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Category: Process

How to write a THRILLER – Mac’s Real Insights and Tips

Article length: 10,135 words (preview 2535/wds)

UPDATE:: 10-01-23 ::
Happy October, folks. As promised, for the non-members here, I’ve compiled all the genre writing articles into a PDF. It’s available for download right here, right now.
::: :::

Most sources on the internet sum up the Thriller genre something like…

“Stories that elicit strong feelings of excitement, in essence, thrilling the audience.”

(Funny, isn’t that what they say about the Action genre?)

Sure they mention tension, suspense and other elements, but the focus of the definition always lands on excitement and thrills.

For the average Joe, this may be adequate, but if you’re intent on writing successful Thriller fiction, such a simplistic definition isn’t helpful. In fact, it could even be harmful, misdirecting you from the first fundamental pillar of the genre.

Let me hit you with a little secret;

Thrillers are really Horror stories for folks who don’t like Horror.

While Thrillers generally make greater use of the emotional wheel throughout their narratives, ultimately, like horror fiction, Thrillers are all about FEAR (we’ll unpack this in one second).

Interestingly, Thrillers rarely stand on their own as a genre work.

If you look at the top Thrillers of all time, those pieces of fiction ALL cross over into other genres, whether it’s a Crime Thriller, Horror Thriller, Action Thriller, or even more, like the Action/Crime/Mystery/Sci-fi/Thriller, Minority Report.

Phew, that was a mouthful.

It’s extremely rare to find a top piece of Thriller fiction that moves into no other genre pool.

The reason for this is pretty simple; most thrillers are complex narratives with significant depth. Especially when it comes to the main character and MAF. At their essence they pull from the intensity of Action, the fear of Horror, and the engagement of Drama.

By their very nature it’s difficult NOT to cross genres.

The purpose of this article is to focus in on what makes the thriller a thriller.

I’m going to cover the three core pillars of Thriller fiction as well as another ten or so elements of significant importance. Every thriller needs the three pillars to be considered a thriller. The more you implement the other elements, the closer you’ll get to reaching your maximum story potential.

In breaking down the Thriller, I’ll showcase examples that cross various thriller genre boundaries. At the conclusion of this article, you’ll completely comprehend the core substance of Thriller fiction.

It’s worth noting here, that Thriller fiction is one of the only genres commonly referred to by two other names:

Suspense and Mystery.

Wait, what?

Clearly, Thrillers, Suspense, and Mystery are different genres.

I mean for fuck’s sake, grouping Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Jaws together…. Really?

Obviously these two works of fiction are about as different as different can be.

Aren’t they?

Wellllllll… yes and no.

Reality is, Thriller, Mystery, and Suspense fiction all utilize and play with the same core mechanics (to their own degrees and ends).

While Mystery definitely shares the bed with Thriller and Suspense, I argue it has enough specific points in execution, that it breaks away from the Thriller (and suspense) and earns it’s own classification… at least enough so for this article.

So let’s throw that baby right out the window with the bath water and focus on the other two.

When it comes to Thriller and Suspense in defining material… the two should not be viewed as equivalents, BUT instead as opposite ends of the same sliding scale.

  • If you have faster pacing with more action oriented narrative, you’re in Thriller territory.
  • Where you have slower pacing with more dramatic oriented narrative, you’re in Suspense territory (or Mystery, or even Psychological Thriller territory for the record).

There’s another key pillar element in defining this scale, the most important of the three, but I’m not going to lead off with that fella. We’ll save him for later… for our second cup of coffee.

Truth is, Thrillers make a few big moves and if you want to nail the genre, you need to know them all.

Alright lads, roll up those sleeves.

Break out that new set of colored pens and pad.

* If you haven’t read my article on Horror, you’d probably do well to read that one first. I guess you don’t need to understand horror to write a solid Thriller, but seeing as the two are so closely tied together, if nothing else just the ability to compare and contrast with the material covered in the horror article will help give complete context.


FEAR. The first Pillar.

If you remember, we define Horror as the “Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.”

For the Thriller, the fear is grounded in reality and is thus, not unimaginable. And therefore defined as;

Expectation of a worst case scenario. 

In horror, you introduce Fear that the reader doesn’t know. Most folks haven’t been to Hell, had to fight a legion of undead, or outwit a blood sucking vampire lord.

Horror is driven by the imagination’s ability to create completely new terror.

Thrillers are driven by the imagination’s ability to explore a predefined area to its outer most ends.

Without the unimaginable element… without the unknown… we can hone in and say the fear driving the Thriller is not terror, but instead, HIGH ANXIETY from a known and expected threat.

In Jaws we’ve got three guys in a boat, a big shark, and the ocean. The shark isn’t growing legs and chasing them onto land. The chief isn’t pulling out a jetpack and flying to safety. The stage is quite limited… but our imaginations aren’t… and readers get to stew in all the practical possibilities.

Are they going to drown… or get eaten?

Will they die horribly slow, or quickly in a single chomp?

Will they take the shark with them?

Will anyone possibly come to the rescue?

The stage has been set… but our imaginations are still incredibly powerful and effective. Even when the fear is imaginable, the levels of High Anxiety stress we can manifest on ourselves is impressive.

Fear of an imaginable worst case scenario while different, can be just as potent as Horror based fear. In some cases, for some folks, it might even be more so.

These are the folks who laugh at Freddy Krueger or Pumpkinhead, but get goosebumps at the thought of a serial killer next door.

In some sense, despite being grounded in reality, Fear of a worst case scenario is more liberating than the Fear driving horror.

In horror, to reach “unimaginable” territory, most of the time you’re working with just a few primal fears. You often have to sort of “stretch” working with those fears to get more specific.

For example,  it would be challenging, if nothing else, to create a horror fiction based solely on one’s fear of “relationships.”

< It’s easy to incorporate a relationship fear or relationship theme of some sort into horror, BUT, basing the whole narrative around it… not so much. >

Thrillers have much more flexibility in this regard.

The Thriller’s realm encompasses the human condition in its entirety. They focus on the psychological by nature.

It would be far easier to write a thriller based primarily on one’s fear of relationships, heck a bunch come to mind: The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Sleeping with the Enemy, Single White Female

The fears one can work with as the engine to a thriller are anything within the human condition.

Fear of failure. Fear of being exposed as a fraud. Fear of being Abandoned. Fear of personal intimacy. Fear of judgement.

If we turn back to Jaws for a moment, besides the obvious (primal horror) fear of being eaten alive by a monster shark, there’s a very distinct High Anxiety fear of being helpless. (Humans lose most of their capability when forced to try not to die in deep water.) How many times in Jaws does Chief Brody struggle with his fear of the water, not the shark itself? Answer: Quite a few.

The real-world worst case scenarios readers can imagine through the lens of these fears are quite effective.

And quite relatable, instantly giving credibility to the narrative.

