Purple? It’s not Purple!

The common response to a subtle suggestion that the writer may have added a little too much purple to their prose seems to elicit that response. It’s shock, I suppose, that someone could see their words as other than deep and meaningful, as a play of beauty in the deep sea of banal.

There, you see, is the problem. We love to ‘hear’ our own voices, and to put a bit of ‘magic’ in there by using words that make the story disappear under the crashing waves of words that don’t move the story forward.

That’s what purple means when referring to prose. Want an example? I’ll even highlight all the bits that I consider unnecessary, and therefore, purplish.

Blood drizzled down her hand, along the blade of the knife, dripped onto the ground. It turned from crimson to black as it seeped into the dark earth. The long shadows of dawn were beginning to fade into full day. Rose looked around at the ground, felt with her feet, listened for the right sound. She found what she was looking for.

“Blood to blood, earth to earth,” Rose whispered, as she stabbed the knife into the sharp sand. She pulled it out to check, stabbed again and again until the blade shone clean in the light of the torch. She slipped the knife into the leather sheath and shoved it down the front of her jeans.

“That’s for Lily,” Rose said aloud. “For what you did to kids like her. May your soul rot in hell for eternity.”

The leaves of the huge ghost gums whispered; branches and twigs rattled and tattled as the high wind above slowly settled. The breeze slid down the deep ravine, through the dry creek bed full of rocks and sticks, to the paddock she stood in. The cool spring squall whisked away the smell of tannin, of copper, of death.

One more down. One more off the list. One step closer to the end. What was his number? Her count should be minus one for the first kill, because that wasn’t really hers. However, she had disposed of the remains; she had taken control of the list; she had killed all but the first; and now the count belonged to her.

Copyright Cage Dunn 2016 – used with permission.

Do you see it? The red is cliche, so if you start your story with cliche, you’ve already turned off most readers. Describing things that don’t do anything for the story are purple. For the first page of a story, there’s a lot of purple in this example. Not as much as some, but it’s definitely too much – it would be too much for a whole scene or chapter.

The green – that’s the good/better bit. Why? Because that’s the hook, that’s what will draw a reader into the story. So why isn’t it closer to the beginning? I suppose it is at least on the first page, but to get the reader to continue, give them that bit of intrigue as close to the start as possible. Within the first two paras should do it. Catch the eye, catch the heart – at the start.

The lesson – if you want to give us a story, give us the story without the things that don’t do anything. If you want to be Tolkien, get a professorship first.

And that’s the Sunday rant for the infusion of sanity to the story-telling role.









Moving and Shaking

How to move the story along? How to create tension and pace?

It’s a simple answer, but not easy to do.

It’s in the structure, and how you place your scenes – and what you put in them, and why and where the action happens.

The simple process is to start the story with a defined structure.

Now, a word of warning is required here: We are a group of people, all with our own ideas, our own ways of doing things, and some very strong opinions – but on this we all agree. A structure is required before the story goes beyond the log-line (can be called by other names, but a one or two sentence blurb that says what ‘it’ is).

Now, this multiple-personality group has decided to let you in on the secret.

The structure, and how to do it. Yes, we’ve mentioned it before, but you need to know.

Once you have the title, the idea has morphed into a fresh and dazzling concept, and a character has slipped into life to play a particular role – then it’s time to ‘create’ the path, the journey, the story of life for that log-line. Because nothing is nothing ’til it comes up as something.

What we have learned to do (yes, all of us) is to place a word or two, even a short sentence, at the most crucial places in the structure. What are these things? The main plot points. So, whether it’s an incline for Aristotle, or a Chain of Events, or a Beat Sheet, or an Outline, or a Story Board, or a Snow-Flake (no idea what that is) or any of the other methodologies for structuring a story, this is what we do.

At the opening of the story (let’s call it Opening, shall we), write a word of sentence that says where we (the story people) are, and what we (the writer) want the reader to see.

Logline: 3 boys find a recipe for a lozenge/lolly – supposed to make them smart – but they stole the only copy from the guy who paid $1m for it (it’s now lost – and they made amendments to the original due to lack of ingredients) – and he not only wants it back, he wants payback for the camel snot they left him covered in.
Okay, this could do with some extra work, but it’s a start.

