Here’s the “but.” I returned from a Gulf Coast vacation on fire with ideas for a couple of stories:

An allegory with a dolphin character on the search for peace in the ocean, finding the way troubled by greed…and then a theme of generosity.

  • A suspense/thriller novel about the trafficking of young girls, their escape and emergence as strong young women. (Less details about this one.)


As those of you who write will understand, the need for more time to write cries out. And so, I’ll be letting both blogs ( and this one, “go dark”

Carmen with her Texas books–Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History and Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie. Both are available from bookstores, Amazon and the publisher, .

while I spin my way through these new stories, exciting, but a far cry from my history books…

BUT…we can stay in touch through my web site: and email: mailto:[email protected] if you’d like a speaker on a writing topic for class, program or conference. I’ll still be doing these, just fewer. All in the plan to carve out writing time.

Thanks for understanding!

I PLAN… to keep writing tips coming, along with historical stories, in my newsletter, “Scribblers Note” that comes out every month or two. So… join me there.

When the new books are complete and I’ve caught my “writerly breath” I’ll return to Thank you for joining me these last couple of years.

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Q. Subplots are what?

A. A plot within a story that is less important to the main plot yet ties in with the main plot.

The Antagonist will have a subplot (goal or conflict) that should disrupt, be in conflict with, the POV character’s goal or conflict. Both POV and Antagonist have supporting characters (major secondary characters). They too will have goals and conflicts THAT INTERSECT  THE MAIN CHARACTER’S.


Carmen Goldthwaite

When I wanted to flesh out the antagonist in my story, Whispering Spirit; make him more human, show a tender side, more three-dimensional, I developed this story line, subordinate to the main character’s plot:

                He promised his dying mother that he would produce an heir to the name Larchmont. Yet, his true love he had stashed away on the island of St. Lucia. She didn’t fit into his aristocratic society as a quadroon. He couldn’t afford to claim children by her.

This additional story, additional to the main, provides his motivation to adopt the main character’s little brother and puts him squarely at odds with her goal of keeping and caring for her brother, the primary conflict or plot.

Subplots are stories within the main story — “mini plots.” But they aren’t simple stories just to offer a pause, a break from the main plot. Like all story elements, subplots need to connect and relate to the main story, to have a purpose that leads to a stronger story.


Subplots lend heft to any story, fact or fiction. It’s one  of many elements that I’ll be teaching this fall at SMU in Narrative NonFiction: The Proposal. Narrative Non Fiction, also known as Creative Nonfiction, combines the drama of storytelling with the authenticity of true events and people. If interested, contact either: information or to register or we can chat at [email protected].  

CLASS STARTS MONDAY, SEPT. 12. Check it out!


Structured like any story, this story within a story, the subplot has a beginning, middle and end. Its main job is to enhance what the protagonist is learning and help drive the action and theme. And that means when we reach the ending of the story, these subplots need to be resolved on the journey to the resolution of the main plot or story line.

Subplots provide layers that permeate the main story, so that the story comes alive. They can:

  • prove your protagonist’s life
  • weave into the situation
  • take the pressure off the story—love interests in a subplot often do this especially well.
  • add complexity
  • reveal growth and change
  • flesh out the story
  • provide context
  • add to tension/suspense
  • deepen characters
  • drive the story

Not all stories have subplots; short stories and novellas usually don’t have them due to the limits of length. Some novels don’t employ a subplot. Just let the richness in characters, their points of view and the main plot drive the story without separate story lines.

But to go deeper to add complications, connect characters, and enlarge the story’s world, use a subplot.


  • Can your first paragraph arouse curiosity by withholding a piece of information till later?
  • Does your story set up a question of controversy and not answer or resolve it immediately?
  • Are you loading in facts that unnecessarily diminish suspense early?
  • Have you described an action that may arouse curiosity but that isn’t explained in the same paragraph?
  • Can you convert any sentence to a question that will arouse curiosity rather than satisfy it?

THANKS FOR JOINING ME here at AND, thanks to a terrific writerly resource for the rich article, “Developing Subplots,” in Writer’s Digest Magazine, March/April 2013, that I used to clarify and compliment my efforts in teaching this technique.






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Beats, 6 Steps to Stronger Dialogue

Stronger dialogue plus a “beat…” More than rhythm.

Beats are those pauses in dialogue,  layers of speech, thought and/or action. Providing a “beat” can rev up the tension, rivet attention to the character, reward the reader with an aspect that movies, films, TV and video games don’t.


manual typewriterThoughts. A thought is a beat. It’s when the main character is engaged in a scene; there’s a pause, and the main or POV character pauses for a thought, a reason or memory or a new decision. Something like this:


                Frenchie shouldered him and Cather­ine tagged behind, Papa’s last words, “…get a room by the dock,” forming a kernel of hope. (A MEMORY)

                Will would not cause us this pain…” She choked and couldn’t go on for in telling Jean Paul, the truth hit her.  (Reasoning)

 Actions (gestures) are beats:


The cook, short and wiry, wiped his hands on a gray rag tied about his waist. “We’re not going’ to hurt you, mon petite, nor your sister.” 

