Ask the Authors: Action/Dialog

Writer Frustration

When tackling dialog, we want it to sound as  real as possible, but if you capture every “um” and “ah”, the conversation may put readers to sleep, or even worse, they may just set the book down and never get back to it, because the fact is that everyday conversation is pretty boring. In writing, every word, every phrase, every scene should serve a purpose to the story. There’s no room for what screenwriters call “Hello. How are you? I’m fine.” dialog. In real life, these are things that we talk about, but readers don’t need to be privy to those kinds of conversation. Dialog should serve a purpose such as revealing needed information or character traits, but it also should help to move the story forward, just as much as the action does. It also should read smooth and sound realistic, making your characters more realistic for your readers. The question is, how do we go about doing all of that. Let’s ask our panel members if they have any tips they’d like to share.

Is it difficult to produce dialog that is natural and realistic?
DeAnna Knippling: If you think really, really hard about it and remove every possible flaw…you’ll end up with craptastic dialogue.  I maintain that good dialogue is about listening to how other people talk.
Jordan Elizabeth:  I’ve always been told that my dialogue sounds realistic.  I don’t try; I just write what I hear in my head.  Sorry if that sounds conceited!
Carol Riggs: Sometimes. I find I have to pare down my vocabulary so I don’t sound like my characters are reading from a dictionary. Again, reading the lines aloud help me catch those things and make the interchange flow better.

Tim Baker: I don’t find it difficult. I try to make my characters speak as if they were real people – the way you and I speak. If you have a guy sitting down at a bar the dialogue should be realistic…

“What can I get you?”

“Heineken. Thanks.”

As opposed to…

“What would you like to drink?”

“I would like a bottle of Heineken, please.”

What are your secrets for writing dialog that doesn’t sound forced?

DeAnna Knippling: A playwriting teacher made me go out to a coffee shop and write down every word of dialog that I heard for at least half an hour.  I haven’t been the same since.  I “hear” a voice saying things as I type, and I can “see” text as people talk.  “How would I tape out that grunt?”  “How would I punctuate that pause?”
Jordan Elizabeth:  I see the scene playing out in my mind and I hear what the characters are saying.  I also have a certain critique partner who is awesome at pointing out stilted sentences.
Carol Riggs: Reading it aloud! I also paste chapters into Natural Reader and let it read to me. Awkward stuff pops out pretty easily that way, if it doesn’t sound natural.
Chris Barili: Listen to real people talk, then apply the filter of your character’s personality, and you should have realistic dialogue. Unless you’re writing speculative fiction set in another time/place, of course.
Cynthia Vespia: Listen to the way people talk in real life. There are subtle nuances to every person, whether they have an accent or not. But when you write the dialogue, don’t try to be fancy.
Margareth Stewart: Very much – so very much. I have enrolled myself into screenwriting courses and also plays, so I can really master them. Besides that, I´ve also got some second-hand books with some masters of playwriting, you know from Shakespeare to Molière. So I guess by now, I´m on the way to crafting really good talking (lol). Let´s see!
Art Rosch: Once I had a dream in which a voice said, “Max wouldn’t say that.  It’s not in his nature.” So, I was getting dialogue guidance from the Dream Coach.  Dialogue must emerge from a variety of factors, and by the time I’ve got characters speaking their lines, what they say is almost pre-ordained.  I believe that words are objects, that they contain illimitable power and energy.  What people speak influences the world around them.  The dialogue between and amongst my fictional characters always serves a purpose.  Does it further the plot?  If it doesn’t it’s useless.  Is it stimulating, original, powerful?  If my characters are stimulating, their words ought to be. Dialogue emerges naturally from circumstances.  It’s organic.  The conversations that people have in fiction can be more interesting than what passes ordinarily in daily life.  They only sound forced if they don’t hew to the character’s true nature and the needs of the situation.
Dialog tags. Some authors, especially those in academia, will tell you that good writing only uses said, and maybe asked, or replied, while other authors prefer a more varied reportoir. Some say use them, others say use them as little as possible. Is there a right way when it comes to dialog tags? Let’s see what our panel members think.
Do you use dialog tags? Do you stick with the basics, or use varied tags?
DeAnna Knipling: By dialogue tags, you mean he said, right?  Of course I use them.  Why would I want my reader to be confused?  I only mix them up if it’s something satirical,” she pontificated.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to use varied tags, but I’m trying hard to use “said” more.  Most of the time I just use action tags.
Carol Riggs: Yes, I use tags, but usually the basics (she said, she asked). I do throw in a few mutters, whispers, and shouts; but I TRY not to overdo those. I’ve heard it said the best tags should pretty much be invisible, so the reader doesn’t even notice them anymore after awhile. I omit tags if it’s clear who’s talking, however. Not everything needs to be tagged!

Tim Baker: By tags I assume you mean attributions. I use them but I use them as sparingly as possible, and I rarely embellish them. 90% of the time I’ll use “John said.” And nothing more. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “John replied.” To prevent overuse of the word said. Then on very rare occasion I’ll use “John replied sarcastically.”

I do this rarely because I feel if the reader hasn’t learned enough about John, and isn’t “in the scene” enough to figure out that John is being sarcastic – then I’m not doing my job.

Chris Barili: As few as possible. I much prefer to use actions in place of tags to keep the reader clear on who’s talking.

For example, I could say: “Your zipper is down,” Toni said, giggling and covering her mouth with one hand. “The cow is escaping the barn!”

But I think this is much better: Toni giggled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Your zipper is down, and the cow is escaping the barn!”

Here’s a clip from Hell’s Marshal, Book one of my Hell’s Butcher series. Frank Butcher–dead and in Hell–has been told by the three judges of the underworld that he is now their marshal, charged with bringing back souls that escape eternal damnation. And his first target is Jesse James. Frank is asking the judges how to get James’ soul back to Hell.

“All right, so exorcism is out. How else?”

“You must kill the body, then use talismans we give you to send the spirit to the underworld. If you fail to send it across, it will simply possess another body.”

