Category Archives: writing methods

The Iceberg Cometh Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about short stories, plot, and Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. In this post, I want to apply the Iceberg theory to another important element of the short story: characters.

There are seven types of characters: protagonist, antagonist, love interest, confident, deuteragonist, tertiary characters, and foil.

In this post, I’ll start with the central character–the protagonist. Your readers should be most invested in this character. There are a couple of types of protagonists that you should consider when planning this character. Keep in mind, these types often overlap.

The Every-person Hero

The every-person heroes are the good guys. They start out good and end up good. They are ordinary people with no apparent heroic characteristics and are often underdogs. They have a strong moral compass and are willing to sacrifice much in order to overcome the conflict. Think about Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings), Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), and Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird).

The Classic Hero

The classic hero either starts out with some ability or strength or develops an ability or strength. The ability could be external, like the ability to shoot, fight, or perform magic. The ability could also be internal like bravery, honesty, integrity, or intelligence. Think Captain America (Marvel Comic Books), Harry Potter (Harry Potter Series), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Tiffany Aching (Wee Free Men), Spiderman (Marvel Comic Books), and Sherlock Holmes.

The Epic Hero

The epic hero is often found in mythological tales, but not always. These characters have heroic characteristics that have come from somewhere not of this world, thus the use of this type of hero in mythology. They can also be found in comic books. Think Superman, Beowulf, King Arthur, and Achilles.

The Tragic Hero

The tragic hero suffers from a fatal flaw that will lead to their downfall in the end. Tragic heroes abound in tragedies and cautionary tales. William Shakespeare was arguably the king of tragic heroes; think Romeo, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. The tragic hero is fodder for comic books as well. Think Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Ben Grimm/The Thing, and Peter Parker/Spiderman.

The Anti-Hero

The anti-hero has some crossover with the tragic hero. The anti-hero often has traits that are considerably less than heroic. They might be greedy, immoral, vengeful, dishonest, and arrogant. Throughout the story, they fight against these traits, making them highly relatable to your readers. The difference between the anti-hero compared to the tragic hero is that they do not necessarily have a tragic ending. Think Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), Han Solo (Star Wars), Scarlet O’Hara (Gone With the Wind), Wolverine, and, my personal favourite, Deadpool.

The Byronic Hero

The Byronic hero is frequently found in literature from the 19th century. They are brooding, outwardly unpleasant, and sullen yet inside they are sensitive and tender, moral and passionate. They have often suffered some great tragedy, making this dichotomy of personality traits. Think Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), Heathcliffe (Wuthering Heights), Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre), Batman (DC Comic Books), and Roland (Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series). Female characters are rarely Byronic heroes although they can sometimes be found in comic books. Think Jessica Jones (Marvel Comic Books).

The Character-Berg

It’s difficult to write a multi-dimensional and interesting character without a strong understanding of their background and backstory. The background includes external things like the timeline of the character’s life, family history, where they have lived or travelled, friendship history, formative events and trauma, etc. Backstory is the way their background has affected them emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. These include things like fears, desires, and motivations. You likely will not include all of these things in the story itself, however all of these things will point your character in the directions they choose to go. For example, if Steve Rogers did not feel insecure because of his smallish size and lack of strength, he would not have let the army experiment on him and therefore would never have become Captain America.

The Iceberg Cometh, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts that explain short stories and their component parts.

“Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas.” Jenna Blum, The Author at Work

When I started writing seriously, I began with novels. I thought to myself, “Why should I write short stories? The novel is the real thing for real writers! I don’t want to waste my time with ‘practice writing’.” Apart from the absolute arrogance in that sentiment, there is nothing about writing short stories that is a waste of time. Not only do they make you a better writer, they are an art form unto themselves. So, in this post, I want to talk about the elements of a good short story and, in doing so, help you see how you can write using the iceberg theory as well.

Let’s begin by looking a what constitutes a short story.       

The key is in the name; a short story is short. Every publication has a desired word count for the stories they publish. I’m working on a story now for a journal that has a requirement of 6000-9000 words. A contest that I’ve entered a few times makes their limit 2000-3000 words. Generally, 10,000 words tend to be the top limit, but occasionally some publications will accept up to 20,000 words.

