SPS-276: How to Unlock Your Emotional Vocabulary – with Becca Puglisi
It is a character’s emotions, and their emotional change, that glues readers to the pages of a book. Finding the balance between telling readers too much and constantly relying on the same emotional cues is a skill all writers need to master. Becca Puglisi, and her partner Angela Ackerman, have created a library of resources, including the Emotion Thesaurus, to help writers with this challenge.
- How Becca’s work documenting physical cues for emotions grew out of her own writing
- Why showing emotion in a character keeps readers turning pages
- Crafting well-rounded characters that aren’t cardboard cut-outs
- Using Becca and her partner’s tools to map character traits and story structure
- Knowing a character’s emotional range
- The importance of having a character change in order to create a compelling story
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
WEBSITE: Becca and Angela’s website OneStopForWriters.com
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
Voiceover: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Becca Puglisi: It makes the story more interesting because it's not just information being narrated to them. It somewhat activates their own emotions. And that's what we read for.
Voiceover: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Hair cut Mark Dawson, if you're watching on YouTube. Finally, post-lockdown-
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: You had to queue. We all had to queue.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Two weeks to get in there. But I have never been quite so bearded or quite so much like Stig of the Dump, so I'm very, very, very pleased to have had my hair cut.
James Blatch: It's taken years off you.
Mark Dawson: It has. It has literally taken years off me. Yup.
James Blatch: Yeah. And years. Good. Welcome to the show. We've got a few things to get through today. Before we get on to our interview with Becca Puglisi.
First of all I'd like to welcome our new Patreon supporters. A very warm welcome indeed. So Stephanie Giancola from New Hampshire in the United States. It's Adam Fike from California in the USA. And also in the USA from Idaho, Joshua Wald. They all went to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow, and they are the last, I think, of the intake who are eligible for a spell in the Book Laboratory.
At some point in the next 48 hours, Mark, the entries will be passed over to you for you to choose somebody to go to the lab next time. Then we'll get Jenny and Stuart and Bryan on to dissect and take apart what they've put forward.
I should probably just say that I've launched my book in the last couple of weeks. We've mentioned that from time to time, and I'm now in post-launch strategy. So I've settled down. I've been quite pleased with where I've settled down, actually.
In the last three days, which I think I've moved through that initial, my SPF friends buying the book period, I have sold between 15 and 20 books a day. That is about 40 to 50 pounds a day of income. And I'm spending about that, a little bit more, on ads.
So typically yesterday I spent 50 pounds, which is what, 65 dollars? Something like that. On ads. On Facebook ads, on Amazon ads. And I made 44.90, so 45 pounds in return. So effectively I'm running at a loss of about five pounds a day. But that's before I've really optimised the ads.
I did a bit of that this morning, so I might be able to bring that back to even. But I'm thinking that's okay at the moment. This book is about visibility, about getting my name out there. It's also giving it a chance, and I have no idea whether this is a book people are going to like and recommend to their friends, but it gives it a chance if it is going to be a grower like that by getting it in front of people and getting it sold and read.
I would be happy, honestly, losing a few pounds a day for weeks on end, frankly, to get the book out there, build an audience, and as quickly as I possibly can write book two and get that out there. So that seems to be my strategy at the moment. If I could break even it would be better, ideally.
Mark Dawson: I know people listening, some people won't get that and will think it's crazy that you're actually losing money on something that you just put out there, and I think that's a reasonable position, but as long as you know what your objective is and you're keeping a tight hand on the actual amount that you're spending and losing, then it's okay.
As a new author you're not likely to make money on the first book, when you're advertising, because there isn't anything else to go on, but you're building an audience.
I'm doing something similar with the Atticus books at the moment. Although I've written forty books in total I suppose, something like that by now, there's only two in the Atticus series. And I think I mentioned before, the first one is 99 pence and 99 cents at the moment and has been for about six weeks. And I'm really hammering that with ads at the moment.
