Letting Your Character Tell the Story

There is a scene in my manuscript where two of the main character’s friends have a disagreement and the main character is understandably upset by this rift between her friends. When I was writing the first draft of the scene, I tried to show how upset the main character was by describing how she was feeling. I tried to make it powerful and poignant—I even included a metaphor!

And it did not work at all.

In fact, after writing the scene, I left myself a note that went something like this: “Ugh! Too melodramatic! Fix this!!”

(Yes, even my editing notes were too melodramatic. It was bad.)

I knew there was a problem with the scene, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Really, I didn’t even know what the problem was, just that there was one. I couldn’t identify what, though. After all, I was trying to show, not tell. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But the scene just wasn’t working.

Sometime later, my brother and I had a conversation about journal writing. He mentioned something by Arthur Henry King that stuck with me.

King said:

Abstract statements about our feelings are boring and don’t really communicate. But a plain account may communicate a great deal. If we write down faithfully what happens to us, our feelings will come through, and they will be felt indirectly and therefore truly. So rather than say how we felt on our marriage day, we should try to describe what happened to us on that marriage day. Our feelings will come through much better than if we just say how we felt.”

Huh. That was different. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made.

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What I was doing in that scene was trying to convey how my character was feeling through those kind of abstract statements King was talking about, and they didn’t work. Although I was trying to show how she felt, in actuality, I was trying to convince readers of it by telling them how she felt. Oh, sure, I was in her head and telling things from her perspective, but it was still telling. There are times when a story needs telling, I’ve learned, but this was not one of them.

As I revised, I tried to keep King’s statement in mind. Rather than trying to show how she was feeling through physical sensations (like stomach churning and fists clenching) or her descriptions of her emotions, I tried to stick with what actually happened in the scene from her perspective.

It works so much better. When I kept the story focused on what was happening in the scene as she would see and interpret it, the scene started coming together. It turned out that I didn’t need to think of a new, creative way to describe being upset. I didn’t even need the metaphor. What I really needed was to let my main character tell what happened in her own words.

What tips do you have for writing scenes with strong emotions? Do you have any favorite books that you feel deal with emotion well?


20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Saving the Best for Last

I am currently working on a revision of a novel. It’s a fairly humorous piece and someone pointed out to me recently that humor works best when the punch is saved for the end.

I wasn’t completely convinced, but I thought I should at least give it a try. As I worked on it, I started noticing this technique in books and movies. Once I started looking for it, it cropped up all over the place.

Humor (or really any kind of emphasis) works best when you save the punch for the end.

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For example, in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, the first two paragraphs read like this:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show—it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

By putting “Cimorene hated it” at the end, that line gets the emphasis. It gives the whole thing a humorous tone. But imagine if Wrede had switched things and written something like:

Cimorene hated where she lived. Linderwall was a large kingdom…All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

That doesn’t work nearly as well. It doesn’t have nearly the same effect as the actual beginning of the book. Plus, in this version, the emphasis would be placed on Linderwall rather than on Cimorene. The main character gets lost.

In the book Space Case, Stuart Gibbs uses that technique with individual sentences:

Living in Moon Base Alpha is like living in a giant tin can built by government contractors.

That sentence is a lot more amusing than if Gibbs had reversed it and written something like:

If government contractors had built a giant tin can it would be like living in Moon Base Alpha.

Or a few paragraphs later, while talking about the moon-base toilets:

In zero gravity, you have to take extreme precautions to ensure that that whatever comes out of your body doesn’t fly up into your face.

Ew, yes. But also funny. By placing the punch at the end, Gibbs amps up the humor instead of letting the funniness get lost in the sentence.

While I’m not an expert at this, something simple like rearranging sentences to shift the emphasis has really helped me achieve the affect I want in my scenes. Even when I’m writing about something like traveling facial hair.

What tips do you have for writing humor? What are some of your favorite humorous books?


20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Goals and Revising in 2018

Happy New Year! I hope 2018 is a year full of joy and peace for all of us!

Like many others, around this time of year I find myself thinking back on the last year, thinking about what worked out well for me, what turned out…less well, and how I would like things to go better in the future. It recently occurred to me how similar this approach to my life is to the act of revising.

