Transitions in Time

The landscape of time can be a ticklish beast, particularly when writing. We live our lives in a linear fashion, always moving forward, never backwards or sideways. Our characters often live their lives linearly as well. In fact, books themselves must be read in a front to back fashion where chapter one leads to chapter two and so on. Yet time – or story time – is more malleable in a novel than it is in real life. Engaging a reader in the whole history of a world and character requires flashbacks, summarization of memories, and whole scenes that make us time travelers. Or as my favorite time traveler Doctor Who would say:

As authors, the question is how do we deal with all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff without disorienting our reader? Jumping around in time is a luxury we can explore, but walking blindly into a flashback, without any cues to the reader, will break the fictive dream and draw attention to itself. It will commit the cardinal sin of writing, which is to remind the reader that they are reading.

One of the best ways to transition a reader in time is through the careful crafting of language. Words are our tools and used craftily, that can lull a reader through an invisible portal from one time space to another.

Let’s look at four techniques to help a reader flawlessly transition through story time.

mango1) Word Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of sounds, syllables, objects, and words. In the excerpt from The House on Mango Street below, the repetition of the words know and because are used as a portal from one time period to the next. The words move us from the present day story space to a new location in Mexico, and then back again.

“I have never seen my Papa cry and I don’t know what to do. I know he will have to go away, that he will take a plane to Mexico, all the uncles and aunts will be there, and they will have a black-and-white photo take in front of the tomb … because this is how they send the dead away in that country. Because I am the oldest, my father has told me first and now it is my turn to tell the others.”

2) Sentence and Phrase Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of phrases, images, and sentence structure.

In this second example from The House on Mango Street, the repetition of a sentence structure creates a rhythm and punctuation to the paragraph. It is the repeating words along with the repeating rhythm that transitions the reader from impression to impression.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings … songs like sobbing. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine.” (The House on Mango Street)

humanbraincloud_shot13) Word Association

Remember being a kid and playing the word association game? The mind likes to make connections through visual images evoked by single words. You can also use this technique to create transitions in time and space.

The word association game begins with hair in the example below. It then riffs off of imagery to transition from hair to bread, thus moving the reader into a memory.

“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you… is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell  when she makes room for you on her side of the bed … the rain outside falling and Papa snoring.”  (The House on Mango Street)

wordUp-44) Question and Answer

You can also use a question to transition the reader from one time to the next. The question creates curiosity in the reader’s mind and the answer works as a transition into the new time space.

“No address. No Name. Nothing in his pockets. Ain’t it a shame. Only Marin can’t explain why it mattered … but what difference does it make? He wasn’t anything to her. He wasn’t her boyfriend … Just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wetback … How does she explain it?  She met him at a dance. Geraldo in his shiny shirt and green pants…” (The House on Mango Street)

There are a lot ways to transition between time and space in a story. In later posts we can discuss things like: cause and effect, causality link-chains, or pause button violations. For now, focus on the magic of phrasing and how your words can makes a transition seem inevitable, natural, and invisible.

See these time transition techniques (and more) in practice by reading and studying these awesome stories:

  • How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien
  • The House on Mango Street by Sanda Cicneros
  • Small Damages by Beth Kephart

Word Crimes

I’ve spent the last week neck-deep in revisions and in a coffee-induced state of mania. It’s exciting to be on deadline, but also a little nerve wracking. Realizing I might go crazy and turn into Jack Nicholson from The Shining, my fiance was kind enough to force me to take a break.

“There’s a hilarious new Weird Al Yankovic video, you have to see,” he told me. I was skeptical. I love Weird Al, but I had work to do!

I conceded, and I’m so glad I did. I can’t get this song out of my head! All you grammar nerds are about to pee your pants with excitement at how brilliant and fun this is.

Even if you’re busy, take a quick break from all your hard work and enjoy this awesomeness. You’ll be glad you did.

Marketing Fun and the “If I Stay” Movie

Okay, so I don’t normally promote silly marketing ploys … even when they have to do with fantastic YA books.

But, this one is so darn fun.

