Developing minor points into subplots

This week I had a request from an editor to add an extra scene to a short story I submitted for an anthology. It served to drive home to me how important it is to get feedback on your writing. With just a couple of questions, the editor opened up aspects of the story I hadn’t considered. 


Like me, you might reach a stage when you think the story is the best you can make it. That is the time when feedback from critique partners (or editors if you are lucky to get it) is invaluable. We are too close to our writing to notice what’s lacking and what can be improved. 


One thing I’ve realised in my work is that very often a story can be made even better by looking at the minor characters or aspects I would have included just as background, and asking questions: e.g. who are these people, what do they want, why are they in that place at that time, why is this event unusual or noteworthy, what had happened before. The answers to these questions might result in the development of a subplot which echoes and deepens the main story line.


Spicing up a story

I don’t know about you, but writing a story to me is like peeling away an onion. Or making an onion—whichever way you want to look at it. Each layer is important—leave one out and the whole lacks flavour.

I’ve just written a short story where I knew I had a great set of characters, a setting that helped spike the tension, and a situation that led to some interesting developments.

But it was not enough, as my critique partner pointed out.

It lacked plot: you know that element that keeps readers turning the pages 🙂

To me, plot often translates into a question, or a set of questions that readers are forced to ask and as a result continue reading to find out what happens. We’re all curious beings, but my story moved from A to B.

The solution was fairly easy to find: look at the characters. Any story has a protagonist and some form of antagonist. In my case, the antagonist was not quite the one I had thought of first. And once you know who your characters are, where they’re coming from, what has led them to this moment in time, then very often you have a clash where the protagonist wants something, and the antagonist is doing his or its best to thwart him/her getting it.

Add a dash of mystery and start writing. Or re-writing in my case.

Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy

I’m currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy and I’m hooked. The protagonist is a young orphan, Alina Starkov, who in a moment of crisis uses a power she was unaware she possessed to save herself and her best friend. Alina’s rare power could be the key to save her country Ravka from its enemies. So, she is forced to leave all that she’s ever known to join the Grisha, a magical community led by the handsome but mysterious Darkling. The problem is: just who is the enemy?


Bardugo’s writing is crisp and fast-paced. And her setting her fantasy in a country reminiscent of old Russia is another plus for me. So far I’ve read Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm. I can hardly wait to dip into the last book of the set: Ruin and Rising.


Writing Tip for Teens: adverbs

In my last post I wrote about the need to show a character’s actions through a precise choice of words. Often, new writers use an adverb to do so:


Jenna spoke softly.

S/he walked angrily up the stairs.

However, by changing those verb +adverb combinations with one word we often say what we mean better.


Jenna whispered.

S/he stomped up the stairs.

Of course not all adverbs need to be eliminated from our stories, but by using the ‘Find’ option in Word you could check if you’ve written too many words ending in –ly.

Then decide if the verb+adverb can be changed with one word that describes the action better.


I’d love to hear of some words you’ve used instead of a verb+adverb.

Writing Tip for Teens: Word choice – walking and running

I bet a number of teachers have told you to use adverbs to spice up your writing. Well, it’s good advice when you’re writing a school essay, but if you’re interested in becoming a writer then my advice is don’t!

Now, before you go up to your teacher and tell her she’s wrong, let’s see why it’s better to use few adverbs. As writers we need to find the best words to build a picture in our reader’s mind.

For example: Who hasn’t written a story in which the character walks or runs away?

But, the words walk and run don’t really help me to imagine how the character walked or ran. I could write ‘he walked slowly’ but he strolled, shuffled, trudged give me a better idea of the person’s movement and attitude.

Here are a few other words I could use instead of walk: step, stride, pace, tread, pad, saunter, amble, slog, lurch, stagger, wobble, waddle, sidle, slink, mince, tiptoe, wend, hike, tramp, march, wander, roam, rove, meander.

Make sure you know the meaning of the word before you use it as each synonym creates a different picture in the reader’s mind.

Similarly, s/he ran can be changed with a better word such as: dash, dart, bolt, tear, sprint, fly, flit, whiz, whisk; zoom, zip, career, rip, hasten, race, rush, scramble, jog, trot, canter, lope; scamper, flee.

You could use a thesaurus to find the right word you need. There are a number of free online sites that will give you a list of synonyms of the word you type in.

