128. Crafting powerful scenes

Clint Eastwood

How do you know when a scene begins and ends, how many scenes make a book, and what the difference is between a scene, a beat, and a chapter? Never fear, all the answers are here.

What is a scene?

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It’s not just stuff happening—in a scene, something has to change. This may be a conflict, a discovery, a realisation. It’s like a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. Tension rises, reaches a climax and then falls again.

These are the elements of a scene. Much of this comes from Ali Luke.

  • A change
  • Involves at least one character wanting something and taking action to achieve this (even if that action is largely internal such as thinking).
  • If you have more than one character, there should be interaction and/or dialogue between them. The dialogue should advance the action, reveal character, or ideally both.
  • An unbroken flow of action from incident to incident
  • A description of surroundings. Almost always, a scene will have a single location or small set of connected locations. If you switch location, you’re generally switching scenes
  • A definable duration, usually short. If you switch time, you’re generally switching scenes
  • A single point of view. If you switch point of view, you’re generally switching scenes.
  • Conflict or complications (even if the conflict is with something inanimate, like struggling through a rainstorm)
  • Rising emotion or tension.
  • A strong ending
  • A link to the next scene

Relationship with other story units

Other terms you’ll come across are beat, scene-sequence, chapter, act, and arc. The language here is not very precise and different people use the words differently and sometimes interchangeably. You may not find it useful to use any other concepts than scene and story.


The fundamental idea is to understand a story as a series of changes.

Beat Something that happens. For example, “John walked into the room”
Scene A unit of story in which a significant change occurs
Scene-sequence A  chain of scenes
Act A larger unit of story structure. For example, in a Three Act work, the Beginning, Middle, and End
Arc The overall “shape” of the ups and downs of the story or of a character’s change

Chapter is not quite like these units. All the rest are elements of the story structure, but a chapter is essentially a navigational device to break the words up into chunks for the reader’s convenience. It is, of course, possible for chapters to coincide with one of the other units. Some writers arrange each scene as a chapter. Others may end the chapter mid-scene to create a cliff-hanger.  Think about starting a new chapter when the character’s goal or direction of the story changes.

Beginning and ending scenes

How do you know when a scene begins and ends?

  • A scene begins with establishing what the character wants
  • Progresses through the attempt to achieve that goal
  • Ends with a critical point, usually a set-back but sometimes a triumph

Since a scene has the same characteristics (beginning, middle, and end) as a story, it has many similarities in the way you begin and end it. Much of this comes from the Now Novel blog.

  • “Hook” the reader’s interest at the beginning. You might do this with an explosive entry into action, or vivid description of the setting, or the posing of an intriguing question. The main characters should clearly want something.
  • End a scene
    • With a cliff-hanger, mid-action
    • With a character epiphany
    • With the discovery of a major obstacle
    • With the promise of more to come (turmoil, future revelations)

Scenes and sequels

One particular writing tradition is based on a distinction between scenes and sequels, which means essentially action followed by reaction. The originator of the tradition is Dwight Swain. Many writers would consider both action and reaction to be distinct scenes and many others consider them to be halves of a single scene.

A guide to editing scenes

When you edit, you’ll find that some of your scenes don’t work. In which case, they need to be either fixed or deleted. Here’s a 12-point checklist of questions you can ask about a scene, largely borrowed from Ali Luke.

Question Action
1.       What changes? If nothing changes, amend or cut it
2.       Does it advance the plot and/or reveal character? If you cut the scene, would the story still work? If the story would still work without it, you should probably cut the scene
3.       Is it clear? If not, clarify
4.       Does it start well but tail off? Prune the ending
5.       Does it take a long time to get started? Prune the beginning so you start in the middle of things
6.       Is the action over too quickly? Expand it so the reader isn’t rushed
7.       Does the action drag on too long? Condense it
8.       Is it a close repeat of a scene you’ve already written Amend or cut it
9.       Does the scene link to one before it and the one following? If not, introduce the links so you get a build-up of action towards the climax, or you make the most of the contrasts between characters and situations
10.   Is this scene in the right place in the story? Should it be earlier or later? Consider moving the scene if it’s in the wrong place
11.   Does the scene take place in the right location? Consider whether it might be more dramatic if you set It somewhere else
12.   Does it carry resonances to other themes and subplots? It needn’t, but a story may be more satisfying if you build-in these layers


125. Six plot twists and two to avoid

A plot twist is a story development that the reader does not expect and in which something surprising happens or something surprising is revealed. Generally, the storyteller will set up expectations and then “twist” those expectations by revealing new information.

