The First Rule of Improv/Revision


There are some excellent posts on revision in the TTOF archives, including Rosalyn’s post just last week. Today I’m hoping to add to the canon by sharing one of my own rules of revision.

The title of this post comes from Tina Fey’s hilarious and smart book, Bossypants. The whole book is excellent, but my very favorite part on page 83, where Fey outlines her “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.”

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE…Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” ~Tina Fey, Bossypants

In terms of improv, this means that if your partner says, “It sure is stinky in here,” and you say, “Nah, it smells fine to me,” then the scene is over and it wasn’t funny. But if you take what they say and run with it–“Yes, I’m filling the whoopee cushions. Want to help?” or “Yes, I notice you’re wearing your cheese hat again.”–then you’re getting somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

This idea of starting with YES has all sorts of implications in all areas of life, but what does it mean in terms of revision? Should you make every change suggested, even by the most trusted editor or critique partner? Absolutely not. But if you approach every critique with the attitude of “Yes”–as in “Yes, that might work” or “Yes, I see why you’d feel that way as a reader” or “Yes, I’ll at least give it a try”, then you’ll really get somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

It can be hard to lean toward YES, especially with the big stuff. “Take this plotline back and bring the other one forward. That’s your story.” “These characters need to meet sooner and share the page more often.” “I know this story all started with the doll, but…can you get rid of the doll?” (Best advice ever.) You can resist these kinds of suggestions flat-out, or do a half-hearted move-the-food-around-your-plate attempt until it looks like you’ve done what you were supposed to do–or you can say YES and see where it takes you.

My most recent experience with the power of YES happened when I sold my first foreign rights for my debut novel (!!!) on the condition that I cut the word count by 20% (?!?). I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wondered if it would be too much of a compromise, whether I could kill quite so many darlings and still be true to my story. But I said yes, and I tried it. And it totally worked.

The beauty of computers is that you can save a new copy of your manuscript and try anything on it, and if your YES crashes and burns, there is literally no harm done to your story. It’s still there in its original form! A wise author clued me into this trick. “Yes. I’ll try this thing my editor/agent/critique partner said, just so I can tell her/him I tried it. I can always go back to the old version.”

Do you want to know the best part? When it comes to the big stuff, I have only ever once gone back to the old version. Saying YES in myriad ways has made my stories infinitely better. I have never once regretted an answer of “Yes, I’ll give it a try.”

P.S. For an actual TTOF post about improv, see the excellent  “7 Things Comedy Improv Taught Me About Writing Better Scenes” by Erin Shakespear. And HUGE thanks to Erin “Cheese Hat” Shakespear and Helen “Whoopee Cushion” Boswell for their excellent improv lines above!

profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

How to Show the Passage of Time in your Novel

Last week, I went with my oldest to meet with his school counselor and to select the classes he would take his junior year of high school. When we were called back, we both stood, and then he stopped to let me go in front of him without a look or prompt from me. He gave me a hug when the appointment was over, with his arms wrapping around my neck with ease (and as I’m six feet tall, that’s saying something). He has just finished his driver’s ed course, may be looking at a possible prom date this year, and it has made my internal time teller go all wacky.

Time has been even more topsy-turvy because over Thanksgiving, I was able to snuggle with a two-month old niece and a four-month old nephew courtesy of my two youngest sisters.  It was fun to calm them down, to be still while the weight of infant slumber rested against me. And it seems cliché, but it really does seem like not that long ago that I did the same with my kids.

Of course, it was also really nice, when the baby became inconsolable, to pass him or her off to the appropriate mother.

The combination of these two things has brought to my attention, again, the way that time is inconsistent. This comic sums it up perfectly:


The tricky thing for writers is how to demonstrate that. Part of the problem is that the whole “show-don’t-tell” mantra permeates our very writing existence and we are caught in the trap of thinking we need to show EVERYTHING. Truth be told, when creating that first draft, every detail may be necessary for you to be able to figure out the story. But the reality is all of us have experienced days where time speeds by and our glances at the clock are continually shocking because how can it be that late? And I’m certain we’ve all had the days (or parties, events, conversations, etc.) that take such a long time and yet it’s only minutes, or worse, seconds.

I have thought of a few kinds of cues that writers can utilize to help stories transition through time.


