Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020 January - Job Titles for Story Characters

A Note from Catherine E. McLean — This is the first Writers Cheat Sheet Blog post of not only the new year but also for a new decade. Each month this year the topic will deal with Job Titles for Story Characters.
     As 2020 begins, I thank all you readers and writers for the past decade of subscribing to this blog - and for striving to learn the art and craft of writing well, but more importantly, striving to tell a story well. 
     I sincerely wish you joys and successes in reaching your 2020 writing goals. Happy New Year!

Part 1 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Have you ever heard someone say a story had "a cast of thousands?" 

What is a "cast of thousands?" It means the story had so many characters that the reader became confused by who was supposed to be the actual hero or heroine of the story. 

It's been said that it takes 1,000 words to introduce a character to a reader. Can you see where that leads? To way too many characters, which leads to a convoluted story line, or one of those "new" characters takes over the story or the story line goes off on a tangent. In the end, the story dead-ends or is unwieldy and nearly impossible to self-edit, let alone edit for publication.

Why does overpopulation of characters occur? It most often happens during the heat of drafting when a writer finds they need a piece of information or a certain plot point or twist revealed. At that point, the writer figures it's easier to just create a new character and keep on writing. Doing so for each instance exponentially increases the number of characters—which is not a good thing.

What can be done to avoid overpopulation? The answer is simple— the writer should stop and think. The writer should ask Who else in the current cast of characters can discover, overhear, or in some way become aware of that particular piece of important information and get that information to the character who most needs it (like the Protagonist or Antagonist)?

Speaking of the Protagonist and Antagonist, you're probably familiar with those two being a story's Major Story Characters. After all, a story is about one character with a problem (that character being the Protagonist). But are you familiar with the Story Job Title Classifications for characters in a story? That hierarchy is:

Major (or Main) Story Characters 
Major Secondary Characters
Named Minor Characters
Prop People

If you're not familiar with the hierarchy,  you're in luck. This year's Writers Cheat Sheet Blog will focus on the various job titles and, more importantly, the job descriptions of said characters.

Knowing precise titles and descriptions helps limit the overpopulation of a story, thereby making for a far more enjoyable and more marketable tale.

Please let your writing group or your fellow writers know about this year's blog focus and stop back next month for a look at the story job title of the most important Major (or Main) Story Character —  The Protagonist. 

*****P.S. In my guidebook for writers, REVISION IS A PROCESS, there is a "Characters Per Story" Cheat Sheet that shows the number of characters the various story lengths can accommodate. If you'd like a copy of that Cheat Sheet, you can purchase it HERE  ($1.00).

**** Next Month — February 2020 — Job Title: The Protagonist, The Story's Hero or Heroine

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

2019 December - Sensory Perceptions

Sensory Perceptions

This is Part 12 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings
 ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Ah, the five basic senses— sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. These are also the basic sensory perceptions needed to help show, not tell, a story.

But what exactly is a sensory perception when it comes to storytelling? 

Technically, a sensory perception is the neurophysiological process of perceiving stimuli and reacting to it. What those big words mean is that people use the various senses to gain a better understanding of the world around them in order to act or react to what's going on. 

Keep in mind that reactions may be positive, negative, neutral, or ignored. For instance— 

A positive sight reaction might be: seeing Christmas cookies and recalling how good your grandmother's or mother's sugar cookies were.

A negative sound reaction might be: hear a diamondback rattle snake's rattle nets terror (and with good reason— because that's a poisonous snake)

A neutral reaction might be: the taste of potatoes or other everyday foods which may not require any reaction. However, if there were jalapenos in said potatoes, there would be a different taste and a far different reaction depending on the heat level.

An ignored sensory perception might be the touch of a breeze that is neither warm nor cold or worthy of a reaction. Yet, the breeze is subtle enough to note the type of day it is or the season of the year.

Each of the above reactions can work in a story, too. 

Look at your draft for setting elements of sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight. Ask: can that element trigger the focal character to recall something important or react like a human being should?  Is the resulting action important to the development of the drama and plot? Doing so is a far better way to show, not tell. 

Now, which of the five sensory perceptions do you think writers chronically overuse? 

If you said "sight," you would be correct. Initial drafts of stories are often "sight-heavy," but those of most novice writers are ponderously sight-heavy, especially with descriptions of the setting or story world. 