Bill Hickok spoke alone. “He may use people from the world of the living to do his dirty work. They’ll be his puppets as long as he needs them. Harm as few as
possible to keep things quiet.”

Frank stood, fists at his sides, taking slow, deep breaths. He hated being backed into a corner, but they’d done it nonetheless. He locked eyes with Webber.

“Why me? Out of all the souls you got down here, why pick me?”

Webber never looked away, the corners of his mouth turning up and his eyes smoldering.

“We have a history, you and me.”

So, it was personal. Frank could understand that, at least.

“One condition. If I do this, you increase my time in the pit so it’s what I deserve.”

The judges conferred, hissing.

“Agreed,” they said as one.

Frank nodded. “If I’m gonna be Hell’s Marshal, shouldn’t I get a badge?”

Webber grinned and a bolt of lightning shot down from the ceiling, crashing into Frank’s chest. His body went rigid, and a searing agony blazed on his chest. Fire
arced through his body, making his muscles contract until he felt his bones straining not to snap. He tried to scream, but couldn’t open his mouth even an inch. The acrid stink of burning flesh filled his nostrils as the skin on his chest sizzled and cooked like bacon over a fire.

An instant later, the lightning disappeared and Frank collapsed to the floor. When he finally mustered the strength to lift his head, a marshal’s badge had been
burned in swollen, pink flesh where the lightning had touched him. In the center of the six-pointed star, a skull stared out, flames dancing in the hollows of its eyes. The words “Hell’s Marshal” circled it all. The judges faded from sight, snickering as they disappeared.

“Send Jesse James back to us, Marshal Butcher,” echoed their voices. “Dead or dead.”


Notice there are only two traditional dialogue tags in all that, but action is sprinkled throughout, adding flavor and helping the reader follow the “palaver,” as Frank would call it.

Art Rosch: Dialog tags can be useful.  I’ve heard advice from prominent writers to never go beyond “He said/She said”.  But I like a little variation.  “What did she want?” quavered Tina.”  Something like that, the use of a descriptive word in a tag, sometimes changing an adjective into a verb…..that works for me.  “Where did he go?” Alice asked haltingly. “What happened to Dizzy?”she screached.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley



Emotion motivates characters’ actions and may come through in dialog. But just as real people in real life, characters don’t always say what they mean, and they don’t always mean what they say. So, how do readers know that although your character says one thing, she means another? Maybe the character rolls her eyes, or averts her gaze, or perhaps she says it with a sarcastic tone. In screenwriting, you put these things into the stage directions and the actors carry them out. In fiction, this type of thing must be apparent on the page. Let’s see how our panel members tackle this one.

What methods do you use to clue readers into subtext?

 DeAnna Knippling: My understanding of how subtext works is that it’s the gap between what is done and what is said.  In a play or movie script, subtext is developed by the actors, who literally act out physical cues in order to clue the audience in on what’s going on with longing glances, angry tones of voice, etc.  In fiction, you do the same thing, only through the descriptions of the characters and their actions.  As a reader or audience, you don’t always need to know exactly what the subtext of a scene is, but you do need a clue that all is not what it seems.  A lot of classic mysteries that use the noir tradition–for example, The Maltese Falcon–use subtext to tell the reader to pay attention to something in a scene, but not exactly what.  Solving the mystery of the subtext is part of the fun.
Art Rosch: It’s usually a character’s body language.  Is anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Ekman?  He invented the concept of micro-expressions.  Subtle facial tells that reveal how truthful a person is being.  If you can work with a character’s body language and facial tells, a lot of subtext will emerge.
Any pet peeves with dialog?

DeAnna Knippling: When it’s “on the nose.”  In real life, do you talk about what your id wants on a running basis?  No!  Then don’t blurt out your deepest desires on a running basis in the freaking dialogue!

Jordan Elizabeth: No pet peeve, but I can safely say that I love using dialogue to break up the tension in an intense scene.

Carol Riggs: Saying fluff greetings and lengthy good-byes, as well as repeating things to other characters that the reader already knows. Especially the latter is a smart place to “tell” or summarize so the readers can skip to the parts they don’t know yet. Another pet peeve is information and background dumping in dialogue. You can reveal things in conversation, but it’s not the place to explain your worldbuilding and character’s personal history. I try (with various levels of success) to avoid these things.

Tim Baker: My biggest pet peave when it comes to dialogue is the writer who treats dialogue like narrative. Your narrative should be grammatically correct, but speech is not like that. When we talk, we use all sorts of lexiconic (I think I just invented that word!) tricks to get our point across – including body language. As I said earlier, I try to make my character’s speech as real and natural as possible.

Cynthia Vespia: I’ve read some very popular writers that used “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary in my opinion.

Art Rosch: My only pet peeves are triteness and dialog that fails to emerge from the character’s personality in an organic fashion.  That will sound both forced and boring.


03-21_Margaret_Mahy Quote

This quote from “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley


Action carries the story forward, keeping things moving, so to speak. Every scene is a combination of action and dialog, with maybe a little bit of exposition where necessary to offer setting and set the tone. It’s a tightrope we must walk, always struggling to find our balance between elements. Unneeded dialog can bore readers, while too much non-stop action too fast can wear readers out. Let’s see how our panel members handle action.

