Christian editors · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 5: The Western Novel

See the source imageThough western fiction represents only a small category in fiction sales, this market holds an intriguing place in Americana. Susan Brooks, an editor with, writes,

There are several categories of western novels, but the general definition is fiction set in the 19th century frontier or Old West America, west of the Mississippi. The characters are strong and self-reliant, and the stories usually involve cowboys, cavalrymen, lawmen, and outlaws. Generally, western novels focus on themes of individualism and adventure. Westerns generally feature a lone hero (usually male) who reluctantly answers the call to adventure, rescues damsels in distress, and brings the bad guy(s) to justice. The hero is idealistic and driven. (

But is this really an American invention? Robert Wood, in his “The 3 Golden Rules of Writing a Western” says, “It’s not about the cowboy hat,” and in fact, American westerns owe a great deal to the samurai narratives from Japan. Central to both is a character who is a fundamental, traditionally masculine hero, whose old ideals tend to clash with the changing landscape around him. Rather than give up those ideals, he uses them in such a way as to show they may be old-fashioned, but they hold a strength, a value, that is timeless. The western hero may be a drifter, a gunslinger, a bounty hunter, or a marshal, but at his core, he is a good man who won’t let the changing world change who he is.

Think of Rooster Cogburn in Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit. As the seemingly restraining rules of modern law and order spread throughout the American west, this old-time marshal is after true justice, which requires killing a murdering snake, rather than taking the chance that he could get away with murder while the wheels of this new-fangled justice system slowly turn. For Rooster, evil must be defeated with a gun; anything less cannot be called justice, and hang the consequences.

The real trick to writing a western—as opposed to writing a detective story or a sci-fi adventure with the same kind of masculine loner who is a traditional justice-minded character—is the setting. At the center of the western is a character who rides a horse in America’s wild, wild west. And if you’ve never been around horses or cattle; if you’ve never ridden a horse in a western saddle; if you’ve never experienced dust storms or thunderstorms with no shelter in sight; if you’ve never been west of the Mississippi River to experience the wide-open spaces; if you’ve never actually fired a rifle or a revolver, then maybe writing a western is not for you.

Write What You Know!

I’m not saying you can’t, or even shouldn’t, write a western without all that first-hand experience, but if you really want to write a good one, you have your work cut out for you in terms of research. In my October 19th post, I wrote about “The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff,” in which I discussed finding primary documents on American history. That would be a place to start, as you investigate what it was really—as opposed to Hollywood facsimile—like to live in the old west. The good news is the Internet abounds in historical images and documents. There are also a plethora of videos on everything from saddling and riding a horse to drawing and shooting a gun.

If you’re really intent on the western genre, however, I would suggest actually visiting the location. For your next vacation, take Route 66 from Chicago to LA or follow parts of the Oregon Trail; visit historic sites and camp—and I don’t mean in some RV park. I mean experience primitive camping, so you know what it’s like to sleep on the hard ground and fix your breakfast over a campfire. Or you can make a reservation at one of the many ranches that teach riding and roping, herding cattle, and living on the trail. You can fake it as a writer with enough research, but if you make yourself sit on the back of a horse for five or six hours a day for a week, you’ll know what it really feels like to be saddle-sore!

I, personally, have not tackled the western genre, though my science fiction novel, The Stars of Home, comes close, as the first half of the book takes place in the eighteenth-century American west, when my Commonwealth pilot crash lands there. Most of what I talked about above, however, is not beyond my own realm of experience. I grew up next door to a farm and spent hours there riding horses—both bareback and saddled—helping to gather eggs and “herd” cattle that had gotten out. I know first-hand what it’s like to try to tighten the cinch of a western saddle on a pony that doesn’t want to be ridden that day! And in my teens and twenties, back-country hiking and primitive camping were my favorite kinds of adventure.

I have also crossed this country by car multiple times, including the last time in 1996, when I was on my way to library school, travelling from Washington State to Indiana, and came too close to running out of gas while crossing Wyoming. You simply cannot know how big and how empty that part of the country is until your gas gauge is on the “E”, and there isn’t a sign of human habitation in any direction as far as the eye can see! And while watching movies and reading books can help, if you want your readers to really feel the experience through your writing, give your characters some first-hand experience through you.

Go for It!