Routine Cues:

  • Bedtime: As my children have gotten older, it is sometimes difficult for my husband and I to resist trying to get them all in bed by 8:00 like we used to be able to. There’d be mutiny. But for a mother of young kids, the routine for bedtime can be a proverbial light at the end of the day. It’s also the time to show what kind of a day each person involved in bedtime routines had (whatever the appropriate routines may entail).
  • Meal time: not only mentioning “That night, at dinner . . . “ but also “Wally ate his dinner, twice” would allow the reader to understand the stage that Wally is in. This can be done with coffee brewing, trying to set the table for dinner, opening a lunch box, waiting in line at school with a tray, etc.

Physical Cues:

  • If you are showing the coming of age, growth, vocabulary, dismissal of “childish” things all allow the reader to understand what is happening. Also, commenting on change in voice, body type, and depending on the story, smell, would let the reader know what is going on.
  • Height: though you don’t know how tall my son is, putting HOW he hugged me and my height probably allowed you to envision what he might look like.
  • If someone is intentionally going through a physical change (body building, pregnancy, weight loss) but it isn’t the main point of the story, consider using a montage kind of storytelling, giving glimpses at the progress but not bogging the reader down with details that don’t advance the character arc or plot.

Seasonal Cues:

  • Is your story set in a place that adheres to the typical “four season” model? Nature is great for helping readers jump ahead a few (or many) months, and with one or two sentences, you can ground them again.
  • Consider the flavor options that are available at each time of the year as well. For example:
    • Pumpkin spice
    • Peppermint
    • Cotton candy
  • Drop hints based on what people are wearing. If they are decked out in stars and stripes or swimsuits, we picture something vastly different than mittens and scarves.

Celestial Cues:

  • This one requires you spend some time looking up. Where I live, the sun rising, even on a cloudy morning, has different hues than a sun setting behind a clouded sky. The absence of shadows suggests a different time of day as well.
  • Remember that the moon has a path it travels across the sky as well, and that the brightness of the stars increases as the night darkens.

Calendar Cues:

  • Holidays
    • Our modern society has helped solidify what we expect from each holiday courtesy of commercialization, but as a writer, you can use that to your benefit. Easter looks and feels different than Labor Day, and even something like Groundhog Day can ground your reader in time and setting.
  • Anniversaries
    • There are all kinds of these. Thinking Through Our Fingers just passed its fifth year. Wedding anniversaries can be both bitter and sweet depending on the status of the relationship. See also time markers for work, friendships, annual events, etc.
  • School year considerations
    • Just picture a time with these three options: spring break, finals week, picture day, graduation/commencement. Chances are decent you saw time and seasons and time of day and appearance of character without needing more.

Sometimes you just have to tell:

  • If you get TOO detailed in the passing of time, your reader might start checking their own clock. Sometimes the best thing really is to say, “later that day” or “at six o’clock”.
  • You can do this with big jumps too. “The next summer” or “a few months later” or “when Scott turned ten” works to help reground your reader and stick with the character.
  • If you are doing a dual time narrative, putting the dates at the top of each chapter is the fastest way to convey what is going on to readers.

When trying to decide which details to share, and how to share them, think about the way you engage with the world, always trying to remember that time actually isn’t consistent in the way we experience it.

What are your favorite ways to show the passing of time? Have a book or movie that you think demonstrated passing time well?

profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

How to Hook your Reader

One of my favorite things to write is the very first line of a novel. It’s also the hardest thing I write.

Why is that first line so important?

The purpose of the first line of a story is to get you to read the next line. And the purpose of the first paragraph is to get you to read the next paragraph. The purpose of the first page? First chapter? It’s always to get you to keep reading. That’s why these firsts are so important. If a reader doesn’t like that first line, or in other words if the reader isn’t hooked, what are the chances they will keep reading?

Not only do you have to hook the reader in your first line, you need to grab them at all those points in which they’re likely to put down the book, such as a scene change, the start of a new chapter or section, or a point of view switch.


Have you ever seen those ads on social media that say something along the lines of, This man tried to hug a lion; you won’t believe what happens next!? It’s total click bait, and you don’t want to do that in your writing. It’s bad form. You shouldn’t have to trick your reader into turning the page, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hook them.

A hook isn’t about holding back information to get the reader to keep reading, because that can get annoying really fast. It’s about revealing information at the right time. I personally believe if your point-of-view character knows something, the reader should too…or at least he better know it very soon. 