1) Where to Open: three kids, summer, helping out with the camels at Goolwa Beach.
See: Boys help unload the camels from the trucks ready for the tourists first trip along the beach. The boys help out, always together at this time of year, rush through their tasks so they can go and do some good stuff – like fart competitions or scaring the girls, or . . .

2) Plot Point 1: MC (main character) decides to make the recipe to see what happens.

3) Mid Point: Twit (baddy) offers truce if they return the recipe. But it’s gone! The smarts have worn off – limited in scope! And now they don’t remember it! Or the extra/replacement ingredients! Can’t comply with the request – make it up? Would he know? Yes.

4) Plot Point 2: the girls they tease sneak in to see the boys. They found the recipe [all torn up, pieces missing], got some help to make it up, made some lollies – not as many as the boys, but . . . enough to maybe get them out of trouble and fix the baddy. Maybe.

5) The End: playing up to the girls in bikinis as they all help the touros with the camels. Dad gives them a bonus – tickets to the movies [from the cook] with free SLIME! Yuk! (This can be called denouement.)

That’s five pieces to start with. Only five. Not much to ask. Can you see the way it’s going to go? Is it cliche? Yes, to both. But it will serve as a guide. Remember that. A guide, because that’s all these methodologies are: a way to see through the cliche, the banal, the boring and to find the fresh and new and bright story that everyone will want to read.

Moving on.

After you fill out those five points, what comes next. Well you could do a sentence for each scene that leads from each of the above to the next … or this:

a) Act 1: put in all the bits between the Open and the PP1 (Plot Point 1) because that is all of Act 1, as follows:

Theme: Smart guys don’t have to work hard for the money (or maybe something more appropriate to the genre – like …. don’t have an answer yet!). See, can even write notes to self.
Set-up: “How are we going to earn extra money for the hols stuff? Girls?”
“What’ve girls got to do with it?”
Tips from tourists almost non-existent this year – not enough visitors – Dad won’t give them extra ‘cos times are tough and the farm is struggling since [find a good reason for this].
Catalyst: The stupid twit who belted the camel with the metal case, then kicked boy 2 on the side of his head. Bruised, painful. The case got dragged to the ground as the twit falls off. No one helps him. The cook walks away, shaking his head, pocketing the cheque. Boy 1 pulls the camel around into the best position and tickles his nostril – the sneeze – the snot: big, heavy, slimy, snot. “Try to flick that off, Slick.” Swaggers away with the camel. The case falls open. Boy 3 puts it back together, but the envelope is under his shoe and after the twit is gone and he moves off, Boy 1 notices it and they pick it up – about to run after the twit. Who stops him and why?
Debate: What’s in the env? Not money, a recipe. Candy-man (boy 2) reads through it, chuckles. A lolly, a recipe for a lolly – and a receipt for $1m paid for the exclusive rights to production. Should they try to make it? be the first to try it? Says it makes you smart – but Candy-man is already smart enough. Try it on the girls! Yes, great idea – if it stinks or . . . Better them than us. And if it’s okay, if nothing bad happens, then we get the rest of it!

Does that sound interesting? Does it tell you the flow of story in the first act? Sure, there are things that need fixing, things that need to be worked on, things that need to be researched, but it’s all there, ready to go.

What does this have to do with tension and pace? Knowing where you’re going will tell you – the story will dictate – which pieces to write at what location and why; you’ll see where you need to do short, sharp scenes and sentences; you’ll see where to slow it down to give a good understanding of how to breathe the scenes, get to know the story and characters.

