Characters Should Say and Do Only Things That Have Purpose.

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Writers may think characters should talk and act like real people. If a movie showed actors doing that, the theater would soon be empty. That’s why films cut to the important dialogue and actions. It’s the same with novels. 

Purposeful dialogue, inner thoughts, and actions deepen motivation, conflict, and tension.

Let’s take a look at an example.

No Purpose (reality)

“You’re back,” Alex said, looking over his newspaper. “Where’ve you been?”

“To the store.” Gretta set her grocery bag on the floor.

“Did you get milk? I’m low on milk for my morning cereal.”

“Yes.” Gretta crossed to the African violet on the window sill and plucked away brown leaves. The plant looked better. 

“Good.” Alex turned his attention to his newspaper.

Gretta moved across the room and collected a stack of folded laundry on the coffee table. “Well, I guess I should put the groceries away and get dinner started.”

Analysis: The example shows no conflict or tension to intrigue readers. Nothing is said, thought, or done that tells us something about the characters. Boring.

image by ASSA

Purpose: Show a Shaky Marriage 

“You’re back,” Alex tossed his book onto the end table. “Where’ve you been?”

Gretta set her grocery bag on the floor and planted her hands on her hips. “Where do you think I’ve been?” 

Alex checked his watch. “You’ve been gone a long time to get milk.” 

“So you think I’m having an affair?” Gretta crossed her arms over her midriff.

“I don’t know what to think anymore.” Alex stood and walked toward the back of the house, shaking his head.

Had she pushed him too far? “I stopped to look at houseplants,” she called. “Dinner will be ready in thirty minutes.”

His car keys jangled as he returned to the den.

Her heart raced. Was he leaving her for good? 

Analysis: The actions show Alex is irritated, disappointed, and has had it. Gretta’s actions tell us she’s defensive. The dialogue and Gretta’s internal thoughts show she goads then is afraid she’s gone too far. We have conflict, tension, motives, and feelings. Deeper. 

Purpose: Show a Possible Murder

“You’re back,” Alex said, looking over his newspaper. “Where’ve you been?”

“To the store.” Gretta set her bag of unnecessary groceries on the floor and concealed in her fist the bloody necklace she’d found in his car. Did he believe the store had been her one destination? If only Kirsten had come to the door when Gretta had made the detour.

“Come here.”

Her heart shot up against her throat. Would he recognize her fear if she came too close? What if he asked what was in her hand? Kirsten had always worn that necklace.

Gretta nodded toward the bag. “I should put the groceries away.” 

“Come here.” Alex laid the newspaper aside and extended his hand.

Had his voice held a slight edge? 

“Just one second.” Gretta crossed to the African violet on the window sill and plucked away brown leaves as she let the gold chain slip to the soil. She wiped her hand on her black slacks. 

“You pay more attention to that plant than to me. Maybe I’ll dump it down the garbage disposal.”

Analysis: Conflict, tension, feelings, and a good reason to pull leaves off the violet. We know Gretta suspects Alex of hurting Kirsten and is afraid of him. We see Alex is a jerk.

How do you check your paragraphs for purpose?

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Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  —Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

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Readers Thrive on Tension – So Make It Worse


I heard about an exercise to increase tension in which participants wrote a situation, then were told 10 times in succession to make the circumstances worse. Sometimes, we writers are too quick to be satisfied with the tension we’ve created. But the exercise showed participants—short of death—the payoff for the reader could be greater.

Let’s see how this exercise might work while formulating an idea for a short story.


Exhausted from her long shift at the hospital, Leah rides a bus to the park-and-ride lot. All she wants is to relax at home with her son, Grayson, and husband, Anton.

image by Unsplash
image by Unsplash

First Draft

  1. A man boards the bus at the next stop and plops down beside Leah. She struggles to remain pleasant to the windbag, then he invites her to dinner. She says she’s married. Uncomfortable from his huffy reaction, she stays on the bus until he gets off. She’s an hour late getting home.

Make It Worse

  1. [Nix the windbag.] A blonde boards the bus, travels the aisle, and sits beside Leah. Leah realizes the woman is Dilly Cross, the girl who stole her boyfriend in high school. Dilly opens the conversation, saying Leah looks worn out. Then she asks what has happened in the last fifteen years to make Leah look ten years older than her age. When Leah is speechless, Dilly tells Leah she’s a psychiatrist at a mental institution and will be glad to help Anton check Leah into a program. Startled, Leah wonders how Dilly knows Anton’s name.