Is there a way to check for sight-heaviness or sensory perceptions? Yes, there is. You can check your work by using four differently colored highlighters. For a good look at your sensor usage level, pick ten pages, which is about 3,000 words. Then, one by one, using a different color for each round, go through the pages and mark the words or passages pertaining to sound, smell, touch, and taste. 

But what about the fifth sense—sight? Technically what is left on the page will be what is seen and described or which is dialogue (both spoken and internal). 

When done, what do you see? Do you have huge blocks of "sight?" Do you have a mix of colors? Is one sensory perception missing or rarely used?

Ideally, you would have a mix of perceptions—and a character responding to the various sensory input.

If you do this exercise, leave a comment and let me know what you discovered.


Congratulations to all who participated in and finished NaNoWriMo!

The next step is rewrites and revising but you can make that a far easier task by using this little guidebook 

and when you're ready to market your story, be sure you can pitch it successfully by taking this Feb. 1-29, 2020 online course hosted by Pennwriters — Details are HERE

*********Next month begins a new series for this blog on Job Titles for Story Characters.

Happy Holidays!


Thursday, October 31, 2019

2019 - November - Setting the Scene -- The Props

This is Part 11 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

The setting of a scene includes getting double or triple mileage out of the setting's props that characters handle or must navigate through.

Like limiting the number of scenes in a story to certain key settings, it's a good idea to limit the number of props that are handled or used in an individual scene. 

Of course, there should be little repetition of most props. The exceptions are for the props that are unique to a character's character. For example, a ring that the heroine will constantly turn only when under stress. Another example is a weapon that a character needs for their job. 

One caution—don't draw so much attention to any prop or object that will mislead the reader. For instance, if a shotgun appears in the opening of the story and it's used in the climax, that gun will be mentioned in the middle of the book (thus effectively utilizing the technique of The Rule of Three). That second mention in the middle of the story catches the reader's attention. Usually it's the subconscious that picks up on this type of repetition, which makes the reader look forward to seeing how the shotgun will be used in or near the end of the story.

Which means, if an unimportant prop is handled or used, you must relegate it to oblivion so the reader doesn't think it's paramount to the story. For example, that glass of whiskey The Heroine poured herself while she lamented the perfidies of a certain male (the Romantic Lead). She must do something with the empty (or semi-full or full) glass. Does she put the glass in the sink, throw and break it to release her frustration-anger, etc. Such action amounts to showing, not telling, the reader her emotional state. 

Now if that glass is left in limbo, ignored, never mentioned again, the reader subconsciously picks up on that. The reader is curious and remain curious about that item and wonders if there is significance to the item. When the reader finally realizes the item was insignificant, that irks the reader, who may decide the story is a one-star read.

Speaking of show versus tell, readers do not need to be told every detail or every prop in a setting—only the succinct ones, the important ones. After all, the more time a writer spends describing an item—a weapon, a machine, furniture, or the lay of the land or room, etc.—the more the reader will assume those things have importance. Besides, overdone descriptions bore  readers so they skip sentences and paragraphs to get to the good stuff of action or dialogue exchanges.

Which brings me to— Certain props can be included and mentioned because the prop is a red herring. A red herring is a clue, one that is specifically intended to be misleading. Or the red herring can distract the reader's attention away from what is a bonafide clue that solves the story problem.

As mentioned in the October post, it's always a good idea to diagram a scene and include the props for that scene. It's also a good idea that the specific props so necessary for the story's plot to be believable be placed on the story's Master Word List. Doing so insures keeping track of such things as weapons. After all, The Villain might have a Glock 357 and The Hero has a Colt 45   or The Heroine has a Derringer. 

Remember, the idea is never to confuse a reader. 

Keep track of the story's significant props. Everything with a one-time or short-term use should be downplayed or relegated to obscurity as quickly as possible.

*** Next month, December 2019 — Sensory Perceptions

***It's NANOWRIMO - To all who are participating, I wish you words that flow like water onto the page and that you achieve your writing goal by November 30.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

2019 October - Setting—The Layout

This is Part 10 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved


Geography can encompass a world or a galaxy, yet, as you've learned from previous posts, it's best to limit a setting. This means the setting will be a small, but ever so important, piece of that world or galaxy. For instance, the bridge of a space ship cruising the galaxy, or the bedroom of an old Victorian house on a hill, or maybe a rabbit hole in a forest where a fairy is visiting.