We’re going to discuss Worst Imaginable Case Scenarios and the Underlying Fear Anxiety a bit more later… for now, just recognize the fears that generate the Anxiety of the narrative are key, especially the main one your hero carries around.


Here comes the second major pillar of Thriller fiction.

Top off the coffee, we’re going to sit with this one for a bit.


It’s All about the MAF. (Not the bass or the treble.)

Where in horror, the MAF (Main Antagonistic Force—villain for the most part) is almost always Super Normal, in Thrillers, the MAF is almost always…


However, this doesn’t slow down the MAF at all, in fact…

One of the elements that makes Thriller so alluring is the dominant role of the MAF. Thriller fiction borrows this from the Action genre and further expands on it.

Of course in all fiction, you need a capable, active MAF… but perhaps nowhere else but in the Thriller does the MAF get to practically take over the show.

I haven’t timed it myself, but google tells me Darth Vader appears only 8 minutes in the original Star Wars run time, 121 minutes. (Star Wars, not classified as a Thriller…)

Contrast that to Hans Gruber, in the Action Thriller, Die Hard, who clocks in at 18 and a half minutes of the 127 minute runtime. Or Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs, who comes in and 17 and a half minutes of the 118 minute Crime Thriller.

Ok look, I didn’t breakdown villain screen time in a million movies and I wasn’t trying to cherry pick villains here,  but hopefully the above examples point to a pattern;

the MAF drives the action.

Where a story can be plot driven, or character driven, the Thriller for all intents and purposes, puts forward the MAF driven story.

You may be thinking, “Hey, wait a second, 18 minutes out of 127 isn’t taking over the show!”
(Shit, now I have to watch Die Hard again and jot down the total run time of any scene with Hansy or his boys. I will do this and report back here when I have a free 3 hours.)

UPDATE: OK, I went back and logged ALL of Die Hard’s MAF driven scenes. It clocks in at a total of 37 minutes! That’s 30% of the movie and my calculations were on the conservative side.

Anyway, the screen time itself isn’t the point…

In every serial killer crime Thriller story, if the killer isn’t killing… where’s the story?

In Die Hard, if Hans isn’t robbing the vault, if he’s not shooting the corporate president, wiring the building with explosives, manipulating the FBI… where’s the story?

Nowhere… if the story is a Thriller.

// Sidenote: If you highlight the MAF without actually having the MAF do anything. You’re moving the Thriller intro psychological thriller or drama territory.

But be warned, if your MAF does not drive the action AND you don’t double down on tension (discussed later), your story is completely leaving thriller territory… and will likely be DOA in whatever genre label it wears.

Sadly, so many wannabe thrillers drop the ball big time here.

I can’t even remember the movie I watched recently, but some guy was in a country house and he kept seeing visions of a ghost. The ghost didn’t do shit. It just appeared and growled. The protagonist started taking all these actions to try and figure out what was going on.

Ultimately nothing happened. The movie tried to rely on jump scares and a complicated, ineffective backstory. It tried to make the hero the driving force of the Thriller.


The movie was totally boring and a waste of time. //

After you read this article, you’ll spot “thriller” fiction where the MAF doesn’t drive the story a mile away. These will be the movies and books you walk away from after 20 minutes.

To develop solid thriller fiction, push the active MAF as hard as you can. The more the MAF oozes conflict, jeopardy, and narrative drive, the more engaging the story. 

This point can not be stressed enough.



If you love writing villains, you probably have an affinity for Thriller fiction (and maybe before this article, weren’t really sure why).

In most fiction, you work in what’s commonly referred to as Pinch Points.

Moments, usually driven by the MAF, outside of the protagonists perception, that inject narrative drive and  raise the stakes. A typical narrative only requires a couple of these.

Again, we can see in Star Wars, Vader only had 8 minutes and at least some of that time was fighting with the protagonist. So Vader’s Pinch Point moments were quite limited.

We don’t need Vader’s backstory to understand his role in the adventure unfolding before us. We don’t need to know the why’s or how’s when he appears in a pinch point. Big dude with electronic voice who force chokes underlings who fuck up—check.

This is acceptable in the adventure movie and in most fiction. In fact, it’s necessary in most fiction where limited time and space are better served supporting some other elements of genre.

But the Thriller isn’t most fiction…

Thriller fiction opens the way for a far greater number of pinch points, approves greater development of the MAF in general, and even goes as far as to showcase the MAF in a split narrative fashion (giving the MAF their own separate parallel running story).

Don’t lose your narrative drive when handing over the show to your MAF… If you pursue highlighting your MAF, make sure all that narrative content is relative to the active story…

but that said, in Thriller fiction you get the green light to explore the why’s and how’s of the villain. USE THE MAF to take advantage of and foreshadow the other elements we’re discussing in this article.

This type of layering of the MAF makes the Thriller.

// Side note: It’s interesting to see in Star Wars how although Vader got such little screen time, he was so thoroughly developed throughout the rest of the movies. Think how your impression of the original Star Wars would have changed, had you been shown all the aspects of Vader’s character arc (particularly the negative side of his arc)? //



Allow an impotent character to steal the show and you’re sunk.

MAFs in Thriller fiction are always hyper capable.

In horror we said the MAFs were “Far more powerful and capable than the hero, making their defeat a clear and exceptional accomplishment for the hero.”

This rule holds TRUE for the thriller as well

The difference here, as we’ve already mentioned, is that the thriller MAF is normal, not a super normal monster. A lot of writers struggle here, because they don’t push their MAF into the hyper capable realm and instead leave them in a merely capable realm.

They make the mistake of thinking a well executed capable MAF is “good enough” to carry the narrative.

Imagine Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal was just an average criminal, with an average intellect. The entire narrative falls apart.

Or Luc Besson’s Professional, where Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield isn’t a psychotic, drug addicted, DEA agent with his own crew and a lot of pull on the police force, but instead a run of the mill beat cop. Again the narrative unravels.

Frank talk here y’all, in the real world you rarely have the time to detail out all the characters as extensively as you’d like.

For the MAF in thriller it pays to make sure you at least have his major flaw and hyper capabilities. You will need these.

// Hey we're only halfway through with the MAF--nevermind Thriller Fiction's biggest narrative pillar! We've got 75% of the article left!  If you're working on a Thriller story you absolutely want to crush, sign up to get the rest of the article. Trust me, it only gets better from here. //
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Creating Complex Characters

Article length: 3600 words (preview 1000/wds)

The most forgettable people you meet in the real world are people without any real prominent character.

Usually quieter folks, with nothing physically remarkable about them or their manner. (The senses open the door, substance gets you to enter and stick around.)

Folks who have no outward expression of passion. Folks who simply go along with the crowd and thus blend in with the crowd.

I spent a lot of time in my life going to parties, art openings, and other social gatherings where I had totally nothing in common with the folks at these events… folks all from the same clique. Jocks at the sports bar, trust fund kids at the wall street house parties, wana be culture snobs at the art openings… scores of people all cut from the same mold.