So, if you’re drawn to the traditional values and honor of the old west, and decide to write about it, go for it! But do your research first, because these stories are about more than a guy with a cowboy hat and a six-gun. They are about “real” men, heroes with a deep-seated honor, who are struggling to stay true to what they’ve always believed in the face of a changing world. And doesn’t that sound like a great place to start a story?

The next time, we’ll look at Christian fiction.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email 

storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 4: The Many Facets of Science Fiction

See the source imageScience Fiction comes under the general heading of “speculative fiction,” a genre that pushes the “what if” scenario to the wall. According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2007), the term was coined in 1851, and it was in 1927—in Amazing Stories (Jan. 974/1)—that Jules Verne was called “a sort of Shakespeare in science fiction.”

So what is science fiction, and what separates it from fantasy? In simple terms, it is a story set in a place or time different from our own “in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in a scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms” (Brave New Words, p. 171). In other words, science fiction is a genre in which gadgets are employed in telling the story, while fantasy utilizes magic in the same way. For example, Donn Kushner’s The Book Dragon (Avon Books, 1987) is a fantasy about a dragon in our time who protects a New England bookstore from destruction by an evil developer. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, however, is from a science fiction series about a colony of humans stranded on a far planet where there are alien creatures that happen to look like the dragons of old earth mythology.

Robert A. Heinlein broke it down even further when he wrote, “There are at least two principal ways to write speculative fiction—write about people, or write about gadgets. . . . Most science fiction stories are a mixture of the two types” (“On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: 20 Dynamic Essays by Today’s Top Professionals, New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 5). I would postulate that the gadgets make it science fiction, while the people make it good storytelling. If the focus is on the gadgets—the technology—then it would be what’s known as “hard” science fiction; if the focus is on the people, then it would be known as “soft” or “social” science fiction.

There are those writers who will attempt to dabble in science fiction by simply moving a story idea into a science fiction setting, but just placing a romance on a space ship or on another planet does not make it science fiction. One important thing to remember when writing sci-fi is that for a story to be science fiction—whether it also be a romance, a mystery, a thriller, or any other type—it must be so thoroughly integrated into the science fiction universe in which it is set that it could not be told in any other setting.

For example, in my novel, The Stars of Dreams, my protagonist is kidnapped by some bad guys, rescued by some good guys, and eventually falls in love with the leader of the good guys. If this were the main plot of the story, there would be no reason to set it in space, because it could happen at any time or place here on earth. But The Stars of Dreams  is not a romance because the bad guys in this case are aliens out to destroy a Commonwealth of Planets located toward the center of our galaxy. The kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the Earth woman is only the catalyst in the plot that alerts the good guys to a military coup under way. Yes, the story has elements of action adventure, mystery, and even romance in it, but Dreams is not about those things. It is about defending a Commonwealth of Planets from destruction, and that’s what makes it science fiction.

There are actually about a dozen science fiction sub-genres. Here is a partial list, in no particular order, with an example for each:

  • Hard Science Fiction/Gadget stories [military, cybernetics, robotics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI)]: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

  • Soft/Social Science Fiction [social commentary]: just about anything from Star Trek

  • Time Travel: [forward or backward]: H. G. Well’s The Time Machine (future); Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (past)
  • Alternative History [such as, What if the South had won the Civil War?]: Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain (from the Southern Victory series)
  • Parallel/Lost Worlds:  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core

  • Space Explorations [man goes into space]: A. C. Crispin’s Starbridge

  • Extraterrestrial [aliens come to Earth]: David Weber’s The Apocalypse Troll

  • Dystopia/Utopia/Apocalyptic [Earth doesn’t do well in the future]: Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (The Planet of the Apes)
  • Space Opera [just what it sounds like]: think Star Wars

  • Steampunk [future worlds with Victorian mores and technology]: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The key to writing good science fiction is the same as the key to writing well in any genre: Always remember the story comes first. However fantastic your gadgets—your starships, your aliens, your alien worlds—you need to create a balance between your gadgets and your characters. And as in creating magic in fantasy, you must be consistent with your gadgets. For example, however futuristic faster than light travel is, if you write about a technology that allows a starship to travel that fast through space, you also need to create the rules that allow the technology to work and then stick with them.