Now for Act 2 (part 1 – which is from the end of PP1 to the MP (MidPoint)):

b) Act 2(1): put in all the bits between the PP1 to the MP.
B Story: Dad argues with twit about incident. Shows twit the signed paper of [what is it you sign when it’s risky and you know it, but you do it anyway?]
Fun n Games: Next morning, sick. Toilet stops galore, furps and barts worse than the camels – people laugh at them, poo-poo poses, etc. And then their brains wake up – and wake up big-time.
[these are the big ticket scenes to play with – and you only have to look at Kung Fu Panda or Harry Potter (the first one) to see how much you can put in there – just remember, this is the stage where the MC is learning stuff, so what you put here is what gets used in Act 2(part2).]
Run rings around twit. Drop envelope (deliberately) on the beach; recipe not inside – try on innocence. People believe the boys, not the twit.
Pinch Point 1: The papers served on Dad.
[what’s a Pinch Point? Basically, it’s meet the baddy.]

Are you getting the picture? Want to try it out on your own story? Using your own methodology? You can – and should – do that, but always remember the main points, what goes in them, and why. These are the ways to pace a story, to create interest and tension and flow and intrigue. It’s fun. Enjoy it.

Then come back to the reasons you’re doing it in the first place. Story. I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of planning, but this is only the first step, not the whole story, and if you can see your way to do these things before you start writing, it’s so much easier to see where things can improve; it’s easier to see where you can create more power and movement; it’s easier to drop an idea before you put sweat and tears into it. And the next step will be, no – not easier, but more defined, clarified, purposeful. The story part. All those methodologies are all spouting the same things, but written in different ways – because we’re not all the same! Find the way that works for you and save yourself a lot of heartache when you get to a certain point and panic because you don’t know where the path goes.

You can do Act 2(part 2) and Act 3 on your own, but remember, everything you set up in Act 1 gets paid off in Act 3, so if you Act 1 is 10,000 words, then so is the Act 3.

the End – for the moment.





The Story Wall

It was a piece of board, then a whiteboard, then a door, then one side of a wall. Now, it’s the whole room, every wall, every thing that stands solid and still long enough to take the bits of story in the right place.

The Story-Board. It’s there, in pieces, in scatters of lines linked by different colours of wool and string and push-pins and map-pins (different colours, of course, to represent the difference in meaning).

Someone walked in the other day and their mouth fell open so far I had to help them lift it off the floor.

“Get out,” says I. “This is my room.”

“But I was hoping to stay for a while. This was my room.”

“You left. It doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

The story room is plastered with small chalk-boards and whiteboards and butcher’s paper and funny looking drawings and maps, and bits of words scribbled on sticky notes or other things (napkins, etc.) stuck up with blu-tak.

And it’s coming together nicely. The initial flow of story has moved on to a double-edged sword, deeper meanings, more power to the context and theme and motif. I hope.

Anyway, the room that is the story room once had another life, but the one who lived it went away and left the room empty, alone, bereft of intellectual and spiritual company. So the story moved in and took over and the room exploded into colour and song and movement, light shone in the window and glinted against the rows of pencils and pens and screens and markers. The story room came alive with the story.

It’s ready to set up the whole gamut of this new movement, this new journey. Just a few more days and the story-line from the story-room will become real words in real space for real characters who will march through the story that becomes.

Until the story-maker walks into the room and sees the bare walls, the cardboard box filled with junk and tangles and torn pieces of paper.

And the voice that comes up behind her to whisper.

“My room,” with a swagger that she sees in the shadow of the enemy.

What do you think happened?

Of course. One cannot be a sister if one hasn’t had to push for the right to be. The pushing and the shoving and the screaming and yelling and … all that stuff, caused a ruckus in the whole household.

And the result. The room is back to being the story room, the intruder is gone back out to the world she came from, and the final result that came from that:

Even though she had no qualms about destroying the work and reasserting her right to the territory – now lost, the work improved for the disturbance. What was once a really good story-start got mixed up with another piece of the story and became a great piece. Inspiring. Brilliant.

So, thanks, I guess – but don’t come back.




Do you start with the Title to the story? Or something else, and the title is a temporary collection of words strung together to give you something to hold it in place? Following is a few ways different people start their story, and how they place the Headline (Title to the rest of us).

One way: (see Snyder: Save the Cat) search for the title that best reflects what you’re going to do with the story; set the genre, the audience, the style. Have a title before you go further.

Two way: use something like a short sentence if you don’t have a title. Something that does all of the above: sets the genre, calls to the expected audience, hints at the story. Later, the words can be refined (or redefined) to better suit the expectations.