What is your secret to finding the right balance between action and dialog?
DeAnna Knippling: There isn’t one.  What, you’re going to regulate it as 50/50?  What if no one’s talking?!?  The “right balance between action and dialogue” is really a question of beat and scene structure, and there are 1001 ways to handle it.  Beyond the scope of this answer 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth: As I watch the scene play out in my head, I write down what I’m seeing and hearing.  It tends to form a smooth scene.
Carol Riggs: I sort of have an internal “feel” for it. If I start getting bored and antsy with one or the other, I know I need to change it up! The reader would be sensing the same thing, I’m thinking. I like a good balance of both, back and forth in a natural flow.
Tim Baker: In my opinion, dialogue is action – just not “car chase” type action. Whenever characters are speaking, the scene is moving much faster than if the author decides to use prose to describe the scene. So I try to use dialogue as much as possible to set scenes and let the reader know what’s happening.
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t try too hard to make a balance. Just let the story flow naturally, without forcing it, and it will find its own way. Having action in between dialog is helpful to build the scene so it isn’t just floating heads talking. Give a sense of movement and use it to build emotion.
Art Rosch: I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t have a secret.  If I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
What is your secret for making action scenes move smooth?
DeAnna Knippling:
Jordan Elizabeth: I watch the scene playing out and describe what I see in my mind. Critique partners also help to make sure my writing is coherent.
Carol Riggs: Short, punchy sentences. Active verbs. Fewer adjectives so readers don’t get bogged down. The character also tends to act more and think less.
Tim Baker: When I write a scene with lots of fast-moving action the key thing I try to do is keep the reader moving with it. By this I mean I don’t force them to read unrelated text (overly descriptive narrative). If a car is about to be hit by a train there is no need to go into detail about the car or the train. That should be handled (if necessary) before the action sequence is written.
Chris Barili: To me, an “action” scene is something like a fight or a car chase, etc. And for me, choreography is key. I have to know my setting, know my characters, and know what the end result can be. One technique I’ve heard of is writing the action scene backward from where you want it to end, which I may try sometime, but it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the creative flow taking over.
Cynthia Vespia: Action scenes need a certain energy to them that allows the reader to feel the pace of it. If it calls for a fight I act them out either with my own body movements, or using action figures. It is similar to the way choreographers block out action scenes in movies. You want the action to flow naturally. Knowing how the anatomy works, using the environment, and setting the proper pacing are all important elements.

Art Rosch: Action scenes are the movements of bodies through a matrix of space and time.  They may be people, ships, cars, horses, whatever…they have momentum and intensity. The movement is forceful, violent and partakes of the character’s attributes.  If I have characters engage in a fight, they will fight differently because they have different moral and physical parameters.  I’ve been a great fan of Samurai films and I’ve derived a lot of my sword action in “The Gods Of The Gift” from watching actor/martial artists like Toshiro Mifune.  Japanese Kendo (sword work) has a severe grace. The ideal outcome of a duel between individuals is death by a single stroke.  The victor defeats the vanquished by drawing his sword from its scabbard.  In one fluid movement the sword is drawn the strike is made and the enemy’s blood gushes from his body as he falls to the ground.  Zip!Sweesh!  Done.  Of course, this isn’t always ideal for film or fiction.  It’s too quick.  There needs to be stroke and counterstroke.  Tactical gains and losses.  In American action film, the car chase is almost obligatory.  That’s film.  Writing a car chase?  Boring, unless the writer can draw the reader into the sensory details of the scene.  Wind blows, shocks scream, cars bounce and careen.  Then there’s gun fights.  Why do the bad guys always miss?  Why do they fire eight hundred rounds from their automatic weapons and never hit any of the good guys?

I once tried a challenge to write a story using only dialog, but without subtext of facial expressions and body language, it was difficult to follow what was happening, and without actions, the characters never did anything but talk. It was really pretty boring. Action and dialog are both used to move the story forward. They are the bread and butter of the writing, because without them, the story goes nowhere.


03-12_CarlHiaasen Quote

This quote from It’s All About Words, by P.J. Braley

Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?


DeAnna Knippling: I have no idea what my “best” dialogue scenes are.  This one’s from a forthcoming book, Thousandeyes.  A detective, the mentor of the main character, is questioning a person of interest in a murder case that may or may not be tied to a local serial killer.  I enjoyed writing this bit because I finally felt like I was enough in control of the dialogue to layer in a number of lies and clues, even in just this short little bit:

“What did you smell that day in the apartment, Ms. Murphy?  Before the deceased arrived?”


“Mr. Demars had not yet brought sealed paint containers into your apartment.  Why do you say that you smelled paint?”

The woman had closed her eyes.

“It was on the dropcloths.  He had left them in a stack in the living room.”

“Did you touch anything that he had brought with him?”

“No, I was fussing around with a few last things.  I didn’t want him to get paint on everything.”

“Were you afraid that he would do so?”



“What has this got to do with the murder?”

“Just answer the question.”



Janet Garber: From Dream Job:


At last, after a choked-down lunch and a brief afternoon walk, Melie had an administrator to deal with.

“You know what, Deedee, just send her home.” Melie dabbed at her face with a tissue, wondering why the heat was turned up so high.

“I can do that?”

“Yes, she’s violating the dress code. You’re the Surgery Department Administrator. You told her to wear a lab coat.”

Will this day never end?

“Yeah, she’s a floozy with those cheeky little breasts of hers always peeking out of her necklines and those miniskirts . . .”

I have to concentrate, Melie told herself, noting that DeeDee had no figure of her own to speak of.

“Dee, wait—is it true you told the rest of the staff she had been on welfare?”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” Deedee said calmly, sitting back in her chair, holding out one hand, admiring her new manicure.

“They do now. And about her mother’s affair with the caseworker?”

Dee’s head snapped around. “What about it?”

“Wasn’t that told to you in confidence?”

“Look, Melie, I take these girls in off the street and give them careers in healthcare. If they’re smart and they listen to me. But they’re a bunch of tramps.”

“Dee—oh, never mind. Maybe next time you should look to hire someone a bit more mature?”

“Older? Nah! I like ’em young so I can mold them right.”


Tim Baker: Here is a scene from my novel Blood in the Water – It’s the first scene that came to mind, and I think it is a good example of how I use dialogue…


“Some clown with a metal detector found our body?”

Steve Salem shot a sideways look at his partner, who was shaking her head in disgusted disappointment while sucking the final drops of a pineapple-banana smoothie from a tall Styrofoam cup. She flipped the cup into the rear cargo area of the Jeep and returned Steve’s stare.

“What? Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” Steve asked.

Val flitted her hand at him. “Like…that. Like you’re not thinking the same thing. In case you haven’t noticed, clients haven’t exactly been beating down the door. How have you survived this long?”

