Clare B. Dunkle

Storytelling and Fiction Writing

Clare Dunkle's basics of fiction writing

Mirror ball in a Sedona garden

Even if you are interested in learning new ways to think about your fiction writing, you probably hate to be ordered around. Because of that, I have avoided stating any rules or using "you" language in the following sections. You may find it tiresome to read so much about what I do—but I think that's better than telling you what to do.


"I have a great story inside me," someone is bound to say at the writing workshops I give. "But when I sit down to write it, nothing comes out. I end up staring at the keyboard."

I don't know if any writer can sit down at the keyboard without preparation and just force the words to flow. The brain has to work on a writing task for a few minutes to a few hours before words are ready to come out at the keyboard. I've learned that this is called rehearsal, but before I knew the word for it, I had already given it my own name: prewriting.

Professional writers usually write every day, and I suspect that we all have the habit of prewriting as part of that daily routine. After I've finished my four hours' work, I turn to other tasks: I may clean house or exercise. But as I do so, I find myself mulling over the next day's scenes. My mind knows what I will probably accomplish then, and, rather than thinking about the whole manuscript, I think about just that small part of it. I watch my characters interact in the scenes I plan to write down, and I find myself fitting words to the scenery and actions. Often, by the next morning, I have most of the dialogue memorized. And when I sit down at the keyboard, the words are ready to flow.


All writing is communication: it involves a transfer of information from the writer to the reader. But fiction writing brings with it a unique difficulty: people don't read fiction because they want information. They want to be entertained, enthralled—kept on the edge of their seat. The transfer of information itself has to be interesting.

When I sit down to begin writing a story, I already know how it will end. I know things about the characters and setting that won't even appear in the book. But when a reader picks up my book, he or she knows nothing of what will happen. I have to feed that reader the information sentence by sentence, word by word, keeping him or her in suspense the whole time. If I tell too much, I give something away. If I don't tell enough, I confuse the reader. And—this is the hardest part—even though I can read my own writing, I can never experience what my reader will experience reading it. I can't be caught up in my own book, breathless, waiting to see what will happen next. It's impossible: it would be like trying to tickle myself.

I keep this difference in mind when I write. I even play tricks on my reader, creating false impressions and building blind leads. And I have a great deal of respect for my editor's suggestions because, unlike me, she has experienced my manuscript from the reader's perspective. That means she knows something I can never know about my own writing: how well it works for the reader.


Lawyers have taught us just how many different ways a story can be told. There are the events, and then there is the telling of them: these are two entirely different things. Novels have this same dichotomy. There is the plot, the fictitious reality that characters are living out. Then there is the structure, the way that the novelist decides to tell the characters' story.

The plot is simple enough. Unless these characters are in a time-travel fantasy world, one event follows another for them. If we could peek at them going about their fictitious lives, we would see them awake or sleeping, carrying out their duties, twenty-four hours a day. But the structure may not be simple at all.

Perhaps the novelist decides to start in the middle of the story, at a very exciting episode, and then go back in time to fill in details. Perhaps the novelist decides to bring in an event from long ago by having one character tell another one about it. A unique movie, Memento, begins at the ending and tells its story one event at a time, in reverse-chronological order, until it finally reaches a scene—the earliest event of all—that explains why the hero has acted the way he has. That scene, the real beginning of the plot, is actually the end of the movie.

After I have built my plot, I study the problem of structure. My goal is to tell my story in the most exciting way for the reader. So far, I haven't begun a novel at the end and worked my way to the beginning, as Memento does. But I have begun in the middle and used flashbacks to fill in a story's background, reaching back in time for these memories even as the action of the book is moving forward.


I have sat down with associates who need to know this sort of thing and told them the detailed plot of my latest manuscript. It takes about an hour. But these people have not experienced what a reader will experience with the finished book. The plot might have held their interest to some extent, but it has not gripped them emotionally. Why is that? Aside from concerns of structure, what's the difference between a plot and a novel?