Let’s get the whole word count thing out of the way.

I’ve given you the general length of a short story, but what about the really short stories. I mean super short.

Flash fiction is a subgenre of short stories. These are stories that are 1000 words or less. They must still follow the conventions of a short story—a compelling story, strong plotline, and interesting and developing characters, often with a twist or surprise at the end.

Flash fiction, while a subgenre in itself, also has sub-subgenres.

Short shorts or sudden fiction are on the longer end of the flash fiction scale. They fall between 500 and 1000 words.

Microfiction is the shorter of the short stories, usually at 300-400 words. While 300-400 words may seem extremely short, there are even shorter sub-subgenres.

Postcard fiction is a story that could be written completely on a postcard—usually between 25-250 words. There is often an image to accompany the story.

Nano fiction, are stories that are 300 words or less.

A drabble has to be exactly 100 words—no more, no less. This count does not include the title. These stories, as short as they may be, still must have good short story construction.

A dribble or a mini-saga, similar to the drabble, must have an exact word count, but in this case, the count is only 50 words.

And then we get to the extreme of the short story form—the six-word stories. These are incredibly challenging. Not only is the writer restricted to 6 words, it still must have a complete story with all of its components. Some writers flip this into non-fiction by writing six-word memoirs. Could you pare part of your life story down into six words? I’m not sure I could.

Okay, if you are like me when I started writing short stories, I know how many words to write, but what words should those be?

There are five basic elements to a short story. There are other things that a short story can include, but let’s just start with the basics.

Plot: Think of the plot as the pathway your story takes to get from beginning to end. It is also a chain of events that are cause-and-effect and builds one on top of another as it moves from the inciting incident, through the rising action to the climax and down through the denouement to the resolution. Plot is closely tied to the story’s conflict. There are six stages to the plot:

  • Exposition: this is a short piece at the very beginning in which the following are introduced: Important background information such as the setting, the characters, the conflict
  • Inciting incident: this is the event that takes the protagonist to the place where they are introduced to the conflict and thus, starting the plot.
  • Rising action: the conflict becomes clearer, more intense, and often more complicated, and the protagonist struggles to deal with it.
  • Climax: the conflict here reaches its highest point, so much so that the protagonist is forced to deal with it. This leads to a redirection in the chain of events which often helps the reader understand the complexity of the conflict, the characters, and the situation.
  • Denouement: the conflict has been resolved and the action slopes down to the ending.
  • Resolution: the conflict is now done, the reader can put down the story and walk away feeling satisfied with what they have read.

Walking the Subtlety Tightrope

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Is subtlety a good thing for writers to insert into their stories?

            Subtlety is a tightrope, sometimes a tightrope in a windstorm. When you write subtlety into your story and ask someone to be a beta reader, if that person is another writer, probably they will get your subtlety. If you ask someone who just likes to read, probably they won’t. The issue with having a writer read your story or novel is that they have spent hours, days, and often years evaluating stories for just such subtlety. If you ask a friend or colleague who is not a writer, they don’t have that experience. These folks may not have the writer’s vocabulary to tell you what does and doesn’t work, but if you listen to them carefully, you can glean what problems your writing may or may not have, including too much subtlety.

            To write with subtlety is, as I mentioned above, a tightrope. A story with not so much subtlety could give your story popularity with a wide audience, however a story with a great deal of subtlety can be extremely powerful, but not everyone will get it.

            It is at this point that you, the writer, must make a decision in regards to power versus popularity. Something to keep in mind here is this: if you tip too far into the Subtle Sea, and you get reader feedback that they didn’t understand your story, it is not the fault of the reader. This is the writer’s story and so any decisions we make as writers fall strictly in our laps. If our readers do not understand, it is our error, not theirs. So be strategic. Think about what you really want. Do you want everyone to love your book? Then less subtlety. Do you want a very powerful story to knock the socks off some of your readers? Then more is better.

Has subtlety always been part of storytelling?

