It’s never too late to come of age

Senior citizen who has graduated from school

As human beings, we’re naturally drawn to coming-of-age stories. It doesn’t matter what age we are. We all yearn to understand more about what it means to come into yourself and find your place in the world.

Oliver Twist goes from a workhouse, to an apprenticeship with an undertaker, to life as a would-be pick-pocket in the rough streets of London. In the process, his morals are put to the test. His unwillingness to help the other boys steal from an elderly man eventually leads to his redemption and the restoration of Oliver’s true place in the world. Dickens uses the personal story of one boy’s journey into adulthood to expose the horrors of child labour and the desperate plight of street children.

In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt survives hunger, a damp home, shoes with holes in them, an alcoholic father and typhoid fever. He scavenges coal, steals bread and falls in love with Shakespeare. At the tender age of fourteen, he’s glad to finally be able to “work like a man”. Over time, he manages to save enough money that he can leave for a better life in New York. On his journey into adulthood, he questions Catholicism, his father’s love and the ethics of his own sexuality.

The coming-of-age plot works equally well whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. If you’ve decided to use this structure, here are a few tips to help make your story stronger:

  • Concentrate on clashes between your protagonist and society. The bigger the struggle, the better the story. Oliver Twist didn’t have enough food nor a safe place to live. Everywhere he turned, people tried to exploit him.
  • Put your protagonist through a character defining experience such as war, a serious illness or extreme injustice. Frank McCourt’s family was trapped into poverty. His father deserted them and there weren’t any jobs in those days for women in Ireland. The family had no choice but to take charity and suffer the judgement attached to that.
  • Give your protagonist a clear goal and formidable obstacles. With each obstacle, let your protagonist gain a clearer sense of self and a stronger place in the world. Frank knew that he wanted to move to New York, but it was difficult for him to achieve his goal. His family needed most of the money he was able to earn. His job delivering coal was bad for his health and he hated writing collection letters for money. But in the end, he was able to restore justice in his own vigilante way and he earned his ticket to freedom.

A coming-of-age story doesn’t have to focus on the transition into adulthood. This structure can be used in fresh and surprising ways. Wisdom can be attained at any age. In the film, Midnight Cowboy, a small town hustler moves to New York seeking the big time, only to end up penniless and living with a crippled crook named Ratso in a condemned apartment. Joe Buck survives poverty, bitter winter in an unheated apartment and personal humiliation. In the process, he makes the only real friend he has ever had and his priorities do a complete about-face. Years after he became an adult, Joe Buck finally comes of age.

The triumphant power of love

Portrait of a beautiful man and woman. Beauty, fashion. Love concept.

Everyone has fallen in love at least once. It’s one of the most universal human experiences. Yet, in many ways, love remains a mystery. We know it when we have it, but we struggle to find it. Worse, it can slip away without us even realizing that it could be lost. While some couples remain contentedly married their whole lives, others only last a few years.

There are lots of things to enjoy in a love story. We delight in the come-hither now back-away dance of courtship. And we take pleasure in laughing at the foolishness that happens in the name of love. But a good love story does more than entertain and amuse. A good love story hits us in the guts. Whether it ultimately brings us to joy or to tears, a good love story strikes a powerful emotional chord that resounds long after we’ve put the book down.

Some might think love stories are easy to write. After all, the plot is often pretty basic: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. If only it were that simple. In love stories as in life, it’s the complications that matter. Romeo and Juliette are from feuding families. Catherine loves Heathcliff, yet she marries Edgar. Rose and Charlie face bloodthirsty parasites, mosquitos and rapids as they flee German invasion in a small steam boat called the African Queen.

Here are few ideas for creating a strong love story:

  • Put love to the full test. Give your characters formidable obstacles and don’t allow them to obtain love until they have overcome those problems. The more difficult it is for the lovers to unite, the more compelling your story will be. It’s okay if your characters fail, either along the way or at the journey’s end. Many love stories end happily, but they don’t have to. Think of “Anna Karenina”.
  • Define both characters equally well. Give them positive and negative traits. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries and feature strong personalities. We all like to believe there is somebody for everyone. While a love story about beautiful people might look pretty, it’s the love stories involving hunchbacks and large noses that really move us.
  • Add a touch of realism. The interviews with actual couples in “When Harry Met Sally” greatly enrich the love story and they make it more credible. Think about the people in your life, gather anecdotes and insights, then look for creative ways of weaving this information into your story. I’m not suggesting that you pilfer the personal stories of family and friends, and pretend that’s fiction. I’m suggesting that you use those stories to explore for yourself the meaning of love and then share that with your readers.
  • Evoke a full range of emotions. Vivid feelings are the driving force behind love stories. Don’t rely completely on sorrow and joy. Let your characters also experience fear, loathing, disappointment, frustration and anger. Love stories are about being human and all the mess that entails.
  • Add internal obstacles. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Many of the most fascinating stories focus not on obstacles that come from outside, but on obstacles within the characters themselves. The obsessive compulsive in “As Good as It Gets” yearns for love, but messes up at every opportunity because he’s insensitive and narcissistic. Until he faces his flaws and works to change them, he cannot have love.