Setting should be thought of as an island from which there is no escape and which forces characters to interact (either willingly or unwillingly) with the environment or with other characters (or beings, or entities, etc.).

Geographic limits work to logically tie the story's scenes together from the world overview down to the protagonist's kitchen sink (where he or she might be scrubbing a lasagna pan unaware they are a madman's target). 

Because a scene's settings is so important, a wise writer will search for a picture that helps them visualize what's in the setting and exactly where things are. If a photo isn't helpful, at least draw or sketch a diagram of the room or building. Again, that sketch helps a writer visualize the setting. Included in that sketched setting will be props and other details (like light sources, entries and exits, etc.).

Here is an exercise that I've had my students do: 

1. pick a scene from your story
2. draw or sketch the floor plan for that scene's setting
3. draw or write in the props (what decorates the walls, the furniture, the machinery, technology, etc.)
4. mark the light sources and shadows
5. mark the entrances and exits to that setting
6. denote colors of walls, flooring, etc.

Now, have someone read back your text concerning that scene. While they read the words, walk your character through the setting diagram (or picture or sketch). You may be surprised to find that what you imagined was not what was written onto the page. For example, finding the protagonist exiting into a closet instead of the front door. Or, why did your protagonist go all the way into a dark room to turn on a table lamp when there was a light switch right inside the doorway that they could have turned on? (Both of these examples came from my students and is used with their permission.)

Which brings me to props—those items that not only decorate a scene but which come in handy for the characters to interact with as the characters move around and, in particular, handle. Such interaction with props means you can write "beats" instead of using "he said" or "she said" speech tags. More on props next month. 

Above all else, whether you narrow your setting down by using drawings, sketches, or pictures, remember to think about and include the wonder of your world. And be sure to show it through the narrating character, who should be your protagonist because he or she is profoundly affected by that setting and only has the items in that setting to work with.

**** Next Month: 2019 November - Props

****Nanowrimo - good luck to those embarking on a month of writing, writing, writing!

And to make that an even better draft—or to self-edit it when you've completed the story, get 

Great Reviews, likeThe more I read this book and note all the steps I need to revise my YA novel, the more I learn about how to better write my book in the first place. This is a fabulous book that every writer should have on their reference bookshelves!  -Kathy E.

Available at and other booksellers

Sunday, September 1, 2019

2019 September - Setting as Character

This is Part 9 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings
 © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Setting can become like a character, or the focal character will refer to and be convinced that the setting or an element of their setting is like a person. Character as setting is also a staple trope of fiction.

For instance, The Spaceship (or space station) is like a large ocean liner. It breaks down at the most inopportune moment. And if the chief engineer or other fix-it person sweet talks it (or threatens to send it to the junk yard), the ship (or station) starts working again—and often saves the crew's lives.

However, don't confuse this with a Sapient Ship (one that thinks and talks like HAL in A Space Odyssey or V'ger from Star Trek or a Living Ship like Moya, the leviathan starship of Farscape. Such ships can wise and insightful or downright dastardly.

And don't forget about other setting transports, like cars, trucks, boats, airships, etc. Think Transformers or even Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle.   

Then there is The City trope. The City is seen by the focal character as a living organism, perhaps a hive of millions that are forever changing The City's landscape and subsystems, building, expanding, or even tearing things down. 

The City might be a magical forest land, swamp, or mountain in a fantasy realm.

Another type of setting trope is The Entity (that which is perceived or known or inferred to have its own distinct existence and can be living or nonliving. The Entity can be an alien species. Aliens can be humanoid or beasts. The Entity can be robots or machines (computers). Like human beings, some might be good, others not-so-good, and still others truly evil. Much will depend on the roll The Entity plays in the story. 

However, when it comes to setting-as-a-character details, take the time to really think about the origins of that particular setting-as-a-character. Do the same for The Entity, those aliens, robots, or beasts that are part of the story world. After all, each is the product of some environment or some technology or some wizardry. You-the-writer need to know this, but the reader likely only needs to know the bare bones (ten percent) of it all.

And, as always, continue to strive to make the setting as believable and as logical as possible to the reader.

***WRITER'S ROAD TRIP #7, October 12, 2019, at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Erie PA (across from Waldameer Park).  I'm doing two workshops at this one-day mini-conference for writers. The workshops are:  the "3-Act Structure" of story and "Dynamic Dialogue."  

This event is hosted by Pennwriters Area 1 (For information to - ) or visit the event's Facebook page at

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