While these people in the real world most certainly had at least some level of complexity to them, in a brief passing at a party, such complexity is rarely revealed.

This is how much of  Fiction works.

Many characters never get the page time to reveal any real complexity.

These one dimensional characters find their effectiveness in exaggerated characterization, schticks, their context in the narrative (action guys fighting, detectives detecting, etc.), or otherwise rely on a trope to fill a narratively fast and superficial role.

Sometimes, one dimensional characters even get a pass as the protagonist!

But when you need to write an important character like the protagonist, with particular depth and complexity, how exactly do you do it?

If your mind immediately jumps to the Character Arc, good for you. I like the way you’re thinking, bub.

The Character Arc certainly adds depth and color to a character. It’s a topic I’ve touched on many times in length elsewhere… but here’s the thing, character arc’s don’t create complexity by themselves. Character arcs create engagement and most importantly, carry the purpose of the narrative through realization of the Master Theme.

Fundamentally, Character Arcs push characters toward complexity.

They get them out of the realm of being one dimensional, moving toward well-rounded and multi-faceted, but complexity is not achieved until something very specific enters the equation.

I could tell you about my days working special effects for movies and television, I could tell you about my coffee shop in brooklyn, or the custom hive I built for my bees this year. I have a lot of layers, a lot of different facets… but I hate to tell you, none of that makes me a complex person.

In fact, despite a well-rounded colorful life so far, and being a multifaceted character, I deliberately take a note from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and try to be a Simple Man.

Ok, you’re not a member of the site and are about to bail.

Well, before you go, here’s the free take away. The meat and potatoes of this article. Write this on your board above your computer.

Complex characters are ALWAYS highly conflicted characters.

Seven simple words, but the execution is far from simple.

And this is why Character Arcs alone don’t create complex characters.

A character can overcome a flaw and come to a new way of seeing the world (the basis of the character arc), without a high level of internal conflict.

There’s a ton to unpack here.

Now might be a good time for non-members to hit the membership page and join the rest us as we dig into this topic essential to higher level writing.

Let’s get to it.

Character Nature

When we speak of complexity of character, what we’re really talking about is the nature of that character.

At a fundamental level, we express the nature of a character by what we reveal about them (what the reader knows about them), Discovery… and how they act, Behavior.

Discovery is the actual moment the reader learns of a facet to the character they didn’t know existed.

This latter part is important.

Discovery of a character is ALWAYS something already established in the character outside of the reader’s perception. This is the character’s emotional/psychological baggage, their history before the story started, etc.

These discoveries have high narrative relevance because they create the context (or expectations) for the character’s behavior.

The hero samurai is killing everyone left and right. Killing is a bad thing, but can be justified. The reader is left uncertain, until the discovery that all the guys the hero is killing, murdered his family.

The discovery, gives context (and justification–or not) to the behavior.

Of course, a discovery may not be a direct as the example above.

None the less, every discovery, is a clue to the reader that helps them establish context and expectations. Every discovery helps the reader attempt to create order of the narrative unfolding before them.

It’s worth noting here, if the reader discover something about the character AT THE SAME TIME, the character discovers it, this discovery does not give context or expectations. Instead, it moves right into the second way we define a character’s nature, by their behavior.

Behavior are the actions a character takes, or the way they conduct themselves.

More specifically in fiction, character behaviors are the results of reader expectations. Behavior tracks ON or OFF expectations, reinforcing them, or creating uncertainty.

Back to our example, the hero samurai is killing everyone because his family was slaughtered. We see that the character has no qualms about breaking the law and no moral hesitation when it comes to avenging his family. Now the reader expects that the hero will do anything to kill the men responsible. The discovery and behavior come together to create reader expectations.

If the hero samurai reaches the boss responsible for giving the order to kill his family, and then compassionately spares the man’s life… this would certainly be a subversion of the reader’s expectations.

Discovery and Behavior are cumulative, building upon each other as the narrative unfolds.

The more a behavior is enforced, the more it is expected.

Newer writers sometimes have trouble keeping character discovery and behavior consistent, or more accurately, deliberate, through a narrative. When character discovery and behavior contradict, without significant narrative support and purpose, a character rings false in a story.


Before we continue, let’s define the four basic complexity types of characters.

The four basic types of characters, characters' true faces, inner awareness, secondary goals, and the difficulty of choice. I cover it all in the remainder of the article, so what are you waiting for, Sunshine? Go check out the full access page and let's get writing.
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Fundamentals to Write Better Dialogue

Article length: 3200 words (preview 800/wds)


This is the last article you’ll ever need to read to write absolutely perfect dialogue!

Well, not really…

If you’re a member of this pro class (and not just a lurker/creeper), you know you never stop learning. Even when you become the best, there’s always some new insight or technique to discover and become even better.

I actually was planning to make this my final article on dialogue, but wound up going off on some other dialogue mechanic stuff near the end. I decided to post this really important stuff now and throw the rest up later.


This is the second to last article you’ll ever need to read to write absolutely perfect dialogue! 🙂


I’ve been helping a lot of folks with dialogue lately and decided I should sit down and write a nice long article on dialogue. Wellz, it turns out, I’ve already gone done that. Like trying to find my car keys, it gets easier for me to lose track of what I covered as I get older and the number of articles increase every year.

Anyway, here’s a quick TOC of my dialogue articles for anyone who wants to review;

Writing Natural Dialogue

Dialogue During Action

Pacing Dialogue to Reveals

Barren Dialogue

And of course here on Story to Script;

Poetry in Dialogue

The meat and potatoes one;

Conversation Vs. Dialogue

In an effort to not cover the specific mechanics, which I’ve mostly covered in those articles, mostly, let’s get all Wassily Kandinsky up in this joint, and dive into the abstract, or more to the point; the fundamental reasoning behind the choices that shape excellent dialogue.




I’ve talked extensively about the trap of talking heads, which should be avoided at all costs.

I constantly warn how talking heads break the synergy of comics, pushing the scales of narrative balance away from the visual artistic realm, and fully into the cerebral narrative realm.

In order to put your best dialogue forward, this is a critical concept to understand.

As I mentioned in newcomers ignore comictography, comic books arrive in (at least) 4 levels;

    1. The surface story script.
    2. The subtextual story script.
    3. The surface visual script.
    4. The subtextual visual script.

So at any given moment, the visuals of the comic (film/anime,etc.) tell a story; parts 3 and 4.

To some extent, I might argue that the visual story is more important than the story script itself.

Good lord, what did I just say?

OK, let me rephrase a bit. I know some of y’all writer folks just fell outta your chairs.

The visual story in a visual medium such as comics and film, is not so much as “more important”, but dominant over the non-visual story telling. The purpose of dialogue in a visual medium is to compliment, support, or enhance the visual story

Any artists reading this article might be throwing their hands up celebrating the age old (silly) question, “which is more important to a comic, the art or the story?”

But y’all need to settle down now, because while the dialogue works to compliment the visual story, the writing and story also first defined where and how the visuals began.