Three way: Use a ‘stay’ word or number to indicate it’s not ready for a title yet. Yes, some people use numbers. Consider the movie ’47’ – but it only has relevance because of what’s gone before, doesn’t it? So be careful with these things, or the title may put off even the writer. Using a stop-gap like this can take away from the inspiration to continue with the work, so unless you’re very confident it works for you please try to put at least some words to indicate what’s going to happen in the story. Something like the ‘big’ event of the story, or the main character’s name, or something that jogs the juices to want to continue the story.

Four way: workshop the idea until the title pops up and won’t go away. This is a good one, but only if you have people who are willing to do their part as well. It needs to be ‘no strings attached’ and ‘no holds barred’ until a quorum is reached (and even then, author/writer has last say). That will most likely be the title that says: what it is, who it’s for, and what it’s about. An example of this one: Title = Pick, Lick, Roll, Flick (thanks, Cage). It says it’s a story for young people, specifically for young males, that the content is going to be a bit disgusting, and most likely contemporary. (It hasn’t been used yet, but is still on the burner!)

Five way: Look at all the titles in the area this story will belong. Find a title that says the closest to what it is, etc., and make a title similar, but not too similar, different, but not too different.

So, that’s five ways to find a title for a story. What do you do?


Going on a Journey

There’s the itinerary, the maps laid out over the table, the schedules for planes and trains and other forms of transport. Don’t forget the costs associated with getting over this border, through this country, visa’s for here and there and every little scratchy line on that map.

When you go travelling, you prepare. You get the maps to see where it is you want to go, you get your tickets and pay for them, the passport and visas for each place, lodgings and food considerations. You are an apprentice to the path.

You prepare. But the map is not the journey. If you saw the same places you wanted to travel to on television, would it be enough? Could you say you’d been there through that lens?

No. Because that is not the journey. Planning where and how and what and who and why is not the objective. The objective is to be there, to smell it, feel it, be in the middle of it.

That’s why a story needs that mud map. And it’s just as flexible as the plan you make for any journey. You could get to one point and find out that the border’s closed – what to do? Just stop and wait until it opens? I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t.

The plan is not the journey. Things can change – the mind and body must be flexible enough, must be capable of seeing the opportunities as they arise, must see them as potential, or better, or stronger, or different.

Story is the same. Why start the journey if there’s no idea what to foreshadow? If you don’t know who’s going to be there at the end? If there’s no known flaw to fix or message to see/learn? Why carve a path to nowhere to only end up leaping off the edge into the abyss of unknowing?

When you do the story mud-map, it’s not the journey. It’s not the first step on the journey. It’s not even a full plan, is it? Because as soon as the door is open, the train has left the station, the plane is in the air – where’s the level of control over ‘stuff’ that happens? When you have a mud-map and can see the general direction, and that’s how you start the first steps on the path, it can help when the path slides out from under your feet, when the power of a moment is easily recognised as ‘the way it should be’ rather than the ‘same old, same old’ response to the situation.

Having a mud-map helps the storyteller avoid the things that’ve already been done, the cliche, the boring and repetitious. The mud map may have some of those things in the beginning, but writing them out can sometimes make them much more visible, and therefore, give the writer the opportunity to ask “How can this be MORE?”

Do you have an itinerary for your story? A map? A clear direction with possible side-shoots?

Or are you stuck in the mind-set of ‘It will come’ because that’s the way ‘art’ is supposed to be? Or are you going to be the one who finishes a story and realises it’s not just good, it’s really good. It’s something to be proud of. It has movement and passion and connection.

I want to be that person, the one who knows I’ve written the story to the best of its potential. I want to complete my apprenticeship with a solid understanding of my craft.



Writers’ sit alone at their work space (wherever and whatever that is for them) and do what needs to be done. They get an idea, play with it until it becomes an exciting concept, add a main character to Do things. The exciting bit comes when that MC is put into the spiraling world of a story. The writing of that story is hard and flexible and hard and changeable and hard and exhilarating. But let’s say it gets finished.