Facial expressions are beats:


Catherine bit her lip. “This is exciting. Did you feel the boat move? She responds just like my papa´s horses.”

 THE ABSOLUTE BEST way to develop a voluminous vocabulary2015-09-20 17.17.06 - Copy (3) of thoughts, gestures, facial expressions (drawn from my experience of years of journalistic reporting and writing, watching people so I can write them in a way the reader can see, hear and imagine):

  1. Study people.
  2. Include yourself. What are the gestures you use when wanting to make a point in an argument, when wanting to show fear, when wanting to override fear with confidence you didn’t quite believe in.
  3. Strangers in a café. Glance around (don’t stare as your Mom might say and as mine often did), but what are they doing while they’re talking.
  4. Can you surmise what emotion they’re expressing with the combination of words and actions? Then you can guess what their inner life might look like, what kind of person they are, what kind of values, what kind of emotional scars.
  5. Do gestures and facial expressions match the personality they exhibit? Or, not? Then, if you’re a fiction writer you’ve lots of room to imagine why and why not.
  • Appearance—tall, short, handsome, ugly, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, young, black, well-groomed or sloppy, old or young, good posture or bad.
  • Speech—individualizes. Habitual expressions such as “Well, now…” or “so…” or “Looking at this football wise…” Speech reflects background, experience, occupation, social status, psychology, etc. etc. etc.
  • Mannerisms—scowl, flutter, hand-rubbers, ear-lobe tuggers, eye-dodgers, buttonholers. The doodler, the nail-cleaner, the pipe-puffer, the gesticulator and the seat-squirmer.
  • Attitude—habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain or shy, obsequious or habit of command.


  • Deliver emotional content for the scene, of the character or characters.
  • Turn up the tension by slowing the scene at a critical moment.
  • Provide breathing space in an emotionally tense scene.
  • They distinguish and individualize the people in our stories.


I BELIEVE IN ONLY ONE RULE FOR WRITING: “Don’t Lose the Reader.” That applies to dialogue and beats, too, such as:

DON’t let your character chatter away…our readers won’t listen (read) them anymore than we do when trapped by such a chatterbox.

HERE’S A TEST!  Take a chapter, or scene. Highlight all the beats.

  • Too many? Too few? Interrupt the pace? Scene needs texture, resonance?
  • Are more of them actions? Or thoughts/inner monologue?
  • What do your beats describe? Everyday actions such as dialing a phone, buying groceries? How often do you repeat a beat? Are your characters always looking out of windows or lighting cigarettes?
  • Do your beats help illuminate your character? Are they individual (particular) or general actions anyone might do under just about any circumstances?
  • Do your beats fit the rhythm of your dialogue? Read it aloud and find out.
  • Have you used thoughts to explain what your dialogue shows? Have you used thoughts or narrative summary to tell a reader what the character is feeling?

Thanks for joining me today at and this discussion about the “silent” components of dialogue (conversation), thoughts and physical actions (face, hand, walk, etc.) I also thank one of my guides, actually THE BEST guide for crafting dialogue and which I’ve used to write this blog (as well as experience of course),Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Hope you enjoy the discussion. Send me a note. Subscribe (it’s free). Or contact me through my web page, or email to: [email protected] I’d love to hear from you!




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Find the `Universal Chord’ to Write a Powerful Personal Story

Memoir, Essay, Personal Narrative–Different forms of the Personal Story

Students who show up in my “SMU Memoir, Essay and Personal Narrative” classes come with powerful stories–and wisdom–to tell and to write. So, the first task is to figure out just which form of the personal story is right for each person and their story.

To start with, Memoir is best defined as: “memory, written memory.” It’s when a writer explores a memory in order to understand it better. “These explorations will often result in the discovery of a larger human truth.”


As with many forms of writing, the “just right way to write” shifts and changes with trends over time. In years past the right way may have been a long reflection over what happened and what did it mean. In another period, more recent, it might be all story…tell the story with all the techniques with which you’d write a fiction story.

Today, though, a blend is favored–part story, part reflection. It’s like master essayist Phillip Lopate said, “If writers do everything in scenes and dialogue, they’re not using one of the most powerful tools of the memoir and essay, which is reflection, making sense of the experiences.”

One student recently asked me, “what’s your favorite memoir story?”



One Week from Today (June 6) NEW MEMOIR CLASS STARTS AT SMU. Contact SMU at for registration info for “Memoir, Essay, Personal Narrative” or to chat about the class [email protected].


“It would have to be `Burgers and Butterflies’, in The Magic of Mothers and Daughters” I said. “That’s the story of my last months with my Mom. It came to me one night sitting at anchor in my sailboat on Lake Texoma.”

