Promises to My Readers

I, Nathan Barra, do solemnly(ish) swear...

  1. To keep all In Brief blog post bodies under 501 words lest the eyes of my readers glaze over.  (read: not including the title).
  2. To honor the First Principle of Professionalism: Praise in public, criticize in private.  No excuses, ever.  I expect this courtesy of anyone who discusses on my blog.
  3. To be civil in all discussions regardless of how wrong the other person is or how much they deserve to be flamed.  I will be judicious in my use of caps lock and expletives.  I expect this courtesy of anyone who discusses on my blog.

I'll be using the above promises to all of you as the ground rules for my blog.  Please guys, keep me accountable to my word!


Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However,  twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.


Learning to Piece Together the Story Puzzle

I have found that there a few divides amongst writers more contentious than the arguments between discovery writers (pantsers) and outliners. I used to be firmly a member of the pantser camp. While I recognized that outlining had its benefits, I felt that planning with such excruciating detail would “ruin the fun” of creation. Plus, outlining was difficult and boring. The outline would only change as I got into the trenches and discovered something new and shiny, so what was the point? I had tried to outline a few times, I argued, and it hadn’t worked for me. It never would.

Fortunately, I had a few friends patient enough to take the time to convince me otherwise.  Outlining isn’t a single, specific, regimented process, they argued, but rather a way of approaching a story deliberately. I would still create, discover the characters, the world, and the plot in the brainstorming section of the process. Then, the outline itself would be like writing an extremely condensed first draft. I would be able to edit it for major structural problems without the emotional baggage that came with hours and hours spent working on prose.

Once I had a coherent skeleton, I could write the first draft without worrying about writing my way into corners. My structural edits would already be done, and so I could focus my creative energies on producing powerful prose, vivid descriptions, and touching emotional moments. Not only would my first draft be better than what I had done before, it would also take less time to complete.

As for the “inefficiency” of prewriting, any time that I spent up front would be repaid twice over in the back end of the first draft. My manuscript would be leaner and free from most, if not all, structural problems. Additionally, outlines were guides, not shackles. Of course the outline would change as I wrote, but I would “discover deliberately” rather than wandering off into the weeds. I would be able to compare new ideas against a well thought out plot and be able to decide what was truly better for the story. Though it took a few years of conversations and cajoling, they eventually won me over.

Convinced, I decided that 2016 would be the year that I learned to outline. I struggled for a few months and grew disheartened. Outlining was proving to be as difficult, boring, and ineffective as I had feared it would be. I took my problems back to my writing group and we talked through numerous blocks. The issue, I eventually came to realize, was that I hadn’t learned the skills I would need to outline effectively. I knew how to work with character, with plot, with theme, and with milieu. I had all the pieces, but didn’t know how to put the puzzle together.

Again, I was lucky in that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Of the three members in my group, two of us were discovery writers who were trying to make the transition. After some discussion, we decided to act as a group to resolve the problem. We enrolled in one of David Farland’s online classes, The Story Puzzle. Over the course of 16 weeks, the Story Doctor walked us through his process and theories, answered our questions via email and the biweekly conference calls, and provided valuable feedback on the writing assignments we submitted to him.

It was hard and frustrating at first, but eventually I found the joy that has always driven me to write. I was still discovering and creating, but by doing so deliberately I was finding more than I had expected. My story improved with each passing week and I began feeling the itch, the need to dive in and write prose. I resisted and kept working Dave’s process. By the end of the class, I had all the pieces that I needed and some good guidance on how to put them together into a functional outline. I was in no way ready to begin writing the first draft, but I knew how to get there.

Time passed as I continued to work on my outline. I built my world, wrote down scraps of description and dialog, and found ways to heighten my story and characters on every level. On the first day of each month, I surveyed my progress and decided if I was ready to start prose. Month after month, I judged that I was close, but not quite there. It wasn’t that I was stalling, like I had in the past when my project seemed intimidating. Rather, I had a task list that I needed to finish.

Then came the first day of another month. November first. NaNoWriMo had just begun. I looked over all of my prewriting and decided that, yes, I was ready. I dove into the prose and emerged thirty days later with my first ever NaNo victory. The story wasn’t done, in fact I had quite a ways yet to go. Rather, I had proved to myself that with a good outline to guide me, I could out-write my old pace by a fairly significant margin. Most importantly, I knew that I could do it again. And again. It was the sort of skill that I could develop into a career.