Val reached up and twisted the rear-view mirror toward herself and checked her long blonde curls, ignoring Steve’s glare. When she finished, Steve adjusted the mirror and returned his focus to the road. After a moment of silence, he shook his head.

“First of all, it wasn’t our body. His name was Patrick Donahue. We were hired to find him. Hopefully, alive.”

“Right,” Val interrupted. “And now some wannabe gold-digger, looking for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, found him and we probably won’t get paid.”

Steve sighed. “Okay, second of all, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a fictional treasure located in Mexico, about as far away from Flagler Beach and the Atlantic Ocean as you can get. And finally, you’re looking at it wrong.”

“Wrong? I’m looking at it wrong?” She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows toward him. “Please enlighten me.”

“Joyce Donahue hired us to find her missing husband and gave us a two-thousand-dollar retainer.”

Val turned her brown doe-eyes onto him without a reaction. “A non-refundable retainer,” Steve said.


Steve nodded.

“You’re kidding. Right?”

“I don’t kid about money.”

“You can’t keep her money. We didn’t find her husband.”

“Now you want to refund her money? A minute ago you were complaining about not getting paid. Make up your mind.”

“I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to get paid…”

“Well, then…”

She held up a hand to interrupt him. “…but I want to earn my pay.”

Steve finished his smoothie and sent the cup to the rear to join Val’s. “Allow me to explain. We were hired ten days ago. We began an investigation, using man-hours and resources. The fact that we didn’t solve the case doesn’t change those things. That’s what a retainer is for. To cover our operating expenses.”

Val shook her head. “No. That’s bullshit. You make us sound like lawyers.” 


Cynthia Vespia: Here is scene from my novel Karma: Silke Butters Superhero Series Book 1


“This is insane, you know that?” she said, inadvertently pacing the floor. “Just a few days ago, I was living a normal life and now I’m being chased by supercharged mercenaries and blasting energy bolts out of my hands.”

Joe shifted up in his bed. She could tell every part of him ached to get out of it. Joe was never the type to slow down and rest. Now she knew why… he was enhanced, he didn’t need to rest.

“I’m sorry, Silke,” he said. “I tried to keep all of this from you. That’s why I didn’t want you wrapped up in the affairs of the Enforcer Factory. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the life you were living was normal.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean from the outset, there was something special about you,” he told her. “And I’m not just talking about your abilities, I’m talking about your drive. There was no way Silke Butters would wind up in some average nine-to-five job pushing paper in some cubicle. You had big dreams and you went to New York and accomplished them. That’s not normal what you do, it’s extraordinary.”


Art Rosch: I like this example of dialog between a therapist and Sarah Kantro, who is in a mental hospital and in desperate panic and depression.



          Sarah sits rigidly in the anteroom outside Serena Steinberg’s office.  Ellsworth’s voice attempts to soothe her with meaningless but necessary reassurances. 

          “It’ll be okay, honey, don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

          Sarah’s body is hunched forward like a bow, as if a string is running from her forehead to her knees.  Breath comes through her nose in quick little snorts.  She is aware of Ellsworth’s sounds, grateful for them at a subliminal level. 

          Finally, the inner office door opens.  Sarah is not looking up, but hears her name being called.


          “Yes,” she raises her eyes.  At first glance, Serena Steinberg’s appearance conjures two words, two arrogant, presumptive and annihilating words: Fat Woman. 

          She must weigh at least two hundred, two twenty, Sarah thinks, as her eyes do the lightning-fast evaluation of a food-compulsive woman meeting another woman.  It gives her an immediate internal sense of leverage, of comfort.  The therapist isn’t huge, she isn’t waddling and jiggling.  Rather, she is rounded and soft.  She has a young pretty face with a bit of neck wattle and a pair of breasts that make her look like an ancient mother-goddess dug up from an archeological site.

          Then Sarah meets the therapist’s eyes and does not see what she expects to see in a Fat Woman.   She does not see shame, discomfort, apology, and victimization.  She sees an easy and compassionate smile.  She sees security. 

          “Come on in,” Serena Steinberg says, extending a hand towards her office.

          As if a magnet is pulling her, Sarah goes toward the door.  She looks back to Ellsworth and mouths the word “thanks”. 

          There is no desk in the office.  There is a couch, to the right of the door.  Flanking a large window that looks out over the park are two well-upholstered grandma chairs.  The therapist gestures to one of them and takes her place in the other, gazing at Sarah with obvious concern. 

          “I can see you’re having a really hard time.  Can you tell me about it?”

          As if the bow string that keeps her body in correct equilibrium has just snapped, Sarah hunches forward and puts her face to her knees and begins weeping convulsively.

          “I can’t tell where I end and my mother begins,” she howls between sobs.  “Or where my mother ends and I begin, or whose thoughts I’m thinking, if they’re my own or if I’m just hearing an endless tape recording of things I heard in my childhood.”

          She wraps her hands around her chest as if she is cold, and coughs hoarsely.

          “All right, all right,” Serena Steinberg encourages.  Sarah looks up into the face of the therapist.  She sees an emotion that startles her.  She sees sadness.  She sees genuine compassion, a compassion made not of pity or superiority but of true equality.  Serena Steinberg has wrestled with her own devils and has found a way to make peace. 

          I can do that, too, Sarah thinks. 

          Taking an immense risk, she voices her thoughts.

          “I don’t want to offend you, but you’re a pretty big woman.”

          The therapist laughs, throwing her head back.  It is a good laugh, it peals with a crystalline tone, ding ding ding, as if three different sized fine goblets have been struck with a fingernail. 

          “My secret weapon,” she says, eyes gleaming.  “The world is full of different shapes and sizes and tastes, and being ‘big’, as you put it, is something I was born with. Are you suggesting that I can’t help you because I’m fat?”

          Sarah puts up her hands.  “No no no no, just the opposite.  I think you may be able to help me because you are, uh, excuse me, ‘fat’.”