We all enjoy watching characters face challenges and undergo authentic change because it gives us reasons to hope. This is particularly true when the potential reward is something we all yearn for—lasting love.

How to make a story compelling

Conflict, Tug-of-war, Arguing.

The need to tell stories is as old as civilization. Where there are people, there are stories. We enjoy several good ones every day. They might be as simple as the hummingbird that buzz-bombed your head while you watered your roses, or as complex as a seven-novel series about a school for wizards.

Stories hold us in suspense. The best ones make us laugh or cry, or think about the difficult matters of life. When it comes to stories, we have high expectations. We want a situation that catches our interest and keeps us involved until the last page. The ending needs to feel both hard-earned and inevitable. That’s a lot to accomplish and it can be overwhelming when you find yourself in the middle of writing a story, especially one as long as a novel or memoir.

Here are a few tips to help you make the story you are writing more compelling:

  • Have your main character undergo a significant change. This is the hook. It’s the reason we love stories. Rocky went from an unknown boxer to a champion. We all like to hope that real change is possible and we love seeing it happen.
  • Let that change be the result of choices the character made. If the conflict is resolved by a random event that the main character has no control over, your story will lose its tension. What is worse, your readers will feel that they have been cheated out of a satisfying ending.
  • Don’t be afraid to make the choices difficult. The higher stakes, the more compelling the story. Jane Eyre must leave Rochester because of his horrifying secret or stay with him for love. Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption must break the law to free himself or continue serving a sentence for a crime he did not commit.
  • Let the character try more than once. Often, giving the character three attempts to face the challenge heightens the tension.
  • Make the antagonist complex too. It’s easy to think of the bad guy as pure evil, but giving the antagonist at least one strong redeeming characteristic adds depth to the story and makes it more compelling. Hector Hannibal has exquisite taste in classical music and is an astute judge of character.
  • Throw us into the middle of the action. Don’t give us the preliminaries, such as people saying hello. Skip forward to the real action or the difficult conversation. This technique is used often by screenwriters, but it serves other storytellers equally well. Take a look at all of the scenes in your book and ask yourself if they could start later.

These a just a few ideas to get you started. If you’d like to learn more, check out “Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them” by Ronald B. Tobias. Happy writing.

Drawing readers into your character’s emotions

Man with cardboard box on his head and terrified look skethed. terrified; frozen; scared man.

The simplest way of conveying an emotion is to label it. For example, you could write that a character is devastated, elated or mortified. You could say the character looked wistfully or spoke angrily. While these labels may be accurate, they are unlikely to engage your readers. Rather than encouraging readers to experience the emotion for themselves, these labels tell readers how to feel. As we will explore in this blog, there are more effective ways of drawing readers into your story and the emotions of your characters.

Vivid writing is concrete and it evokes the senses. Readers experience a good story in the same way they experience the rest of their lives—through their bodies. The experience may begin in their heads, but it translates into something more. If you describe the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and sensations experienced by your characters as specifically as possible, your story will be more believable. This is particularly important when it comes to conveying emotions.

There are several ways you can draw readers into the emotions experienced by your characters. Start by looking for actions and dialogue that show the emotion. If your character is angry, she might slap down her coat or kick dust. The way we speak and what we say also reveals how we feel. It might help to describe the bodily sensations of the emotion, such as trembling fingers and a racing heart. You could also describe facial expressions. Even description of the setting can be used to evoke feelings.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to gradually guide your reader through an experience of the emotion. Consider the following excerpt from “A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle. In this scene young Henry discovers his brother underneath the tarpaulin where they had been sleeping. They are homeless boys living in Dublin. Take note of the concrete and specific sensory details that make the heavy emotion underscoring this scene unforgettable. Notice also how the short fragmented sentences convey a sense of rising panic.

“I tried to wake him, to get him sitting. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get a proper grip. I found his cheeks and rubbed them. All I wanted was to hear another cough. I still couldn’t see him. I searched for the edge of the covering, to give him air. To see him. I rolled along the low tarpaulin and kept rolling until I was out from under it. I stood up and lifted it and peered back in.