A Matter of Motivation

Hello Readers!

Has it been almost two months already? Don't worry! I've been putting the time to good use and am making steady progress towards my current project. However silent I've been here, I have made an appearance recently on foreverwriters.com. I hope y'all enjoy the post!

Our readers pick up a book wanting to believe the impossible. They yearn to leave their version of “reality” and enter a world where true love conquers inconceivable odds, where galactic empires clash with and fall to rebel alliances, and where a poor boy from London can be whisked away to a magical boarding school. If handled properly, audiences will readily embrace almost any premise. However, the gift of their suspension of disbelief is not a blank check, nor is it given freely. It must first be earned and then spent carefully.

Exactly how far you can push your reader’s suspension of disbelief varies from genre to genre. However, the absolute last place we can afford to spend this precious currency is on the believability of our characters. It is their goals, their conflicts, and their pain that drive the plot forward. It is their growth and their triumph that give the book power. It is they who define the story.

The key to making your characters feel real to your reader lies in understanding their motivations and ensuring that they act consistently with those desires. While it’s often simpler to give characters a single, defining goal, our major players need to be a bit more complex. Human beings are messy, and often contradictory in their desires. We come into any situation with a mountain of baggage and experiences that will pull on us to act and react. Our characters should be no different.

However, saying “people are complex” isn’t useful as a model for motivation. After all, how would you know what truly motivates your characters when there are hundreds, if not thousands of possible surface motivations? Personally, I like to view human motivation as driven by four fundamental factors. Everything else is either a symbol or a proxy for these big four.

1. Sex – The biological need to reproduce.
2. Survival – The need to avoid physical, emotional, or mental harm.
3. Power – The need to control oneself, others, or one’s environment.
4. Passion – The need to indulge emotions.


bankFor example, take a character who wants to steal a million dollars as part of a bank heist. While being rich may seem motivation enough, it is in actuality much too shallow and nebulous to be anything other than a front. We need to dig deeper and figure out why they want to be rich. What does wealth represent to them? Maybe they have always fantasized about diving into a pool filled with money like Scrooge McDuck. What they really seek is to sate their greed, an emotion that is strong enough to make them risk life and freedom in order to satisfy their passion. This sort of simple motivation may be enough for a spear carrier or minion character, but the protagonist and antagonist need to be more nuanced.

Character complexity comes when we start mixing and layering two or more of these fundamental motivations. For example, take a character who grew up in a desperately poor, abusive environment. To them, money isn’t about satisfying raw greed, but rather what having that money will allow them to do. It is the ability to ensure that no one can ever hurt them again, while also allowing them to live a comfortable, even lavish lifestyle. To them, the money is a symbol for both survival and power. You can make the motivation even more powerful if they act for someone other than themselves. By giving them someone to protect and provide for, you raise the stakes and form a perfect hook for your readers’ empathy.

While that’s a good start, one motivation isn’t enough for a major character. At the very least, the character needs two journeys – one inner and one outer. To make things even more interesting, we should ensure that the inner and outer journeys conflict.

What if we were to make our protagonist a single mother? She’s an experienced safe cracker, but left her criminal lifestyle behind when she got pregnant. She wants to be a good example for her child, but also needs to provide for his/her future. Let’s say that her need for fast money is so pressing that she has no legal recourse. Maybe she was recently widowed, but before he passed, her husband’s gambling addiction lead him gamble their life savings and then accrue hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to the local mob. Knee-crackers are harassing her at every turn, even going so far as threatening her baby. She must return to a life of crime and complete this job to keep her child safe. This motivation is driven by both survival (her child’s well-being) and passion (her love for her child).

However, her criminal acts also directly conflict with her need to protect her child. If she is caught, she will go to jail and her child will be given to the custody of her parents, who verbally and emotionally abused her. Furthermore, she worries that her criminal compatriots and the mob will try to use her kid against her. As her inner journey, she’ll constantly be asking herself if her actions are really what’s best for her child or if they are instead exposing him/her to more risk. By layering conflicting desires, we are making our protagonist choose between the lesser of evils, a path that is full of pitfalls and weighty choices.