Try to start your book as late as possible. Sometimes after you have written your story, you may need to go back and cut-cut-cut until you reach the right moment to begin. The reader doesn’t need to know the detailed background of your character or world before you introduce the conflict or plot. You can weave those elements in as needed and ensure your reader will not get bored right at the start.

Try to begin each scene as late as possible as well. Writers often get caught up in trying to describe everything a character does. They wake up, brush their teeth, use the toilet, etc. It’s okay to leave those things out. The reader will assume your character eats his meals; you don’t need to describe it each time. Only include what’s pertinent to the story.

Take a look at this example of the start of a novel:

  • Charlie opens his eyes and sits up in bed. The red and blue comforter his mom bought him for Christmas is bunched at his feet, wrinkled with a drool stain on one side. He desperately needs to wash it, but that’ll have to wait until after school. After stretching his arms and yawning, he shakes his head out and slips out of bed, shuffling to the bathroom. He runs the water at the sink and splashes his face to wake himself up, then squeezes a glop of toothpaste onto his electric toothbrush. The bristles have started to splay, an indication of his brushing method more than the length of time he’s used it. After brushing and rinsing out his mouth, Charlie reaches for the hand towel to dry off, then glances up at the mirror and gasps at his reflection. He can’t believe what he’s seeing—the state of what he’s become. Not again, he thinks.

Does that start hook you? Does it make you want to read more of the story? Maybe. The writing isn’t terrible, and it gives us a little insight into the character. But it’s kind of boring, at least until the last line. But then it dives into a bit of that click-bait we talked about earlier—a trick to get the reader to turn the page.

Now take a look at this version of a start from the exact same novel:

  • Charlie’s shoulders slump in defeat when he realizes he’s dead. Again.

Which example hooks you better? Which version makes you more likely to turn the page? I think most readers would choose the second example. It’s void of click-bait and starts later in the story without unneeded backstory. Remember, holding back information doesn’t necessarily make a good hook. In this instance, it’s the revealing of the information that makes you want to keep reading.

Your first page should be an effective blend of character, story, setting, action, and a hint of conflict. How to write a first page is an entire post (or several) in itself, but remember that you don’t want to bog the reader down with any one of these elements. Instead, ‘hook’ the reader with those elements with a promise of more.

What are some of your favorite hooks?

Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

Past of the Past

Once, while I was working at my university’s writing center, a student brought in a piece of short fiction to workshop. After reading through the piece with him, I mentioned that it was difficult to distinguish his character’s thoughts about the past from her current timeline.

Him: “Yeah, that’s what my group said too.”

Me: “Part of the problem is that it’s all in the same tense. Because all of it is in regular past tense, there’s no way to distinguish what actually happened in the character’s past from what is happening now.”

Him: “…This is fiction. Past tense is normal for writing fiction.”

Me: “Yes, but if it’s all written the same, we don’t know when she’s flashing back. Could you try using past perfect tense–like “she had seen,” and “she had known”–for the parts when she’s remembering?”

Him: “…It’s already past tense. This is normal for fiction. That other stuff is too wordy.”

A few years later, when I was editing for indie authors, I saw this same struggle with understanding past perfect tense—in fact, it was the most consistent problem I saw. Often it came from the same convictions held by the young man above: The idea that past perfect is too wordy, or distracting, or that they are already writing in past tense so it should somehow just be clear what is in the past.

And, to be fair, past perfect tense can be a little extra wordy, or distracting—not many of us would want to read an entire story written in past perfect. Like all tools, its value is in the implementation—but it can bring a lot of clarity when used correctly.


Here are a couple simple guidelines to make the most of this tool without being overwhelmed by it.

  1. If you are already writing in past tense, past perfect is used when you need to describe an action that has already been completed in the character’s timeline. It’s useful for quick memories or reflections, like in the example below.
    • Ex: “Sandra walked along the sidewalk, kicking a frozen rock. The fire had been so sudden. She’d barely had time to grab her favorite stuffed Triceratops before smashing the window and climbing out. The wind had been bitterly cold that night. She couldn’t remember another night so cold—this one was probably close, though.”
    • Note that the first and last sentences are in Sandra’s present, while the others describe a past event.
  1. For long passages, it is okay to use past perfect for the first 3-4 and last 3-4 verbs, with the verbs in between defaulting back to regular past tense. This keeps there from being too many distracting “hads” while still guiding the reader gently into and out of the flashback.
    • Ex: “Jason hadn’t known how to snorkel before they’d handed him the mask. He’d put it on and pushed his face under the water. A parrot fish sat directly below him, gnawing on a chunk of coral. Its turquoise scales shimmered into purple as it swam around the piece of coral and toward Jason’s feet. Jason watched it, tipping his head farther and farther into the blue–and suddenly he was breathing saltwater. Apparently snorkels were only made for looking forward. He’d sputtered and spit and had ripped the mask from his face. If he’d known the water would taste that vile, he probably wouldn’t have gone in at all.”
    • Note that this is most useful for sections longer than this example—often multiple paragraphs. If there are fewer verbs in the middle than in your past perfect “endcaps,” it’s usually less confusing to use past perfect throughout.