A plot is no more than a list of actions, like a book report or an encyclopedia entry on a famous person's life. But a novel takes place in scenes. During a scene, the reader is with the characters somewhere, experiencing an event: feeling, seeing, hearing, reacting emotionally. The scene unfolds before the reader; it takes place in real time. All the scenes of a novel are strung like beads on a necklace, held together by as little narration as is necessary to transport the reader from one scene to the next.

In this regard, a novel is just like a movie. Each little scene in a movie exists for a purpose: even if it is only fifteen seconds long, it conveys information that the director thinks we should know. Similarly, when I think about my plot, I plan out how to convey my information within scenes. For instance, I don't think, "I'll have to remember to tell the reader how much this character hates her ex-husband." Instead, I think, "What scene can I build that will convey her hatred? Should I show her attempting to murder him with poisoned soup? Or should she just dump the soup in his lap?"


I have mentioned watching the next day's scenes in my head as I go about the business of prewriting them. Some writers tell me that they can clearly see their scenes, but they don't know how to put them into words. They just don't know where to begin.

If I stand in my office and try to notice everything that is there, I could probably write a description of this room that would stretch for ten pages. A scene of action, with exotic details and interesting characters, can seem even more daunting. Obviously, the trick is not so much what to include as what to leave out. For that, I remember my emotional focus in the scene, a character whom I am following closely. I then describe the details that matter to this individual, and I ignore the ones that don't bring the reader's thoughts into line with this character's thoughts.

Let's say a high school student walks into her bedroom. She will be aware, in a pleased and happy way, of the posters on the walls and the photos of her friends that she has taped up all over her closet door. She might not be aware of the bedspread, unless it is that annoying pink thing that her mother still puts on her bed because she refuses to understand that her daughter has grown past liking pink. This character almost certainly won't notice the carpet color or the view out the window, and if her little brother comes up behind her, she will hear him before she sees him (hopefully). I would take all these things into account in the way I describe her room.

Sometimes the emotional focus of a scene will not be the person doing the most acting and talking, or even doing a lot of thinking. But by staying with that character's impressions, I can still make the reader feel sympathy for him or her. For instance, you can read on this site the prologue to my book, By These Ten Bones. The things that I describe in that scene come from my emotional focus on the little boy. Even details such as the whipping wind and the unseen, alarming trees, which seem at first glance to be general observations, convey that small child's fright at having to spend a night outdoors with such a strange companion. If I had been using a veteran hunter as my focus instead, I would have picked very different details of the campground to bring to the reader's attention.


The ideas in the previous section lead naturally to this one. If I am focusing on the impressions of a character, I am getting into issues of perspective. This is a very important consideration to make before starting to write a manuscript. Who, exactly, is going to tell this story? Will it be one of the characters, in his own words? This is first person perspective: he will use "I" as he speaks. Or will a nameless, faceless narrator tell the story—essentially the novelist herself? If so, she faces a choice.

The novelist can stay with one person's perspective throughout the work, giving that person's thoughts and feelings and describing only the actions and behaviors of others, without any insight into their private thoughts. This perspective, called third person limited, is what I chose to do in my first novel, The Hollow Kingdom. I did this because I wanted to capture my heroine's impressions as she goes from revulsion and fear to love and respect for my monster. In effect, Kate herself becomes the narrator, and her emotions dominate the reader's experience. An interviewer asked me how I managed to transform Marak from a hideous monster into a romantic hero, and choosing the right perspective is how I did it. Kate's emotional transformation produces the impression of a change in Marak, when actually there is no change in him: I was as careful as I could be to keep his character absolutely consistent throughout. Kate's perspective breaks down only a couple of times in the book, when I spend a bare sentence or two on Marak's perspective. One of these times takes place after Kate has fallen asleep and can no longer give us her perspective.

But sometimes a story is too big for any one character to dominate emotionally, or several characters are too subtle and reserved to reveal their thoughts and emotions well from behavior alone. Then the novelist can choose third person omniscient perspective. Like God, the novelist can reveal the thoughts of several people in a scene, thoughts that they are perhaps hiding from each other. Even the description may shift when the novelist changes perspective: in the above example of the high school student's bedroom, her mother might walk in and give the reader a few choice thoughts about the clothes left lying on the floor. This is similar to the shifting done in movie scenes, when the camera shows first one person and then the other, as if the two people looking at each other had cameras in their eyes.