A plot twist:

  • must be narratively sound,
  • must be unexpected, and
  • might be foreshadowed.

If it occurs at the end, it’s referred to as a twist in the tail. Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued that a good plot ending must be “surprising yet inevitable”.

Types of plot twists

  1. I Am Your Father, or Anagnoresis

The discovery of another character’s true identity

    • Oedipus Rex marries his mother in ignorance
    • Also Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back and The Kite Runner

Darth Vader

2. Flashback or Analepsis

A sudden reversion to an earlier event reveals characters or events in a different light

  • The pensieve in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


3. Banquo’s Revenge or Peripeteia

A sudden reversal of fortune arising from the character’s circumstances

  • Banquo urging Fleance to take revenge in Macbeth


4. It Was Me All Along or Unreliable Narrator

A character is revealed to be other than who we thought they were, throwing preceding events into doubt

  • In Fight Club the narrator is revealed to be Tyler Durdon himself


5. Will the Real Villain Please Stand Up

  • The villain in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is revealed to have been at his side all along


6. Gasp or False Protagonist

Death of Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones


Twist endings to avoid

1. It Was All A Dream

This is usually thought to be cheating when it’s used as an ending

  • The events of A Beautiful Mind are revealed to be hallucinations


2. The Lost Will or Deus ex Machina

The opposite of Banquo’s Revenge in that the reversal is not motivated by prior events.  An unexpected, artificial or improbable character, device or event is introduced suddenly to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. It was a favourite in Victorian times where it was attributed to fate and frequently took the form of the discovery of a lost will.

Holmes and Watson

Nowadays this device is generally deemed unacceptable.

  • Jane Eyre where Jane leaves Mr. Rochester and ends up on the doorstep of a long-lost relative

123. How to Win Writing Competitions. Fifteen great tips


There are many articles about winning writing competitions. Just do a web search to see them. This piece will take most of that advice as read, and concentrate on things that may be less obvious. These flow from my experience as creator and administrator of a writing contest and as reader for a literary magazine. I’ve also won a couple of competitions.


A brief summary of the obvious

  • Read the rules. If there’s a prompt or theme, use it. If there’s a maximum word length, don’t exceed it. If judging is anonymous, don’t put your name on it. If there’s a required format, follow it. If no format is specified, use something standard and easy-to-read like Times New Roman 12 pt., double-spaced.
  • Proofread. Nothing will annoy a judge more than spelling and grammar mistakes, poor punctuation, and uncorrected typos. They may well decide, if you can’t be bothered to proof the thing, they can’t be bothered to read it.
  • Write well. Use active voice and strong verbs. Avoid clichés, strings of adjectives, and overlong sentences. Read it aloud to yourself so you can hear the rhythm of the prose. Leave yourself plenty of time to edit.


The less obvious stuff

  • Devote time to researching the interests of the judges, if you can find out who they are. Look at previous winners to get a sense of what the judges like. Craft your story, if possible, to fit this brief.
  • Select your competition. Again, research counts. Your chances of winning or placing in a competition vary widely from contest to contest. The most prestigious competitions like the Bridport have thousands of entries, while smaller competitions like the Yeovil have hundreds. Accordingly, your chances of placing in the Bridport are 0.22%, while in the Yeovil your chances rise to 4.9%. I’ve researched the stats for some major competitions and you can find them here.
  • Understand the contest. Is it a “literary” competition or a “fiction” competition? “Literary” is likely to mean they’re looking for character-driven stories with depth, subtext, and beautiful language. “Fiction” or “Writing” is likely to mean that popular fiction will do well, and here, plot is central.
  • Make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But somewhere between 40% and 50% of the stories submitted to my competition and to the magazine I read for are not full stories. Often, this is because they lack a proper ending. If you have a full story, you’ve already reached the top half of the pile.
  • Write something unusual. By the time the judges have a short list of, perhaps, twenty entries all the stories will be good. But they won’t all be winners. And they’ll begin to merge into each other in the judges’ minds. Make sure your story has something unusual and memorable about it. Maybe this will be the character, or perhaps the setting. Don’t go with the first idea you think of—other people will generally have written something similar, particularly if there’s a prompt.
  • Pay attention to cast and point of view. If you’re writing a short story, don’t overburden it with too many characters and shifts in point of view. These will just confuse the reader. Unless you’re feeling very brave, stick to one point of view character and keep the cast list down to two or three other characters.