As in any fictional writing, you don’t want to forget to “show don’t tell,” but while it might help to be technology minded (so you can “write what you know”), you don’t have to be a technical expert to pull it off if you can imagine it well enough. C. S. Lewis, when speaking of the technology in his science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, said, “Obviously it was vague because I’m not a scientist and not interested in the purely technical side of in. . . . In my case it was pure mumbo-jumbo, and perhaps meant primarily to convince me” (in Lewis’ Of Other Worlds, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, p. 87). I describe the technology in my Commonwealth Chronicles (The Stars of Dreams and The Stars of Home) in much the same way. The characters from Earth are civilians from a relatively primitive planet, so as long as I describe the technology through their eyes when they end up on a Commonwealth starship, it works. Like Lewis, it’s “pure mumbo-jumbo” to both me and my characters, but that’s okay because a person from Earth in either 1996 (Dreams) or 1874 (Home) is not supposed to understand how Commonwealth technology works!

The next time we’ll take a look at the Western novel.

writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 3: Mystery/Detective Fiction

See the source imageHave you ever wondered what the differences are between a mystery, a suspense novel, and a thriller? Recently, I found myself pondering this question as I was exploring my options for the sixth episode of my Cat & Mac Mysteries. Are my Cat & Mac stories actually mysteries, suspense novels, or thrillers?

According to a brief though clarifying article from a Curtis Memorial Library online newsletter , it’s all about the plot.

“In a mystery novel, the focus of the story is on solving the crime. Almost all of the action takes place after the crime has been committed. In a suspense novel, the focus is on preventing a crime from happening . . . [and] . . . thrillers are just suspense novels taken up a few levels in the scope of the plot.”

Within these three major sub-genres, the article continues, reside any number of sub-sub-genres “running on a continuum from cozy, with minimal violence, to forensic, which have more gruesome details.” Along the way you’ll come across the same types of themes found in other genre fiction, such as legal, medical, psychological, or political, that require additional research—or the writer’s own personal experience—to fill in the details. And, of course, there are stories that provide a cross-pollination between any of the previously-mentioned suspense genres and historical, romance, science fiction, or fantasy stories.

Satisfying Reader Expectations

Of all the genres, suspense seems to have the most rules. That is, readers read them with particular expectations about the plot—the murder, the bad guy, the detective (professional or amateur), potential victims, the clues, and how they all fit together in a way that keeps the reader guessing “who done it” all the way to the end. But you also have to strike a balance between these expectations and originality. Step too far off the anticipated path, and you’ll lose your readers; but be too predictable, too cookie-cutter, and you might do the same.

The principal trick to writing a good mystery in whatever sub-genre to my mind is the hook. How can you start your story in such a way as to grab your readers with that first sentence? There are some real doozies out there, and here are a few of my favorites from my own bookshelf:

“The girl was just plain amazing with a knife.” (Julie Garwood, Mercy, Pocket Books, 2001)

“Someone is following me.” (J. T. Ellison, When Shadows Fall, Harlequin MIRA, 2014)

“The killer waited patiently for the target to emerge from the cabin.”  (Jayne Ann Krentz, When All the Girls Have Gone, New York: Jove, 2016)

“There was no doubt about it. He was dead.” (Elizabeth Lowell, Dangerous Refuge, Avon, 2013)

“The heel of one of her high-button boots skidded across the stream of blood that seeped out from under the door.”  (Amanda Quick, The Mystery Woman, Jove, 2013)

“‘Tell me what you did with her body.’” (Mariah Stewart, Last Look, Ballantine Books, 2007)

Each of these opening lines strikes a unique tone and draws the reader in. They all clearly set up a murder mystery, and they’re intriguing enough to compel the reader to want to take a chance on reading the rest of the book.

Why Write Mysteries?

While I’ve been an avid reader of mysteries and thrillers for years, I didn’t start writing them until 2016 when a writer friend of mine convinced me I needed to start writing and publishing e-books. She also told me the best-sellers on Kindle were short mysteries in a series. Hence, I sat down to write my Cat & Mac Mysteries. Whether or not short mysteries remain best-sellers, I couldn’t say, but I am enjoying finally writing in this genre I’ve been reading for years.

And of course this is where any writer must begin when writing in any genre: you must read, read, READ books and stories in any genre you want to write. You have to know what readers expect in order to provide it. As David Corbett of Writer’s Digest put it . . .

The suspense genres in particular have a number of seemingly hard and fast rules that a writer defies at his peril. And yet the most satisfying mysteries, thrillers and crime stories find a way to create a new take on those rules to fashion something fresh, interesting, original.

Like any creative endeavor, whether painting with a particular technique, composing music in a particular style, or writing in a particular genre, you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively. So read—a lot! Then when you’re ready, have fun writing it!

