Archive for March, 2011

Fiction That Wows: Theme Vs. Plot

Some writers, in particular newbies to the writing/publishing world, tend to confuse “theme” and “plot” when writing their short stories, novels, or series. Some writers use the terms interchangeably, which is in err.

So, what exactly are these two important entities that every clever writer uses effectively in his/her writing? How does an author incorporate the two to make a fiction piece that wows?

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines theme as: “a recurring, unifying subject or idea.” It defines plot as: “the plan of action of a play, short story, poem, or novel.”

Now, did you catch the two key words that really define “theme” and “plot?”

Very simply defined, theme = IDEA. Plot = ACTION.

When incorporating your theme, think IDEA. The theme is the philosophy, the moral background, or the religious belief behind your story. A theme is not stated with words anywhere in your writing, except possibly in your proposal to an editor. Your reader should never see a sentence in your novel that says something like this: “The theme of this novel is ‘Be sure your sin will find you out.’” The theme is a “hidden” or underlying message that the reader will sense in your writing and embrace or reject when he gets to the last page.

Let’s look at a few examples of “theme” and “plot” to clarify their definitions and role in the writing of a novel.

 Examples of “Theme:”

(There are dozens, if not hundreds, of themes you can embrace. The theme will evolve from your own personal view of life)           

  • Forgiveness is possible
  • The love of money is the root of all evil
  • Persistence pays off
  • Unconditional love
  • Loyalty to family and friends

 Examples of “Plot:”

(Every book has a different plot; thus, there are zillions of plot ideas)

  • A boy and dog are separated, but the dog finds his way back to the boy.
  • A foster girl who hates everyone and herself is sent by the court to live with Christian parents who have a special needs horse ranch
  • A large book store owner forces a small book store owner out of business
  • When a man, his wife, and daughter agree to move in with an elderly woman and become her housekeepers, they discover shocking secrets from her past.
  • A woman wins twenty million dollars in the lottery but gambles it away and loses everything, even her home and car, in three months.

There you have a very simple sampling of what “theme” and “plot” are all about. As an exercise to stretch your theme/plot brain cells, take the two lists I’ve given you. For the themes, write a one-to-two-sentence plot for each. Remember to include action. For the list of plots, write matching themes, and remember to portray “ideas,” not action in the themes.

Let’s see how you do working with these two writing entities. Get a good handle on the definitions and use of these two words, and you’ll improve your writing in leaps and bounds.  (Underlying theme in my last paragraph = “persistence in learning pays off.”)

Next time, we’ll discuss some tips in writing your first draft. What should you do? What shouldn’t you do?





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Fiction That Wows: Character Sketches Build Character!

 Several blogs ago, I discussed creating characters and plots that are outside the box. In other words, you should create unique characters and plots that are different from the norm; yet, your reader would be able to identify with or feel sympathy toward at least one of the characters and would want to jump right into your book and be a part of the “scenery.”

Today, let’s discuss the importance of keeping good notes such as character sketches. Whether you’re writing juvenile fiction with a handful of characters or you’re tackling adult fiction that might have a dozen or so characters, you need to “know your people.” This is so vitally important if you’re going to write adult fiction with different points of view. (P.O.V.) You must know the character like a brother or consider him your best friend so you can get inside his head.

While writing ten tween books and just recently an Amish romance for adults, I found that the biggest difference in how I handled writing the manuscripts has been character development. With tween books, character development can be shallow. Basically, all you need are five or six poignant details about the main characters, and you can fill in the blanks as you go. However, with an adult fiction manuscript that could be 50,000 to over 100,000 words long with multiple scenes in each chapter and numerous P.O.V.s, I discovered that I had to have more detailed descriptions of all the characters, which included not only how they looked (appearance) but also how they felt about certain issues (philosophy or religious beliefs), why they thought or acted certain ways (background), and their circle of influence. (In Amish fiction, each family member is vitally important so I had to almost make a family tree for each main character.) 

I’ve heard of authors who write such details about their characters that they give them a birth date, birthplace, and an actual family tree. They list their characters’ likes and dislikes; they name their characters’ best friends and enemies; they list the places the characters have visited, the education they’ve received, and the foods they like and dislike. Yadah, yadah, yadah.