          “Well,” the therapist says with satisfaction, “we’ve got the word ‘fat’ out in the open already, don’t we?  See what I mean about my secret weapon?”

          “Fat,” Sarah reiterates.  “Fat fat fat.  Fat fat.”  She smiles, for the first time in weeks.  “Fat fat fat.”

          Serena joins the recitation and both women are saying “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat,”

and it acquires a rhythm, like they are a doo-wop band singing nonsense syllables. “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat.”

          The women begin to giggle, and then to laugh until they are holding their sides.

          The word “Fat” has been utterly drained of its destructive power.

          Sarah feels a lot better than she has five minutes ago. 

Find Me.  Read Me. Heal Me at


Margareth Stewart: Excerpt from Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart available at 

He started walking around. People, always wary of strangers, didn’t approach him. He kept looking, trying to find something which could spark his attention. The sun was striking hot and, even with his hat on, he could barely see through the glare. Women carried umbrellas, with some balancing all sorts of things upon their heads, many with babies tied to their backs, too. He was so out of tune. Then he saw a wooden house with a blue sign above the door – Book Shop. “Book shop?” He stopped at the entrance. An Open sign hung on the door. He entered.

An old man stood up from a wooden carved counter and spoke in beautiful, polite English.

“Good morning, how can I help you, Sir?”


It took longer than expected for Pierre to say anything. He didn’t know what to say, if he was looking for a book or a job. The room was piled up with books.

“I´m looking for a job. I am at your service, for any payment.”

The man studied him. “Hum.”

“I´ve worked before.”

“I see.”

“I´m good with books.”

“What makes you think so?”

Pierre didn’t know how to answer that. The question wasn’t expected. Another, smarter person to cross his way. His only option was to be truthful.

“I´m looking for a job until the train returns to service. I´m on a journey to India.”

He thought about saying that he was fluent in more than five languages, or that he was a good organizer and could apply one of his many skills to sorting out the books there, or he could simply state that he had no other means to surviving. But he thought it better not to complicate things even more.

“Because I like books.”

He shrugged, unable to think now of anything more to say.

“Have you sold any books before? That´s quite a different thing.”

“A hard job, I know, but I’m reliable, and honest.”

“Have you ever sold books like this? Second-hand books?” He swept his arm, his hand open, across the book-laden table.

Pierre looked around piles and pile of books on the floor, shelves, a table and desk. What is this guy doing there? Who does he sell books to in the middle of nowhere? He knew if he asked such questions, the job would never come to him.

“Well, I´ve done a lot of things, from working on farms, to restaurants and tents, why should I not be able for this?” Each word needed to be carefully chosen. It felt like a chess game.

“Good point. Experience is a positive attribute. But books are not easy to sell. People are unwilling to pay for them, thinking they can get stories for free.”


I want to thank all of the panel members who shared their work here. These are some great examples of both dialog and action, and how they work together to move readers through the scene and progress the story forward. I can’t wait until next Monday, when we’ll talk about setting. I do hope you’ll all join us.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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Looking Back on 2017

Looking Back

Every year at this time I look back and so a review of what was published on Writing to be Read and my writing life. 2017 has been pretty eventful for both me and Writing to be Read, so this year I’m particularly excited about this look back. But, I’m also excited to get out my crystal ball and warm up my psychic abilities as we take a look forward that comes as we start the new year, because I think there may be some exciting things in store.

There were so many things that happened for me in 2017. In April, my western novel, Delilah was published by Dusty Saddle Publishing, which of course, is exciting. Delilah hasn’t done too bad on sales, but it didn’t make the best seller list. It has received some really excellent reviews, and is rated with four stars on Amazon. Although it may not be a huge success, for me it was a hard earned accomplishment, but the reward came the day I received my first royalty check. Yep, I’ve got royalties. Isn’t that the final proof that I’m a writer, at last?

Delilah and Horse Web Cover

I do have folks inquiring about a second novel, and for those who are wondering, Book 2 is in the working. My crystal ball tells me that it will be published sometime in the coming year, only this book, I may publish myself and skip the publisher as middle man. I’m having a time getting the sales data, and what I do have makes it appears as if what sales I do have, have been the results of my own marketing efforts, so I’m not seeing the benefit of sharing my royalties with a publisher, when I can do about everything they have done for me.  In addition, mid-year the rather generic cover the publisher provided for the book was replaced by a cover that fits the story better, done for me by Sonoran Dawn Studios, which I am much happier with.

The Collapsar DirectiveIn addition I had two short stories published in 2017 by Zombie Pirates Publishing. The first, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” came out on August 1, in their science fiction anthology The Collapsar Directive. The story is a futuristic dystopian tale with just a touch of humor, in a world where productivity is high, but you’re only allowed to be happy on the weekend. Relationship Add Vice

The second story, “The Devil Made Her Do It”, just came out the 15th of this month in their Crime Romance anthology, Relationship Add Vice. It’s a tale about the crazy things we do for love and a girl, Betty Lou Dutton, who leaves hereself open to be taken advantage of and ends up taking the rap. My fortune telling abilities see Zombie Pirates in my future for the coming year, as well. I submitted a little flash fiction story for consideration in their Full Metal Horror anthology. Wish me luck.