Story Structure – lays down the foundation that manifests…

Art – which lays down the foundation that manifests…

Dialogue – which completes the medium.

As a writer in a visual medium, your first duty is to establishing a coherent, potent, effective, engaging visual story. The writer accomplishes this starting with solid story structure, moving to express that structure through scene selection, building out the scenes utilizing the vast craft of writing as we’ve been discussing all these years, then finalizing with polished dialogue.

Script dialogue should always be included to add greater clarity, depth and complexity to the visual story.

Any moment the script takes on the entire job of carrying the story, whenever the story script replaces the visual script, you’re holding a burning hunk of metal in your bare hands. The longer you hold it, the more damage you do.

The dialogue and narrative in script, the #1 from above, isn’t meant to carry the entire, or even bulk of the narrative. That’s what a novel does. Allowing #1 to take control of expressing the story may be a lot of things, but it’s not writing for a visual medium.

The clearest two examples of the story script completely usurping the visual story are;

    1. Talking heads, as I’ve noted.
    2. Text on black. This is where the writer tries to mimic the dramatic narration over a blank screen of film. Usually when someone loses consciousness or falls into some deep depression or something. I don’t care what anyone says, this isn’t effective in comics. It’s hasn’t been effective in movies since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Ok, they opened the LOR with it, but really, was it effective or did you just not care cause the movie was so good? (And if it was really effective, why did the narration switch off of black, over live action after the logo crawl? Why didn’t in run 7 minutes of narration over black? You know why.)

So first and foremost when choosing your dialogue, be sure that the dialogue compliments, supports, or enhances the art.

Before we depart this point, let’s hit an example;

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How to write ACTION fiction – Mac’s Real Insights and Tips

Article length: 10700 words (preview 2500/wds)

UPDATE:: 10-01-23 ::
Happy October, folks. As promised, for the non-members here, I’ve compiled all the genre writing articles into a PDF. It’s available for download right here, right now.
::: :::

Many writing experts will tell you Action Fiction boils down to the Excitement it generates…

This is a backward and incomplete assessment.

Of course, you already know this cause you’ve read my Defining Genre article and know, Action Fiction is governed and driven by anger.

When Indy punches a Nazi, is he “excited”? When Edmond Dantes clashes swords with Fernand Mondego, does he thrust his blade with excitement? When the Hulk does–well, just about anything–is he excited; or are all of these characters moved to action, wicked pissed?

We’ve all been wronged. We’ve all been so angry we could resort to violence (yet long gone are the days of pistols at twenty-paces as a cultural norm). Action fiction lets us live vicariously through the hero and channel all of those moments when we wish we could have, but never did.

The excitement of action fiction to the reader, the dazzle and spectacle, are merely byproducts of anger’s colorful work.

Because anger is fundamental to the human condition, sooner or later in every story, somebody gets angry at something. Action is the one genre that acts like a party crasher, busting into any genre’s party, at any given moment.

I have Action listed as one of the six base genres, and while it’s certainly accurate referring to it as such, in reality few pieces of fiction are written as pure Action Fiction. Usually one or more other genres works in tandem with Action, making it difficult to decipher on its own.

While everyone can recognize the core expressions of action, the novice writer often has trouble knowing exactly where Action ends and a more specific genre begins, or more precisely, where other story mechanics take control.

The Action genre is like Gin, you know the alcohol. You can drink it straight, but most of the time you’ll mix it (with another genre)… When you use Gin as the main spirit you’ll always have a similar foundation; an Action Horror story and an Action Thriller, will often feel related. But push the added ingredients a little bit too much one way, or the other, and it the Action drink really becomes a drink unto its own (Action literally morphing into another genre or subgenre).

I’ll make note about Action fiction rolling over into other genres, most notably Thriller or Adventure, as we go on. But the primary focus of this article is quintessential Action Fiction.

After reading this article you’ll be a pro at understanding the boundaries of action in all its forms.

The Action genre really should be called the Violence genre; after all, violence is where anger lives 11 months out of the year.

The core expressions of modern day violence fiction are pretty straight forward;

  • Fighting
  • Shooting
  • Explosions
  • Car Chases
  • High Body Counts
  • Beaucoup Destruction
  • Sex and,
  • Swords

(Don’t worry, I’m not getting into that 7th one in this article.)

To the novice writer, merely incorporating these eight core elements delivers on Action Fiction.

But I’ve typed up over 10,000 words in this article and you’re here reading, so we both know there’s more to it… a lot more to it.

Dunk your biscotti and let’s do this;


Justification for Violence

Recognizing that anger and violence are the driving forces of Action Fiction, we are immediately faced with a conundrum;

How can our protagonist initiate the anger and violence in our story?

After all, unsolicited anger and violence are the traits of villains not heroes! (hero; quiet down in the back row, we’ll talk more about different protagonists later.)

Well it’s a trick question chuckles, because the hero CAN’T initiate the anger and violence.

It always has to come from the MAF first (that’s Main Antagonistic Force to you newbies).

The MAF always throws the first punch delivering a severe moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero.

Combining all three for the trifecta is great (you’ll hear this more than once in this article), but that first one, severe moral offense, is the primary catalyst for much Action Fiction.

The MAF’s moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero, gives justification to the hero’s anger and violence. It is for all intents and purposes the opening attack in what will play out as a series of attacks between opponents.

In Action Fiction, The MAF attack serves as the inciting incident that opens the active story.

I make the distinction of “active story” understanding that NO STORY truly stops and ends, there is always content in the story universe before and after the active story in progress.

Often in Action Fiction, the story picks up with a “conflict in progress.”

For example; The Hong Kong cops trying to bust the weapon smuggling gangsters in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. The weapon smugglers didn’t just appear after Hard Boiled started, Chow Yun-Fat had been working to stop them for some undefined amount of time before the story opens.

Or Dolph Lundgren in Showdown in Little Tokyo, where he’s trying to bring down the Yakuza in Los Angeles. If I remember correctly Showdown in Little Tokyo opens with Dolph attacking a Yakuza underground fight ring in a big shootout.

At first glance of the latter, you would think, “Wait a sec, the hero is initiating the anger and violence.” But this is out of context. In reality, with this conflict already in progress, the MAF MUST HAVE delivered its initial attack somewhere in the backstory.

Cops don’t go and attack criminals before they commit a crime.

The hero can not initiate the violence.

While in theory a backstory MAF attack could serve as the inciting incident, in reality, there is always another showcase of a MAF attack opening the more focused conflict of the active story.

Let me do another one for clarity;

In the movie Predator, Arnie and his boys find the first military squad hung up and skinned. This is the MAF’s original attack (and moral offense). It justifies the squad unleashing anger and violence against the Predator.

If they had caught the Predator sitting down to breakfast, the audience would have been cool with Arnold unloading on him. That backstory MAF attack would have worked, but instead, the Predator initiates the REAL inciting incident of the active story by delivering a MAF attack in the story in progress; shooting and killing Blain (Jesse Ventura).

