Some Things I Learned at Boldface 2016 about Writing Fiction

This week, I’m going to focus on a few things that I learned at the Boldface 2016 Writer’s Conference held at the University of Houston.

I attended a full week of workshops, classes, talks, readings and delicious food. I learned more from this one week than I have in months of classes.

My plan is to share with you the highlights and main points that I learned so that you can use it in your own writing. I recommend attending Boldface or attending a conference near you. Hearing these things in person, workshopping your work and making reader connections will improve your writing, and your friendships, exponentially.

Here are a few things I learned about fiction:

When writing a story, keep these things in mind. Answering these questions about your own work will help to shape your story and will help you move ahead when you’re stuck.

  1. What is this story about? Not just plot. What is it really about? Why does this story need to be told?
  2. What form does it take? There are many different forms. This is usually plot based, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a good place to start, but those aren’t the only ones. Play around with your form, but make sure you have a good reason behind it.
  3. What’s at stake? The higher the stakes, the better. It could be life or death. Or maybe your character will lose their closest relationships. Maybe they’ll lose their own souls or their own identities. Make the stakes high. If the character can easily recover from whatever action is taking place, then it won’t make a very good story.
  4. How would you describe the tone and voice? Use the things your protagonist says, the things she sees or hears, the way she reacts to people and events, to color her character and the mood.
  5. How are form and content working together? This is where you’ll have to do some thinking. I usually do this in revision. How does the form you chose, whether it be plot or point of view, how does this add to what it is you’re trying to convey?

Get the character in the door.

Say as much as you can about the character as soon as you can. This doesn’t mean frontloading the characters biography. Try to do this in as little as possible. You can do this with dialogue, the characters voice (how they say something), or in something that they do. If you can do it in one sentence without backstory, then you’ve got yourself a good start.

Write your climax and then get the hell out.

In most cases, the closest your climax is to the end, the better.

Keep stage directions to a minimal.

Be a Shakespeare. Let your readers sort out what’s happening with the action in your story. If your characters need to move or brush their hair behind their ears or walk to the door or sit in a chair, make sure there’s a reason behind it. Maybe you can add a bear.

Strong setting can help a story and develop a character.

Don’t just have your characters talking in a room. What is the room? What’s it like. Is it big? Small? Does it have peeling paint? Does it have stained glass windows? How does this room help convey your mood? If your protagonist is feeling small and helpless and like things are falling apart, maybe the space around him could reflect that.

Set your protagonist at a transitional age.

You don’t have to do this, of course, but it could help. There are certain ages where characters naturally experience more change in their lives than at other ages. A 13-year-old girl would have to deal with a lot more background issues than a 25-year-old woman. A 50-year-old man would have a much different outlook a than a 35-year-old.

I will share more that I’ve learned at Boldface throughout this week. Check back here for tips about humor, nonfiction, using other art forms in your writing, and using time as a framework in your fiction.


Find a story or chapter you’ve written and look back through it. Which of the above can you use to help move your story forward or give it more depth? Even if it’s one small change, make that change and see how it transforms your work.

Suggested Reading:

Emergency by Denis Johnson

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway

Viewfinder by Raymond Carver


1 Comment

  1. Ashes

    June 28, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you for this! I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but have never been good at it. I learned to do non-fiction very well in college especially (LOL) but a few months ago I wrote my very first decent and completed work of fiction. Having read this, I see that I did quite well, especially for my first real time to complete something (because it was actually worth finishing) but I did still realize that my struggle to take the time for sufficient details is lacking. I did impress myself with taking the time for good visual details, but now I realize I could still do A LOT more. Also, this may help my complete some things I attempted to start and later abandoned. THANK YOU.

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