The final secrets

  • Submit early. Why? Most entries will come in as a rush at the end. In our case, about half the entries arrive in the last week. So, the judging will take place in a rush at the end too, If you submit early, you’ll be read more thoroughly and perhaps more sympathetically.
  • But don’t rush it. After you’ve written and edited a draft you’re satisfied with, let it settle for a few days. When you read it over again, you may notice mistakes or opportunities for changes you didn’t see before.
  • Writing tricks. Readers really like stories that loop back on themselves or where the ending echoes the beginning. Recurrent motifs may also help to make a story stand out.
  • Think like a judge. Understand what’s happening in their minds. Judges are not looking for reasons to accept your story—they’re looking for reasons to reject it. Don’t give them a reason.
  • Understand what judges are looking for. Many competitions don’t have standardized judging formats, but my competition developed one to make the assessment fairer. This is what our judges are looking for:

Judging criteria

  • Judging is still a subjective process. The winning story will usually be one that lingers in the judges’ minds hours or days after they’ve read it. You can enhance your chances that this one will be yours by choosing an unusual character, location or theme and by using the writing tricks noted here. As an example, I’ve been a reader for a magazine for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve read around 1,500 submissions. I selected 45 of them. I can still remember one. That one stands out for its superb atmosphere and characterization.

118. Two great ways to free your creative juices

Has your creative well run dry?  Don’t worry. Writing isn’t a mysterious process that depends on random visits from the muse. It’s a craft, and there are craft techniques for generating ideas when none come on the aether. I should confess neither of these techniques is mine.

Random meetings

The first workaround comes, I think, from Boris Fishman but I may be wrong. Putting together things that aren’t related is the basis of metaphor, that mainstay of poetic creation. So, if you’re stuck, just give yourself two unrelated random things and then create a story that links them. Say you choose swan and company. Here’s my example of a story that links swan and company.


I love the mechanical simplicity of this workaround. You can create a story idea in five minutes. It comes from Dan Harmon.

Step 1. Your mind is blank.

quandrants 1 and 2

Step 2. Start with a random idea, anything that interests you, anything at all. Harmon explains his technique with “racoons”. I’m going to be more pedestrian and use “quest” because that’s what a lot of writers write.  Draw a circle as the world of the quest.

Step 3. Now draw a line horizontally through the circle, dividing it into upper and lower halves. As yourself what those halves might be. Maybe the upper half is the everyday, known world, and the bottom half is the special, unknown world of the quest. Label these halves.

quandrants 3 and 4

Step 4. Now divide the circle again with a vertical line dividing it into left and right halves. Decide what this division is and label it. Maybe it’s fearful and brave.

You now have four quadrants. Going clockwise around the circle from the top, your protagonist will start in the known world and fearful. S/he will travel to the unknown world, where terrifying trials await. In the course of these challenges s/he will discover courage and then return changed to the known world. As you can see, this is the Hero’s Journey.

In Harmon’s example, the divisions are biological/ storybook racoons and honest/ dishonest racoons. Pick divisions that have resonance for you and which you feel excited to explore.

You never need suffer writer’s block again.

115. Frame Stories

Frame stories are useful literary devices. They provide “containers” that help organise other narrative material. Many stories, sometimes several layers deep, may nest within the frame.

Think, for example, of one of the best-known frame stories in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  Shaherazad prevents the Sultan executing her by telling him a new story each night. Her attempt to keep herself alive provides the frame for the tales she tells.


Some of these tales, in turn, are also frame stories for collections of others: such as the Sinbad sequence.

Uses of the frame story

The essence of all frame stories is that they offer the possibility of telling other stories. But there are many reasons a writer might want to do this.