Now, I have always preferred drafting to revising. I love the freedom to do whatever I want in a story, to go wherever I want with it, and that push to get the words on the page. But revision? Not so much. I’ve struggled to know how to approach revision and what to even do with my words once they are on the page.

In the last couple of years, I’ve pushed myself to try to learn to revise better and, although it’s slower than I would sometimes like, I am making progress. Good progress.

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There are several similarities between making goals and progress in my personal life and making improvements to a manuscript. Here are three of the ones that have really stood out to me as I’ve tried to learn to revise better:

1. Slow down and take time to think.

I draft pretty quickly. I get the words down on the page in a happy, slapdash sort of way and don’t worry too much about whether a scene needs to be in the story or if the motivations make sense or any of that.

When I revise, though, I need to slow down and take a more thoughtful, deliberate approach. Same with making life goals. If I decide I want to exercise every day, I need to figure out how that will fit with the rest of the moving parts of my life. If I decide to add a scene or a character or a subplot to my story, I also have to consider how those changes will affect the rest of my story. I can’t just bulldoze my way through without taking the time to think or I end up with the same problems with my next draft.

2. Look at the whole.

When I decide to make changes in my life, I have to step back and take an honest—and realistic—look at how I’m doing. Both the good and the bad. Maybe I do need to eat more vegetables and eat less sugar and drink more water…but I’m also doing great at working out every week. Making sure to recognize the good in both my life and my story helps me to keep going and to not give up in despair because, frankly, I don’t particularly like most vegetables.

Sometimes it’s so easy to look at a project that needs revising and make a seemingly endless list of everything that’s wrong with it. But there are good things, too! There always are. Look for them, for the places where your writing does what you wanted it to, and try to bring the rest up to that level.

3. Remember it’s your life/story.

One of the hardest things for me to learn—and remember—in life and writing is that I will never be able to make everyone happy. Just as I can’t base my New Year’s Resolutions on what my neighbor needs to do, I can’t revise based on the issues I see in someone else’s book. And just as I shouldn’t base my goals on what I think my neighbor thinks I ought to do, I shouldn’t revise my story to fit someone else’s notion of what my book should be.

In the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, the director chose to show in-scene a small incident between Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas. Maria was so undone by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s insistence on the only right way to fold clothing that she tried to repack all her boxes. Elizabeth responded by telling Maria that it was her luggage and that Lady Catherine would never know.

It’s your book. Revise it to match your image for it, not Lady Catherine’s.

Happy revising in 2018!

What about you? What tips do you have for approaching a revision? 


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

10 Suggestions for Writing Transitions

I have a transition in my current work-in-progress that has been giving me headaches for a while now. It shouldn’t be so difficult—I’m just moving the main character from one scene location to another—but every time I try to revise it, I still get that niggling “this isn’t working” feeling.

And, okay, I’ve had readers point it out, too, so I know it’s not just me. But what to do about it?

Recently, I’ve been reading Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. It’s an older craft book (the original copyright was in 1990), but it’s proving to be one of the most helpful I’ve read when it comes to crafting on a sentence level. Plus, the prose is engaging and very readable, which is surprisingly rare in writing craft books.

Lucky for me, Provost has an entire section about transitions in his chapter on pacing.

Provost gives three different types of transitions:

  1. Transitions of Time
  2. Transitions of Place
  3. Transitions of Subject

Regardless of what type of transitions you’re dealing with, all good transitions will “make a connection between what the reader has just read and what he is about to read, by implying the relationship between those two bodies of information” (Provost 89).

In other words, a transition can’t be abrupt and confuse the reader. Readers hate being confused.

Provost also gives ten suggestions for transitions:

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1. Don’t Use Long Transitions

Sometimes if days, weeks, months or even millennia pass, writers feel like they need to fill in that gap and explain what happened during that time. If nothing happened during that time that’s directly related to your story, readers don’t need it. If your character is just going about life as usual and nothing happens at his office job that will affect the plot, readers don’t need it. Keep transitions short.

Remember: “A story is not everything that happened. It’s every important thing that happened” (Provost 91).