Third person omniscient is very popular, but it can be tricky to handle, and I don't mind saying that I'm still fine-tuning my own technique. It can annoy certain readers who like a clear sense of whom they are supposed to root for in a story, and, if overdone, it can make scenes confusing and emotionally unappealing because the reader feels tugged in too many directions. But some stories demand this perspective if they are to be told, and so the writer has to go along for the ride.

The last choice of perspective is one I have never used: third person objective, in which no character's thoughts or feelings are revealed beyond what could be guessed by an outsider observing faces and actions. I would find this sort of perspective very confining. But I did read a short story recently written in this style. It was a horror story, and the flat, unemotional tone that came from this detached perspective helped the reader handle the trauma of the horror episodes.


A number of teen readers have remarked, both in online reviews and in person, that they found The Hollow Kingdom very hard to put down. I am a firm believer in the notion that what makes a book hard to put down is not what is put into it but what is left out. If the description is brief and vivid, the reader gets to action sequences more quickly, and it is the action, not the description, that keeps the reader hooked.

We have all seen forests, fields, houses, towns, and a million other common objects. What I try to tell, then, when I describe one of these common objects, is what makes it different or what attracts the interest of my characters. And I read over my description, looking for ways to condense it as much as I can. Having the right details is more important than having a lot of details.

A reader will supply details without even realizing it as he or she visualizes a scene, so I try to point the reader in the right direction as quickly as possible and then let him or her do the work for me. Sometimes just one phrase will do it—often an analogy or metaphor. It's like target practice: one bullet may be all it takes to hit the center. For instance, one of my characters thinks that a big-boned man she meets reminds her of a Viking. That, combined with his hair color and eye color, is enough to send the reader a clear and vivid image without wasting any time.


I could follow my characters around day and night to collect things to tell the reader. Instead, I try to write scenes that are truly necessary: they advance the plot, cement the reader's emotional attachment to the protagonist, or reveal a hidden facet of one of my characters. I usually overwrite to some extent in the first draft, having fun with my world and my people, but later I cut out scenes that don't serve a valid purpose, no matter how much I may enjoy them personally. Some of these scenes have found a home here on the website, but I would never consider putting them back into the book. They just don't move things along, and they would slow down the pace.


When I read through a draft, I feel as if I am handling a piece of tapestry. As few as five adjectives scattered throughout the book can change my reader's impression of a character. As I read from scene to scene, making small changes, I can feel, for example, a sentence in Chapter Two bringing into focus a paragraph in Chapter Eight. It's like pulling a thread in a piece of cloth: a tug in one spot may produce a wrinkle two or three feet away.

What am I looking for as I shift scenes around and make small changes to my text? As much as anything else, I'm monitoring the emotional experience the book is providing. A couple of chapters of light-hearted scenes will leave the reader feeling disinterested. A joke at the wrong time keeps the reader from finding a scene poignant or moving. Too many horrific moments within the same section of the book make the reader emotionally exhausted and jaded. We've all had that feeling in certain horror movies, I'm sure: the fourth or fifth time someone goes splat, we just don't care anymore.

I try to weigh these produced emotions, looking for things that ramp up too quickly or things that stall the book's emotional ride. I don't want the reader to have an opportunity to pull away from my characters and experience feelings that come from outside the book: "My leg's asleep; my eyes are tired; I wish this character would quit whining so much!" This is a very delicate process, and I can't do more than suggest it here, but it is one of the most important considerations in preparing a manuscript revision.


This topic follows naturally from the one before. You may have noticed, from my Suggestions page on this site, that I always read my manuscripts aloud during the final stage of work on them. Not only does this keep my attention on the words of my text, so that I can listen for awkward constructions, but it slows down the pace of the work so that I can evaluate the emotional impact of the scenes and the chapters.