A narrator may want a container into which they can drop smaller narratives from their preferred stock.

Or there may only be one other story inside the frame. In this case, the frame allows the writer to suggest things about the second story. For example, to signal that the narrator is unreliable, or to propose other reactions to the reader.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas contains six stories each nested within the previous one.


Framing for accessibility

Another use of the frame story is to make a more complicated structure accessible to the reader.

I used this device in my novel The Tears of Boabdil. It uses a simple frame story about an undercover policeman investigating a terrorist cell and falling for his target. The reader could choose to engage only at this level. But embedded within this are other magical tales which come to interpenetrate the real world of the frame story. Reality becomes the story we tell about things: a fitting epitaph for a professional liar.


Frame and reprise

A reprise is a repeating element. Often, the repeat is at the beginning and end of the story. This gives a sense of returning to the start, which readers tend to find satisfying.

Such a reprise functions like a frame, without being a complete story in itself.


This article is reprinted from my author newsletter. If you’d like to receive more pieces like this as well as tips on writing tools and news of work in progress, click on the Subscribe button on this page

114. From tiny tickles to character reveals: tropisms

What makes the inner world of a fictional character really sing? The author can, of course, have the character think ideas, speak, and carry out actions. But, besides and more interesting than this, is the way they respond to the world and understand things. After all, the universe inside every head seems magically different from the one inside my own.


I’ve just come across an author who tried to render that inner world, using an idea borrowed from biology. Plants grow towards the light. Biologists call this stimulus and response phototropism.


Encyclopaedia of Human Thermodynamics

The French writer Nathalie Sarraute used the metaphor of tropism to highlight the origins of actions, speech, and feelings in the momentary experiences on the fringe of consciousness.

In the first vignette in her 1939 book Tropisms, she writes

They seemed to spring up from nowhere, blossoming out in the slightly moist tepidity of the air, they flowed gently along as though they were seeping from the walls, from the boxed trees, the benches, the dirty sidewalks, the public squares.

This seems to be a plague of weeds or vermin. In fact, she is describing people staring into shop windows.  But these are not people as characters. Rather, stripped of identifiable shapes and personalities they become sensations. Sarraute eliminated plot or character from her work, in order to explore the “impulses, desires, processes that exist before speech, before comprehension, before consciousness”, as Allison Noelle Conner puts it.

nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute

Sarraute would devote pages to exploring the mechanisms that intervened between the stimulus and the response.

The objective correlative

Though I don’t buy into Sarraute’s analysis that plot and character are conventional masks that prevent us exploring mentality, I do find something intriguing in her approach. T.S. Elliot had a similar insight in his idea of the “objective correlative”—a sequence of things or events which creates the sensation the writer is trying to summon in the reader. He described this: “when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”


Other techniques

This clearly has connections with the often tiresome writers’ dictum of “show, don’t tell”. But it takes this instruction further. It makes location, conversation, and events a means of conveying character.

It also might seem similar to Swain’s technique of the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU), which also works on a stimulus-response basis. However, these work on the basis of a chain from feeling to action to speech, whereas in tropism, all of these are preceded by a simple sensory experience. I wrote about my experiment with MRUs in a previous post.


A method for illuminating mentality

I’ve used the insight about pre-conscious stimuli to rework the opening chapter of my current book, The Star Compass. Robert, a bookish recluse, has come to the remote Pacific island of Yap. All his life he has avoided ever learning anything about the South Seas so he might believe there is one place on the planet where nature is bountiful and people are nice to each other. Now he is forced to have a confrontation with reality. The chapter begins:

He paused at the bottom rung of the stairway. Then stepped onto the tarmac and off the edge of the world.

Here all his maps ran out. Here be dragons.

The humid tropical night wrapped itself like a moist towel around his nose. The bulk of his body began to cook from the inside. Sweat pooled in his armpits, beaded his brow, and trickled down his spine. The perspiration felt clammy. He wanted to turn, run back into the plane, and get away from this island.

But he continued to shuffle forward towards the door of the tiny airport, keeping his place in the line of a hundred other passengers and urged on by those behind. The terminal complex was so small it lacked an immigration hall and they queued on the apron. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, though puddles evaporating on the tarmac indicated an earlier downpour.