2. Don’t Write a Scene When a Transition Will Do

This goes along with the previous suggestion. Sometimes we are so worried about telling everything that happened, that we will write entire scenes that are unnecessary. I know I’ve done this before. If nothing really happens in a scene and nothing changes in the story, consider cutting the scene and using a simple transition instead. Often, that will help with pacing issues.

3. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To

If your character is doing something that your reader already understands, like driving a car, for example, you don’t need to explain your character going through the motions of it. Simply acknowledging that they drove from one place to another is all that readers need.

4. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain

However, if your character is doing something uncommon, something that the readers wouldn’t necessarily know how to do, like escaping from a dire situation, you can’t simply say that they escaped. Readers will feel cheated.

5. Do Not Use Transitions to Conceal Information

If something big happened during a transition, like a woman going into labor as she drove across town, you can’t simply say that she drove across town and then surprise readers when the baby shows up. Readers assume that you’re telling them all they need to know and the woman driving across town was not all they needed to know about that trip.

6. Don’t Write Transitions That Distract the Reader

According to Provost, “In general, your writing improves as your words become more specific. If you can make your character trot, dash, or lope, the writing will be more effective than if she simply “runs.”…However, in writing transitions your goal is somewhat different. You don’t want to attract attention.” He goes on to use the example of having a woman cross the street. “If…you write “Diana dashed across the street to Penelope’s” you will distract your reader with the vivid picture of Diana dashing and you will also occupy him with the question, “Why is Diana dashing?”” (Provost 94).

Keeping it simple is much better when writing a transition.

7. Point to the Transition

If the transition will be coming later in the story, like the main character travels to Europe, the readers need to be warned ahead of time that this trip is coming or it will throw readers out of the story.

8. Use Key Words

This goes along with pointing to the transitions. Provost uses the example of a wrap-up party after filming a movie. By using the key word “wrap-up” when the actor is invited to a party that evening, readers are automatically oriented when the wrap-up party starts even if several other events have happened during the day before he actually reaches the party.

9. Use Bridge Words

We do this all the time in conversation with phrases like, “This reminds me of…” or “Speaking of…” These are the “similar words and phrases” that we use “to imply a connection” when we make a transition (Provost 97). Find some way to make a bridge between the time, place, or subject in your story.

10. Make Transitions Seem Logical

This usually isn’t a problem in fiction since “your scenes emerge from something that happened in a previous scene” (Provost 97), but it’s definitely something to think about, especially if you’re working on a non-fiction piece.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who struggles sometimes to find the right transition in a piece, but these suggestions have helped me think through the specific issues I’ve been having. Hopefully now I can come up with a better transition for my story.

Happy Writing!


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Write for You

I recently read the book The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist by Thomas McCormack. Although the book was aimed primarily at editors, I found a lot of thought provoking material as a writer. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from the book:

“[A writer] must realize that he doesn’t have to—and indeed cannot—capture the hearts of every possible reader out there. No matter who the writer, his ideal intended audience is only a small fraction of all the living readers. Name the most widely read authors you can think of—from Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens to Robert Waller, Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling—and the immense majority of book-buyers out there actively decline to read them.”

Not just aren’t particularly interested in reading that author, but actively decline reading them. Huh.

I suppose there are some people who might find this disheartening, but I found this quote to be very freeing. I can’t please everyone. It’s not going to happen. Not ever. No matter what I write, I will never please everyone with the stories I’m telling.

So I don’t have to try.

Instead of trying to please everyone or chasing the market, McCormack suggests that writers: “Write what you are comfortable with.”

Instead of trying to write a book that you think everyone will buy, write what you love. Write what brings you joy. Write something you actually enjoy working on.

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I find that constantly thinking about all the people who aren’t going to like what I write is discouraging and depressing and makes it hard to actually put words on paper. Because there are lots of people who won’t like what I write.

But there are lots of people who don’t like Dickens or Austen or even Rowling, so I’m in good company.

In the end, it’s all subjective.

I recently heard Larry Correia warn writers to be very careful whose opinion and feedback they trusted. He said that if he’d read a draft of Twilight in one of his creative writing classes, he would have trashed it, and he would have been wrong.