I was fortunate that Chicken Soup of the Soul picked it up. Writing the story helped me write through the grief, sort out life absent my Mom. Once published, I’ve received emails from around the world saying that it touched “a chord” in other people’s experiences of loss and grief and love. And that’s the aim of a personal story whether it’s crafted as memoir, essay or personal narrative. We create that by telling our truths, sorting through our emotions, giving the reader specific details to resonate to.

The Best Memoirs

Because the best memoirs braid stories with reflection, the author’s contemplation, then 2015-10-11 10.43.59 (2)we’ll visit about that, too, offering an understanding of what transpired, of what emotions showed up or found hiding places and what decisions we made as a result.

We’ll follow the path of this slice of our life and see how our experiences, motivations and reactions joggle the reader’s memory. That’s what good memoirs do, don’t they? It’s also what good prose does, fiction or nonfiction.

For a long time I knew I enjoyed some memoirs so much better than others.
Most I read were crafted in story form. But the ones I cherished were those that wove in the reflection, analysis, reactions and decisions that accompanied the story so that by the end I knew so much more about the author’s life and thoughts and feelings. I didn’t understand that difference, that it’s the reflection that made those I cherished so worthy, until I studied Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell and the anthology of essays he collected, The Art of the Personal Essay.

memoirWhat’s important for the memoir writer is to cleave to our truth–not sister Sue’s or brother John’s, Aunt Sally’s or Grandpa’s. Others’ perceptions will differ from ours. But ours is the truth for us; theirs for them, co-equal. When a writer is composing a memoir or essay, it’s the writer’s truth that must flow onto the page.

A number of my writing students—both in the Writing Circles and at SMU–question themselves when writing their story because an older sister, aunt or parent remembered an occasion differently. That’s ok. While it’s a good idea to get time and place nailed down—something older family members can help with–in order to draw an accurate word picture of where and when this slice of life occurred, it’s essential to recognize that the assessments made, emotions felt and reactions experienced belong heart and soul and pen to the writer.

Some good questions to ask (of yourself) might include: *

  • How did I feel about my family and my role in the family? Then? Now? What Changed? Why or How?

  • How did I feel about my physical features? Height? Weight? Gender? Eye and hair color? Academic prowess, or not? Athletic, or not? Etc.

  • What was the family’s sense of the neighborhood—fitting in, or not; proud, or not; ashamed, or not, etc. (Neighborhood can be defined from your block to the school, town, community, suburb, city or state, etc. Once again, this is your story, the writer’s story, so what’s important to you is what you focus on.)

* Even if I’m writing about a period in my fifties, I’ll probably find both treasures and trash picked up way back in my teens that continued to play a role on the stage of my later life. Recognizing these holdovers from yesteryear adds depth to memoir and the personal essay.

Start with a Timeline           

As with any storytelling, it’s a good idea to establish a timeline for the period you want to cover. Tristine Rainer in her book, Your Life as Story, suggests starting with birth and going forward in seven-year increments; or, starting now and working back in seven-year segments. By examining what happened in our lives (external events) and how we reacted (internal events), in these time periods, we’ll hit on an era that’s just right.

Maybe something happens and the results spin out for a number of years—10, 20, etc. Maybe the writer will hone in on a 15-month period—deployment to Afghanistan (of self or loved one). Maybe the writer seeks answers to choices made during that tumultuous sophomore year at college—questions like “why did I do that?” “What happened as a result?” “What if?”

By chance we’ll also learn, while plotting this timeline of events and reactions, what we want to say. What experience and emotions will resonate with the reader, the message our life story offers. Once we identify that thread, we’ll have a story that takes us by the hand and writes–through tears and laughter–the personal story rich with specific details of what happened, authentic with a weal of emotions experienced or stuffed.

Thanks for joining me this week for “Scribblers Tips…” I hopeCarmen Goldthwaite your Memorial Day holiday has sizzled with joy, love and memories…while making new ones. Don’t forget to chime in here. Make a comment. Share your memories. Ask a question. Pass along a  hint…share this blog with other writerly friends!





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Copyright…Trivia it ain’t!


In the long ago, writers copied teachers and others with larger reputations than the writer, people with prestige and influence like Socrates or Plato, or Aristotle. With no repercussion except perhaps a bit of shadow fame.

While taking a course at Brite Divinity School at my alma mater, TCU, this winter-spring, I was exposed to life in “the ancient world” and that included writers of that time. The notion of deliberate copying, of writing something and slapping a prominent person’s name on it for the added “rep” just jars my 20th-21st Century sensibilities.

Contact CarmenSince I teach copyright and permissions info in my classes at SMU–due to start up June 2 for Creative Writing Foundations and June 6 for Memoir–this ancient world info jolted my curiosity. For info on these contact:( or me at

Naturally, this view that stretched back a couple of thousand years–before moveable type–set me to wondering. Just when did copyright come into being? So, I searched among our friend Google and some legal summaries. Lo and behold, the French did it first in the late 15th Century, nearly a century before William Shakespeare first published his works. Yet, the Brits didn’t pass copyright protection until a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, 1716, to be exact, the law called the Statute of Anne.