  • If you find yourself in an Action fiction story where the MAF’s opening attack is watered down, not severe in its intensity and/or not directly focused on the hero, the story is likely rolling into Adventure territory.

Anger and Violence, initiated by the MAF opens the door to an ongoing fight between protagonist and antagonist. This adversarial clash creates three underlying narrative directions for Action Fiction;

All Action Fiction is either Retribution, Revenge, or Survival fiction

While retribution and revenge sound similar there is a clear distinction.

Retribution based stories are about punishment for a criminal offense or infraction against the greater good.

While there’s always an air of it being personal between characters in the story (more on that later), retribution turns on the law of the land, for subverting bad outcomes, stopping and punishing folks who have done bad things, and restoring balance to world.

Basically the MAF tries to do something “wrong” or has already done something “wrong,” and stopping it or bringing the MAF to justice restores equilibrium.

Retribution fiction encompasses a lot of Action Crime Fiction. When a crime is committed in the real world, simply arresting someone is the goal. The arrest sends the criminal through the judicial process, which hopefully leads to justice.

This may work for crime and court fiction, but for Action Fiction, there is no time for satisfaction through the court.

Even when arrest is the end goal in a lot of Cop Action stories, the struggle to reach that arrest must entail measures of actual punishment. The criminals have to get punished in the active story, before getting their final long-term punishment out of story. This is why I refer to the classification as retribution and not simply “justice.”

Of course, in plenty of Retribution Action stories, the criminal is smoked before they ever get arrested at the end. Sorry not sorry, but the idea is that the hero at least tried to do it “by the book.”

Revenge stories are wholly personal.

They turn on personal satisfaction for responding to the MAF attack. It has nothing to do with law of the land, or restoring balance, in fact, revenge stories are quite happy with making an even greater mess of things as long as personal justice is delivered.

In Revenge Action Fiction, the MAF has already done something “wrong” that there’s no avenue of justice to restore equilibrium. The only thing left to the hero is personal satisfaction.

Revenge Action fiction of course is the fertile playground of Anti-heroes (more on this later).

Survival Action is not Survival Horror

In Horror, we know it’s all about survival; the sinister forces at work are literally working to murderly urder the heroes.

In Retribution and Revenge Action, survival is always at risk because the hero is engaged in his dangerous mission, the way a cop always puts his life on the line every day he goes to work, but survival is not the core focus of the character or the narrative.

Sure in all action fiction the MAF and its agents will go after the hero at some point, but it’s simply not their primary goal of the entire story, unless it’s specifically, Survival Action fiction.

Survival Action fiction isn’t motivated by anything other than the living status of the heroes. Predator is arguably Survival Action Fiction, Assault on Precinct 13, Dredd, The Running Man… all stories where the core MAF goal is the death of the protagonists and in turn, the hero’s primary goal is simply survival.

Keep in mind, in all three categories of Action Fiction (even Survival Fiction), there usually are more specific character goals.

For example; Stopping a big shipment of drugs, or guns, rescuing a group of hostages, arresting all the members of a crime syndicate, etc. In the Running Man, resistance fighters try to break the corporations tyrannical grasp by taking out their satellite, this goal eventually becomes the hero’s goal.

Where all Action Fiction is one of these three classifications of stories, it means a core narrative undercurrent directs the more specific character goals.

Combining all three categories for the trifecta makes for stand out Action Fiction.

  • Survival fiction without a human MAF rolls over into Adventure (Cast Away) or Disaster Fiction (Meteor, Volcano or Hurricane Shark stories; more on that later).
  • Survival fiction without any Retribution or Revenge underpinnings, usually rolls over into Horror.

Now that we understand;

  • Action Fiction is fueled by anger and violence,
  • perpetuated FIRST by the MAF,
  • creating a Retribution, Revenge or Survival situation for the hero,

we can now look at the executing Action Fiction at the fundamental level.

The most potent use of the eight core expressions of Action Fiction; anger and violence materializes to its highest level through;

High Tension, High Jeopardy Struggle.

In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics, I define Tension as; a heightened emotional state derived from an immediate danger or threat.

In other words, stress or anxiety from expectations of a bad outcome.

Jeopardy in a nutshell is danger. The distinct presence of potential loss, failure, or harm.

Since Tension is really a byproduct of jeopardy, the declaration; High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle, is a bit redundant. But it’s important enough to underscore. This concept is critical to effective action fiction.

There are three primary ways to express High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle in Action Fiction:


Direct fighting conflict between opponents. This covers everything from hand-to-hand, to gunplay. It can include only two opponents or entire armies.


One opponent trying to catch the other. On foot, on horseback, in cars, planes, trains, tanks, whatever…


These are High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle situations without a human opponent.

Indy running from the boulder, Ironman flying into space where his suit can’t withstand the atmosphere, Dr. Richard Kimble jumping from the top of a dam, are all examples of stunts. Extreme Risk feats.

Since we’re talking execution now, it’s worth noting here;

  • High Tension, High Jeopardy moments with struggle but less violence, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Thriller.
  • High Tension, High Jeopardy moments without physical struggle, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Psychological Thriller.

It’s absolutely imperative to understand that the High Tension, High Jeopardy moments alone do not define Action; STRUGGLE IS KEY.

Since Action Fiction is ultimately a long, sustained battle between opponents, a lot of similarities spring up from the Ultimate Fight article. Look to that article for specifics on how to develop great action scenes in unto themselves.

However you build out your action scenes realize, the Struggle is one of the most important elements to grasp and implement.

Without struggle, we simply have displays of violence (which serve to diffuse tension and jeopardy, not build or sustain it).

Without struggle, when a character simply displays and engages in violence effortlessly (or for all intents and purposes unopposed), we devolve into a “showcase of badassery.”  As you’ll see in a second, this is useful in limited qualities to introduce or highlight a character, but no matter how you crack it, prolonged displays of violence without struggle get old real fast.

We've just gone and covered 25% of the article, we've still got another 7500 words to go. We'll cover the 3 Act Struggle, the Action HERO, Action Fiction Villains, Playing the Victim Card, Action Hero Allies, A whole bunch on Pacing, Environments, Character Arcs, Hero/Anti-hero Rewards, Action Fiction Character Insurance, Dialogue, and the Action Fiction Catch-22 when writing for comics. If you've come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, you're in the right place. Hit the full access page and leme know if you prefer hubba-bubba or Bazooka.
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How to write HORROR – Mac’s Real Insights and Tips

Article length: 10011 words (preview 2300/wds)

UPDATE:: 10-01-23 ::
Happy October, folks. As promised, for the non-members here, I’ve compiled all the genre writing articles into a PDF. It’s available for download right here, right now.
::: :::


Put up some coffee and grab a notebook.

You’ll need both to tackle this 10,000 word article, but if you have the courage to do it, you’ll be writing some of the best horror you’ve ever written in your life.