“Whoa!” You might say. “Enough is enough. I’m not going to all that work before I even start.

Well, those authors who do that are some of the best-selling ones. They know their “Bill” and “Susie” inside and out and no trouble writing what “Bill” would do if he saw a baby sparrow fall out of its nest or what “Susie” would do if her husband came home without the milk she reminded him to pick up at the store.

So how far you want to delve into character development is your choice. I have found that the more prep time I take to get to know Bill or Susie, the less time I waste with hashing out all those details when I get to a crossroad that requires the characters to act a certain way. In the long run, I think detailed character sketches make a writer a better craftsman all around, no matter how much time it takes.

So, weigh the work involved, and, maybe, just for practice, try writing a detailed character sketch. You might just enjoy yourself and find a brand new best friend!

Next time we’ll discuss the difference between “theme” and “plot.”

Happy writing! Marsha




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Fiction That Wows: Writing an “Outline” First

Writing an “outline” before you actually begin your fiction manuscript is one of those options that each writer must decide whether he/she wants to use. In my opinion, it’s a necessary nifty little tool of organization that helps move the writing process forward.

Let’s first define “outline.” A manuscript outline is NOT:









III.    Etcetera 

Where the term “outline” ever came from is beyond me. Maybe that’s what scares some writers into running the opposite direction when the word is mentioned at writers’ conferences.

 So, what is a manuscript outline?

Simply put, it’s a short paragraph or two written in third person with NO dialogue that cites the main characters and describes the action and scenes in each chapter. It’s a roadmap, if you will, that gets the author to the end of each of his/her chapters and, eventually, to the end of his/her story. Using a chapter outline usually expedites the thinking and writing process and helps you get finished much quicker than if you’re wandering in “I don’t know what to write next” Land.

I, for one, must have an outline, skimpy as it might be, that takes my characters to a climax near the end of the story and then to a final resolution. The outline gives me direction so that I know what the characters must accomplish or must face before the last page. In my latest manuscript, an Amish fiction entitled LOVE SONG FOR LOUELLEN, I also made a detailed list of every character. (We’ll discuss “character sketches” next time.)

Back to outlines. I’ve met authors at writers’ conferences who have the “Come What May” writing style. They state that they like to start with a few main characters and a skeletal storyline and start writing to see what happens!

 Frankly, that would drive me crazy, and I’d probably still be writing my first manuscript, which would be about 2500 pages long by now. My head would be spinning just as my characters would be, never getting anywhere or seeing anything happen. (In fact, I know a few unpublished writers who are caught in this trap. They never finish their project because they have no idea where their characters are heading!)

Below I’ve listed a short example of three chapter outlines for one of my published works. Take a look and decide which kind of writer you are. Are you an “outliner” or not? If you haven’t considered writing outlines before you tackle that fiction manuscript, maybe you should. You might get finished much quicker than you ever dreamed.

Sample Outline for Three Chapters for:




Chapter Outline


The Long Ride Home

Will foster kid Skye find her real parents?

 Chapter One

 It’s summertime! Mr. and Mrs. Chambers, Morgan and Skye have just finished showing their horses in equine events at a horse show in Virginia. Now they and their four horses are on their way to South Carolina where, for two weeks, they’ll serve as short-term staff at Ralston’s Rocking Horse Ranch, a Christian special needs summer camp. There the four plan to give lessons in horse care and riding and help in the kitchen. After that, they plan to attend at least a half dozen other horse shows where they’ll show the horses and compete to try to win blue ribbons and cash prizes.

Close to Charleston, they pull off the interstate and have lunch at a diner. Their meal is interrupted when a waitress drops a full tray of food right near their table. She tells the Chambers’ family that hearing Skye Nicholson’s name startled her. She asks that they meet her when she leaves work in an hour to discuss something very important about Skye’s real family. 