I have to admit, I’m really excited that Hollywood is turning a bunch of contemporary YA books into movies! Books like If I Stay, The Spectacular Now, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Fault in Our Stars! These are books that deal with difficult subjects like alcoholism, death, and cancer, proving that YA (at least in the eyes of film) isn’t just fighting to the death in the latest and greatest Dystopian world. Not to say I don’t love Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Giver. I’m just really happy that difficult teen subjects are being taken seriously as subject matter worthy of film.

So yes, I’m gonna take a moment and share this silly promo gimmick for an absolutely wonderful novel (If I Stay by Gayle Forman) that comes out as a film in August.

What’s the gimmick? You can generate your own IF I STAY movie poster!

The movie poster is actually very beautiful and well designed:



And now you can insert your own photos into the poster’s design, like this:


Do you need this in your life. No. Is it fun. Absolutely. Did this gimmick work? Of course it did, here I am talking about it like a fool. I don’t know if this will make you see the movie, or better yet read the book, but at least my ten-minute internet distraction resulted in making something beautiful. And that’s worth something.

Create your own If I Stay movie poster here!

Now stop playing on the internet and go back to writing! :)

4 Tips for Writing Great Scenes

We all want to write scenes that grip our readers and keep them glued to the page! Easier said than done, right? Well, here are four tips that I try to keep in mind every time I sit down to craft a scene. They aren’t 100% fool-proof, but they often help me find that extra oomph to make my scene’s sing.

ptsd-soldier-crying1)  Make Sure Your Scene Has Dramatic Action.

The number one reason a scene falls flat is because it doesn’t have any dramatic action. Dramatic action is the action the protagonist takes to resolve the problem he has suddenly been faced with.

In STORY, Robert Mckee talks about dramatic action as “story events” and defines them as an event that creates a meaningful change in the life situation of a character and is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”

Well plotted stories are built on stringing together the scenes that have dramatic action. These are the important moments within the character’s life that move the plot forward. For example, we seldom see a character go to the bathroom or sleep, because there’s no dramatic action in these moments. Instead, we pick the scenes that are the most exciting and meaningful for the reader to read.

smiley face images2)  Is There a Significant Emotional Change in the Scene?

A great way to tell if your scenes have dramatic action is to check and see if there’s a significant emotional change. If the character starts the scene happy and leaves it happy, nothing has happened. But if a character starts happy and leaves sad, then something has happened in the scene to change their life situation and make them sad.

You can track the emotion of your scene by drawing emotion faces (happy faces, frowning faces) at the opening and closing of your scenes. The emotion should reflect the emotion your character carries into the scene, and the emotion the character carries out of it in when it’s over. If the emotion-face is the same, for example both are grumpy faces, then you don’t have any dramatic action in the scene. This indicates that the scene may need to be cut or revised.

expectations-a-poem-by-pooky3)  Set Up Reader Expectations

Setting up expectations helps the reader to feel the emotional change in a scene. If we know what a character wants and expects as she enters a situation, the reader becomes more invested. They want to see if the character succeeds or fails. You won’t have any reversals and surprises if you haven’t set up any expectations for the reader.

It’s much more exciting to watch a scene where a character scales a cliff if we know he’s afraid of heights, or we know his family is trapped at the top, or we know he thinks he can’t do it. It’s rewarding to see the character defy his fear. It adds tension if we know each misstep means he’s one step further away from saving his family from that fire-breathing dragon above (of course … you’ve got to set that up that dragon!).

Protecting4)  Stop Protecting Your Characters

Even though we’re told to “torture our characters” it’s really common for us to protect them instead. Have you ever written as scene and decided to:

  • Have an important conversation interrupted by another character/event.
  • Had a character freeze up and avoid talking about their feelings in internal monologue.
  • Had your character avoid asking an important question? Or had another character avoid answering it?
  • Hinted to something, not once, but over and over and over again, and never unveiling the truth until late in the book.
  • Bailed your character out of a situation before it reeeeeeally got tough?
  • Avoided writing a scene because you the author felt uncomfortable?

All of that, is protecting your character (or in the example of the last one, yourself). The most common culprit is interruption. What’s happening is we start a scene, but the second it gets to the tough questions or uncomfortable conflicts, we bail our characters out of the scene and ask our readers to wait.