The next time, we’ll look at the many facets of science fiction.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 2: Fantasy

Image result for image fantasyI’ll begin this exploration of genre writing with one of my personal favorites, Fantasy. Literary Terms  tells us, “Fantasy, from the Greek ϕαντασία meaning ‘making visible,’ is a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic).” This may sound overly simplistic, but it does cover the genre. The fact is, fantasy literature runs the gambit from other-world epic heroic fantasy (e.g. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) to magical or paranormal powers connected to our world (e.g. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter) to simple contemporary stories that might have just one little fantastical element, such as the assumption that dragons are real (e.g. Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven).

What makes it fantasy is the appearance of alternate worlds, mythological heroes, fantastical creatures, magical powers, the supernatural—anything that doesn’t exist in the real world that is made real in a story. Of course, you still have to have a good story—it’s not enough just to create a fantasy world, though there are dozens of contemporary authors who have done so with varying degrees of success. You also have to tell a good story within that fantasy world, because without the story, the fantastic is not enough to keep readers turning the page.

When Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” he perhaps unknowingly described fantasy fiction as well as anyone ever has, because while a coming-of-age story can be set in a contemporary American community, how much more effective might it be to follow a Hobbit (Tolkien) or a Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (Elizabeth Moon) in a world of fantasy. And, yes, we can talk about elephants and rhinos and whales, but how much more fun might a story about endangered species be if the wildlife refuge is called Dragonhaven (McKinley), and the endangered species in the spotlight is the dwindling dragon population? And there are plenty of news stories today about small businesses in small towns being ousted by wealthy developers who want to burn them out to make way for a new resort, condo, or shopping mall. These stories of courageous contemporary Davids standing up to these modern-day Goliaths threatening their homes and livelihoods are riveting, but how much more fun might it be if the “Davids” are helped out by A Book Dragon (Donn Kushner) who is protecting his treasure in a tiny antique bookstore?

This is the fun of fantasy! It is taking the truth out of the mundane common world and putting it into a fantastical setting. Fantasy is, in some ways, both easier and more challenging to write. It can be easier because a fantasy is set in the author’s original world where the sky’s the limit for the writer’s imagination. But it can be a lot more challenging, especially when writing alternate-world fantasy, because the author has to create everything—from species to geography to cities to political systems to world history to religions. If you read Tolkien or Moon, you will find the most incredible of alternate worlds. Every single detail, from the shoes the characters wear to the animals they ride to the weapons they use to the languages they speak, is otherworldly. Yet there is, underneath the fantastic, an element of “truth” to these fantasy worlds, for even fantasy needs to contain some truth in order to draw readers into that necessary suspension of disbelief.

One of the best examples is found in Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion (a single volume containing the first three books in a so-far eleven-book series, starting with The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter). Paksenarrion runs away from home to join a mercenary company. What makes Moon’s fantasy work particularly well, when many other authors have come up short in similar tales, is Moon was a U.S. Marine, and her military knowledge brings a realism, or “truth,” to the story’s training, marching, and battle sequences unmatched by other fantasy writers who do not have Moon’s first-hand experience. The very human Paks is fighting all sorts of fantasy creatures: orcs and gnomes, black elves and rock creatures—the stories abound in strange and magical creatures. But at the heart of the fantastic is a coming-of-age story of a young woman seeking more to life than to be sold into marriage by her father to a neighboring pig farmer. This is high heroic fantasy at its best as we follow Paks from refugee to fighting mercenary to sword-wielding magical paladin of Gird—all set in an entirely fictional world complete with social, religious, and political complexity.

Of course there’s nothing new about fantasy. Aesop’s fables (6th century BC) and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (AD 19th century) are full of fantasy, not to mention folklore from all over the world, in which talking animals, vampires, witches, shapeshifters, fairies, ghosts, and goblins interact with the human race. Many a contemporary writer has cashed in by writing a new version of a traditional fairy tale, and even if you don’t want to rewrite a known tale, you can still write in the fairy tale style, using many of the creatures and themes found therein.

But you should do your homework before you write, because while your elves (for example) don’t have to be exactly like the elves of Middle-earth (Tolkien)—and in fact, they shouldn’t be—elves do have their origins in ancient Northern European mythology, and they have certain characteristics and powers that prove fairly standard across cultural lines. Though like any other mythological creature, elves vary somewhat from culture to culture, your readers will expect elves to look and act a certain way, and in order to keep your readers in your story, you will want to meet their expectations for all your fantastical creatures by thoroughly researching their origins before you write.

