist does. 

How proactive is your current protagonist? Did you think of any new ways to have them steer the plot while you were reading? Do you have any story problems you want to discuss? Please share them down in the comments!

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About Janice

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.

Find out more about writing at, or visit her author’s site at Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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