            Intuitively we may want to answer ‘Yes, of course!’ but we would be wrong. In fact, it was not until the last century that adding subtlety became fashionable. In the 19th century, almost all of writers wrote in third person omniscient making subtlety unnecessary. The omniscient POV allows the reader to look into the minds of ALL the characters. Think Jane Austen or the Bröntes. At the very end of the 19th century, Henry James began releasing stories written in the 3rd-person limited POV. In doing this, the readers no longer had the ability to see completely into the minds of all the characters. Even the protagonist can be unreliable for the reader. The reader can only truly be aware of what the protagonist is aware of. This is where subtlety can be important to the understanding of the theme, or even the basic plotline. Certainly, the growing popularity of the theories of Sigmund Freud had an impact on this change. People were slowly coming to realize that people don’t always know why they do what they do. In this case, subtlety becomes important. Your characters may never figure out their own motivations but as long as your readers can, then you are fine.

What can subtlety add to your writing?


Photo by Gaurav Ranjitkar on

As I said above, subtlety can make your story much more powerful. A very short story that has been incorrectly attributed to Hemingway is this:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This is the height of subtlety. We do not know what the story is until the final two words—the death of a baby before she began to walk—and even then, a reader not used to subtlety might miss the meaning.

            “The Chrysanthemum” by Steinbeck is a story rich with subtlety. This multi-layered story hints at the relationship between the protagonist and her husband as well as the protagonist’s inner workings. You have to read very carefully between the lines, but if you can get the subtlety, it is a very powerful story.

            “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber shows us a protagonist who is, to the reader, clearly ridiculous, but Walter Mitty is oblivious. Actually, oblivious is not quite the right word. He is vaguely aware of his ridiculousness, but he chooses to ignore it. So, instead of ‘oblivious’, it seems that ‘in denial’ would be a better choice. The subtlety comes in the intersection between Mitty’s real world and his imaginary world.

            “The Story of an Hour” AKA “The Dream of an Hour” by Kate Chopin is only three pages long, making it as short as some flash fiction. This story is ambiguous and because of that, intriguing. In three short pages, she hints at an analysis of death, marriage, and personal needs and desires. It is an hour in the life of a woman who has just been told that her husband is apparently dead. Because the story is so short, Chopin could only hint at these themes, but in doing so gives us a powerful story.

            Another author who wrote with subtlety was Yukio Mishima. His collection of short stories under the title Death in Midsummer is masterful. He was able to write stories that are almost painfully subtle, however his readers are relieved of the burden of figuring out the underlying message because Mishima had complete control, not only over his entire story, but also over his last lines. These final lines are so strong, they feel like the proverbial punch in the gut. I found myself frowning when I first read his stories. I struggled to understand, and then–BOOM–the last line knocks you flat. In doing this he has the best of both worlds—the subtle and the obvious—making his stories truly powerful. The description on Amazon for Death in Midsummer  sums up everything nicely:

Nine of Yukio Mishima’s finest stories were selected by Mishima himself for translation in this book; they represent his extraordinary ability to depict a wide variety of human beings in moments of significance. Often his characters are sophisticated modern Japanese who turn out to be not so liberated from the past as they had thought.

            I strongly recommend reading Mishima’s short stories, or even his full-length novels.

I will wrap this up by saying, yes, be subtle, but not about anything that is critical to the understanding of your story. Another writer might figure out the intricacies but a nonwriter might just miss that which is critical. So jump on that tightrope and enjoy your balancing act as you swing to that perfect balance between powerful writing and popularity.

Photo by Kaique Lopes on

The 3 Day Novel Contest: Oh The Horror!

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Yesterday the 3 Day Novel Contest wound up at midnight.  In three days contestants write a novel.  Yup, that’s right.  It’s a short novel – a novella really – but it is complete – 18,000 words in three days.

18,000 words in 3 days = carpal tunnel!

It is the second time I have entered this contest.  The first time I was unprepared.  Oh, I read all the hints and suggestions on the web page, including their Survival Guide but NOTHING prepares you for the actuality of writing almost non-stop for three days until you have a completed novella. It is a crazy rollercoaster of a weekend.


The first time I entered, I had an idea semi-formed, but when I sat down to write, the whole thing flew out the window and I went in an entirely different direction.  This worked out well for me as it ended up with the publication of Greenwich List.