Horror covers a lot of territory and can be broken down into a number of subgenres, each with distinct considerations. I have a passion for most of them, but I’m not going to try and tackle all of them here.

For the focus of this article, we’re going to discuss what I consider the quintessential horror story, which stems not from the origin of horror itself, not from Walpole, Shelly or Poe (all of whom are profound in their influence), but from Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Carpenter; primarily stories from the 70’s & 80’s that directly gave birth to horror as an industry we recognize today.

Horror is such a fundamental part of being human (chew on that for a while), we all know what it is, but sometimes it’s a bit hard to articulate into words. The most commonly held definition of horror is that it’s story that scares or elicits a sense of dread.

While both true, I expect a little more from horror fiction, I think it’s deserved it as a genre, and like to define it as;

Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.

Notice I did not simply say, “Expectation of a worst case scenario.” If it’s simply a worst case scenario, we know or presume what that scenario is… if it’s an UNIMAGINABLE worst case scenario, that means we as readers, recognize that we don’t know what it is. That the scenario about to unravel before us, while clearly bad, is beyond anything we can expect.

This expectation of the unexpected is where true horror lives.

Genuine Horror always surprises us, subverting and exceeding our expectations far more than we could have imagined.

In other words, we know going in, the vampire story is going to have vampires drinking peoples’ blood, and the zombie story will have lots of zombies being shot in their heads and burned alive (well undead), but we expect that these things are going to happen in a horrific manner we haven’t seen before.

After all, nothing is ever quite as horrific once it’s been seen.

It is the fiction that breaks beyond what we expect, that enters new territory, that truly terrifies us.

Which coincidentally, is why so many works of horror fiction fall flat, because they simply never go beyond what we assume is coming in one way or another… or have simply seen many times before.

Hold these truths tight when you develop the core concept to your story.

Either innovate with something completely new, OR, if you go down a familiar path, bring a fresh new take on it. Doing the same that’s been done before, in horror, is the fast track to an ineffective forgettable story.



The king emotion of the Horror story, of course, is fear.

You may find it valuable for your horror writing to understand why readers find fear so alluring. We all know fear is a primal, maybe THE MOST primal emotion of them all… but why are we so drawn to it in fiction (well, at least some of us, my girlfriend hates horror flicks–it’s something I still cope with daily.)

Back on point.

Personally, I believe that human existence has always existed intimately with danger. For most of our species’ history, there were surely more questions than answers to much of this danger. So unexpected death and the unknown (to which we use our imagination to somehow make sense of things) are hardwired into the human condition.

Today, most of us live fairly safe lives, under the impression that humanity has a lot of, if not most of, the answers.

Again this is only my personal interpretation on the subject here; but I think this disconnect leaves us with a macabre sense that something is lacking or missing from our lives.

Of course, nobody I know on Facebook, wants to be eaten by a large predator… And I’d guess throughout all of human history, the folks who did get eaten by large predators, were pretty upset about it.

But the point is, by exposing ourselves to this missing element, perhaps it helps us feel “more complete.” I think Nine Inch Nails might have said it best; “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…”

Taking a journey into horror fiction presents one other very important element on a fundamentally psychological level.

Only by facing fear, do we find courage.

We can tell others and ourselves all day long how courageous we are, but until we’re actually tested and live through something, it’s all talk.

So not only do horror stories give us a connection to a dangerous horrific side of life, most of us are no longer attached to, but it gives us a chance to prove we have the courage to face that dangerous horrific part of life… and survive.

In my travels, I’ve found that horror fans are always more adventurous, willing to try new things, accepting of challenges, and at the end of the day, some of the most courageous people I know.

Imagine that?

We can’t proceed any further without mentioning the second emotion closely tied to the Horror genre;


Since disgust often travels hand-in-hand with Fear when it comes to horror, I refer to it as the Queen emotion of the Horror story.

Disgust is more closely associated with anger than fear.

Disgust supports our macabre sense of Fear as we discussed above, in the sense that by seeing it unfold before us, we are immediately reminded of our appreciation for our safe lives.

“Ok, danger, death, and unknown… I see you… and, now that I think about it… I’m good. Sitting behind a computer desk all day not getting my head smashed like a rotten grape, yeah this life is fine.”

Disgust removes any romantic element of death.

As disgust triggers closer to anger, when we are totally disgusted, we want it to stop with more urgency. That is to say, if you read a slasher story, and every time the killer killed someone the writing cut away and left out the gory descriptions, you might grow a little distant or indifferent… but when you see and experience the grotesquerie first-hand, an urgency develops for it (and by proxy, the source responsible for it) to be stopped.

While torture porn, splatter films, and hard-core gore stories are always thrown in the horror genre, I would make an argument that disgust alone does not make a horror story. While disgust is potent, useful, and supportive, fear makes horror. Period.

Alright campers, we’ve got a fundamental understanding of what horror is and the underlying emotions that control it.

Sharpen up the machetes; grab your crucifix and let’s breakdown the essential elements into writing stories that will scare the shit out of your readers.


Terrified Characters

It’s near impossible to have an effective horror story if the protagonists aren’t scared themselves.

Always remember that readers empathize and live vicariously through the characters. If the characters are not afraid, if the cast shows courage, no matter how effective your atmosphere and no matter how hard you hit the other elements discussed in this article, your readers will not feel fear–they will be bolstered by the confidence and courage the characters exude.

This concept leads us to our golden rule;

Where the MAF performs violence, we generate fear and horror.
Where the Hero performs violence, we generate action/violence.

So while, of course, your heroes may express moments of courage, especially toward the end of the story, in the third act where they move toward conquering the MAF, the more you push the source of violence onto your heroes, the further away you move from horror to action/violence.

For maximum fear transference to the reader, keep your heroes terrified as much as possible, and where they find the courage and confidence to stand against the horror, never let them do it with 100% conviction. Instead, even when they find courage, make it clear, they are still terrified, using every ounce of strength to stand strong despite their intense fear!


Survival Horror

Survival horror is a subgenre first coined from the Resident Evil game series (as far as I recall offhand), where the protagonist is trapped alone in a mansion and left to face an undead horde with extremely limited resources.

In truth, ALL horror is about survival.

We’ll talk more about this in “stakes” later, but make no mistake, in genuine horror stories the character’s always face a struggle for survival.

When it’s not directly linked to physical life and death, survival of the mind; the risk of descending into madness, and survival of the spirit; corruption of their immortal soul, round out all horror stories.

Survival of all three comes up often and is always a potent mix.

If the protagonist’s life, mind or soul are not on the line, it will be nearly impossible to establish horror fiction. Nothing is truly horrific when you have those intact. And no matter how harsh the wound or circumstance, we know, time heals all wounds (making everything beyond the loss of the three, trivial).

Loss and hardship not based on survival, pushes story into the realm of drama.