The U. S. trailed and then patterned our first copyright protection along the lines of that Statute of Anne in 1790, although three years earlier some protection was granted in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U. S. Constitution… “securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Now, as a teacher of creative writing, it’s quite normal for me to suggest to students that they be keenly aware of protecting their assets—their writing—and securing permission when calling on the assets, the writings of others.

Probably they aren’t as interested in this law, and perhaps you aren’t either, but it’s a curiosity itch I had to scratch.

And if you’re so inclined, the history of this massive protection is a bit interesting, so here’s a brief sketch:

  • Our young country recognized the need to protect the rights of writers, artists and scientists, codifying copyright protection with the Copyright Act of 1790. Like the big sister, England’s law, the U. S. act became known as “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning by Securing the Copies of Maps, Charts and Books to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies.” This law provided for a 14 year protection for the author with a 14-year extension if the author was alive.
  • Revision of the Copyright Act came about, the first one that is, in 1831 when the time of protection was extended to 28 years.
  • This lasted another 40 years before the next revision, which moved copyright registrations from the courts to the Library of Congress, where it still is.
  • A treaty, the “Berne Convention,” 1886, provided European nations with common copyright protection and set the limit of copyright at “life of the author plus 50 years” and included newer technologies.
  • In 1891 authors, publishers and printers’ unions supported an international copyright bill.
  • Early in the 20th Century – 1909–a major revision of the U. S. laws took place broadening “the scope of categories protected to include all works of authorship, and extended the term of protection to 28 years with the possible renewal of another 28 years.
  • In our U. S. Bicentennial year, 1976, the last major revision of Copyright law took place, aligning the U. S. with the international law by extending the term to life of the author plus 50 years (“works for hire protected for 75 years). The new law extended protection to unpublished works, a PLUS for writers seeking their first publications.
  • In 1988, the U. S. signed on to the “Berne Convention,” broadening international protection AND…read this as very important to the new writer…eliminated the “requirement of copyright notice for copyright protection.” This means that as I type this, as words stream out across your pages…they’re copyrighted.

AND…any questions about your writing and your rights, or the rights of others you’d like to pursue, here’s an indispensable organization, accountants and lawyers who can answer questions: Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts; PO Box 144722, Austin, TX 78714; 512.459.8252 or 800.526.8252 Fax: 512.247.2538 and the all important electronic addresses: [email protected] or [email protected]. Two dynamic women run this: Executive Director Alissa McCain, and Legal Director Angela L. Lee.

Be sure to say thanks. It’s an invaluable service! And I thank them and the Association of Research Libraries for the current and historical information on our oh, so important–not trivial–protection of a writer’s prime asset…their written words.






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Setting: What It Is? What It Is Not?

Setting, the Story World of the Person or Fictional Character of Your Story

Setting. It’s required. I’ve had editors say, “If there’s no setting…there’s no story.” Setting is not what the reader skips over. Readers skip over descriptions that wander, details impertinent to the tale. They don’t skip over setting that reveals.

NOTE: this post like so many of mine stress the similarity of fictional stories and factual stories. We use the same narrative elements, one is fact or narrative/creative nonfiction, the other fiction, whether novel or short story.

So what is setting that reveals? It’s that sense of time and place in which the Point of View (or main character—real or fictional) moves, breathes and exhibits a sense of being. It’s like one editor said: “The reader enters the story wanting to know 3 things:

  1. “Where am I? (That includes a sense of time and space)
  2. “What’s up? (What’s happening? The premise, the plot.)
  3. “Who do I care for?” (That’s the main or point of view character—real or fictional)

With those 3 simple questions answered the reader can engage in the story. Without either elements–context, conflict, character? It most likely produces a yawn, the story slammed aside in preference to a story where the author delivers answers to those three questions early in the introduction of the story.

While at first I resisted mystery writer Hallie Ephron’s suggestions about drawing, I resisted because, believe me, I can’t draw stick figures. But…here’s what I found about her considerable wisdom on the writing front:Artist's Palette With Brushes

“SKETCH YOUR SETTING—what makes your place real.” Whether it’s a room, a building, town or city, suburb or forest. “As your characters step out into one building, need to know what’s next to them. Do a sketch of the layout.”

I tried that, even for an 1817 story. I had my main character step out of a trading post. When I wrote the story, that’s all I wrote about it. But after I followed Hallie’s advice, drawing, in my limited fashion, I could “see” what the character saw once outside, here’s what I added:


“Catherine Marie set foot on the pine needle carpet below the first step. To her right, the corral, fenced with pine rails, a sizable pen for this point in the trail from Charleston. She might reach her horse but all the others would whinny, alerting those inside.

She turned away. In front of her, just a few paces, spilled the flood-stage Santee River, home to alligators and cypress knees and Lord knows what. Off to the left, and toward the rear of the trading post, an open field. Although the moon lit it up, as fast as she was, Catherine bet she could dash through the weeds and get away. She edged toward the corner of the trader’s cabin, part trading post, part saloon, hunkering in its shadow. She would make it.”