The really big thing that happened for me in 2017, or at least I think it’s big, is a landed an adjunct position teaching ENG102:Academic Writing at Western State Colorado University, my Alma Mater. Let me tell you, it has been a crazy ride. I got the position due to a last minute opening, when a scheduled lecturer was unable to teach for health reasons, which was unfortunate for the scheduled lecturer, but very fortunate for me. We got it all figured out and I was hired five days before classes started, so that’s how long I had to restructure both classes to be hybrid classes and figure out how to teach a method of writing I knew nothing about. It was a rocky start, and to be honest, I think I confused many of my students at first, because I was unsure myself, but as the semester moved forward, I gained more solid footing in the classroom, and the students began to figure it out, too. I have now successfully made it through a whole semester, teaching two hybrid courses and it feels great. I know I can do it and I have some experience teaching in a University setting, so I know there will be more teaching jobs in the coming year. My crystal ball is a little blurry in this area, but I know last minute stuff happens all the time, so who knows? Maybe I’ll end up back at Western.

teacher-owl clip-art

As for Writing to be Read, I’ve had an exciting year there, too. At the beginning of the year, I my friend Robin Conley helped me do a total overhaul of the site, and in August my friend DL Mullan of Sonoran Dawn Studios helped to redesign it. The results are what you see here now, but they were a long time in coming. I’ve added my website right here on the blog and you can reach the different sections by clicking on the tabs across the top to learn about my published poetry and fiction, my westerns, my Playground for the Gods series, or Write it Right Editing. Writing to be Read also gained some great talent in 2017, Robin Conley with her Weekly and Monthly Writing Memos, and Jeff Bowles with his Pep Talks and his God Complex posts, and I am thankful for benefit of their content for the short time they were with me. Unfortunately, life carries folks in different directions and both of these fine writers are no longer able to share their expertise and wisdom with us and I don’t foresee them rejoining us in 2017.


What my crystal ball does show me, is that Writing to be Read has grown in readership over the past year, and I feel it is due to the great and consistant content posted not only by myself, but by Robin and Jeff, as well. Most recently, the content has been almost non-existant, because I’ve had to focus on the classroom and I’ve discovered grading essays takes a lot of time. I don’t think the drop in content from losing my team members or from my not having the time to devote that I should have hurt my numbers yet, but I do foresee such a possibility if the lack of content continues.

In this realm, my crystal ball shows me something very interesting. I see new members of the Writing to be Read team and really great content in the coming year. In fact, a call for action is going out with this post, right now. If you are a writer who feels you might have something to contribute and you’d like to be on the Writing to be Read team, I want to hear from you. Shoot me an email at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com telling me what type of contribution you would like to make and how often you’d like to make it. I’m pretty flexible, so let’s talk.

In years past, I have given a rundown of all the posts throughout the year and which were viewed the most or which got the highest numbers of comments or likes, however that makes for a very lengthy, boring post, so this year I’m only giving you the most interesting facts. For instance, over the past year Writing to be Read has had viewers from the across the globe. The highest number of views coming from U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, India and Mexico. It’s top referrer is Facebook, which doesn’t really make me happy, since I’m kind of peeved at Facebook at the moment, but I’ll take my viewers wherever I can get them.

The month to receive the most views was July, with my interview with writer, poet and cover designer Dawn Leslie Mullan being the hightest viewed post. Next up was a “Pep Talk” from Jeff Bowles, “I Think We Need a Break”, and third highest was my post, “An Adventure in Social Media Marketing“. The post that received the most viewed over the whole year was my post titled, “How Do You Measure Success?” which I wrote after signing the contract for Delilah. The second highest views overall were received by “Ah! Sweet Rejection“, which I wrote, oddly enough, after recieving a rejection for Delilah. The third highest was Robin Conley’s “Weekly Writing Memo: Word Choice is Everything“.

Looking ahead to 2018, my crystal ball says it’s going to be a good year. I hope it’s right. I guess only time will tell. So until then…

Happy New Year


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Monthly Memo: The Flashback vs. The Flash Forward


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In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.

 (Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)


A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.

Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:

This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.


Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:

This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.


Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:

Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.


Flash Forwards:

Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.

This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.

Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)

When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.


Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:

When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.


Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2

When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.


Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:

This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.

The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.


Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)

This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.


Distinguishing Between the Two:

Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening?  To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.

If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.

Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.

One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.


Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:

There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.

A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.

The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.


Final notes

Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.

Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.

The Pep Talk – I Think We Need a Break


Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a first-rate storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.

So let’s assume you’re a dedicated writer. Or at least you want to be, which is why you’ve decided to come back to your craft after months or even years of not writing a single word. Perhaps life got in the way. Maybe you got married, had kids, made the choice to focus on your family and career first. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? We all have the ability to pursue our dreams whole-heartedly or to lay them aside when more important things come along.

The truth is you’re not alone. Almost by definition, writing is a solitary and thankless job. Becoming motivated and staying that way can be tough, and if you’ve got other responsibilities and obligations in your life—and all of us have—setting aside time for yourself and your work can be a huge chore.

Several years ago, I was feeling the crunch in just this way. I’d gotten married, had bought a new home, and I was working a job that was financially stable but not personally gratifying in any way, shape or form. Many days I’d pick at one of my short stories over my cafeteria lunch, praying for the day I could dedicate myself to my writing and leave the confines of corporate America for good.

It’s often been noted that many great authors throughout history have had to suffer dead-end jobs on their way to literary nirvana. Writing is a for-passion proposition for the vast majority of us. We do it because we are compelled.

But what happens when you aren’t feeling compelled? What happens when all your desire dries up and the thought of putting words on the page fills you with dread? Further, what happens after you’ve already taken a long break? Is it possible to pick up where you left off?

Of course it is. Momentum is momentum, and when people pursue their dreams with everything they’ve got, the universe conspires to bring their stars into alignment. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re tired. Most writers I know have come to that place at least once or twice in their careers. When I was just starting to learn the craft, it seemed to happen to me at least once a week.

“I’m never writing another word! These people don’t appreciate my talent, and anyway, I’d much rather pursue things that aren’t so damn frustrating!”

So maybe you grumble and walk away from your computer and promise yourself you’ll never tell another story as long as you live. Your intentions here don’t actually matter that much, because like smoking or eating premium New York-style pizza, writing has a way of getting under your skin.

In truth, when we come to the point of extreme frustration, of no forward momentum, often the best thing we can do for ourselves is offer a little humility and compassion and allow the work to falter. This might not be a popular perspective, but from a holistic standpoint, it’s the correct one. Frustration in a creative field signals burnout, which is most often caused by internal factors like unrealistic expectations and uncontrolled anxiety. When you add publishing contracts and money into the mix—as all of us one day desire to do—it can make matters worse.

