Category Archives: Conflict

Guest DJ: Plotting and Pantsing with Laurie Loewenstein

Guest DJ: Plotting and Pantsing with Laurie Loewenstein

As I detox from all of that pie and shopping, I’m need some quiet jazz after a terrific, hustle-bustle holiday. So let’s put on our yoga pants and listen to the smooth melodies from our latest Guest DJ.

Lauriepix1Laurie Loewenstein is a fifth generation Midwesterner.  She has been a reporter, and a feature and obituary writer for several small daily newspapers, as well as a college writing tutor. She was among the third class of women admitted to Colgate University.  She has master degrees in history from Syracuse University and in creative writing from Wilkes University. Her novel, UNMENTIONABLES, has been called “a memorable debut novel” by Ann Hood, author of THE RED THREAD.  It is the flagship publication of the new imprint, Kaylie Jones Books, published in conjunction with Akashic Books. Check out Laurie’s website at  UNMENTIONABLES will be on bookstore shelves in January 2014. It is available for immediate shipment from the publisher here.

How the Other Half Writes by Laurie Loewenstein

Sometime during your writing career, someone will probably suggest that you swap pages with other writers. The right writers’ group can be of tremendous help in maintaining momentum and providing a knowledgeable and compassionate sounding board. Every two weeks for five years, I drove two hours each way from my home in eastern Pennsylvania over the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan for my group. I won’t wish away a single of those thousands of miles on my odometer.

I got to read, chapter by chapter, all sorts of developing manuscripts. We were a diverse lot with stories ranging from an aviatrix of the early 1920’s to three Long Island kids hunted down by teenagers. My own writing vastly improved and I loved the camaraderie of  talk over pizza and Diet Coke after days spent alone, in my pajamas, typing on the keyboard.

An expected bonus was finding out how the other half lives – or, more precisely, how other writers write.

The most lively discussions I had on this topic were with Theasa, a straight shooter from the old school of print journalism. For her, the primary joy of writing came down to “seeing what happened next.” Each day at the computer was, for her, like opening a brightly wrapped present. What would happen next to her protagonist, the feisty aviatrix? She was, as I learned at a writers conference, a classic “Pantser” as in “seat-of-your-pants.” No outline, no elaborate plotting – simply an idea about a character, a setting, and, sometimes, a general idea about the large conflict points to guide her along like a string of Christmas lights. The old-fashioned outdoor kind of lights with big fat bulbs. Stephen King, the conference instructor noted, is a Pantser, too.

“But Theasa,” I would counter, “how can you make sure the story doesn’t wander off into a dead-end?”

She would shrug. “If that happens, the characters just have to work their way out of it.”

I, on the other hand, am a Plotter.  I start with an outline of the main characters and their arcs. I also outlineUnmentionabes-Cover-FINAL.indd where what actions need to occur in which chapater – all with the goal, by the final chapter, of hitting the bullseye. I use a large pad of newsprint, the kind you prop on an easel for a team meeting at the office, and set up the timeline on one page, character profiles on another, then rough chapter ideas. I am aware of the danger in this. The danger of adhering too closely to my pad. The story may jerk along with a mechanical Frankenstein gait. The story may lack the flexibility that comes with spontaneity. I try to counter this by rewriting the outline as I move forward. For my novel, UNMENTIONABLES, I re-jiggered the outline at least four times.

A big part of me would like to be a Pantser – extemporaneous and open to whatever comes along. But that is not my nature – as a writer or person. But I’m glad there are the Theasa’s out there, writing like the wind to find out what happens next.

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?  Or somewhere in the middle? Tell us in the comments.

If you have something to say about writing and would like to be a Guest DJ, you can contact me here.

Show Us, Don’t Tell Us: Writing Dialogue



Dialogue Exchange #1

“Leave me alone!” Jodie screamed loudly.

“Fine!” yelled Manny.

“Whatever! I hate you!” Jodie hissed.

“Good!”  Manny bellowed intensely.

Dialogue Exchange #2

“Leave me alone!”  Jodie said as she grabbed her keys from the end table and yanked her purse over her shoulder.  She was sure Mrs. Lenitsky could hear them through the walls and she wondered if there would be another note in their mailbox.

Manny’s face flushed as he crossed his arms over his chest and anchored himself in the recliner. “Fine!”  Their cat twitched her ears and opened her eyes as her nap was interrupted again by another fight. 

“Whatever! I hate you!”  Jodie’s voice was a hiss.  She heard her brother say “Good!” as she slammed the front door.


Many teachers use Exchange #1 – screamed, yelled. hissed, bellowed.   I teach middle school and start teaching dialogue by instructing  my students to use attributes like that when writing dialogue. They’re beginning writers, so that’s OK.  I’m thrilled they know what verbs are in the first place, to be honest.

Strong verb attributions are a good place to start, but then it’s time to extend that skill.  I’m a fan of Exchange #2.