What then? All the polishing and proofreading the writer’s (individual) done doesn’t mean the work is the best it can be, even if they followed all the ‘rules’ (of their own making, using the history of other writers’ works and advice). What it means is that it’s now time to find a ‘reader’ – preferably someone who can do a critique.

Now, this is a grey area. Very grey. What is the difference between proofread and critique? What do all the different editors do? We can only say how we do it, what works for us (‘we’ being one person of five who occasionally get together over the e-links to do this stuff).

It would be good if the end of the product (story) followed something like this:

Critique, using all the elements of creating the story (you know, the planning stuff) to untangle bits and pieces, to strengthen bits, to make the story the best it can be in terms of how it relates to and is understood by a reader. Things to look at include the five most important things:

  • Exposition (we don’t want a lot of this <10% first pages because this is the set up stage, then <5%). Exposition is the ‘tell’ that doesn’t show.
  • Action – remember, character in action is what moves the story forward.
  • Description – through the senses of the POV character. If there’s no POV character in whatever it is that’s being described, why is it necessary?
  • Dialogue – internal and external (yes, those italicized thought words are dialogue); does it move the story forward without ‘tell’? Is it clear who is speaking even without a name tagged to the dialogue? Subtext coming through? Too many, or not enough, body language elements?
  • Internalisation – is not internal chit-chat. It is being clear about who the POV character is and living the story through that character only. See, feel (use all the senses) what’s happening through the internal of the POV character.

Each sentence should be one of the above (remember the Simple things?).

Move onto the ‘flow’ of the story. Are the ‘bits’ in the right places for the best progression of action and pace? Does each of the sentences, para’s, and chapters contribute to the story? To each arc? To the overall intrigue of the unfolding story? When you read it out loud, does it ‘catch’ anywhere, slow you down, not feel right? Take note of these and look carefully at those places.

All the Elements: little picture elements (words, sentences, paragraphs; remove repetition, passivity, etc.), middle picture elements, (scene, chapter, movement/segue, etc.), big picture elements (arcs: story, plot, sub-plot, character, etc.). Look at your beat sheet, story board, Chain of Events outline to see if the story always moves forward, if it is truly a ‘character in action’ we see when we read the words.

Truly, there’s a lot more to critique than the above few pieces, but it’s a start. And it takes time. And a tough skin. Try to find people who critique the work, not the person who wrote it. Speak about your characters as real people, and maybe they will too. And the most important thing? Do for them what you want to get back for your own work.

Next, because the work is as good as you can make it, in terms of structure and flow, comes the proofread. What this means is a line-by-line effort to see mistakes in spealling, grammar (see!), word choice, length of sentences, etc. Line-by-line – don’t read it like a story. What makes this easier is to start at the back and read ‘up’ to the beginning. And using something (A bookmark?) that is long enough to cover all the words under the line you’re reading – it helps avoid the distraction of the words above and below the one you’re reading now.

From a nutshell perspective, that’s all it is. It takes time, coffee (and bikkies) and is not the final step. And some people call this the copy editing stage, where they look at similar things – but check out how different these things are to different editors!

And you will do this every time a change is made anywhere within the mss. Yes, you will. A professional writer will do this after any changes at all.

Editing. There’s lots of different sub-titles for editors. Structural, developmental, stylistic, substantive – look here for a more detailed rub on the low-down – but that’s enough. For the purposes of what a writer can do on their own is what I’ll call editing  for the purpose of this post.

The best and safest and easiest way to do that is to put the ‘finished’ article/story/book away for a while and let it slip out of your mind. Do another project that’s big enough to move it out.

Some people have a work process that’s a bit like a wheel of fortune. Each zone within the wheel is a different project; some are small, some are not. This is where you pull the next one out and leave the number one, completed, and ready to roll piece in its zone to have a nap. A long enough nap for the writer to forget it (sort of).

When it comes back to the work table, it’s much easier to see the things that need work. The Development of arcs – story, character, plot, etc. – should be much more clear this time. Structure will show the weaknesses in pace and segue – and if you have a beat sheet or chain of events outline, this is when you go back to them for a look-see.