Chapter Two

 The Chambers and the girls wait for the hour and meet the waitress in the parking lot when she comes off duty. The woman, Millie Grove, pulls a photo from her wallet, which shows her holding a three-year-old child whom she claims is Skye. Millie says she’s the sister of Skye’s father, Kent Nicholson, who had married Rita Ulmer sixteen years ago. She relates that both parents battled with drug and alcohol abuse, and three years into their marriage, they were both in a serious car accident that claimed the life of a young mother in a second car. Because Kent was DUI, he was he was sentenced to ten years in prison for vehicular homicide. Rita testified against him, and he threatened to get even with her, so she entered the witness protection program and changed her name. She promptly divorced Kent, left Skye with Millie, and moved away without leaving any forwarding address. Millie never heard from her again and tells Skye that there’s a slim chance that Rita might be living in Pennsylvania close to her only sister.  She also says that although she tried to keep in touch with her brother, he severed all ties with her and refuses to see her or write to her. When Rita left, Millie was a single mother with two of her own children, so she had no choice but to place Skye into foster care.

            When Skye shares that she desperately wants to find out about her parents, Millie gives her the only information she has, the name of the prison where Kent had served and the name of a fellow inmate, a friend of Millie’s, who knew Kent and Rita.

 Chapter Three

 The Chambers decide that Skye’s quest to find her roots is most important in her life at this time and rearrange their summer to help Skye. After fulfilling their commitment at the dude ranch, they decide to dedicate the rest of the summer to tracking down Skye’s parents.

            When doing research about the prison where Kent had been serving, the Chambers’ family finds out that Kent served his full sentence and was released. They also meet Ralph Mowry, the inmate who knew Kent. He tells them that Kent went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to start his life over, and Rita went somewhere in NYC, the only lead Skye has to finding either of her parents. Skye goes online with her laptop and finds three men with the name “Kent Nicholson” in the Gatlinburg area.


There you have a sample of an outline for three of my chapters in the last book in the Keystone Stables Series, THE LONG RIDE HOME. I couldn’t have written eight different manuscripts with completely different storylines if I hadn’t had an outline for each book. Skye would probably be floating around in the clouds harping about something and never get to first base in the first chapter of the first book!

So, consider writing chapter outlines to get your manuscript on the move. By the way, when you send a proposal to an agent or an editor at a publishing company, they just might ask for that chapter outline, so why don’t you start writing yours today!


(web) www.marshahubler.com

(horsie stuff) www.horsefactsbymarshahubler.wordpress.com

(writers conference info) www.susquehannavalleywritersworkshop.wordpress.com

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Fiction That Wows: Write “Outside the Box”

Here we go again with one of those strange authorish terms that sometimes needs clarification, especially for beginning writers.

Writing “outside the box” simply means creating characters and plots that are different from the norm. The characters are unique; yet your reader will identify or sympathize with them and will want to jump right into your story. Your plots will keep the reader on the edge of his seat, and he’ll not want to put your book down.

So, how do you as a clever writer manage this state of affairs? And how is your story different from the thousands of other manuscripts that are submitted to editors every year?

Mary loves John; Mary loses John; Mary gets John back. (Yawn)

Let’s look at some samples of ho-hum characters and potential boring plots. As an exercise, I’d like you to change the characters and the storyline so that your reader would want to find out more and keep turning the page. If you wish, please e-mail your suggestions to me. If they’re clever, I might post them in my next blog:


• Mary is 29 years old w/ brown hair and dull hazel eyes. She’s 50 pounds overweight.

• She lives in Philly in a rented brownstone.

• She works at a near-by Wal-Mart within walking distance.

• She’s always had a dream to go to Hawaii. So far she’s saved $298.16 toward her trip.


• John is sixteen. He is an average student at the local public high school.

• He’s waited for years and years to get his driver’s license.

• He has five brothers and sisters, so his parents don’t have the money to get him his own car, so he decides to steal one after he gets his license.

• His best friend, Bob, talks John out of stealing the car and convinces him to get a job at mini-mart to buy his car instead.

I have one word to describe these characters and storylines: BORING! Please help these poor souls get out of their pathetic, humdrum boxes!

And just for fun, check out these short scenarios. Work on them to make them come alive!

• A family with three kids is shipwrecked on an island but manages to row ashore in a raft to a nearby port.

• A little girl in her backyard finds a rabbit hole and a nest of baby bunnies.

• A ten-year-old boy wants a dog badly. He saves for six months and buys a golden retriever puppy.

In fact, if you’re up on your kiddie lit, you should be able to name three very famous books and/or movies that got all these characters and storylines “out of the box.”

Next time, we’ll discuss the importance of writing an “outline” before starting the manuscript.

Happy writing!






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