This time, I decided to take an idea that had been floating around in my head for five years.  I outlined the story in five ‘acts’.  It seemed like a clever idea at the time.  But, as with the first year, all my cleverness turned out to be useless.



I did hold onto my idea, however.  This idea was like a friend.  She had been sitting with me for five long years – tapping at my brain saying “Write me!  Write me!  You know you want to!”  So that’s what I did.  I took my friend and wrote the story that had been clamouring to come out for all these years.  You might be saying now, ‘Diane, what was that idea?’  Well, sorry, not going to tell you.  It came out over the weekend as a novella, but I am planning on turning it into either a full-length novel or part of a collection of stories so you will just have to wait.  I will tell you, however, that it was a horror story. The first I have ever written!  And, while I think I pretty much got it right, I went back afterwards and looked what HP Lovecraft had to say about the genre.  Some of what he wrote is now a bit out of date, but much of it is timeless, especially in regards to weird or horror fiction.


Rules and Themes of Horror Writing as Adapted from HP Lovecraft


The true weird tale has to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. – HP Lovecraft




  • There are two categories of “weird” fiction (which includes horror).
    • The horror expresses itself in some unexpected condition or phenomena.
    • The horror expresses itself in a character’s behaviours which are connected in some way to a bizarre condition or phenomena.
  • Each weird/horror story involves five definite elements
    • some basic, underlying horror or abnormality in character or setting.
    • how the horror affects the characters/setting/etc..
    • how the horror presents itself; what does it do & how does it do it?
    • how do the characters react to the horror?
    • how does the horror act within the given circumstances or ‘world rules’ set out in the story.
  • There must be the “maintenance of a careful realism” within the operating rules of the world created throughout the story except in the aspects that are impacted by the horror.
  • The horror must have carefully contrived emotional build up. All that a horror story should be is “a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood”.
    • subtle suggestions of emotion or clues to the horror or characters’ responses are key.
    • use “imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods” to make the unreality of the horror seem real even though we “suspend or violate the illusion of time, space, and natural law”
    • Avoid lists of incredible events which add no substantive meaning to the horror.
  • There needs to be an air of ‘awe and impressiveness’ around the horror.


HP Lovecraft was the master of weird fiction and was a great story-teller.  His rules for writing are basic and can apply to any fiction writing.

  1. Write out the chronology of the story.
  2. Write out the order of narration of the story.
  3. Write the story in order of #2.  Write it quickly and without criticism – that will come later.
  4. Revise, revise, revise!!!
  5. Do a neat, well-formated copy.

Good advice for all of us.

Mando Method #amwriting

 This morning when I was – well let’s be honest – procrastinating over my writing, I found the hashtag #mandomethod followed by a number. I was intrigued. I clicked on #mandomethod and found all kinds of tweets that were similar – #mandomethod 417. #MandoMethod 381. #Mandomethod 591, not bad! What the heck was this Mando Method?  It didn’t take much searching for me to find the original blog post that explained what the Mando Method was. I won’t explain it. Just click on the link and you can read the post for yourself.  “Well, hell!” I said to myself. “This sounds like a great idea!” So, I set the stopwatch on my phone and started writing.  Twenty-one minutes later I had 201 words. TWO HUNDRED AND ONE!  If you took the time to link back to the original blog post, you would have seen the following:

Hour 1 – 493 words

Hour 2 – 644 words

Hour 3 – 602 words

Hour 4 – 596 words

Hour 5 – 677 words

Hour 6 – 550 words

Hour 7 – 585 words

Hour 8 – 781 words

Each of those represents 15 minutes of writing.  A quick search on Twitter and I came up with pretty similar numbers… including the following:

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Eight hundred and fifty-one? Really?  It’s not that I doubt @RidiculouslySpeedyWriter at all.  I have no doubt that this person wrote 851 words in 15 minutes.  What gets me is that I wrote 201 and that took me 21 minutes to write.  No wonder The Bastard of Saint Genevra took me five freaking years!  

So, I have decided that I am going to blame this on menopause.  New hashtag… #amwritingthroughmenopause.