When I become bored while reading, I do what everyone else does: I skim. But when I'm reading aloud, I can't skim. This means that I really notice when my book is losing momentum And if I, the creator, find a part of my book boring, my reader, who does not love it as a mother, will find it doubly so. That means I had better fix it: I need to remove some text or work up some more interesting action.

I mark stretches of text as I read for later study and possible abridgment. Sometimes taking out just a few sentences in a section will speed up the pace and put the book back on track.


When I first started writing, I had never had to create chapters and chapter endings before. I was writing my chapters as letters to my daughters, so I made each one exactly ten pages long. Needless to say, this required some prestidigitation on my part! Chapters don't measure out so neatly without a certain amount of help, and I stopped placing such artificial demands on them once I began writing for publication.

How do I end a chapter? How do I know when I have reached the end of a chapter? Every story contains "chapter ending" moments in it; the only real trick is in recognizing them and building them up when they arrive. Well-constructed chapter endings bring with them a certain drama, and it's that drama that makes the reader want to keep reading on into the next chapter. This is important because when readers put down a book, they often do so at the end of a chapter.

What makes a good chapter ending? Usually, it is a new piece of information that has arrived dramatically—something that will change the way the characters think or act in the next (as yet unknown) chapter. These are classic chapter endings:

"Stephanie couldn't have pulled that trigger, Mr. Brown! She was locked in my basement all evening."

"I can no longer hide my true feelings. I love Frank, not you."

Tapita felt the hair rise on the back of her neck and turned to face the sound. From the shadows, a black shape emerged—a shape with long arms, but no head.

Each of these endings provides a plot twist that makes the reader want to keep reading. With that new element in the book now, the next chapter is bound to be even more exciting than this one.

Sometimes chapters have a different ending, the kind that is a definite end. These come when the excitement in the book has already been intense, and they offer the chance to breathe a sigh of relief. A classic of this type would be this one: "Come on, Maude. Let's go home." The reader knows that everything will be all right now.

But such chapter endings shouldn't, of course, occur very often in a book. They deliberately break the flow of the action. They should occur only after a major plot element resolves itself, such the transition between the climax of the book and the denouement chapter.

I believe that a book should always sound good when it is read aloud, that the language itself should be attractive to the reader. The ending sentence of a chapter takes on special importance in this regard: it needs to have just the right rhythm and weight. This is a crucial part of the satisfaction a reader feels as the chapter ends.


I usually start a first draft with about a week's worth of intensive plot-building behind me, which is enough to flesh out lots of details but by no means as many as I will put onto paper. As I write my drafts, then, I try to stay alive to the possibilities that my text delivers me. I keep asking myself questions about the characters and their motivations. I pay attention to what they're saying and doing so that I can use my new information in the story.

Draft revisions can be very different from the first draft. That's when I look for those loose ends and try to tie them up. After all, now I know my characters and their problems much better than I did the first time through. I look for ways to involve the minor characters more closely in the plot. Sometimes a small detail from late in the story gives a clue that will solve something that is not working yet back at the beginning.

I have learned many things preparing for third drafts that I didn't recognize in the first two. But that doesn't matter: better late than never, as long as they make their way into the story before the final draft. My reader will enjoy the book that much more for the richness of its details and will never know or care which story elements came from which draft.


I am a firm believer in criticism and revision. If my manuscript can improve in any way, I want to know about it. I don't see these criticisms as expressions of doubt or gloom, I see them as challenges to my talent. In effect, they are a dare: "You've jumped five Volkswagens on that motorbike. Now let's see you jump six!"

When working on a revision, I try not to stay wedded to any particular plot device or scene from the old manuscript. Instead, I give the story a fresh look, knowing that the solutions are just waiting to be found. If the old draft is my reality, the "box" I find myself in, then revising it means thinking outside the box. That shouldn't be too hard for a novelist to do: I'm the one who dreamed up that box in the first place.

We writers should have too much confidence in our own creativity to ignore constructive criticism or shy away from manuscript challenges. Why should we let ourselves live with plot holes or weak characterizations in our work? If we have put together a manuscript that is already three-quarters successful, we need to have faith in ourselves that we can succeed with the rest of it.

"Basics of Fiction Writing" copyright 2004 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.

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