Let me know if that bit of setting added some tension? Some suspense? To the tale? That’s how we make setting work for us. It’s not just pallid description.

It’s significant pieces of the locale’s environment that we can use in the plot because it’s in the main character’s point of view, it’s in her deliberations about what might work to escape, what won’t. In other words, it shows, not tells.

And that’s what we want to do throughout any scene about setting and its particular details.

It’s like another Mystery Writer, Reid Coleman said: In the service of the book, the narrative, if the description doesn’t move the plot along, build the character, give you a sense of tone, it doesn’t belong. Description is the last resort of bad writing.

MWA NY LOGOA couple of years ago, the Mystery Writers association held one of its annual “Mystery Writers University” in Dallas. It was chock full of great story wisdom and experience that I draw on whenever I start pounding the keys, even like now. If such an event is near you, let me urge you to take advantage of the experience! I’m not a member, but a fan of the stories…and the writerly education. Thank you, folks!

And…thanks for joining me this week at Join the conversation: leave a note in the comment box or email me at [email protected] Subscribe. I’ll look  to hearing from you!

Have fun writing and let me hear about your experiences!

Carmen Goldthwaite…

Writing Instructor: Teaching in my Fort Worth home; SMU’s Writing Path and various conferences and conventions. Contact: [email protected] or visit if you’d like to visit about a writing program.


AuthorTexas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History & Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie. 

Storyteller: contact [email protected] for a program on Texas history, her women, her icons and major events across the prairies, plains, mountains and deserts.

Check out: for topic suggestions.






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CHARACTER ARC: How Your Character Changes as THE Result of the Plot


HERE ARE TWO key questions in developing a storyimages(2).

  •  What will your narrative or character arc be?
  • What forces will drive the character to seek wholeness?               

“Start at the end.” That numbers among the best points of advice I’ve ever received. And so, it’s top among tips I pass along. In fact, over the weekend, and over the fence, I visited with a young teacher about this. It’s what my story mentor (Jack Ballas) suggested early in my efforts to add fiction to my panoply of writing skills. It certainly helps with developing the character arc!

Today, in my Writing Circle, I carried on with that advice, this time to some memoir/personal story writers.

  • Who are you at the end of the story?
  • Or, more precisely, who are you when you’re at the end of what slice of your life you wish to write about?


SMU Writing classes start back next week. On Monday I’ll teach a fun mix of “short works”– short fiction, short nonfiction along with tips to get them published. Class is “Write Now! and meets for 5 weeks, 6-9 pm, Mar. 21 – Apr. 18). JOIN US! 


manual typewriterThen, to enhance the Character Arc, I urge:

  • “Write that ending.
  • “Describe who you are (or who a fictional character is) at the end point in time they’re writing about.
  • “How do you or they walk and carry themselves?
  • “How do you or they dress or wear your or their hair?
  • “What is it about them, or you, that’s different from the person (or character ) that you began the story with?”

SHOW that difference. SHOW the “now” of who you or they are (real or fictional characters) at the end of the story.

Develop the character arc, or change, with specifics—those details we keep talking about—and you’ll be able to chart a path towaard that end with a plot that shows the journey you or your character have taken.

Something else I mentioned in class today is the ancient wisdom embedded in the craft of writing. I’m studying a New Testament course at Brite Divinity, studying the stories. These stories follow the same path as do ours today and the path gifted to us through Aristotle in his Poetica, dated about 322 B.C.E.

As with many of us, philosophers have and do criticize him for this book, yet storytellers in print, film and digital embrace much of his instruction of story structure: a character, a conflict, a context, action(s) and dialogue. And with emotions!

So…back to your story.

While planning the story, working toward that ending point previously mentioned, a key question to ask is:

What has come apart at the beginning?

  • Change of fortune
  • Result of a sequence of connected events
  • Hero/Heroine changed
  • Caused an audience to recognize the human condition

Does that Evoke Emotions?

               Change should. Change of events, of environment, etc. Most of us resist change to greater and lesser degrees, particularly if we’re comfortable in the now. From reluctance, the emotion may range to fear or terror, usually the stronger the better so long as it’s in keeping with the Point of View (the “I” character in memoir, essay and personal narrative),  character’s personality, temperament, character.

 And that brings us to the next question, particularly if it’s not our personal story.

WHOSE STORY IS THIS? Whose “Character Arc” Needs to Change?

              We need to choose a character that can err. And then,

  • Bring together what we know about him/her
  • Create a Sense of a Living Human Being—again those details
  • Make your reader identify the character as someone he knows by showing the reader this is someone worth caring about, worth spending time with, worth worrying about…worth taking along on a journey.

 DO this and you’ve moved a long way toward helping the reader “suspend disbelief,” the age-old story goal that…Writing-publishing-and-marketing


  • Not only did it happen…it could have happened
  • Not only did it happen, it could have happened to YOU

And with that, we’ve approached the end of the story circle…back to the ending, the ending you envisioned and wrote at the beginning.