I try to always use said as an attribute.  In her fabulous guide to the craft of writing called HOW I WRITE: SECRETS OF A BEST-SELLING AUTHOR Janet Evanovich writes, “Said is preferable to words like remarkeduttereddeclaredarticulatedmurmured, or chortled. Descriptive words such as these can stop the flow of a sentence. Don’t be concerned that there will be too many saids in your book. Readers never really notice it. ”

The information supporting a piece of dialogue is called a tag or a beat.  This is where you should get creative.  So what can you do?  Like Exchange #2, paint a picture of what’s going on while the characters are speaking. SHOW instead of tell:

  • What does the person look like? (“Manny’s face flushed…”)
  • What is the person doing? (“She grabbed her keys from the end table and yanked her purse over her shoulder”)
  • How does another character respond? (“Their cat twitched her ears and opened her eyes as her nap was interrupted again by another fight.”)
  • Gestures? (“…he crossed his arms over his chest and anchored himself in the recliner.”)
  • Reactions? (“She heard her brother say “Good!” as she slammed the front door.”)

The combination of these elements show anger and discord rather than simply telling it.  Don’t slow your writing by using all of these all of the time; this was just to show you the gist.

Finally,  there are scenes that will require fast dialogue.  Roddy Doyle is an example of a writer who can pack a punch with using just pure dialogue with out a single attribution or tag. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers and instilled in me a love of using conversations to create characters and conflict. Don’t get caught up in showing and telling when the pace of the scene matters more.

So, take a piece of your writing, change those flowery attributions to said and try some showing instead of telling.  Please post your before and after below, because sharing is caring.

Lights and Shadows: How Archetype Cards Can Strengthen Characterization and Conflict

Lights and Shadows:  How Archetype Cards Can Strengthen Characterization and Conflict

 ImageIn my novel, HOPE YOU GUESS MY NAME, I knew who my characters were, and, thanks to the sage advice from a graduate school instructor, even knew what their feet looked like.  When the array of choices my characters could make were daunting, I looked for help in a deck of Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards.

Several years earlier, a friend told me she had used the cards to understand her personality traits and how she could harness her archetypes for her benefit. Intrigued, I asked her to teach me about them. My friend opened the heavy, red  box and spread the cards across her glass coffee table. Each card was titled with an archetype name, the light attributes, a bold and beautiful drawing of the archetype, and the shadow attributes.

I sifted through the cards and she explained how to use them.  Basically, we all supposedly possess certain archetypes (Child, Victim, Prostitute, Saboteur) in some capacity, but have to suss out what other archetypes resonate with us. In the cards’ guide, Myss writes, “Keep in mind that your attraction may be positive or negative – that is, an archetype may represent qualities that are important to you as well as some that you wish you had in greater abundance, or qualities you would rather not have.” My friend would then spend time at night sorting the cards that fit and didn’t her life.

By now, you might be thinking this is a bunch of New Age flim-flam hoo-ha, but stay with me. I pinky promise there’s cool stuff here for you.

I bought my own set the next day and began my personal archetype journey.  Some resonated immediately (Student, Teacher).  Others, like Destroyer, shocked me.  It explained my love of rearranging rooms and having no fear about joining the Peace Corps (light attribute) and sometimes abandoning projects or relationships when I shouldn’t have (shadow attribute).  I now work on the shadow attribute, which has prevented me from saying, “Whatever! Forget about it!” many times.

Whatever my archetypes were, I was determining how the light and shadow attributes manifested themselves in my life and how to learn from them. One of my favorite new ways to understand myself and other people is, “Our light is our shadow.”  For example, I’m by nature and through the example of my mother, a giving person.  This is gratifying most of the time, but there have been times in my life when, to quote a line from Gone Girl, I “Giving-Treed myself out of existence.” Light, meet shadow.

If understanding these light and shadow attributes could help me as a person, I was curious to see how they could help me with my novel; so, I spread them out on the floor and started sorting.  The archetype exercise was a guide, not an instruction manual.  It also helped pinpoint my characters’ main motivations and fine-tune plot issues that had been clanking around my brain.  They helped shape my thinking but were not the definitive guide to Marina Koneyesha’s world.

I made color copies of the cards I felt best fit each character. Here’s what I thought were Gilly’s main archetypes:


Gilly is smart, informed and dependable. His work as a civil rights/education lawyer has him advocating for those who need it most. He’s also hiding a big secret from his parents. Liberator is consistent with what Gilly wants to be and what he wants to do; but Companion affirms his loyalty to friends and family, with the shadow attribute of “loss of personal identity” hurting him since he feels he can’t come out yet.  Narrowing one of his archetypes to Companion helped me shape Gilly’s decisions and actions in his misadventures with Marina.

The shadow attributes were especially helpful in creating conflict and planning for the sequel.  For example, there will be a huge disagreement between two Slaves and a Healer because their light and shadow attributes will clash.  I inherently knew about these conflicts, but looking at them through an archetype lens was fun and gave me more direction.  I don’t know about you, but I’m always looking for fun and direction.  Pick up a box and see what happens for you and your story.

Please add comments with your ideas about conflict and characterization: