Monday, June 14, 2010

Notes on Writing: Kathy Carlton Willis

Kathy Carlton Willis

Elements of A Good Book

Let’s take a look at the elemental ingredients of excellent writing. To cleverly craft a stand-out novel, build layer upon layer of these elements into your manuscript.


What is the theme of the story? Is there a moral or life lesson? What message do you think the author wants to convey to the reader? You will be able to see the themes unveiled as characters make choices and reveal their own strengths and weaknesses. Look for integrity and virtue. What is of value to the main characters? Without theme woven throughout the book, the story lacks substance.

One of my favorite ways to evaluate a novel is by evaluating character development. Do you find yourself caring what happens next to the characters, or how they react to situations? Are the characters true-to-life three-dimensional beings, or do they seem unrealistic? Even speculative fiction characters need to have relatable traits for readers to be drawn into the story. Characters are given hopes and fears, life goals, and motives. They react to relationships based on their personality types and any baggage or life experience they already have. Sometimes the author won’t reveal everything about a character in the story line, but you can pick up on clues as you read the way they respond to stimuli throughout the book.

Are the characters consistent throughout the novel? It’s fine if they show growth or somehow evolve as the story unfolds, but they should always be true to character. If something stands out as unrecognizable for that character, it creates a read-bump that confuses the reader. Also, individual characters shouldn’t be “Stepford Wives” or cookie cutter people. Readers love getting to know quirky or unpredictable characters.

The plot is what moves the characters from situation to situation throughout the story arc. It’s what causes “page-turner” suspense, action, or romance. Without plot, there’d be no resolution at the conclusion of the novel. Does each scene advance the plot? Or does the author bury the storyline in minutia? Actions and agendas reveal the plot as characters overcome trials and face detours. Plot builds tension, leading to the story climax. Ask yourself, “Is this event or situation necessary to the rest of the storyline?” Conflicts throughout the book help build tension. Look for conflicts:
1. between individuals
2. between a person and society in general
3. between a person and nature
4. warring inside self

Plot is the invisible web that provides structure to the entire book. Some authors achieve this by outlining the major scenes in advance, and other authors are “seat of the pants” writers, allowing the characters to tell them where to go next in the story.

Do you like the point of view used by the storyteller? In First Person, one character speaks in the "I" voice. Second Person is the least common point of view, and uses "you" as the story is narrated. Third person is the most frequently used method. Third Person Limited: The narrator can only tell the story from the perspective of one character throughout the entire book. This requires the character to be in every scene, and set up the story through what he witness from his own eyes. Third Person Unlimited: The author tells the story from the perspective of more than one main character. He will alert the reader that a change of point of view is coming by adding an extra space of some kind between paragraphs. If this is not done correctly, it will seem as if the author is “head hopping”—jumping between the perspectives of more than one at once. This can be quite dizzying to us as readers. Some authors will use a technique called Omniscient point of view, but it is rarely done well. In this scenario, a narrator or voice outside the main characters tells the story as if he is witnessing it from a perspective outside the scene. He presents it from a variety of views at once.


What is the setting for the story? Does the author choose a real location? If so, he must be accurate with facts. You’ll be able to tell if he’s done enough research. Setting must serve both style and story. More often than not, the author creates an imaginary setting for the story. Even if it’s not for real, it needs to be believable. Does the book you’re reading use setting in such a way that you feel like you are transported there? Does it lend itself well to assist with character development and plot to deliver an excellent novel?

Dialogue involves conversation between two or more characters. Dialogue functions to advance the story and build texture by showing the reader what’s going on rather than narrating a lot of back-story. It provides background and builds characterization. Does each character have a distinct voice? Does the dialogue seem realistic or is it stilted? Stylization of dialogue often uses unique speech patterns, word usage, or accent. When you read the dialogue aloud, how does it sound to you?

Other purposes of dialogue are to set the mood and to provide some humorous elements for the reader. Dialogue often happens in present tense even if the story is in past tense, so this allows for the reader to sense the pace, the action, and the tension in “real time.”

Writing Assignment
: Pick up your current manuscript and grade it for: theme, characterization, plot, point of view, setting, and dialogue.

Kathy Carlton Willis owns a communication firm by the same name. She gets jazzed shining the light on writers and helping them get the word out about their projects. As she teaches and witnesses light bulbs going on in the heads of listeners, she relishes these “aha” moments. You may reach her at

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