If we as writers have done our job well—shown, entertained, enticed—we will have created what another old storyteller of fame said:

“This [is the story] they tell, and whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.” Black Elk (Neihardt)

So…hope you’ve had a fun week writing—though in North Texas the bluebonnets, budding trees and chirping birds beckon outside ventures (there’s always nighttime or rainy days I tell myself…in fact, I’m about to take a cup of tea to the yard here in midday and enjoy).

But first, let me give full credit to these ideas, formed and expressed in Poetica and repeated in The Art of Creative Writing, and then validated by my experience and that of dozens of fellow writers I know.

Thanks for joining me this week on! Sign up. Subscribe. Leave a comment and join the conversation.

Carmen Goldthwaite


Writing Instructor: Teaching in my Fort Worth home; SMU’s Writing Path and various conferences and conventions. 


Contact:[email protected] or visit and a blog for writers.

Storyteller: contact [email protected]for a program on Texas history–her women and her icons. Also at

AuthorTexas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History & Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie. Both books are available from the publisher: from Amazon and from local bookstores. 

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DIALOGUE. How Do You Make It Real…Sounding?

DIALOGUE, The Tension Engine Of Fiction, Yet… Is It How We Talk?

Dialogue, a nemesis. When I turned to fiction after decades of nonfiction writing, I bumped up against making up speech. What came readily as a nonfiction writer—putting words on paper that people actually said—seemed improbably stilted when I made themonce upon a time up and slapped them into fictional characters’ mouths.

I had to learn the difference between real speech and dialogue talk. Dialogue is more truncated. Usually, it’s missing some speech stallers such as “uh…mmm…gee…” etc. Often, dialogue may step on the lines of another character, something in nonfiction we avoid. It’s called interruption. And yet, this may be the best example of yes, “write like you talk.” Because…don’t we often interrupt each other when we’re animated in a conversation? When we’re thinking two steps ahead of the other person? Or, at least think we are?

Interrupt. It’s OK.

Well, then, apply that to dialogue. Interrupt when excited or when your character thinks they know more than the other person. That’s real life and here’s a great chance to “show” the reader a mirror to real life.

Sometimes dialogue is an argument. But we can’t have story characters arguing incessantly. It’s got to fit the scene. Dialogue being action, then it’s a vital ingredient of scene building. Dialogue, when well written, helps the reader “suspend disbelief,” a goal of the fiction writer that nonfiction writers don’t have to address because if it’s true, it’s real.

So, when I say “well-written dialogue,” do I mean grammatical purity? Well-constructed sentences?


Real speech doesn’t do that. Listen to people talk. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, learn to listen. One of my first mentors in fiction taught me that. Go to a café, a burger joint, a bar, a 4-star restaurant. Usually alone to listen. Listen to what people say; watch what gestures they use, what facial expressions they make.


FORGOT TO MENTION: I’ll teach a class at SMU ( for short story, essay and article writing along with tips on publishing these. Class is titled “Write Now!” You can concentrate on one or all of these forms. Good kickoff for building your writing and author “platform” we hear so much about. STARTS MARCH 21, 6 pm.



Many of us are people watchers so this just falls in that category.


Even before writing fiction, I’d notice people in a public place—their physical expressions, gestures, animation or lack of, the way they walked, the way they talked–even on the beach during Spring Break. And I’d fantasize about them: Are they happy? Sad? Who’s joyous? Who just had a fight with a Loved One, Boss, Child? Or, who seems bored and detached from the people they’re with, or shy and unassuming? And then isn’t it fun to make up scenarios that have created these visible expressions.

That’s not too far off what we as fiction writers do. Except, we’ve made up the characters who are doing and saying these things.

And while we have them talking, let’s remember to avoid grammatical correctness except with a precise and formal character, meaning word forms like contractions that most of us use regularly. Let’s let the characters speak in sentence fragments rather than complete sentences. Sprinkle regional or generational or ethnic expressions—not dialect–appropriate for the particular character.


And, when we’re building toward a high tension moment especially, keep the words and phrases short, clipped and of course incomplete—two word, one word, three word utterances. That’s the print writers drum roll building suspense.

Not only words comprise dialogue. It’s those facial expressions—a smirk, a grin, a grimace, a frown, etc.—communicate the emotion of the exchange. So do gestures—a stabbing finger, a fist, a nervous twitch, fiddling with glasses, pencils, papers, keys, a shoulder shrug. And then, so do larger actions, more intense emotions—a door slam, a guffaw, a well-placed kick of a tire.

Okay, so those are some of the tricks to create almost complete dialogue, with two of its three elements–action (gestures, expressions, small actions). But there’s one more.

Driving much dialogue is a character’s thoughts, the third leg of dialogue. To be able to do this, then we must know the character well, to know what they will think, to know what triggers various emotions they will be expressing in speech, thought and action. As writers, we need to crawl into the heads of our characters and feel their feelings, their reactions, to know what decisions they will make for that’s what builds plot.