This survival element of horror also gives us an over-arching protagonist goal that applies to the entire genre of horror. Irrelevant of your plot or Master Theme, the following always rings true in the genuine horror story;

  • Dying, but not giving in to the fear, isn’t a loss… it’s a draw.
    (Dying, or failing, while retaining one’s honor or dignity reminds us that nobody gets out of the real world alive. And it’s not so much about the end, but how you face the end. Losing with grace isn’t really a loss.)
  • Surviving is a win.
    (Courage and strength to survive the horror.)
  • Defeating or destroying the MAF is icing on the cake.
    (Heroic courage and strength to not only survive the horror, but abolish it. This is the stuff of true heroes.)

Recognize that all horror is about survival of body, mind, or spirit, often all three… and that this survival gives a genre specific goal to your story. Which genre goal best supports your Master Theme?


The Five Faces of Fear

While fear is a powerful shared emotion among all humans, in reality not everybody finds the same things disturbing or terrifying.

When you set out to write a horror script, take a moment to list the main things you want to use to represent fear in your story.

Of course any good horror will utilize as many elements to support fear as it can, but taking the time to identify the major ones will open doors and present opportunities for symbolism, motifs, character arcs, themes, and of course plot elements.

I like to call this list of main horrific points the Five Faces of Fear. Five is a bit of an arbitrary number, you can list a few more or less, especially depending on the scope of the story. I’ve found that five gives ample elements to work with in my own writing.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping your list close to the iconic representation of fear; darkness, isolation, confined places, insects, etc. But look into yourself, look into your reader demographic, and see if you can’t find some more specific representations.

Think of developing a horror story about a group of fisherman who come across a derelict cruise ship in the middle of the ocean using the representations of fear we just noted above.

Clearly, drowning would be a viable fear for any water based story, but maybe not so much for Cujo. But, think again of our premise, adding or replacing fear representations with; clowns and death by fire. Does the premise start to take on a different shape?

What about instead of clowns and fire, you went with; plague and feelings of utter powerless. Again does the concept begin to take a new shape?

This is the advantage of listing the Five Faces of Fear.

Develop a list of your Five Faces of Fear, the main expressions of fear you want to integrate into your story. Identify the one that connects the most with you and put it to the top of the list. You may choose to rely most on this primary element and make it the basis of the story’s symbolism (which will discuss in a bit).


The MAF is Supernormal

The Main Antagonist Force (Storycraft for Comics), is always a supernormal monster.

Whether that force is actually a monster like a Werewolf, a murderous serial killer like Jason Voorhees, a supernatural force as in Poltergeist, or the the Deadites from Evil Dead…

The MAF always has some element that makes it beyond normal ability and most often, beyond human ability.

If we look at Cujo for example. At first glance, the MAF is nothing more than a big dog… but upon closer inspection the horror story isn’t just about a big dog that attacks people, it’s about a Rabid, unstoppable dog.

Jaws (debatable as a Horror story), but again, on the surface, you might think it’s about a normal great white shark, but in reality, the shark is the biggest, most ferocious shark, with a supernormal determination and intelligence.

This rule applies even when the horror has a completely human MAF.

For example, if we look at Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs; he has a super intellect making him a virtually undefeatable/unstoppable antagonist. [ Though in the case of a completely normal human MAF, we take a nod from Thriller fiction and revise the name from “supernormal” to “hyper-capable.” ]

So what do all these supernormal MAFs have in common?

They are far more powerful and capable than the hero, making their defeat a clear and exceptional accomplishment.

Make sure your MAF is supernormal. List the limits of their ability so you know exactly what they’re capable of at all times. MAFs that are close to the hero in capability, are least effective.

Ugly cover graphic, invaluable writing insights.
// Alright, chuckles, put down the Necronomicon and blow out the candles. There's a ton more to cover, 7700 words worth! from the MAFs connection to Fear, establishing Atmosphere, Path to the All is Lost, Character Judgement, Trap Narratives, Master Theme and Character Arcs, Safe Spaces... big breath... to the Trifecta Horror Redux, Tension and Suspense, Death, False Endings, The Quintessential Ending, Isolation, Symbolism, Subplots, and the Big Handicap of Horror Fiction! Phew... Little light-headed, now. 

This full article (+action, thriller, and drama) are now available in the store for $11.99! Hit the image to the left or go BIG and visit the full access page, make an account, bookmark your Necronomicon and let's get you on your way to a soul burning, hair bleaching horror story that kills!  //
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How to write a DRAMA – Mac’s Real Insights and Tips

Article length: 4100 words (preview 1000/wds)

UPDATE:: 10-01-23 ::
Happy October, folks. As promised, for the non-members here, I’ve compiled all the genre writing articles into a PDF. It’s available for download right here, right now.
::: :::

In Defining Genre, we already defined the parent genre, Drama as;

  • more serious in tone
  • focusing on character arc development and theme
  • digging deep into the humanity behind the story
  • encompassing not one primary human emotion (as with other genres), but many, or all of them.

In Getting Drama on Point, I gave some practical general tips in establishing drama in any written work. Today, in this first article on the “workings of genre”, we’re going to look more at depth at the parent genre.

Before we get started, let’s digress for a moment;

Character Driven vs. Plot Driven

Read a dozen different blogs on this topic, and you’ll get a dozen different answers on this. Some of them a bit more off than others. The truth is, many folks make it more complicated than it needs to be. After all the answer is literally right in the title.

Here’s the crux of it;

Character driven is just how it sounds, the story is literally, driven by the characters… and when we say the characters, we primarily mean the main character. More specifically, the main character(s) are more often the catalyst for their own problems/obstacles in the story. (The external manifests from their internal.)

Marky Marks Gambler movie is a perfect example that comes to mind. The dude is a gambling addict and as soon as he gets money, he runs to the casino and gambles it all away. When he meets the love interest in the story, his addiction takes priority, he puts it ahead of the girl, and creates a further mess of things. At every turn, his own personal issues manifest into the major problems/obstacles/events of the story.

Contrast this to plot driven, where the source of problems/obstacles are more often initiated outside the realm of the main character’s influence. (The external manifests from the external.)

When Luke is chilling on Tatooine, he’s got nothing to do with Vader capturing Leia. In fact, we can go further back, and say, Luke had nothing to do with being born as Vader’s son. These external problems/obstacles/events arrive irregardless of the problems Luke faces as a person.

So in a character driven story, the character makes a mess of things, then has to deal with his mess. In a plot driven story, life makes a mess of things and the character has to deal with the mess. Notice there is always a mess… and we get to see the character’s internal struggle whichever way conflict arises.

In both of the definitions, I specifically use the term “more often” because the truth is much of fiction is both character driven, and plot driven at the same time. Meaning at times the characters are driving the bus, other times, the plot is.

We only “define” stories as character driven or plot driven, when the clear majority of bus driving is done by one or the other.

While we could analyze this topic further, producing more specific rules for every possible version of story, the amount of fiction outside this presented definition of character driven vs. plot driven is pretty small. It pays, to keep it simple.