Sometimes we think we’re creating mystery and tension by drawing out the answers to questions, or avoiding the main conflicts. In real life we absolutely avoid questions and conflicts. But in drama … well, we want the drama!

Don’t cut off the scene before it gets going. Don’t avoid the dramatic action!

Stop protecting your character by allowing her to wander, avoid, and be bailed out of situations. Lock your characters in a room and make them deal with their conflicts! Be brave and get to the guts of the scene.

Happy scene-writing everyone!

Immersion: The Writing Process

We each have our own writing processes, and every book demands to be written differently. While participating in the #writingprocess blog tour last month, I talked about how my current WIP has been a difficult project to wrap my brain around. I said:

“This book demands immersion. She demands focus for hours at a time. And I’m not talking half-assed freewriting or NaNoWriMo first draft word-puke. This novel wants my blood. I do the best I can to keep myself immersed in this novel as much as I can, because she likes to hole up and shut me out for weeks if I’m not diligent.”

I haven’t been diligent. I’ve allowed this project to hide in the back of my mind. I’ve been avoiding it.

So after failing to immerse myself in this novel, I’ve decided to dive in 100% and go for it. There’s no time like the present. I just dropped my fiance off at the airport and he won’t be back for five days. Which means I have five days without distractions. It also means I can turn my writing studio (which happens to be in our living room) into a shrine to this project.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Say hello to my workspace this week:


Yup, I’ve covered the walls with all of the brainstorming I’ve done on this project: character sheets, outlines, mind-webs, questions I need to answer and more.


I’ve been working through John Truby’s 22 Steps of Story Structure:



I’ve collected setting and location images:


I’ve created character sheets with photos and lists of controlling beliefs, external goals, fears, moral needs, self revelations, and distinguishable traits.



As much as I’ve been avoiding this project … I can’t anymore. Not if I have to look at this every morning!


Lets hope this keeps me motivated!

I wish you all happy writing this week and the next. And if you have images of your work spaces, I’d love to see them!

It Got Me Thinking…

State of MindI want to share three blog posts that I can’t stop thinking about. These are posts that (like a good book) I kept mulling over days after I read them. They’ve planted seeds in my mind that keep growing and growing.

There’s a theme to these posts and it’s:


How do we write when we don’t feel like we have the time or the heart? How do we keep writing with all the fear and uncertainty? How do we find the strength to be vulnerable and put the pen to the page? I’ve been struggling with my WIP lately, and I needed to hear all of these posts. Maybe you do to.

Writing Truth and Authenticity Amidst the Noise

by Jessica Denhart

My truth today is that I am afraid. From the white-hot center of myself, I am afraid that I don’t have what it takes to make my writing good enough. I am afraid, and when I am afraid, I close my eyes to my manuscript, my words, my expression of self, my creativity, and effectively cut myself off from the one thing that I know is my authentic self. All I hear is the noise of fear and self-doubt.”

Read More…photo-of-jess1

Jessica Denhart received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2013. She writes YA and middle grade fiction, contemporary with a magical-realism twist. She is also a member of the SCBWI. She currently lives in the Midwest, with longings for the taste of the salt-air, the sound of the ocean waves, and the feel of sand between her toes. Read more by Jessica on her blog Between the Shadow and the Soul.  She can be found on twitter as @jessdenhart.

Creative Input and Creative Output

by Heather Strickland

I’ve come to think of creativity as a factory. Our brains are motors: if we stop fueling them, they won’t run. Or, more truthfully, if we fuel them with crap and nonsense, they’ll run like crap and nonsense. We have to feed them something delicious, something healthy, or they won’t run the way they’re supposed to.”

Read More…

Heather StricklandHeather Strickland started writing for children when she realized she was probably never going to be an adult. She moved to Brooklyn after graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts because she heard there was a shortage of writers in Brooklyn. Now, she likes going for walks past brownstones and peering through open windows to make up stories about the people who live in fancy apartments. Follow Heather on Twitter: @StrictlyHeather

Thoughts on Being Professional

by Amy Sundberg

“I ran across an excellent article on an economics blog I follow called “Amateurs versus Professionals.” It very much applies to what I’ve observed about writing, and I imagine it holds true for many other pursuits and professions as well … After reading this list, it occurs to me that much of the difference between an amateur and a professional is a state of mind.”