The good news is that the human animal is ever changing. No really, that’s the good news. We are not static beings. You never know who you’re going to be from one day to the next, let alone one month, year, or decade to the next. Imagine your surprise when after a long hiatus you discover you still like writing. What’s more, you’re not the same person now, and your work seems to reflect this new maturity. Hell, sometimes we just run out of ideas and need some distance in order recharge the batteries, right?

Some will tell you stopping is the worst thing you can do. A rolling stone gathers no moss. I might have done so myself a few years ago when I was stuck at that crappy job. I’d have been wrong, though. The intellect and creative mind are not eternal well-springs. They do not flow on command at all times, and they can run dry when pushed too hard.

Here’s a little test for you. Tell me the last piece of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry you wrote to completion. Was it difficult to finish? I mean, more so than usual (let’s be honest, writing is seldom easy—if it were, everyone would do it). Did you find thoughts and ideas hard to come by? Did the notion of hauling yourself to the computer one more damn time make a compelling case for alcoholism?

See, we come to these brick walls precisely because the act of creating meaning and order from abstract symbols (or writing, in the common tongue) is not a natural fit for our freeform, emotional minds. Given the choice, we’d spend our lives daydreaming—many of us do anyway. We come to this craft with the highest of hopes, our expectations completely untempered, like a piece of nascent steel. Time separates the tourists from the devout. Disappointment is the rule rather than the exception. Is it any wonder we need to hit the brakes sometimes?

Here’s what I’d like you to do the rest of the day. Don’t write, even if you were expecting to. Rather, choose an activity that’s bound to depress you. Count up all your rejection letters, read something you wrote five years ago, look up your publishing stats, and yes my friends, read them and weep. Stop telling yourself you’ve almost made it, just one more story, just one lucky break. This is a trust experiment, gut-check time. Have you chosen this craft because it will make you famous? Are you more interested in seeing your name in print than in revising a single piece of fiction until your fingers bleed?

You are more interested in that? Well you’re the strange one, aren’t you? Everybody knows writing is never thankless, is always a laugh riot, and makes you feel good every single day of your otherwise bleak life.

Writing sucks sometimes, people! It just does. We all know it, and if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to make peace with it sooner or later. You need to realize this is a long game. I mean a looooooong game. You will get burned out, probably more than once. You will feel the need to quit, and you might even hate yourself because you gave up better opportunities along the way.

Be kind to yourself, please. You aren’t alone. You’re a writer because you can’t quit. It isn’t in your DNA. You should be more trusting; have some damn faith. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, admitting you’re helpless in the face of your need to tell stories. Taking a break is not giving up, it’s just taking a break. You may notice when at last you return that your skills have atrophied somewhat, that you’re a bit rustier than you’d like. That’s okay. You had to start somewhere way back when, and really, nobody forgets how to write.

Jump start that mind, warm up with some finger exercises, write a piece of flash fiction to get the ball rolling, but know that your choice to rest up was made in service to yourself. Let’s just call it an act of love. After all, you know yourself best. You’re not a machine, as much as you’d like to be.

It’s a mind game sometimes. It’s a battle of will. But one does not cease to be a writer just because one ceases writing. We are who we are, enjoy what we enjoy, are passionate about that which nourishes our souls and allows us to feel free.

Far from feeling free, do you feel like your writing has become a prison? Then take some time off, dudes and dudettes! That’s an order! Sheesh!

Until next time, folks.

Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces

Twitter: @JeffBowlesLives


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Monthly Memo: 3 Uses for Flashbacks

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Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”

In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.

So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?


If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.

  1. You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense.  A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
  2. A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
  3. A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.



Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:

  1. The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
  2. A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
  3. Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.



One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:

  1. Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
  2. The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
  3. The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.

Final Notes:

The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.

Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.


Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.

Monthly Memo: From Outline to the Page

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Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is taking the outlined idea and turning it into words on the page. It’s great to know that X and Y need to happen, but how do you make them happen in writing? How do you take that character and bring him to life? How do you take that villain and make her fun yet terrifying? How do you unravel those conflicts in words? There are a lot of different methods for bringing a story to life, but here are the few that I find help me the most when moving from the outline, to the page.


Before I begin writing a character I spend some time figuring out at least 3-4 concrete details about his or her personality. I think about their dominant personality trait that people see, their core moral value that guides most of their decisions, and a personality trait that they have that’s a flaw. I also sometimes figure out a minor personality trait that most people may not notice, but it’s a core part of who that character is. Beyond that, I like to find one physical trait I see very clearly to help me visualize the character, and I like to understand at least one solid relationship they have with someone, be it family or friend. The other two things I think you should figure out is what the characters main goal in life is, and perhaps what they’re afraid of.

I think these core details give you enough that you can easily visualize the character and write them well without having to figure out every last ounce of the characters life. These details give you an overall sense of who they are, and as you work out more while writing you can develop the character more clearly. If you need to do more to figure out the character in order to write them, try doing a free-write so you can ease yourself into the character’s voice. If you write 3-5 pages in your character’s voice, you’ll learn a lot about them and find it easier to write the character’s voice for the story.


To get your setting from outline to page, I think the important thing is to ask yourself what’s important about the setting. What about it is vital to your story? Why does the story need to take place in that specific spot? If you know these details then you know what elements of your setting to emphasize in your story. The more important a detail is, the more you want to describe it unless you’re trying to keep it subtle for some sort of plot reveal. At the very least, when writing a setting I feel you should give enough detail about it to help create a solid visual image in your reader’s head. You want them to be able to visualize where the characters are, how they’re moving throughout the scene, and why we’re in that specific place.


The hardest part of taking your outline and bringing it to the page in my opinion is how to portray the plot. You have your outline that says “Amy goes to the park. Amy runs into Ryan. They fight. Amy leaves upset.” If you write it that way, that’s an incredibly short story and has no real depth or development. So how do you write that short sequence of events and make it interesting? What parts do you expand on and what do you rush through?