Write up the blurb and tagline, then work on the synopsis.

If any part of this stage is hard, something is wrong. It should be easy because it’s a piece that’s almost complete, so if there’s anything that holds you back, it’s time to do another critique using all the elements used to create a story.

And that’s what we do. Again and again and again, because a writer is only a writer when they write, and they keep saying to themselves: ‘You’re only as good as your next book.’







Three Dimensions of Thee

Characters need 3 dimensions. How do you get to understand what the differences in dimensions are?

Some is simple: The first dimension is what you see. Clothes, affectations, all the guff people use to mask the real person in the safe, inner world behind the facade. The second dimension is the stuff that is either used as an excuse for the 1D, or a reason for them. But these backstory elements of 2D may or may not create the responses seen in the outer persona, the 1D side. There’s an element of choice. People choose which way to present themselves, and the lessons learned from the history/backstory can explain some of it, but not all. Now, the third dimension – that’s their real world. The core of the person. 3D elements pop out when there’s no time to consider which mask to use, which persona to present. This is the actions and decisions that are spontaneous and unscripted. It’s what happens when there’s nothing to block the ‘real’ from reacting to the (usually sudden) incident.

It really does sound simple, doesn’t it? Now you try it.

Paint the picture of your character. Height, weight, hair colour (how often do they change it? – shows a psychological issue), teeth, the way they smile at the opposite sex (or same sex, or couples, etc.; depends, doesn’t it?), taste in shoes, styling of clothes and hair, the way they ‘dress to impress’ – or not, the choices they make in food they eat in front of others as opposed to what they eat when alone, the choices they make for transport or fitness, the ‘face’ they make up to go to work. There’s also friends and acquaintances, hobbies and tasks, things they volunteer for (or sneer at others for). First dimension also includes things like the way they want the world to see them, so the hat that’s twisted at a jaunty angle? 1D. What does the character want that to be seen as? Is it seen that way, or is the dandruff-covered cardy something that shows us something completely different, maybe opposite of the intention. Is the character trying too hard to be something; can everyone else see this, but they can’t?

That was all 1D (the short version). What we see.

The why we see it? That’s 2D. The bad childhood where the char was beaten up by father, mother, brother; by bullies at school. A general childhood of being a victim, which they now swear in the adult life – it won’t happen again because they present themselves as tough with a swagger and leather and chains and a cocky attitude. You know these things, don’t you? The underlying story of why a character does things this way and not that way come from somewhere. Use any pop psychology book and you can see some of the why’s and wherefores.  It’s not all though. There’s other stuff in here: the things they learned from bad relationships; how to get affection/attention regardless of the pain it causes others; how to sneer without the face moving; how to get their own back for the little things they do that annoy your char (revenge issues/response to resentment issues). These are inner elements that come from the things they use as excuses for their outer representation. Just remember, being beaten up as a kid does not always end up with the victim becoming a perpetrator of the same tactics as an adult. The same circumstances can create completely different, and yet realistic, characters.

So now you see the 2D. The excuses or reasons for why people present themselves in the 1D.

The inner person? Somewhat more difficult, and that’s why most character portrayals in story are not fully developed. The third dimension, usually missing, is the inner person, the core. 3D is the world view they’ve developed over the span of their life, so a younger person will be less rigid (usually, depends on 2D) and less cynical than an older, world-weary person. The person who steps in front of moving traffic in an effort to save the life of a child/dog/elder isn’t going to have time to think about it. The mother who lifts a car to get her children out from under the wreck. The ex-soldier who drops to the ground at the first sound of something like gun-fire. The man who cheats on his wife and tells all his dalliances how horrible she is to elicit sympathy – he’s the inner core shit, and he won’t stop because that attention is his drug and he has to have it.

The 3D. It’s the actions, behaviours, and decisions made that are often only visible when made on the spur of the moment in a hot situation.

Now you know what may be missing from your 3D character, so go right ahead and find these elements. Learn these inner core things about your character.

And then use them to show change and growth through the four stages of the structure of story.

Luck has nothing to do with it – just hard work and an understanding of …

Copyright Karel Jaeger/Cage Dunn 2017