Read More…

 Amy SundbergAmy Sundberg is a SF/F and YA writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and Buzzy Magazine, among others. She lives in California, and when not writing, she’s either buried in a good book, singing musical theater songs, or trying to add more pins to locations visited on her world map. She is an avid blogger at and can be found on Twitter as @amysundberg


The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!

Lately I’ve been having a hard time finishing books. Not because the writing is bad, or the stories don’t have developed characters, or even interesting plots. The problem is the stories don’t grip me and I’m not compelled to pick them up again to see what happens next.

Tired and bored boy sleeping among the books

With so many distractions in life – television, facebook, cooking classes – it’s easy to put a book down and stop reading. This is a reality we all must face. So, how do we keep our readers hooked? How do we make it impossible for them to put the story down?

Of course there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but the one I want to talk about today is The Gap.

The Gap is a concept coined by Robert McKee in his craft book STORY, wherein he argues that we read because we want to see characters presented with situations that “pry open a gap” in their lives. He describes the Gap as a moment in a character’s life when the world acts in a way that surprises them. It’s a revelation and/or situation in which the character’s landscape operates outside of what they knew was possible.

For example, a tornado headed straight for your character’s house is a gap in their life. Normal life has been interrupted by mother nature and now your character must act. But a gap can also be as small as the “cool kids” deciding to talk to your character at school. It’s any event that tilts your character’s landscape in a new way and presents your character with new opportunities and obstacles. At least, on the surface that’s what a Gap is.

But let’s talk about how to maximize the Gap and make your stories un-put-downable!

McKee describes the Gap this way:

story“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective POV the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected … his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen … The gap is the point where the subjective and objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting and the truth he discovers in action.” (McKee, Story)

Creating a Gap for your characters isn’t as simple as throwing obstacles in the character’s way and hoping for drama. A compelling Gap will present your character with a situation that demands they make a difficult choice. This choice should be one that isn’t easy to run away from. I should “trap” your character and not allow them to return to their normal way of life. This is the space in which characters grow. It’s the space in which plot becomes so intoxicating your reader cannot put the book down.

Why? Because we want to see what choice the character will make. And, we want to see the consequences of their actions.

McKee goes on to say that:

“Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and struggle through the gap to take a second action. This next action is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to gain.” (McKee, Story)

Okay, let’s look at an example to help illustrate this idea.

One of my favorite examples of a compelling Gap is in the reaping scene in The Hunger Games. As writers we have a lot of choices to make in our novels. Hunger Games author, Susan Collins, could have chosen to have Katniss’s name pulled out of the reaping basket. This would have presented a Gap in Katniss’s life. She would be presented with the choice of accepting the challenge of the games or running away and putting her family in danger. But Susan Collins makes the Gap even more intense and unimaginable for Katniss. Instead of pulling Katniss’s name from the reaping basket, her sister Primm’s name is pulled. Now the world has really opened up and torn a Gap in Katniss’s life. The world has truly acted in a way she did not see coming.


The Gap forces Katniss to choose between staying alive and watching her sister go off to die, or choosing to volunteer in her sister’s place and fight to the death. Neither decision is a good one. If you were forced to put the book down at that moment, before Katniss made her decision, don’t you think you would be itching to get back to reading? YES! Of course you want to see what choice she will make. This is the stuff of great drama!

Sunshine posterAnother great example of Gaps is the movie Sunshine. This is a lesser known sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. Every action, decision, and plot point in this movie has a consequence that forces the characters to face a new Gap. The film follows the crew of ICARUS 2, a spaceship flying toward Earth’s dying sun in hopes of “rebooting” it with a nuclear bomb. ICARUS 1 failed its mission in the past and ICARUS 2 is Earth’s last and final hope before the planet dies from lack of sunshine. The first gap in the film comes when ICARUS 2 receives a distress signal from ICARUS 1. The crew is now forced to make a choice. Do they alter their course to intercept ICARUS 1 and get a second “payload” bomb to help re-boot the sun, thus allowing them two chances for mission success, or do they stay on course and gamble that the one payload they have is enough? It’s not an easy decision. Both choices have consequences. As a reader we want to see what they will do!