Can you add any other words to the lists?

Tip 4: Writing Dialogue – punctuation for teens

I’m really excited this week about the new short story I’m drafting. Sometimes, I start writing and it feels like swimming through mud and at other times, like this week, to keep to a nautical metaphor, the wind’s in the sails and words and plot readily unfurl.

I’ve also just started reading a book by a young writer who’s got talent and an interesting plot, but the numerous punctuation errors got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. So, let’s go through the basic rules governing the punctuation of dialogue.

  • Since a dialogue means there are at least two speakers, use a fresh line each time the speaker changes, otherwise readers will not realise that the speaker has changed.


“It’s time,” Urr said.

“I’ll miss you.”

If there are only two speakers, by using a fresh line we do not need to say that the second line was uttered by the second speaker because only s/he could have said it.

  • If we use an action tag, we punctuate the sentences as separate sentences (i.e. we use a full stop).

Example: The beast lumbered closer to me. “I’m no monster, even if I have more heads than you.”


credit: SylviaP_Design

  • Now for the tricky bit. Sometimes we split an utterance in two and have a dialogue tag in the middle. Since the utterance is one sentence (remove the dialogue tag and it reads as one complete sentence) then we use a comma before and a comma after the dialogue tag.

 Example: “I’m no monster,” the beast said, “even if I have more heads than you.”

Tip 3: Writing Dialogue – punctuation

fantasy-2231796_1920Punctuating dialogue can be tricky, so let’s start with a few basics.

  • Punctuation marks like a comma, full stop or exclamation mark should come before you close the inverted commas.

For example:

“I’ll never forget you,” Jason said.


  • If a dialogue tag follows the utterance, then the punctuation mark cannot be a full stop, but it can be a comma, exclamation mark or a question mark. 

For example

“I’ll miss you,” he said.

  • If there is no dialogue tag after the utterance, then we use a full stop.

For example:

Jason caressed the dragon’s snout. “I’ll miss you.”

  • When using a dialogue tag, use lower case after the utterance, unless you’re using a proper noun (a name).

For example:

“It’s time,” the dragon said.

“It’s time,” it said.

“It’s time,” Urkan said.

That’s it for today. One final note: Americans prefer to use double inverted commas and the British prefer using single.


Tip 2: Writing Dialogue – using action to show who is speaking

Hi! How was your week? Hopefully, you’ve found the time to do some writing and maybe even tried experimenting with dialogue tags.

This week, I’m going to concentrate on one problem I face when writing dialogue: questions.

For example: “Hungry?” Jason asked.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m about to write ‘asked’ after a question mark I kind of think it’s silly. I mean, the question mark immediately tells the reader that the character asked a question, so, I prefer to avoid using ‘asked’. Instead, to show who is doing the asking, I mention an action the person did at the time.

For example:

“Hungry?” Jason dangled a piece of meat in front of the dragon.

You could also use this technique to avoid writing too many he/she said.

For example:

“It’s time,” the dragon said.

“I’ll never forget you.” Jason caressed the dragon’s snout.

That’s all for this week. Happy Writing! And if you have any questions or would like to leave a comment, I’ll be happy to hear from you.

Tip 1: Writing Dialogue – use s/he said

fantasy-2231796_1920What’s a story without dialogue, right? In most stories we have at least a couple of characters and at some point we need to write what they said, and show who is speaking.

The best way to do so is to add he / she said at the end of the utterance. I know it’s tempting to use variations of this, such as he exclaimed/ whispered / roared / shouted ….

For example:

“I’ll never forget you!” Jason exclaimed.

“I’ll never forget you,” Jason whispered.

But “I’ll never forget you,” Jason said is better because it’s invisible.  We just notice who is speaking and continue reading.

Then, if you want to show how the character said the words, you could describe an action.

“I’ll never forget you,” Jason said, caressing the dragon’s snout.




I’m a teacher of English at a secondary school and I write YA fantasy in my free time. Over the years, I’ve met many young talented writers who have contributed short stories to the school magazine I edit. I’m constantly amazed by the creativity and talent shown in these pieces. I hope you’ll find this blog useful. I will be posting tips to help make your writing better and if anyone would like to send in 200 words of a story you are writing, I’d be happy to post it here with my comments.