Make It Worse

  1. Before Leah can respond, Dilly peers at Leah and asks how Grayson, is enjoying third grade at Anderson Elementary School. Leah demands to know how Dilly knows about Grayson. Dilly says her son, Finch, is in Grayson’s class. Finch is the boy who’s been bullying Grayson. Leah confronts Dilly about Finch’s bullying. Dilly suggests Leah stop making complaints about Finch at the school office—if Leah knows what’s good for Grayson.

image by PhotoLizM
image by PhotoLizM

Make It Worse

4.  Dilly says she’d hate Grayson to meet with an accident. Finch can go berserk. Alarmed, Leah demands to know what Dilly means. Dilly replies the only sure way Grayson won’t have an accident is for Leah to supply Dilly with drugs from the hospital where Leah works. Leah realizes Dilly’s presence on the bus is no accident.


image by LenaSercikova
image by LenaSercikova

Make It Worse

5.  Dilly laughs at Leah’s stunned expression. “Relax. I don’t want drugs. But I am tired of stealing your men from you.” Shocked, Leah says she doesn’t understand. Dilly says Anton was easy to seduce, but now he doesn’t want her anymore. With a wild-eyed gaze, Dilly says, “No one dumps me.” Leah begs Dilly to reveal why she’s bent on ruining Leah’s life. Dilly replies, “Your mother should’ve never taken Daddy away from my mom and me.” Leah claims Dilly is lying. Dilly raises an eyebrow. “Don’t worry–darling sister—I’m through taking your men, because as of this afternoon, I’ve got Grayson. Finch will enjoy his cousin. You’ll never find us or see Grayson again. He’s mine.”

Don’t stop. Make the tense situation in your story worse. Click to tweet.

What tips do you have to increase tension?

5 Authors Show How To Avoid Writing a Sagging Middle

“The middle of our story should be the ‘meat’ of the story, as far as conflicts and arcs. Without setting up the obstacles here, any solution in the final act will seem too easy and won’t be as satisfying.” —Jamie Gold

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image by HannekeV

I pulled 5 books from my shelves. I paged to the middle scene of each book. Here’s what happened in each novel in the scene just past middle. (No spoilers.)

1. The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers

Rivers didn’t let me rest long from a big revelation. She teased me with a ruse to free Cadi away from her parents to make a clandestine visit. Then Cadi’s brother, who’s loyal to her father, pushes Cadi for the truth. While I’m fearful for Cadi, Rivers has Cadi reveal her life’s burning secret. Now Cadi feels called to do activities that’ll put her in danger.

With the promise of new obstacles and danger, no sagging middle here.

2. Secrets by Kristen Heitzmann

Stars from BookHeitzmann reveals to Rese a secret about her mother in the middle scene. Rese tells Lance about her childhood with her mother, and Lance shares a secret from his past to show Rese he understands. Then he drags Rese from one place to another challenging her to do things he knows are good for her. But this causes her to panic, a reaction to her biggest secret of all.

What will happen next?

3. Blind Justice by James Scott Bell

When lawyer Jake thinks he’s done well in court, the judge gives him a “Doc Marten to the stomach.” In the next scene, he’s tempted to surrender to his damaging habit. When his client’s sister arrives to offer help, he rebuffs her overtures. But he has conflicting feelings toward her. She relates an instance from their childhood, to show him what he’s doing now. He runs her off, then feels he’s lost “the last light of day.”

Bell refuses to ease the tension in the middle.

4. The Shunning by Beverly Lewis

image by Foto-Rabe
image by Foto-Rabe

Midway through the book, Lewis reveals a secret from the past. A “big problem” accompanies the secret on the eve of Katie’s marriage. Lewis adds to the tension and gives Katie anxious feelings about marrying someone who isn’t her first love. Then Lewis stirs more tension and foreshadows in Katie’s thoughts reactions to the “big problem.”


Are similarities occurrng to keep the middle taut? Meaningful secrets, revelations, problems, obstacles, tension, and more secrets.

5. The Road to Testament by Eva Marie Everson

image by mike foster
image by mike foster

In the middle scene, even though the guy Ashlynne’s attracted to breaks their date, she thinks she’s made progress in handling her situation in Testament. In the subsequent scene with Will, the guy I want her to like, I think, Oh no, Ashlynne, don’t go there, as Everson sets up Ashlynne for a fall. Ashlynne over confidently refuses to listen to Will’s warning against her decision.

Again, a problem is used to keep the tension going, romantic and otherwise. I must turn the page to find out what happens.

If you want to avoid a sagging middle, design a meaningful revelation, secret, new problem, tension, or obstacle to make the reader need to know the next turn in the character’s journey.

5 examples of what’s needed to avoid a sagging middle in your novel. Click to tweet.

What happens after the middle scene of the book you’re reading, or writing?