Take a look at earlier posts for building characters: “Particularities Ramp up Reader Appeal,” Sept. 2 2015; “13 Questions to Ask and Answer to Create Compelling Story Characters,” July 29 2015; “How Different Are Your Characters?” July 15 2015; “How to Build a Bible..a ‘Character Bible'” Jan. 28 2015. All on

Successful at this then we’ll be writing distinguishing dialogue for each of our characters. No two characters will sound alike if we’re conscientious about this by remembering that while some of us in real life speak little though may say profound thoughts, that some of us speak a lot but say a little, and the long continuum in between. So, pattern of speech is another way to identify a character.

Watch Real People in Real Places…And Listen

So, we return to listening and watching real people to learn what might fit our fictional characters, to make them unique, to give them a definite sound, to let them express and show emotion.

2016-04-24 12.57.47

At Northeast Texas Writers Conference where I spoke on dialogue among other topics such as point of view.

Writing dialogue is fun. As a former speech writer I used to “hear” (in my mind) the exec I wrote for giving the speech. Then when I read it aloud, I’d know whether I’d pegged the person’s expressiveness, or not, and then need to re-do or simply polish and present to him or, in one case, her.

That’s the same today with fictional characters. I hear their voices, see their gestures, actions and facial expressions while I write. Then let the scene rest for a few days and then read aloud to myself.


That’s a good test for whether or not I’ve captured the sound, the emotion, the intent and the content of the dialogue and that it’s realistic for the character being portrayed. AND, remember, visit a public place that your character might hang out in and watch and listen!

Thanks for joining me this week at If you have some thoughts, questions or arguments, jot them in the comment box and join the conversation. OR, CONTACT ME: [email protected] OR


Carmen Goldthwaite 


Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History & Texas

Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie 

Writing Instructor: Teaching in my Fort Worth home; SMU’s Writing Path and various Writing conferences, workshops and conventions. Contact: [email protected] or visit and a blog for writers

STORY TELLER about Texas history and her women: Contact [email protected]for a program on Texas history–her women and her icons. Or see 


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 Premise turns on the story engine, it’s the “story of your story” or how it began. I actually learned to do this when giving talks about my books.

Those in the audience wanted to know such things as: “how did you come up with that idea?” or “What did you need to do to bring forth the book?” Or, “Where is the book going?” “What’s happening?”

Once I learned to anticipate these audience questions and start my talk about my book(s)


Carmen with two Texas women books: Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History and Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie. Both are available from the publisher, The History Press and Amazon as well as local bookstores. Enjoy the tales of some exceptional women!

with a “story of the story,” I experienced an immediate warm reception from those gathered.

So, if it’s good for our storytelling audiences, it’s good for us as writers to develop a premise that propels the story along from the first word to the last.

Or as someone else I know (but can’t recall which writer) said:

The premise is the interesting part – the thing that excites a listener or reader.

Defined by THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, premise is:  “A previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.”

Premise defined by Wikipedia: the fundamental concept that drives the plot.

Yes, I know. I’ve been repetitive and redundant. Guess that suggests, and rightly so, that I had a difficult time grasping the “premise” concept. So, I’ve used several definitions on purpose. Sometimes we hear a word or definition expressed one way and it makes more sense than when expressed differently, either more formal or more casual. So, I wrote several to appeal to the individual differences we all share!

Premise is making a grand return to story nomenclature—or at least the term is being Writing-publishing-and-marketingbandied about more recently than in quite a spell, yet I first engaged it at a writers conference in Austin over 20 years ago. But it lay fallow outside  the film industry for a while. So let’s take a look at how those definitions above come into play in the real world of storytelling.

Some may call it nuanced to separate premise and theme. Others call it a smart way to define your story, evaluate your story, pitch your story.

Here’s how I apply the differences:

Theme is the engine that keeps the story purring along the road. Theme provides a lesson—philosophical, psychological, moral, societal. (For more, see the posts of:  February 16, 2016, “Theme: Without it, Little Substance; and, “Theme Translates to, ‘What’s My Story About?” of October 1, 2014.)

That last question, “what’s my story about?” can be translated to premise with, “what’s the overarching action” and translated to theme with, “what’s the underlying message—emotion, thought, moral quiver, etc.”

Others, like Rob Parnell, describe premise in this manner: the premise to a story is your starting point. It’s the idea behind it – its reason to be.

 When someone asks, “what’s your story about?” Whether agent, editor or reader, your premise provides a quick and engaging answer.

To illustrate the differences between premise and theme, here are a few examples I’ve drawn from other writing instructors, Jeff Lyons and Rob Parnell:

  • Harry Potter: The premise is a young boy discovers he’s a wizard. The theme is anyone can become a hero.
  • The Da Vinci Code: the premise is that the Catholic Church has a secret agenda. The theme is that it’s time to change the way we feel about organized religion.
  • Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.
  • Crime and Punishment: Premise: a young man kills an old lady for her money. The theme: sin leads to redemption.
  • Good Will Hunting’s is a story about a stereotypical slacker with an extraordinary talent for math (premise). But what it’s really about (theme) is the healing effects of love and patience.