The brilliant thing about Sunshine is that each Gap has consequences that lead the characters to a second Gap, and then a third. In Sunshine these Gaps aren’t simple issues of survival. Instead these decisions force the characters to make choices that challenge what it means to be human, how far they are willing to go, and what is an appropriate sacrifice for the greater good. I love the film because it isn’t plot and action for the sake of plot and action. Every action opens a Gap in the character’s world and forces them to react in ways they never thought possible. (Note: I’ve been deliberately vague here, in case you want to watch this movie – which you should!)

I realize both of these examples come from high-stakes adventure stories. Let me give you an example of a Gap that isn’t “life or death” in nature:

Sky is EverywhereIn Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, teenage protagonist Lennie is dealing with the death of her older sister, Bailey. There’s a wonderful Gap when Lennie is hanging out with her sister’s boyfriend Toby. The two are chatting about Bailey, remembering her, and then they look at each other and — BAM! — Toby kisses Lennie. However, the gap comes in the moment when Lennie realizes she likes kissing her sister’s boyfriend! Suddenly the world has acted in a way outside of all that Lennie thought possible. And even more exciting, now she has to decide what she’s going to do about it.

So, how can you apply the concept of The Gap to your work?

Ask yourself these questions about your book:

  1. Within the scope of your story, what Gaps have been presented in your protagonist’s life?
  2. How is your character challenged and incited to act by those Gaps?
  3. How has the Gap brought into question what your character believes, wants, and thinks is possible?
  4. What are the consequences of the choice your character makes when presented with a Gap? Does that choice move the story forward and take your character to the next Gap in the story? If not, does the Gap need to be changed so it challenges your character in stronger way?
  5. What does your character learn about herself as a result of the choices she makes when presented with those Gaps?

It’s one thing to throw obstacles, problems, and action at your character, but that doesn’t make the story compelling on its own. We often hear the phrase “torture your characters,” but that’s not what captures your reader’s attention. It’s the moral questions imbedded within the choices they must make that allows your reader to peek through the words on the page and see what makes us human. It’s those choices and the subsequent consequences that compel readers to picking the book up, again and again, to see what will happen next.

Want to learn more about The Gap? 

Please Read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, specifically pages 147 to 149.
  • McKee also talks about the Gap on pages: 154-157, 177-180, 208, 270-271, 311-312, 362.
  • These page numbers are based on the 1997, hardcover, It Books edition.

Thrilled, Overjoyed, and Humbled…

I’m over the moon and elated to be able to share some very exciting news with all of you. After three years working on this project (and the countless years before when this project was a completely different novel, and a screenplay before that), I’m excited to announce …

My novel ALL WE LEFT BEHIND is going to be published!

Publishers Weekly Annoucement

Simon Pulse is the perfect home for this gritty YA romance between Kurt and Marion!  I’m truly humbled to have found an editor who loves this book as much as I do. Plus, how is it possible for me to not adore Sara Sargent after she described my novel on twitter like this:

Sara Tweet

Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel SPEAK is my all time favorite YA book and Simone Elkeles is a powerhouse in the romance department, and my new editor just compared my novel to both!


If that wasn’t enough excitement to have me on cloud nine, I can’t be thankful enough for the outpouring of congratulations and love that I received yesterday on Twitter and Facebook. Having such a supportive writing community really makes these big moments even more meaningful. I genuinely cannot wait to celebrate the sale of each and every one of your books with you.

ALL WE LEFT BEHIND is a novel that has transformed me as a writer. It’s forced me to be brave. It’s demanded my time, my heart, and my fearlessness. I’m truly ecstatic that it will be coming out in Spring of 2016 and I’ll be able to share Marion and Kurt’s story with you.

There’s a lot of work ahead, but today we HAPPY DANCE!