If you don’t want to use past perfect tense, there are other options for flashbacks—such as setting them in italics, or using scene breaks—but these are often more distracting and/or jarring to the reader than a few “hads,” and can have drastic effects on pacing and tone.

So, if you’re writing in past tense, remember that even though it sounds “past,” it is the character’s present. If you want to talk about the CHARACTER’S past, try using past perfect.

profile-smallerShannon Cooley is a dancing queen who looks seventeen (a.k.a. a babyfaced ballroom dance instructor). Her favorite type of dance is anything with lifts and drops, which might explain the adrenaline-seeking tendencies of her three children. She and her husband are both writers, resulting in children who refer to stuffed animals as “characters.” Shannon writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Agency

Setting Reader Expectations (aka, why most prologues don’t work)

As a teacher, I tell my students that readers are constantly making judgments about what they right, trying to estimate what kind of story or information will follow. These expectations form an unspoken agreement with the reader, and if the writer violates those expectations too much, readers feel, at best, annoyed and at worst, betrayed. Mostly, though, we take those violations as signs of inexpert writing.

Recently, as a Pitch Wars mentor, I had the opportunity to read dozens of queries, first chapters (around 80)–and for manuscripts we requested, synopses and multiple chapters. Some of these were very good (in general, I was impressed by the quality of writing!), but one of the common reasons for me to stop reading was a mismatch between expectations and what I saw on the page.

1. Query

One of the mismatches I saw was between the query letter and the story I started reading. There are lots of successful queries floating around the web, and many of them are plot-based queries that promise (and deliver) a high-stakes, fast-paced plot.


Not every book is fast-paced or really high stakes. If your story is a quieter story, it can be a disservice to your story to exaggerate the stakes or the pace in the query–you’ll miss the agents who are looking for a slower, quieter book, and readers who dive in expecting an action story only to find a quiet, character gem might be turned off by the mismatch. (Of course, there’s always the chance that once readers start to read they’ll be sucked in regardless of what was promised, but my feeling is it’s good to start on the same page).

2. Opening Pages and Prologues

 As a reader, I try to make estimations of the story from the very first word. I’m making assumptions about the main character based on her initial actions and dialogue; I’m making assumptions about the type of story based on mood and action. If I’m in the mood for a light, fluffy rom-com and an opening chapter promises this–but then turns into a much darker family drama or horror, I’m going to come away frustrated and disappointed. This isn’t to say that I want to be able to predict everything that’s going to happen (that’s a separate blog post, but an equal turn-off)–only that the surprises in the story ought to be surprises that are consistent with general reader expectations about the kind of story we’re reading.

One of the problems I’ve seen with prologues (or first chapters that are really disguised prologues) is that they set up expectations for the story that are inconsistent with the following chapters. Often, readers add a prologue after realizing that the adventure or thrill of their story doesn’t start until several chapters in–how, then, to convince readers to keep reading until they get to the good stuff? The solution: add a prologue with all the adventure and thrill of the later story. Sometimes this works (see, for instance, the Indiana Jones movies and James Bond). But when it works, it’s because this thrilling slice of life is as much a part of the character’s normal life as the mundane teaching/drinking and seducing women stuff. Prologues don’t work when they promise high stakes and then the story forces us through extended mundane world stuff. If the story is action/adventure, we need hints of that action/adventure from the beginning of the story. The narrative needs to be able to engage readers and carry its weight without the prologue before a prologue can really work effectively.

If you’re not sure that you’re setting the right expectations, ask some beta readers who haven’t read your work to read the first couple chapters and make predictions about the kind of story, general plot conflicts, etc. that they expect to find. If they’re generally making predictions in the right direction, you’re on the right track.