Many people have strong opinions about Twilight, but it’s hard to deny that it resonated powerfully with a lot of readers. The readers who were the ideal audience for that book.

So instead of trying to write a story for people everyone, try to focus on your ideal audience. The ones who get what you’re writing and want to read your kind of story. Write for them. Don’t worry about the rest of the readers, the ones with a different sensibility. You can’t please everyone, so make sure you please the most important person.

Write for you.


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Sketching Your Setting

I’ve been working on a revision of a project and, as I was thinking over the events that took place, I realized that many of the scenes take place in very vague settings. The main character’s house, for example. I have a clear idea in my head of what some of the rooms and the furniture look like, but when it comes to the rooms all fitting together, I have a house no architect would ever design, not unless they were, um, very eccentric.

And eccentric was not the look I was going for in their classic, colonial revival style of house.

So I had to sit down and sketch out a believable design for the house, as well as a layout for the furniture in the rooms. I plan to do it for other scenes in the story. Why? Because setting is so crucial to what takes place in a story. It affects how your characters can move in a space and even what they can do in that space. For example, if you’re writing a mystery and you want your character to shoot someone, you have to make sure to place a gun somewhere in their setting so that they can use it. If you are writing a romance and there’s only one small sofa in the living room, they have no choice but to sit next to each other. However, if there are multiple couches, there are different choices to be made and the character’s actions will tell a lot about them by how they interact with one another within the space of the setting.

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Setting, especially a home, is a reflection of your characters. In this particular story, another character called the main character “a control freak.” But her house, and her space, was always messy. One reader pointed this out and asked if the main character really was a control freak. Not that it’s impossible to be both, but it’s important to look at how the two work together and whether or not your setting is contradicting the character you’re trying to establish. And if you are setting up a contradiction, make sure to do it deliberately.

Setting can also show readers who your character is by showing us what they notice in a setting. But how can you, as a writer, know what they will notice if you don’t actually know what’s in the setting? By drawing out your setting, you’ll better know what is in it, which will help you figure out what your character will notice and what they won’t.

Your sketch of your setting does not have to be pretty—it doesn’t even have to be something that you ever show to anyone else—but it can be a very useful tool for you to figure out the blocking within a scene. For me, even something as simple as realizing where my characters kept their garbage can outside helped me work through a snarl in my plot.

What tips to you have for creating a setting? Do you have a particular process you use for your writing?

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Playing to Refill Your Creative Reservoir

Sometimes writing is a joyful thing for me. The words flow and the act of putting together a story fills me with creativity and excitement.

Other times…it’s not so joyful. It’s stressful and draining and takes more out of me than I feel I have to give, especially when there are external, real-life sorts of things going on to distract me. Some people might write well in that state, but I certainly am not one of them. (And if you are one, I am deeply envious of you!)

So what can you do when you feel empty of all creativity? When you know what you want to write and how the story should be, but you just can’t seem to figure out how to get there?

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One thing I’ve found that helps me through those times is to take a break and to play. Last summer, right after finishing my first semester in my MFA program and feeling pretty drained, I spent hours and hours with my hot glue gun making wands for a Harry Potter birthday party. And I loved it. I never had a firm plan in mind for each wand, I just messed around with the glue, playing with it until I liked the shape I ended up with. The same thing happened when I painted them. I let myself play with different colors and thicknesses. The act of creating, of letting myself play, filled me and I was able to return to my writing both inspired and rejuvenated.


Even something as simple as playing the piano or singing as I clean the bathroom can be rejuvenating and leave me in a better mental place to come back to my writing. I have friends who sew or do calligraphy or draw in order to refill their creative reservoirs. And sometimes, I’ll even play around with other writing projects. Picture books and silly poetry are especially good for me.

We recently moved and, I have to admit, my creativity levels have been at a rather low point. (Who knew that the exhaustion from packing up your life and moving around tons of boxes could be so draining?) But I still have deadlines for school and things I need to get done. So what am I going to do?

I’m going to go play.

What about you? What do you do to refill your creative reservoirs? What’s your favorite way to play?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.