Things had happened here before he arrived. The island had its own hidden history. Anything might lurk here in the unknown South Pacific.

He reached the portal where souls were divided. One door for visitors, and the other for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia. The sleepy official took his landing card, examined his passport. Robert Urquhart, UK citizen, fifty-one years old.

Yap airport
Yap International Airport

In making this revision, I hunted for small sensations in the draft and considered these as stimuli. I then checked that there was a response for every stimulus and a stimulus for every response. For example, the action of stepping onto the tarmac provokes the sensation that he’s stepped off the edge of the world. Or the stimulus of the humidity makes him want to turn and run. And the realisation from the rain puddle that the things have happened here before he arrived, triggers a fear that anything might happen here now. I aimed to render Robert’s profound unease through these small almost pre-conscious moments. Sometimes, it involved taking a small moment and expanding it.


I’d love to hear whether you’ve tried or come across anything similar.


113. The third variety of fiction

Fiction is stories, right? The protagonist encounters a challenge, sets off in pursuit, and after many travails achieves a resolution. Much genre writing fits this mould.

There is another kind of fiction where the plot can be incidental or even non-existent. This is writing based on character rather than story. Often this type is called literary.

But that’s not all. There is a third, though rare, kind of fiction, which executes its code in your brain as you read. It rewires your consciousness.

I was very struck by this again reading Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, a literary science fiction novel set in a near future total-surveillance Britain.


The plot revolves around a detective’s efforts to understand how a suspect could have died under a mind-mapping session. It turns out that the suspect invented a series of narratives to keep her own consciousness secret. The book loops back and forth through these stories.

There is a sequence where Harkaway’s method is evident. One of the narrative personas is brought together with a woman who he is told is his dead lover, Stella.  The text oscillates between the possibility that she is an imposter and the possibility that, if she occupies Stella’s place in the world, she is Stella. Layers of philosophical hocus pocus, of metaphor, and of narrative exposition create a universe in which this transubstantiation is plausible.

Yeah, I hear you say, all fiction does that. It invites us to suspend disbelief. But what Harkaway does is more than world-building which postulates orcs and elves and offers us an escape into magic. He transforms your sense of reality such that we understand personal identity in a new way. We don’t escape into a fantasy world. Rather, reality changes.


I described this technique in an earlier post.

Words can create illusions. They can bridge impossible gaps allowing magical connections to be made between unlinked things. This is the stuff of fantasy, but also the stuff of poetry and of magic realism. Imagination can stitch together things never connected in the real world. Recurring words and images can stitch together these magic connections

Harkaway describes in a blog the process of writing the book:

This was like weaving a tapestry thread by thread while holding the entire design in your head, and my head just wasn’t big enough. Meanings intersected with other meanings, with consequences. I had to go back, again and again, re-work, re-conceive, re-imagine. Sure, yeah, I know: writing is re-writing. I’m familiar with the re-write. This was more like starting a new book every four months or so. The number of plotlines and their interactions meant a kind of exponential multiplication of possibility. I’d made a maze in my own mind and I kept getting lost in it. The book was smarter than I was.

Reading Gnomon was more like taking a mind-altering drug than like narration. A few other books have done this. One was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo.

Another was A U Latif’s Songs from the Laughing Tree (currently out of print). In a review of Latif’s book I wrote

Our brains are evolved to seek pattern and meaning, and Latif plays with this. The figures of the stories loop and dive, and create impossible or magical meanings that are whimsically held together by no more than a concatenation of words, an ellipsis of adjectives.

Have you encountered books in this third type of fiction?

112. Rules bestselling authors ignore

Writers are taught many rules by the greats. But should we believe them?

Stephen King adverbs

Avoid adverbs

Stephen King famously said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” and urged writers to eliminate them. Three years ago, I wrote in defence of these much maligned parts of speech.