3. Story

Sometimes the mismatch of expectations comes within the story itself. I’ve read a few stories where the first part of the novel seems to promise certain kinds of conflict–only for the story to veer off midway through into a seemingly different story and resolves a related (but not the originally promised) conflict. As a reader, these kinds of stories leave me emotionally unsatisfied.

Successful stories are about the arousing and fulfilling of desires–don’t raise desires and needs in the reader that you don’t plan on answering.


Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.


Wait! That’s not their name!

My wife is an avid reader. When I say avid, I mean that this woman goes through at least 3-4 books a week. She reads pretty much any genre out there as long as it’s fairly clean. The one thing that I like being married to an avid reader is hearing her many pet peeves about authors. Why? Because hearing those pet peeves, helps me avoid them. I am going to touch on the one pet peeve that was driving my wife nuts a few weeks ago. It came to the surface because it wasn’t just one author that was having these issues. It was about 4! Her pet peeve: messy character naming.

I’m just going to come out and say that I too have had a problem with this before. Luckily for me, it was caught by both my wife and editor before I sent the book to anyone else. I had named one of my side characters Greg in previous chapters and then named him Henry in another. In my case, I actually wrote a whole scene in the wrong name and then jumped back to the original name I had before. Crazy messy, I know. It’s not that I set out on trying to confuse my readers I just got mixed up. It happens to the best of us. But what can we do to avoid messy character naming?

One thing that I do now is create a character list of all the characters I have in a book. When you get into a series, that list can get HUGE. That is why it is so-o-o important to keep track of these things in the beginning. I think it is important to list not only their FULL names (you never know if it will come up—I also include nicknames) but also their appearance and traits. This is what my character lists generally look like:

Main Characters (taken from The Dream Keeper Chronicles):

  • Parker Ryan Bennett: Age 14. Brown hair. Chocolate brown eyes. Gamer. Afraid of being tagged a loser at school. Has a hard time standing up for what he believes in because he’s concerned by the thoughts of others. Lives with his single mom: Elizabeth González Bennett.
  • Kaelyn (Kae) Marie Clarke: Age 14. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Dreamer. She’s been tagged a loser at school. She is into art. She knows who she is and isn’t afraid of being herself. She is an orphan living with her Aunt Zelda.
  • Gladamyr: Age unknown. Purple skin and purple hair. A dreamling: more specifically a reformed nightmare. He is a dream keeper. He is haunted by his past crimes against children and longs to be human.
Side Characters:
  • Dr. Gregory (Greg, Doc) Gates: Age 39. Brown hair. Green eyes. Child Psychologist. He is a down to earth guy who likes to have fun and play games. He is Parker’s father like figure.
  • Zelda (Zelly) Creighton: Age 35. Red curly hair. Blue eyes. Self-Proclaimed Psychic. She is very eccentric and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-girl. She is Kaelyn’s aunt and guardian. 
As your story grows, so will your list. Just remember to update it. I not only have a list for main characters and side characters but those that crop up here and there. I have a list of names the kids use while they are in school. I do this so when I need to name the kid that Jane thinks is cute in chapter two, I use the same name later on. As my wife would say, “it’s frustrating and confusing if you don’t get it right.”

Another tip:double check! As you go through your own personal edits make sure the names are correct. Compare it to your list and see if they match. If they don’t, fix them. Then make sure your beta readers or proof readers are double checking for you too. Because I know this has happened to me before, you bet my wife looks for it. In fact I did a messy character naming in my recent book and named a side character another name. Lucky for me, my wife grabbed it. I don’t know where that name even came from (it wasn’t on my list) but I made the mistake. I had named Rachel, Nichole. I not only named her Nichole but I spelled it two different ways: Nicole, and Nichole. So double check your spellings too.  It’s always good for others to catch your mistakes before many people do.

If you decide that you want to do a name change mid-writing, make sure you change the name in ALL your documents. If you name your main character Ronald and want to switch it to Neville, make sure you do a name search in your document as well as your character sheet. Also search for any nicknames associated with that character’s name. We don’t want Neville’s friends calling him Ron. Consistency is the key to becoming a great writer.

I hope this pet peeve have given you a lot to think about. Happy Writing!


Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award winning author and illustrator. He has published five middle-grade books including the fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. Some of his picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures and Bean’s Dragons, which will be featured in an independent film releasing at the Sundance Film Festival. He has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works full-time as a freelance cover designer and formatter. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his four kiddos and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. You can find more about him & his books at:

Writers, Keep Your Promises

Hello writers! Nice to see you again!