Before we get back to all the points we’re going to discuss about writing the Drama, note that by understanding the difference between these two approaches to story, we can apply this focus to one specific area for big results;

Make KEY TURNS your character’s fault


  • The 1st Act Turn
  • The Midpoint Turn
  • The 2nd Act Turn

While it’s not 100% required to do this to create an effective story, (again, you can let the plot drive the bus at times) anchoring these three key turns of the story, to your character (or more specifically your character’s flaw), instead of some outside forces, will push the story deep into Drama territory.

Ok, so now that we have a clearer idea of character driven vs. plot driven, let’s get back to it.

First and foremost, writing the drama is about characters and their relationships.

This may sound obvious.

And of course, to some degree, all writing is about the characters and their relationships. But where other genres may take advantage of characters and their relationships, for the drama, it is the primary vehicle of the story.

It is, after all, certainly plausible to enjoy the spectacle script, for the thing(s) it makes a spectacle of; watching a boxing movie for the boxing, a kung-fu flick for the kung-fu, and a war movie for the clash of heavy weaponry, none of these movies outside the drama genre require an in-depth understanding of what personal sacrifices the boxer made, what personal demons the martial artist struggles with, or how the soldier manning the 50 caliber gets along with his drunkard brother.

So the question simply becomes; how do we capture characters and their relationships effectively enough to carry a script?

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Violet Sun Outline

Below is the Comprehensive Outline for an original sci-fi horror story I wrote. You may notice in this 8000 word, 38 page outline, there is a distinct current of the protagonist running from one point to another, with a specific series of highly defined goals.

Violet Sun was originally conceived as a story to a video game (never published), with a focus on level-by-level game play progression. Even the main alien antagonists were built with a game-play progression in mind.

I’ve always loved this story; from the religious vs science undertones, the zealot Minister villain, the crumbling Earth solar system, and insane escalation toward the ending…

I’ve pitched this story as a mini-series to a publisher that expressed interest (but never followed up) and discussed it with a couple of different comic book artists. Nothing’s come of it yet, but…

It’s high on my priority list to bring to life in comic format some day.

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Focused Writing

Article length: 1300 words (preview 400/wds)

In a recent podcast I was talking about how a writer doesn’t get a chance to explain their work.

When a reader or audience engages with your writing, your work stands or falls on its own legs. Period.

Often, when I give editorial comments to newer writers on why something doesn’t work, they’ll try and defend their writing.

“Well the hero does that in this scene, because this, this and this.”

The minute you have to explain it, you’ve failed. Clear, effective writing requires no explanation.

So even if your argument is valid, you’ve still failed because you did not express your elements effectively enough that they need no explanation.

This concept circles back to one of writing’s most fundamental covenants, something you hear me say all the time;

“At any given moment, you must know the narrative significance of what you’re trying to express. Whether it’s at the act, sequence, scene, page, panel, dialogue bubble level, single line, or even word.”

With this level of constant awareness, you can then keep three considerations in mind at all times;

  • Intention to Express. Or simply, Intent.
  • Execution of Intention. Or simply, Execution.
  • Effectiveness of Execution. Or simply Effectiveness.

Keeping IEE in mind, allows focused writing. There are no complicated tricks here. The hardest part is merely taking the time and effort. Let’s break it down;

As an example, I’m gonna reverse engineer a panel from my new series Peerless.

Panel 1


KIARA leans against the deck railing of a large ship on a choppy sea. She holds a well-worn letter in her hands, a letter she’s read many times and contemplates reading again while she stares off across the water, with a distant, brooding look on her face. Her hair rustles in the sea wind.

CAP           36 hours earlier.

Think you can guess what the intent is?

Well, this one is too tricky for you to guess, you can guess the obvious one, but there are actually 2 equally important narrative expressions in this panel; the second is only understood within the context of an upcoming panel, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Let me explain;

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Robot Kids Outline

In my book on Story Discovery and Story Structure, “Storycraft for Comics,” I take a story from Concept, all the way through to Skeletal Outline, the first of the two-part outline method I teach.

Here is the completed second part or, Comprehensive Outline for that story.

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Heroes, Antiheroes, Villains and More

Article length: 2700 words (preview 700/wds)

We all know what each of these character types are and how they’re integral to genuine story, but what if I told you, all three of these are actually the same character type… only on different points of the same scale.

Mind blown?

Let’s get into it.

With the exception of some abstract Buddhist zen-like mental kung fu (the best action is no course of action kinda thing), heroes, antiheroes and villains are defined by their actions. Ok, really, all characters are defined by their actions, but broad generalizations do apply to this specific group.

In essence, when you say you’re going to create a hero, antihero, or villain, you’re really saying, you’re going to use an archetype template for the core nature of the character.

Character Archetype p61 Story craft for comics;

“Character archetypes are “genres” for characters. If I tell you I’ve got a horror comic, slasher script, your mind automatically opens a drawer of preconceived notions. You sit to read the script with expectations.
Character archetypes are exactly the same thing. Classifications of traits that define a role—universally accepted roles that transcend culture, creed and nationality.”

White Spectrum

At the top of the scale we have the HERO.

Someone concerned primarily with the welfare of others and who acts in a manner that puts their welfare ahead of his own. In fact, he’s likely to sacrifice himself or his personal desires, for the benefit of others. Heroes generally have a high sense of moral ground, distinguishing clearly between right and wrong, and following this morality without wavering.

If you want to be a good writer, dare I say a great writer, you should always look to Robocop to guide you.

Robocop’s prime directives were;

  1. Serve the public trust.
  2. Protect the innocent.
  3. Uphold the law.
  4. Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown.

Clearly, everyone knows not to arrest a senior OCP officer, so let’s forget about that one.

Serving the public trust, means adhering to fundamental principles of ethical behavior. Ones that place the character’s loyalty to the law of land, and principles above private gain.

Heroes work within and uphold the law. They recognize the symbolic and inspirational weight of their actions. While they often have the power to act outside of the law, they don’t, because working within the accepted system is–the right thing to do.

I’ve saved the protect the innocent for last on purpose, as this is a real benchmark of the character template. We can even be more specific than simply saying “protect” and say heroes do not harm the innocent.

A hero can not intentionally harm an innocent… and if he somehow did, he would suffers serious psychological consequences from the action conflicting with his core nature.

If you’re reading this article, you’re already aware of the importance and necessity of a well-developed character arc. Hero character flaws (the beginning part of the arc) are not dark in nature. While they need to be potent, the flaws heroes wrestle with do not stop them, or skew their perspective so far to the side, that they can’t function as heroes.

  • Noble to a fault.
  • Arrogant.
  • Always taking on everyone else’s problems.

These are the kind of character flaws and problems heroes deal with.


Grey Spectrum

In the middle of the scale we find the ANTIHERO. Someone who concerns himself primarily with the welfare of… well, himself.

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