Now we have some objective analysis of the truth or otherwise of the dictum. Ben Blatt analysed the more than 300 novels that reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list since 2000 and the 100 most recent winners of literary awards. He compared these “professional” authors with a sample of 9,000 “amateurs” who had written novel-length fan fiction. The professionals used around 114 adverbs per 10,000 words, compared to 154 by the amateurs. So there is a correlation between fewer adverbs and literary success. As you can see from the graphic, I used 44 adverbs per 10,000 words in my current novel.

adverb use by category of writer

However, Stephen King seems to be wrong about eschewing adverbs, if you take him literally. He used an average of 105 across 51 books.

adverbs by author
Source: Ben Blatt


Never open with the weather

Another great writing dictum Blatt explores is Elmore Leonard’s “never open a book with the weather”.  The graphic below shows that Leonard did this 4% of the time across 45 novels.

weather in first sentence
Source: Ben Blatt

Keep it short and simple

Bestsellers today, according to Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers’s The Bestseller Code, use shorter sentences and simpler words. And it seems true that sentence length and complexity has gone down.

Sentences in Jane Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility averaged 23.2 words and in Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities 17.7 words. They both require a reading age of 14-15 years.

By contrast, J.K. Rowling’s 1998 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with a reading age of 12-13 years, came in at 11.8 words. Stephanie Myers’s 2005 Twilight was a lightweight 9.6 words per sentence and demanded a reading age of 10-11 years.

While the complexity of language has gone down, the size of novels has gone up. In the era of mass publishing between 1850 and 1950 shorter novels arrived but they grew in size again after the advent of long-haul travel and the airport blockbuster.

111. What are judges looking for in a writing competition?

Ever wanted to know how judges make their choice in literary competitions? Here is the answer.

I can’t promise that this is true of all contests, but the Farnham Short Story Competition uses a format to ensure consistency of assessment between stories and between judges.

Julie Evans, winner of the 2018 Farnham Short Story Competition, with competition administrator, Derek Keen
  • Is the submission formatted readably, and without typos, spelling and grammar mistakes? Reject entries that are poorly formatted, inadequately proof-read, and full of spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • Overall, is it a good story?
    • Does the story work?
    • Did it move or enlighten you?
    • Did you enjoy reading it?
  • Character and point of view.
    • Does the author create believable, memorable characters with the uniqueness, complexity, and individuality of real people?
    • Do the main characters undergo change?
    •  Does the dialogue work?
    • Is point of view handled consistently?
  • Plot and structure
    • Does the opening draw you in, setting up a clear dilemma?
    • Is there a clear and compelling storyline with an arc of conflict, crisis and resolution?
    • Is the plot original?
    • Is there good pacing?
    • Does the ending satisfyingly resolve the opening dilemma?
  • Theme
    • Does the story contain a central or dominating theme?
    • Does the author make this idea concrete through the characters and their actions?
    • How well is the message integrated into the story?
  • Setting and atmosphere
    • Are historical and geographic details sufficiently and accurately developed to give the story realistic or appropriate atmosphere and setting? Can you visualize the places being described?
    • Is the setting an integral part of the story
    • Does the story contain anachronisms or inconsistencies?
  • Writing quality
    • Is language skilfully used?
    • Do specific details appeal to your senses and hold your attention?
    • Are character and detail “shown” rather than “told”?
    • Is there a good balance between narrative and dialogue?
    • Does the author use precise, active verbs and avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs?
    • Is rhythm used effectively?
    • Are metaphors and similes fresh and effective?
    • Are recurring motifs and/or symbolism used to create additional layers of meaning?

This list is an attempt to summarise the elements of good writing. You can find the full judges scoring sheet at FSSC judges scoring sheet -ilovepdf-compressed

Congratulations to this year’s winner, Julie Evans, and to runners up, Katrina Dennison and Jacky Power.

110. Writing densely: layers and motifs

I’ve read a lot of stories recently, as part of sifting submissions to Freeze Frame Fiction. Many are okay. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the memory of them blows away in the wind. I reject around 99% of the submission, and I’m becoming aware that the stories that give me pleasure have a quality which I’ll call density.

Perhaps I can best explain what this quality is by describing yarns that don’t have it. There is a character. He or she has a problem. As they try to solve the dilemma other characters help or frustrate them. There is a final resolution. So we have a general storyline. And some tales don’t go further. The writing is only one layer thick.

More satisfying stories are multi-layered. They have a past. Like geological strata, they speak of deep forces. The surface layer is the simple storyline—what the protagonist wants and what happens to him or her. But below the skin may be layers that are shaped by the protagonist’s identity and world they inhabit. These strata create subplots. Perhaps what the protagonist wants is not what they really need. Perhaps their station in life or the times into which they’re thrust constrain what they can do. And so, the storyline is supported by an underpinning of other meanings.