During November I did NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month), as I have for the last four years. But something different happened this time.

See, as I draft, I’m usually also leaving notes for myself. My first write-through is ridiculously messy. Brackets all over the place, bits of outline here and there, cut scenes left behind so I don’t forget what I was doing when I come back to it. It’s completely unreadable by anyone’s eyes but mine.

I call this my Draft Zero. It is choppy, and sparse, and almost never does what I want it to. But it’s the bare bones of my story, and having it helps me go back to revise later, rewrite, move things around, and clarify things.

As I wrote this time, I tried to be more aware of a couple of things. I’m a big fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and they often talk about Scene/Sequel format, and Promises to the Reader. I attempted to work a Scene/Sequel awareness into drafting, but it just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing it right, and I felt too much pressure to make something blow up. (Thanks a lot, Howard.)

But the more I wrote, the more I’d find myself seeing things as a reader might. A little revelation of, “Wait, if I introduce this really cool thing here, I need to make sure I use it at the end.” Or, “Oh wait, they don’t know what that thing is…I should foreshadow it more before I use it like this.”

To be honest, I’d never considered Reader Promises in stories until I’d heard these authors talk about it. And the thing was, it made sense in a logical way, but I’d never seen it in practice, or looked for it. So it took hearing it repeated many, many times before I started seeing it. Once I knew what to look for in my own reader/viewer reactions, I started to notice it. Whenever something felt off, or I didn’t like something about a story, I would try to figure out why. Almost always, it came down to an unfulfilled promise.

Example: I just watched NOW YOU SEE ME again the other day. I LOVE that movie. Mostly. I love the mystery element of it, because the twist is one I never saw coming. The only problem I have with it is the very, very end, and I’ll tell you why it bothers me.

We spend the entire film watching four magicians pull tricks, follow anonymous instructions, build these amazing acts, and they are followed by another magician who shows us exactly how they did it. The entire first ninety-eight percent of the movie is all about telling us how magic is done, and how easy it seemingly is to make the rest of us believe that magic is somehow real.

And at the end? That last two minutes? They tell us magic is real. There was zero foreshadowing for that. Nothing in the whole rest of the movie even hinted at magic being real.

It was so anticlimactic it made me forget about the movie for months until I saw the DVD in the $5 bin at the store. I immediately remembered how much I hated the end, but also remembered how much I loved the first ninety-eight percent, so we bought it.

All this is to say, as writers we need to make sure we’re telling the story we promise to tell. If you begin a story with a murder and end it with a couple kissing and not discovering who the murderer is, you’ve either started or ended with the wrong thing.

How about an example of the right way to do this? In STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson, (my apologies that I keep talking about it, I’ve been rereading this over and over for two months because it’s helping with my draft) the main character, David, is terrible at metaphors. If that were it, it would probably come off as kind of weird and maybe not every reader would catch it and it wouldn’t really make sense. But Sanderson makes it a point to tell us about it in more ways than one, throughout the book. David not only knows he’s bad at metaphors, but is constantly trying to think of better ones, impress others with them, and explain them when they don’t make sense.

And so it’s immensely satisfying when, at a point about two-thirds of the way through, he gives us a metaphor so ridiculous that it actually does make sense. And it succeeds in impressing a certain other character. Just thinking about it makes me smile, because the moment is perfect.

Keeping track of the things you’re promising takes practice, and beta readers. You can practice by looking for what your expectations are as a consumer of media, and then watching for how the creators fulfill (or don’t) that expectation. And when your beta readers say “oh, I hope THIS happens!” that is a good sign that you’ve foreshadowed something. If you want to foreshadow it, leave it. If you don’t want to, take it out, or make it more subtle. You don’t want unnecessary foreshadowing to get in the way of the main story.

Try it out! Maybe, if you’re going to see STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS this week, you have some expectations already. Maybe you don’t? Maybe your expectations will be blown away in the first minute of the movie. But whatever the case, try (though it will be difficult) to keep track of what you expect to happen.

Where did that expectation come from? Where and how was that promise made? And how, if at all, do the creators fulfill it for you? Is it satisfying? Does it make you feel happy? Sad? Bittersweet? Or does it make you grimace in dissatisfaction?

Let’s hope there’s none of that last, though okay?

Whether it’s with STAR WARS or some other book or movie you’re finishing this week, try this. Let me know how it goes.

May the Force be with you,