 The next time, we’ll look at what readers expect from mystery/detective stories.



by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 


Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email 

storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction

Happy Flag Day!
flag-dayFlag Day is celebrated in the United States on June 14 to commemorate the adoption of the Stars and Stripes on June 14, 1777, following a resolution proposed by John Adams in the Second Continental Congress. There was  a circle of only thirteen stars in those days, “representing a new constellation,” as Adams described it. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson officially established June 14 as Flag Day in the United States. There were only forty-eight stars, then, with number forty-nine (Alaska) added in 1959 and number fifty (Hawaii) added in 1960. And, of course, we have George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” which he wrote back in 1906 for his Broadway musical, George Washington, Jr.

Writing Genre Fiction

I’d like to spend the next few weeks looking at genre fiction, what it is, and the expectations of readers for each.

What Is Genre Fiction?

According to Publisher’s Weekly , genre fiction is a subcategory of fiction, usually thought of as commercial fiction (plot driven) as opposed to literary fiction (character driven). The categories of genre vary, depending upon who you ask, but Publisher’s Weekly (PW) tracks sales using the following categories:

Adult Fiction

Graphic Novels
Science Fiction
General Fiction

Children’s Fiction

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Magic
Social Situations/Family/Health
General Juvenile Fiction

I don’t begin to try to understand exactly why these categories were chosen and labeled as they were, or why Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct categories in Adult Fiction, while they are lumped into a single category in Children’s Fiction. It won’t matter to me as a writer, anyway—until I go looking for an agent or publisher, who will probably have their own definitions of what constitutes Fantasy or Romance.

There is, of course, plenty of overlap among genres. Science Fiction can have Romance in it, for example, and a Western might have some Suspense, but it is a good idea to figure out up front what the main thrust of your story is because there is a big difference between a Science Fiction story that happens to have some romance in it and a Science Fiction Romance. The former is primarily about the space fantasy and cannot be set in any other time or place while the latter focuses on the romance, and the story could really just as easily be put into another setting.

What Genre Should I Write In?

My first suggestion to new writers who ask me what genre they should write in is this: “Write what you enjoy reading.” If you want to write Science Fiction, read Science Fiction. If you want to write Romance, read Romance.

No, you are not reading other people’s books in order to get ideas for your own stories—that would be akin to plagiarism, and anyway, as any writer can tell you, once you start writing, you won’t need other people’s story idea, because you will have plenty of your own!
Rather you are reading books in a specific genre so you can learn what readers expect from a book written in that genre. Readers who read Science Fiction or Romance read them with certain expectations about how the story will go. Not the details, of course, as those will change from story to story, but when I pick up a Fantasy novel, I’m going to expect something magical or supernatural or paranormal in nature, and if I don’t get it, I’m going to be disappointed.

Can I Write in More than One Genre?

I have been told by workshop leaders, teachers, agents, and others who seem to know what they’re talking about that writers should stick with only one genre, or at the very least they should change pen names when they change genres. That is something I have never done myself, though I know writers who do. (One acquaintance of mine uses so many pen names I have a very difficult time finding her books!)

I do personally write in more than one genre because I basically write stories I like to read, and I am an eclectic reader. I don’t change my name, except to differentiate between my professional/scholarly publications, for which I use Laura A. Ewald, and my fiction, for which I use Laura Anne Ewald.

Some quite famous writers write in more than one genre. Some change their byline, and some do not. For example, Jayne Ann Krentz writes stories set in Victorian England, contemporary America, and on futuristic alien planets. To differentiate between them, she publishes the first under the pen name Amanda Quick. For the second, she uses Jayne Ann Krentz. And for the third, she uses Jayne Castle (her maiden name). To bring her readers with her, when she started writing in the future, her covers read, “Jayne Ann Krentz writing as Jayne Castle.”

On the other hand, Anne McCaffrey has always used Anne McCaffrey, from her contemporary romances of the 1980s to her extensive science fiction portfolio, including the epic Dragons of Pern series, to her Fantasy chapter books she has most recently written for her grandchildren.

This is very much one of those “it depends” questions. I think the bottom line is, “What do you want from your writing?” If you want to find a commercial agent and publisher who specialize in a specific genre who can help you earn fame and fortune, then sticking to that genre for all your writing may be a smart move. As for me, I just want to keep writing stories so I can get those pesky characters out of my head. Sometimes the story is in the here and now, and sometimes it is on another planet or in a star ship. Sometimes my characters are just regular people, and sometimes they have a little more—or aren’t even human.