I could see him now. I let morning light in by lifting the tarpaulin roof with my back. I knew he was dead, even as I rushed back in. His mouth was open, and his eyes, staring into the darkness. There was a mark, where a line of watery blood had run from his mouth past his ear. I rubbed it away with my sleeve. There was nothing in his eyes now, just what I thought was the memory of his last agony and terror—the last cough and the utter darkness on top of him. He was white and glazed. His mouth was stretched, the cracked, bursting lips were losing colour as I looked. …”

Dialogue tags

Happy couple talking and laughing on date. Smiling girl and guy having conversation. Amusing man making woman laugh. Good relationship.

After a few lines of dialogue, it can be tempting to vary the standard “he said” and “she said” with more colourful alternatives. But if the dialogue tag is too colourful, it can weaken what might otherwise be strong writing. Having your characters “quip”, “retort”, “spit”, and “roar” is distracting. There are scenes in which a more exotic dialogue tag might be effective, but it’s risky. Here’s why. When readers come across a flamboyant dialogue tag, they are likely to miss what the character said and think instead about the word choice made by the author.

Besides being distracting, overly colourful dialogue tags can feel pushy. Readers dislike being pushed. They prefer instead to be entranced. Colourful dialogue tags tend to be melodramatic, which is why they seem pushy. Instead of leading the reader to discover how the character feels and empathize, these dialogue tags scream the message. A gentler approach is almost always more effective.

Readers want us to fill their imagination with images, actions and spoken words that are so vivid they forget for a while that what they’re reading isn’t real. Afterwards, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll tell their friends they couldn’t put our book down.

As writers, we want to give our readers just enough information to set their imagination to work and we want to do that in a way that does not feel forced. Using “said” does that. Readers are accustomed to the humble word and they pass over it quickly. This gives more focus to the dialogue and that’s exactly where we want the focus to be.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, realistic dialogue is one of the best ways to convey character. How people speak and what they say reveals so much. If you want to convey emotion, there are more effective ways than using a dialogue tag. Watch for my next blog on the different ways of capturing emotions.

More on the power of stories

This article in the New York Times explores the power of stories. Researchers have explored the impact of stories on the human brain. Fresh descriptions of smells, textures and movement can be just as vivid as real-life experiences.

Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, Sunday Review, The New York Times, March 17, 2012

The technological advantages of a book

grandparents and grandson reading book together
In today’s world of mobile devices and e-books, it can be easy to be wowed by all things new and to lose sight of the unique benefits of a technology that has been in place since the invention of the printing press in the 1400s. Yes, I’m talking about the book.

A book has heft. You can take it anywhere. It never runs out of batteries. Pages load instantly. You never need to give it a re-boot. A book slows time down. Just by opening its covers, you start to pay attention.

But perhaps the greatest advantages of all are that a book is both self-paced and expandable. It grows with imagination. Let me explain. Consider one of the best uses of a book, which is telling stories to children.

Now think of what might happen if the stories being read were the personal stories of your family. The starting point of any good story is for the reader to identify with the characters. Even when we don’t fit perfectly within the thing called our family, we do identify with its members and we do identify with their stories. That is because family stories are our most valuable inheritance. When you share these stories with the next generation of children, you start a conversation. A sentence or photo provokes questions.

Because the book is self-paced, you can stop reading and talk. Because the book is expandable, you can add to the words on the page. It’s impossible to include all of your family stories in a single book. After all, we’re talking about lifetimes. This is okay. All you really need to do is start a conversation and conversations are what a book does best.

You know it’s a story when …


We’ve all had those moments, although we’re too polite to mention them. You’re listening to a colleague talking about his recent trip to Istanbul. It should be riveting. For years, you’ve wanted to go to Istanbul and here’s a chance for the inside scoop. But you’re having trouble paying attention. He keeps telling you the names of streets and the exact time of day when each event happened. Worse, he keeps correcting himself on those minor details. Plus, you’re never sure why the moment was important to him.

A few days later, a different colleague tells you about having breakfast with his son. It’s a simple story. His son didn’t feel like eating, but he joked him into cooperating. Your colleague describes the expression on his son’s face. He imitates his son’s voice. You enjoy the telling of the story and you even think about the story afterwards. Hey, maybe you’ll try using humour the next time your grandson doesn’t feel like eating.

So why was the second story better than the first? Why did you care about eating breakfast and not about a trip to Istanbul? When something exciting happens in our lives, we want to share it. To us, every detail is delicious. But to those listening, they’re looking for a good story.

Good stories only include the most vivid sensory details, like the scent of coffee in Istanbul or the sound of an oud. Unless details like the time of day are essential, a good story leaves them out. Most of all, the stories we love involve a challenge or a conflict, such as getting lost or having trouble communicating in a different language. We all enjoy hearing about how others have struggled and overcome a challenge. And just like the story about getting a boy to eat his breakfast, the challenge doesn’t have to be huge. It only has to be human.