Writing Exercise: T is for Turn on a Dime

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Sometimes a scene needs to turn on a dime. A song reminds the MC (main character) of an important clue in the Mystery or a loss making them long for true Romance. Not everything in life flows smoothly from one point to another.

A.J. Hartley discusses “Instant Transitions” in his August 24, 2012 Magical Word post – URL: (see below as magicalwords.net no longer exists)

WRITING EXERCISE: Write a short scene, five hundred words or less, where the tone or point of the scene makes a left turn through an Instant Transition.

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As Magical Words website has finally been taken down – here is the original post by A.J. Hartley:

Instant Transitions by A J Hartley

I was struggling with a passage I was working on once in which I had a character sitting in a coffee shop chatting to a friend. I needed to make my protagonist remember something crucial about a crime scene. The problem was that the friend had no connection to the case and the scene was relaxed and upbeat. Getting my protagonist to suddenly remember what he needed to would not so much derail the scene as pack it with C4 and blow it up. Not what I was going for.

So I wrote and wrote and the scene got longer and longer as these two happy little coffee drinkers dragged the long dead conversation round to something that might finally provide a plausible segue into a reminiscence about the crime scene and our hero’s all important realization. It was interminable, and when the subject finally came up it still felt labored. The first person I showed it too said, “yeah, I figured that was coming, but it still felt like being sideswiped by a bulldozer.”

Let’s file that under “Epic Fail.”

Not long after I was reading a book by someone else (someone much clever than me, as it turned out) in which the author executed a complete about face mid scene by dropping in the distant sound of a backfiring car. For a split second the protagonist thought it was a gunshot, and suddenly he was right back there, remembering, and the scene turned on a dime. It felt perfectly natural and it was only my own recent struggling with a similar moment that made me see the conveniently backfiring car for what it was: a ruse, an authorial interpolation designed to move the story sharply sideways.

I returned to my own story, hacked out three pages of aimless café banter and decided that something acrid in the scent of burned coffee drifting from the kitchen reminded our hero of the crime scene. Job done. It felt right, even rich—as if the extra detail made the café feel more real and the characters a shade deeper—though it was nothing more than a trick to switch the direction of the scene.

When done well, devices like this are practically invisible and they save you a huge amount of time which you might otherwise spend easing into the shift. Often you don’t need to take that change in direction slowly at all and any number of invented details might prove helpful. Try these examples for size:

“He was still laughing when he caught his reflection—slightly distorted—in the stainless steel coffee mug and suddenly he was back in the alley, the monstrous head with the gash-like mouth and its array of jagged teeth looming over him in the night.”

“She smiled at the thought, then eased her way past the damp plant which had swelled across the garden path. Its scent rose up like heat as she touched it: lavender. Instantly she was back in her grandmother’s house, aged about ten, gazing down at the knife in her hand.”

The transitions look clumsy because I’ve announced what I’m doing, so it stands out, but if this was just part of a story you were reading I THINK you’d roll with the shift because the transition moves the reader to somewhere striking, something far more interesting than the transition itself. In each case, the details (the distorted reflection and the lavender) actually add to the scene, make it feel more real, even though they are no more than a magician’s distracting flourish with his left hand, while the right one palms the card.

You’ll notice also that both examples make no attempt to suggest a gradual mood shift. I want a quick transition so I use words that make it happen and don’t apologize for it: “suddenly” and “instantly” in these cases. Again, I think such terms actually soften the blow on the reader who is being redirected because they fess up to the speed of the shift and make the surprise register in the character as well. Readers will accept a lot of things if the character in the story feels them too: it’s when characters accept without comment what any normal reader would find strange that you run into problems. “Suddenly” acknowledges that something slightly odd just happened, that the character has registered it, and then moved on. Nine times out of ten, the reader will too and you’ve pulled off your transition.

Any other tips for economical tonal transitions?

S is for Subway (Other Cool Blogs)

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How do you get from HERE to THERE is always the question when plotting?

I’ve seen a lot of methods suggested: cards, white boards, outlining. I can now add subways to the list.