For as long as I keep reading multiple genres of fiction, I expect my stories will continue to be just as varied. But writing stories is the thing I most enjoy doing, so I expect I’ll keep my imagination primed by reading whatever strikes my fancy—and keep writing the stories that pop into my head in whatever genre they may be.

The next time, we’ll start looking at what readers expect from different genres.



by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips


Sometimes, taking a topic and breaking it down is the way to begin a story, but identifying the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of your story is how you get from the topic to the story. (See Writing the Story, Parts 1–6.) These go back over 2,000 years—Aristotle gave us the 5 Ws in his Elements of Circumstances”—and your story must be about the 5 Ws, not about the research topic, for it to be good storytelling. Let your story illuminate your topic so your readers will be drawn to care about it through your story. This is a time-proven method writers and screenwriters use to change the hearts and minds of readers and audiences.

 Aristotle also gave us what he called the Three Unities, and these, too, can help modern storytellers build a compelling story that will keep readers turning the page.

The Three Unities: Action, Place, and Time

 It was Aristotle who, in Part 5 of his Poetics, defined three unities for writing stories: unity of action (the What), unity of time (the When), and unity of place (the Where). In other words, for Aristotle, the best stories are about a single action that takes place in one location within a 24-hour period. This doesn’t mean you can’t—or shouldn’t—write an epic spanning decades or generations, but Aristotle’s unity theory is something to think about when you sit down to write.

It is particularly helpful for those who write plays for stage or screen, because such unity can, among other things, drastically reduce production costs. But it’s about more than just the cost. It is also about grabbing—and keeping—the audience’s attention for the duration of your story.

Edith Wharton’s short story, “Roman Fever” (first published in 1934), is an outstanding example of a contemporary tale that embodies all three of Aristotle’s unities perfectly. The story is set on the “lofty terrace” of a Roman restaurant, where two ladies—described as “intimate since childhood” yet really knowing little about each other—are  reminiscing about their own first visit to Rome when they’d been the same ages as their two young daughters a quarter of a century before. The entire story is set there, on the terrace, during one hot afternoon. The passage of time is marked by the occasional ringing of bells in the city, a glance at a watch, remarks on the changing of the light, the setting sun, the appearance of waiters with candles for the tables. The action is found entirely within the dialogue between these two middle-aged women, as they talk about their own youthful visit to Rome, their late husbands, their daughters, and the intervening years. Old jealousies and secrets are slowly revealed throughout the story until the final “gotcha” moment surprises the reader almost as much as it does one of the characters in the story, giving “Roman Fever” a most delightful ending. Unity of action, time, and place make this short story both engaging and satisfying for the reader.

As another example, contemporary thrillers often utilize the unity of time as means of bolstering suspense. A good example can be found in Elizabeth Lowell’s St. Kilda novels, beginning with The Wrong Hostage. What makes this first novel so riveting is that Judge Grace Silva has only two days to track down and produce her ex-husband, who cheated a Mexican drug cartel, before those who kidnapped her son kill him. Lowell keeps the clock ticking with chapter headings like

Tijuana, Mexico

Saturday, 12:12 p.m.

La Jolla

Sunday, 11:03 a.m.


Sunday, 4:00 p.m.

Throughout this entire almost 500-page novel, Lowell reminds her readers that the clock is ticking and time is running out. Believe me, these books are very difficult for a reader to put down!

FocusOf course, these unity rules do not have to be followed—successful stories have encompassed generations of families or whole quadrants of space—but they are something to consider when planning your story, whether you are writing a short story, a research paper, a magazine article, or even a 500-page novel. The important thing to me as a writer is to not bite off more than I can chew when I select a topic or write a story—fiction or nonfiction. If I really care enough about something to address it by writing about it, I want to focus my writing to avoid tackling something so big I can’t address it thoroughly enough to make my story complete, realistic, and compelling for my readers.

Next time, I will leave the process of storytelling and in June begin a new thread on story genres, the characteristics of, and reader expectations for, everything from Westerns to Romance to Science Fiction.



by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 7

Happy Norwegian Independence Day! I grew up in a little town west of Seattle called Poulsbo, a once tiny Norwegian fishing village on Puget Sound full of Scandinavian immigrants who made their living on the water, where, when I was a kid, May 17 and Viking Fest were bigger than the 4th of July!