Density is the connection between things and the way events and places and objects resonate with each other. This is inherently satisfying to a reader because we respond to worlds that are saturated in meaning. Narratives lacking density feel insubstantial as candyfloss.

Stories are powerful not because they are a chain of events, but because they show us connections. They tell us what goes with what, what is important and what’s unimportant, who to praise and who to blame. They’re not just about what happened, but about what those happenings mean.

A sense of density can be fashioned in many ways.

  • The way a plot embodies a bigger issue or message
  • Layers. The structural element of density is created by adding layers or subplots
  • Motifs. These are recurring ideas or images which resonate with each other and create a satisfying experience of connectedness. This is partly achieved by structure and partly by wordcraft.

An example

I wrote a 100-word flash fiction story, called Short Circuit, about a monk in a medieval scriptorium. His task is to scribe an illuminated manuscript. As the sun’s rays reflect off the gold leaf, he has a revelation. He believes the words on his page picked out by the sun are a message–meaning is created by a short circuit of the manuscript.

The story went through 16 drafts, growing to 2,066 words. In the second draft, I added a Viking attack just at the moment of revelation. In subsequent edits, I gave the monk an interest in researching the alchemical skills of the ancients, a passion that flirts with heresy. There was now an obvious theme of the conflict between knowledge and spiritual authority. Quite intentionally I began to craft this to echo modern debates about truth and its denial.  The metaphor of fire was coming to play a major role—the fire of insight and the fire of pillage. I decided that the abbey was on the holy isle of Lindisfarne at the time of first Viking raid in 793.

And that led me to the monk’s backstory. He had been an apprentice blacksmith before a local chief slew his parents. Iron can make tools, but it also makes weapons, and the boy abandons iron in a quest for tranquillity and learning. Under attack from the raiders, the monk turns back to his cell to save a valuable letter from a correspondent in Byzantium.

The ending remained elusive. Again, I returned to blacksmithing for the answer. The monk reinterprets the words picked out by the sun to mean he is commanded to be the destroyer of the invaders. Breaking his vows, he takes up the iron again, seizing a weapon.


How to use the concept of density

The elements below roughly correspond to stages in the writing process

  • The seed of the story. This is the writer’s animating purpose. It may be an idea you want to explore, a situation, a moral, a dilemma–stories can emerge from anywhere. Note, this is not the same as the basic storyline. Give the seed time to put out roots before you start drafting. My story, Short Circuit, originated from a comment by a writer arguing the literary meaning is a short circuiting of the world.


  • The chess board. This is where the storyline exists. There is a location and a cast of characters, a set of pieces that move in distinct ways. At the beginning, you may not know exactly what they will do. You may discover this as you let them interact. My chess board for Short Circuit was the Viking interruption of the monks’ life in Lindisfarne Abbey. The protagonist has conflicts with the Prior about his pursuit of knowledge, and an inner conflict about the brutal killing of his family.


  • The mountain. Beyond the moving, mating and slaying on the chess board, there’s an over-arching destination, the distant mountain. This may only come into view slowly for you as you write. In Short Circuit, the monk puts his own life in danger to save the valuable letter. He puts his soul in jeopardy by taking up the sword.


Everything that happens on the chess board should move the story closer to the mountain. The mountain is both the resolution of the story and the achievement of the writer’s animating purpose. It is the fruit of the gambits on the board and of the seed’s flowering.

  • Polishing in the infinite hall of mirrors. This is possible only when you’ve completed the first draft of the story. It’s part of the editing process. In that process, you check for comprehension, flow, clarity, coherence. Often, the first draft is just the bare bones of the story. Now you tighten it up and make the prose sing. But the editing stage may also be where you discover what the story is about and add additional layers.

hall of mirrors

Finally, you look for ways to connect the layers, making them resonate with the same underlying meaning. Recurring motifs, reflecting each other in the hall of mirrors, help to create this effect. In Short Circuit, the recurring motifs were good iron and bad iron, good fire and bad fire.


Do you enjoy density in stories? If so, what do you mean by it?