Thank you for reading “Scribblers. Tips” this week and welcome to the several new subscribers from last week when we talked about theme. Ask any question. I’ll either provide one from my experience or others…OR…admit I don’t know and perhaps someone in the reading audience will know. SO…join the conversation and subscribe!




AND…thank you to these writers and teachers who’ve helped me get a grip on this slippery slope (don’t you love to use the forbidden cliché now and again) of theme vs. premise: “A Big City Cop Moves to a Small Coastal Town” By Jeff Lyons THE WRITER | September 1, 2013. Screenwriting Goldmine Forum; Rob Parnell’s “Easy Way to Write.”

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THEME: Without it, Little Substance

Themes for our writing, particularly fiction, are essential.

“The conflict will keep us turning pages. We might love, or hate, the characters. But it is the theme that makes a book reverberate…the key to fiction that touches readers.”   (Patricia Curtis Pfitsch)

We’ve just had a discussion of “theme vs. premise” in the Writing Circles that meet weekly,2015-10-05 16.43.18 an engaging bunch of folks that keep me on my toes when I start dispensing “writerly wisdom” and I thank them for that.

During the first part of the Writing Circle where I pass on my experience in the writing of several forms—fiction, nonfiction, narrative nonfiction and even a little bit of poetry—I usually get good questions and they want to know specifically what I’m talking about.

So, Tuesday night, what came up were a couple of projects (a novel and an allegory) I’m working on. So I talked about the themes of each and how that bears on the story.

For example, in the mainstream novel on “human trafficking” I’m using the theme “forgiveness” to spool out through the book. Because of that theme, then I need to have characters who can—under the duress of the plot—reach a point within themselves where they can accept the need for  forgiveness in order to break the emotional bonds of today’s “slavery” after the shackles of economics and intimidation and threats have been removed. When I complete the book, it should portray a powerful character arc, one compelling not only in the situation but in the interior life of the main character. (More following…)


PERSONAL NOTE: Wow. What a week. Just wrapped up three of the four writing classes I’ve been teaching. It’s exciting to see people come in with some basic ideas of what they want to write…and grow in the process as writers.

WRITERS CIRCLES: Start again next week. Tuesday nights (7-10) takes off Feb. 23; Wed. afternoons, 1:30 – 4, resumes Feb. 24. If interested, contact me. We’ve one or two openings in each Circle. These meet in my West Fort Worth home. Contact me: [email protected]. Or tap onto the Writing Circle video on the home page of Scribblers.Tips to view a circle in action. Or, my as-yet-to-be-updated web site: 

SMU classes will take a month off and resume in late March. I’ll keep you posted .



“Trapped,” the working title of the human trafficking story, is one that started writing itself while waiting in a doctor’s office: Characters, conceiving idea and/or premise. And then I needed to think through to how this character would change. After interviewing some young women with this experience, it seemed that those girls/women who could forgive their families who betrayed them, and their enslavers, were best able to pursue a new life and grapple with a new country.

So, based on that—the theme—my main story character changed from the detective (who remains as a strong secondary character) to a young woman similar to those I’ve talked with.

That’s what theme can do for us. As for the allegory, it, too, is centered around theme: one of greed vs. generosity. So in this instance, the polar opposites of the theme suggest the polar opposites of protagonist and antagonist. And then those help stir the stew of plot development to reach an end where generosity wins out.

While the novel seemed to start writing itself, for the allegory I’m needing to tease out the story, where I’m going with it, even with the theme suggested.

A THEME IS a story’s “animating spirit,” according to Literary Agent Donald Maass. He says, “It starts with having something to say.”

Some questions he proposes to determine your theme: WHY?

  • Why are you telling this story?
  • What’s the point?

One AUTHOR/PROFESSOR, Jack Bickham, who wrote SCENE & STRUCTURE  says about theme: “To find your theme start asking yourself questions” and he suggests these questions:

  • “Do the character’s actions imply any universal truths?
  • “Does the super hero’s triumph over the “green-faced man” represent a broader theme of good triumphing over evil?
  • “Does your protagonist’s hunt for her keys represent a more universal search for the keys of meaning to life?”
  • What made you start writing this story in the first place? Your theme may be tucked away in the impetus to write.

I hope these help. It’s been my experience that when I can develop a theme and then drop a literary “plumb line,” the spine of the story through plot and character, I have a unified story that the reader can grasp and come away with the notion, “this makes sense.” That’s my goal: a strong story with strong characters to compel a reader, a resolve that echoes the theme statement to “make sense” for the reader.

Thanks for joining us this week at Subscribe. It’s Free. Join the conversation with a comment in the comment box here. In the mean time, “have fun writing.”






* A number of writing “teachers” I thank for information that led to this column: Donald Maass in his address to a DFW writing conference and Jack Bickham for his book, a ready resource on my bookshelf, and,  Patricia Curtis Pfitsch for her excellent article on theme in Writer’s Guide, 2012.

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