From the NaNoWriMo Blog, Gabriela Pereira wrote this gem on 11 October 2017 – NaNo Prep: Outline Your Story Like a Subway Map. (https://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/166302962291/nano-prep-outline-your-story-like-a-subway-map?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NaNo%2020%20Prep%20Engagement%205&utm_content=NaNo%2020%20Prep%20Engagement%205+CID_ae72b700e8d492dee88877b24bf8f113&utm_source=Email%20marketing%20software&utm_term=Outline%20Your%20Story%20Like%20a%20Subway%20Map – last viewed 11/19/2023)

The initial visual says it all. (Can’t copy it here due to how the visual is imbedded in the blog – so go there and look!)

First we have the three lines with their stops – it could be any of the ways people break down stories:

  1. Worldbuilding, character development, plot advancement
  2. POV distribution for a multi-POV story and what needs to be seen through whose eyes
  3. The plot lines – the thriller, the romance, and the personal growth
  4. And for the literary minded – the themes and imagery – when you need to bring in the blue curtains or revisit solidarity.

Then we have how the three subway lines interconnect – what are the “hub” stations – do all the lines meet at these stations or do just some.

To me, this has been the clearest way to visual a plot tool. I “get” this. Not every tool works for every one, but this one for me could be really useful.

Magical Words: Plot vs Premise

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Tax season has started, so today is short and sweet. “Distinguishing between Plot and Premise” by NYT bestselling author Carrie Ryan, posted to Magical Words on April 2, 2012.

What is Plot and what is Premise – and are you confusing the two?

As magicalwords.net seems to have been removed after remaining up for half a decade, let me summarize the post for you.

Premise is short. Someone asks you “What is your story about?”, and you break out your elevator pitch. Let’s use Above the Crowd as the example. “Aliens kidnap Earth women as a reward for battle/sport entertainment slaves, but the women are not docile nor happy to remain as slaves.”

Plot is more a synopsis, the series of events creating the book arc. How the women feel waking up, the men choosing their women, the women discovering their purpose and going “all the nope”, both of them adjust to each other and falling in love, both of them sneaking the new tech for eventual escape, the aliens reacting, etc.

You need to know the distinction between premise and plot, as you might fall in love with a premise, but it just doesn’t work as a story – the premise goes nowhere.

Make sure, when you write, you don’t just have a wonderful world-building fact, but a story to build around it.

Find out, you may be able to hunt down the Magical Words post in one of those “we save the entire internet” sites – URL used to be

Magical Words: If a character screams…

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“If a character screams while off the page, does anyone hear them?” a Magical Words post by Kalayna Price from September 17, 2011 discusses secondary and tertiary characters offscreen lives. How much should a writer know about them? Are they leaving the room to pick up kids from school, from work, or burying a body and should you as a writer even care?

An interesting read, with fun comments like Lyn Nichols answering the title question: “Oh Lord, I hope not. I’d have to stop torturing them!” More useful was Daniel R. Davis saying “The rest of the world doesn’t stop because your characters do.” Which means, your character may be dealing with the craziness worthy of a novel, but people still go about their lives.

Again the URL is:

Writing Exercise: Write and Rewrite

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Write and rewrite were sitting in a tree, write fell down and who was left? REWRITE. Write and rewrite were sitting in a tree, write fell down and who was left? …

In April, during the A-to-Z my brain went stupid. I could no longer write good, but I could rewrite good. For over a week, when I have absolutely no extra time thanks to taxes, everything written had to be rewritten. Which is really obnoxious for flashes. The point of flashes is one and done. In this case, it was two and done – and all the rewrites ended up being three times as long as the original flash..

I had all the information the first pass, but it needed to be different. What had been produced was too passive. The dialog sucked or was non-existence, all the action was told instead of shown.

Anyway, the point of this Writing Exercise is to get over the innate bump of “I wrote it, why do I need to rewrite it?” If you know it isn’t good enough, rewrite it. Just bite the bullet and put the new, better words on paper.

This isn’t to say keep writing the same scene forever, but if you know how to fix it, FIX IT. Get that fix on paper instead of going “someday, maybe”.

WRITING EXERCISE: Find a scene, no more than 500 words, where you are unhappy with how things play out because it is missing a skill. Rewrite it.

My Attempt: Oopsie (11/8/2020). First version was 117 words – no dialog, no action, basically a news report of what already happened. But I needed to write it to get all the pieces in play. Second version was 525 words. Dialog, action, conflict, beginning-middle-end. Not even a scene in the first version, versus all the parts of a story in the second.