And on a more somber note, tomorrow,  May 18, is the 39th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State’s Cascade Range. Though my immediate family and I were not directly affected by the eruption—my uncle 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, actually had more ash fall on his car than we did living only 250 miles north and west of the mountain—it is, nevertheless, one of those events I will never forget, the memory of which acts as a continual reminder of how little control we human beings really have over this tiny planet we call home.

And now, on to more storytelling . . .

Strategic Thinking: How Thorough Topic Analysis Can Build a Strong Foundation forstrategic-thinking-1-638 Effective Writing

Have you ever picked up a book or a magazine article that looked interesting, then started to read it only to find the author was more interested in preaching than storytelling? This can happen all too easily if we’re not careful. Most writers have something important to say, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, but it is just as important to think strategically about our subject matter lest we become so immersed in whatever issue we’re tackling that our story gets lost in the argument. Writing can change minds and hearts, just as performance drama can, but beware of biting off more than you can comfortably chew and letting the topic eclipse the story rather than letting the story illuminate the topic.

What Is Strategic Thinking?

Let me give you an example that goes back to my librarian days, when one of my biggest tasks was to help undergraduates create research strategies that would allow them to successfully write a paper or complete another project that would fulfill an assignment on their syllabus.

Librarian: What can I help you with today?

Student: I need to write a five-page paper, and my professor wants us to use four scholarly sources.

Librarian: Okay. I can help you with that. What is your topic?

Student: Pollution.

Librarian: That’s a pretty big topic for only a five-page paper, so let’s try to narrow that down a bit. What is it about pollution that interests you?

Student: Nothing. I just need to write about pollution.

Librarian (trying again): The thing is, entire encyclopedia have been written on this huge, umbrella topic, so you will need to identify some part of the topic that you can address in only five pages. For example . . .

This is where the librarian goes on to help the student think strategically about the topic of pollution, which leads to a subtopic narrow enough for a 5-page research paper:

Laura_Narrowing Topics

Such topic analysis can build a strong foundation for effective writing, and without it, writers can flounder in a mass of too much information. Smaller and narrower can prove more effective and manageable than bigger and broader, allowing the writer to write really well on a very specific topic—or on only one aspect of a much larger topic.

If you ever wonder just how narrow you can go, click into an online university library catalog and look up PhD dissertations. For all that they can provide massive studies, at the core you will find a seemingly insignificant subtopic under one of their discipline’s massive umbrella topics. You will find PhDs are rarely generalists, even within their own discipline. Likewise, those who write popular nonfiction of any length can make their work much more effective using the same strategy. 

Strategic Thinking in Fiction

This same kind of strategic thinking can also help when writing fiction. For example, let’s look at the topic of pollution. Perhaps, like me, you’ve seen the commercial on T.V. in which two young men are pitching their plastic bracelets made from recycled plastics and glass recovered from the Pacific Ocean. These two surfers tell a brief story of how they were on a surfing vacation and discovered just how big plastic pollution is in the ocean and what they are trying to do about it. They are telling their personal story—and it is a compelling one. What other personal story might you write about the same topic?

Of course, fictional and factual writing are not the same thing, but you could still deal with pollution in a fictional story. If I were to write one, it might be about what my city’s efforts to eradicate mosquitoes is doing to our local honey bee and firefly populations. It’s sad, but true, that controlling mosquitoes for the sake of combating the West Nile virus has an adverse effect on other insects. Just as DDT all but ended malaria in certain parts of the world but caused such devastation to the bird populations they stopped spraying it, which only led to an increase in malaria, causing more human deaths. This topic has been tackled widely in both the scientific and popular news literature, but it would also make for good fiction.
For these kinds of topics to work in a story, however, a writer needs to strategically analyze the topic and find the human-interest among the facts. For example, you could write about a farming family’s plight,when their fruit crops decline as the result of the death of their honey bee population. Do your research and get the facts right—that’s first—but then find that human-interest nugget that can bring the huge umbrella topic down not only to a digestible bite but to a story that will catch your readers’ interest. Yes, fiction writers can write about pollution—and any other topic under the sun—if they feel called to do so, but how much more effective a short story, a poem, a song, or even a novel would be if it were about a little girl or boy who asks, Where Have All the Fireflies Gone? 

Next time, we’ll look at Aristotle’s Three Unities: Action, Time, and Place.



by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 


Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links