For the first step in your outline “Amy goes to the park,” you want to show Amy’s mindset, give a sense of the setting, and establish some form of a goal for why she’s going to the park. Is she meeting someone? Is she trying to find some privacy? Does she have a kid she’s taking to play? Set the tone of the scene, and choose your tone with the thought of how it will change in the upcoming scenes in mind. Then as you go to the next scene, “Amy runs into Ryan,” start thinking about the implications of that scene. How does meeting Ryan change Amy’s mood? How does their interaction start? How do they meet up? On purpose or accidentally?

As you go into the final scenes, “They fight, and Amy leaves upset,” start to think about how to transition there as well. What upsets Amy? How quickly does she leave? What’s the environment around them look like? The questions can go on forever, but it’s important to focus on things that involve the tone, the setting, the characters, and the sequence of events.

Final Notes

If you’re really struggling to transfer your story from outline to page, remind yourself that a story isn’t just about action and a sequence of events. The details you bring out in the story will help take your story from an outline of X and Y happens, to something that has depth and is fun to read. So explore the layers of your story and try to bring them out. Remember, it’s often easier to remove details if you put too much rather than trying to add more later on. So write and explore, and see what kind of story evolves.


Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.

The Pep Talk


Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a world-famous storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.

Everyone needs a pep talk now and then. I could use one at least once a week. I know a lot of damn fine writers who’re having challenging times right now. Maybe it’s just the year 2017, a surge of new energy which has left us feeling stifled and worn down. I think drive comes in waves. Easy to manifest when you’re young and hungry, also easy when you’re working for paychecks. An unexamined life is not worth living. What makes you tick, my friends? Why do you feel the need to work hard for your dream?

For me, a famous song lyric says it all: “Time inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.”

There’s a certain creative disposition that fuels productivity by way of dread for the brevity of life. I am of that disposition. When I get into a writing slump, I wake up in the middle of the night feeling unfulfilled and guilty. I’ve got so much to say, so many stories to tell. Maybe it’s more important to create as if nothing can harm us, as if the whole universe is waiting for our next works of art. It can feel like that sometimes, can’t it? Thank God.

Do you have big dreams for your writing career? I certainly do. There’s kind of a junction between what we want and what reality is willing to give us. What keeps us writing even when no publishers are interested in our work and readers are few and far between?

I think the answer is more universal than people realize. If you’ve been doing this long enough, no doubt you know a few people who’ve climbed further faster than you. Now this can be a really painful experience, and I think it’s okay to admit it. Is it petty to resent those who’ve accumulated more success than us? It is, but to a large extent it’s also unavoidable.

It’d take a very balanced personality indeed to shrug off adversity 100% of the time. There’s something within us, perhaps culled from our hunter-gatherer days, that endows us with an astonishing capacity for jealousy.

“How’d he publish that book? Mine is so much better!”

“And she won an award for it? Meanwhile I’m sitting here in obscurity, twiddling my thumbs.”

Comments like these are a sure sign of a bad attitude, but tell me you’ve never thought something similar. It’s normal, right? Even if we don’t want it to be. But I’d also like to remind you it’s corrosive to the mind and spirit.

Publishing is a tricky business because we’re all vying for limited resources. Only so many pub spots, book deals, and readers worldwide. Add to it the fact readership across the globe is on the decline, and holy cow! The competition is on. Some people are fueled by competition. In a perfect world we’d all hold hands and celebrate each other’s work and tell ourselves we can be happy, healthy and sane no matter how many copies of our latest masterworks we sell (or fail to sell).

In the end, jealousy tends to destroy people who cling to it. I do believe jealousy also serves a higher function. You can watch everyone around you meet with success and learn a great deal from it. Watch the successful ones, pay attention to their habits and practices. Are they better writers than you? Doubtful. Perhaps they’re just more keyed in to what sells. I have to admit I’m not very good at this. I have to do everything the hard way. Don’t be like me. Many people will tell you success is a game of luck. I’m not so sure I believe in luck anymore.…

That which we define as luck, I think, can be greatly enhanced by focus and productivity. You can beat the odds by maintaining a steady workflow and making sure you’re constantly revising, submitting, rewriting, doing the dance. Belief is more important than luck. I think you’ve got to take charge of who you perceive yourself to be.

Quit telling yourself you’re a failure nobody wants to read. Stop it! Do your best to boost your ego. Nothing flawed or vain about it. Isn’t there enough in this world that tears us down? So build yourself up. Focus on the end goal, the dream day, a fresh contract, your pen set to the signature line. A few months later, another dream day, signing fresh copies of your latest best seller, a huge line piled up at your table, running out the bookstore (I always imagine a nice cozy Barns & Noble).

Everyone needs friends and allies, too. People who appreciate what you do. Now I’ve got to admit that if you’re just starting out or are not yet as successful as you’d like to be, finding individuals to believe in you might be a challenge. Who knows why people behave this way, but there’s something about a nascent writing dream that drives the skeptics crazy. I’ve met a million of them, and I know you have, too. Just keep working, focus on where you want to be rather than where you are in this present moment.

I’ll just go ahead and say it. I think it pays to be delusional. You’ve got to be the emperor with no clothes on. When people tell you, “Yeah but you aren’t this. I’ve known you for years. What you really are is this.” You’ve got to show them your fine purple robes, assure them they’re more than thin air, and then parade around like you aren’t naked.

Someone someday will clothe you in something more real. Better yet, you’ll manage to get hold of some nice clothes yourself. But you can’t be a victim of other people’s circumstances. You’ll feel what you’ll feel, but don’t let envy control your world. Because it will try, again and again. We’re not monks on high mountains practicing infinite patience and unbridled universal centeredness. We are at best creative people willing to bleed for our work. And what are you going to do as a result? Quit? Ha! You’re no quitter. You are everything literature and great minds have praised for eons. To write and succeed is a blessing. To endure even as we struggle, that is divine. See you next time, everyone!

Interested in Jeff’s writing? Check out his latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces

Twitter: @JeffBowlesLives


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