Pretty good so far, but how can we step up the tension even more? We build a gap between her conscious motivation and her unconscious desires. In so doing, our character will experience stress as she tries to accomplish her goals, yet never find satisfaction or fulfillment. What if our character tells herself that she is getting into crime for her kid, but actually does so because of her profound grief? The loss of her husband and the anger at the crippling debt he left behind is pushing her to fill the void with the excitement that comes with a heist. She tells herself that she is doing this for her child when she in reality, is working to satisfy her own emotional needs. This may cause her to take unnecessary risks for the temporary pleasure and fulfillment the excitement gives her. For an even stronger emotional punch, we can make her sacrifice what she really wants, a good relationship with her child, in an unconscious attempt to satisfy her own passionate grief. The fallout from such choices can be beautiful.

It isn’t enough that our characters pursue a goal, they must do so for compelling reasons. We owe it to our readers to push past the simple answers and dig down into our character’s psyche to figure out their deep motivations. By layering our character’s goals with complex and conflicting motivations, we ensure that they appear well rounded to our reader. They, and their choices feel real and therefore put no strain on our audience’s suspension of disbelief. Therefore, we as writers must to endeavor understand our characters’ motivations better than they do themselves.


And Now Time for Something Different!

Dear Readers,

I founded In Brief three and a half years ago as a way to help me improve as a writer. At the time, I needed the structure to force me to get used to working under a deadline. I needed the commitment to ensure that I put my butt in the seat at least once a week. I needed the low word count to teach me how to best use my words and convey my thoughts. Over the last three years, I’ve benefited from all these things.

What I didn’t plan on, and what I couldn’t have known back in February of 2013, was all the friends I would make and the communities I would become a part of because of this blog. And for that most of all I am sincerely thankful. However, I have been thinking about it for a while and have talked about my blog and what direction I want to take it with my writing group and closest friends. I’ve come to the decision that last week’s Monday post will be the last regular In Brief post I do. Not necessarily forever, but for a while.

The truth of it is that I feel that In Brief has become stale for me. I’m no longer benefiting as much with each passing week and the commitment to work on a weekly post has been detouring time and energy from fiction that is finally gaining some traction. No promises yet, but I feel that I need to devote more time and energy towards that project and less on these posts.

So, what does that mean? I will no longer be posting every Monday, but I do not anticipate that In Brief will go away entirely. When I have something meaningful to say, I’ll still do it 500 words at a time. I’ll still share the steps in my writing journey. I’ll still talk about beer and share things that make me happy. I'll still respond to friends who come on here to chat with me. NathanBarra.com isn’t going away, I’m just turning it into something different.

Sincerely Yours,



Ensemble Cast Assemble!

When you have a single, major character, your choice of protagonist and throughline plot is obvious. However, when you bring in other major, high-powered characters into play, they all compete for attention and control of the story. While ensemble casts bring their own host of problems, they also have the potential for intricate and powerful plots. If done well.

One of my favorite ensemble cast stories is Marvel’s The Avengers. Writer and director Joss Whedon had a lot of challenges to balance to make the story work. First, Whedon had to create a story that honored decades of rich comic book history. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a lot of speculation if the movie would live up to fan expectations or if he would be buried in an avalanche of nerd rage. Secondly, he was responsible for closing Phase I of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers needed to both tie up what had been done before and launch the franchise to the next level. Finally, most of the characters in the movie were played by big-name actors and actresses, all of whom brought their own quirks, personalities, and storytelling philosophies to the project. He had to manage all their visions of what the movie should be while also staying true to his own intent.

Difficult, but not impossible for a writer of his skill. And he did it awesomely.

Writing a successful ensemble cast story isn’t only a matter of managing competing demands, but also knowing how to use those cross purposes to make the story stronger. Though each member of the Avengers agreed that Loki needed to be stopped, they each had their own views on how exactly that should happen. There was no one protagonist, but rather each character played a spectrum of story roles. Sometimes they acted as protagonist, as companion, as contagonist, and even sometimes as antagonist to one another. The Avengers wasn’t a single plot, but rather the union of several character journeys woven into a single story. It’s an extremely difficult balance to pull off.

The key to Whedon’s success is that he didn’t write a movie about superheroes. Rather, he treated each character as a person first and a hero second. Their personality was more important to their journey than their power. Furthermore, he let them conflict and bicker with one another, make mistakes, and pursue their own ends at the expense of the common goal. Then he gave them all a reason to put aside their differences and unite behind a single purpose. That decision, the choice to put the needs of the individual aside for the needs of the world, was the turning point both for many of the characters and the story as a whole. It transformed them from a band of individual heroes into a unified ensemble cast, the Avengers.


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