I'm probably spending about 150 dollars a day across the U.K. and the U.S. on that and I'm definitely making a loss. Absolutely. I'm maybe selling a hundred a day. So at 35 cents, I'm probably making 60 or 70 dollars a day in terms of loss, maybe more than that.
But there is another book that follows after which is a full-price book, and that is still selling really strongly, and so I look at my book report every morning and that is always the number one book ahead of all the Miltons, ahead of Beatrix, Isabella. I haven't really done my numbers for this month's ads yet, but I think when I sit down and look at it, I won't be that surprised if I'm making a small profit on that.
But again, I wouldn't personally mind too much making a loss on this one on the basis that there will be four or five Atticus books in a year or two, and I'm building an audience of police procedural fans and detective story fans who might not necessarily be the ones who are more likely to buy the Milton books, although there is some crossover. I'm building a new audience, and you have to invest to do that sometimes.
James Blatch: Yeah, it's obviously early days for me, but if I had a second book out now, it would require very little read-through for that to be a profitable campaign, which is optimistic for the future if I can keep this going. I had my first few reviews in. A few five stars, possibly from people whose names I recognise, and I've had two four-star reviews.
Mark Dawson: G. Blatch?
James Blatch: No, she hasn't left a review, I don't think. Well if she has it hasn't been accepted. It hasn't appeared.
Mark Dawson: For those who don't know, G. is Gill, that's James' wife.
James Blatch: Two people have clicked four stars.
Mark Dawson: That's okay.
James Blatch: What's wrong with the book, exactly? Yeah. So we'll see how that goes.
Obviously I'm doing all this for the first time, and all these emotions that I've seen people go through I'm now experiencing, which is fun. And I'm really pleased to be at this point. I'm even on the Joanna Penn podcast this afternoon, which I think is kind of royalty status.
Mark Dawson: What's she going to talk to you about?
James Blatch: I think she wants some tips on writing and a quick-fire release.
Mark Dawson: Excellent.
James Blatch: Probably publishing.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, my God it's going to be interesting.
James Blatch: I'm not sure when that's going to go out. Probably in the next few weeks. I think Jo records a few, three or four weeks in advance.
Just a couple of quick housekeeping things to mention. If you're in the Ads for Authors course this week, hopefully by the time this goes out on Friday, there will be a new module in Facebook ads for authors, authored by me. It's module five, and that is on dynamic creative ads.
We go through what they are, how to set them up, how to optimise them, how to use them, when you should be using them, when you should be doing everything manually. We'll talk about all of that.
I am a big fan of dynamic creative ads. I use them a lot, particularly for that early data when you're trying to work out what works and what doesn't, which is key to really getting ads efficiently working for you. So that module should be live on Friday. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be now.
What else have we got to say, Mark? We've got our launches course, which is still ongoing, selfpublishingformula.com/launches. That's a paid course. It's 20 bucks, but... Or 19.99. Less than 20 bucks. And that's gone really well. Feedback's been fantastic on that course.
It's by M. Dawson. Yes. It's a good course.
Mark Dawson: I've been meaning to do it for ages. It's about a week's worth of work. It's three hours. It's not a short course. And there's downloadable time tables and ad copy and ads and things like that. We have numbers. And I'm also going to do live updates in the Facebook group when I launch the next Milton book, which will be quite interesting I think. So that's good.
There is an offer on that one, and if you go to the Facebook group, Self-Publishing Formula Community, you can do it also. You should find there's an offer for U.K. authors if you want to take that course. And that will end on Friday, so head over to the Facebook group to find out about that.
James Blatch: Well this goes out on Friday. So basically you've got to listen to it and head to the Facebook
Mark Dawson: Yes, I think they'll be okay for the weekend but don't hang about.
James Blatch: Yeah. Okay, great. Well, that brings us on to our interview, Mark. And this is Becca Puglisi. I don't know if you've met Becca or know Becca?
Mark Dawson: No, I don't.
James Blatch: I didn't know a lot about Becca before and I should have probably done more research than I did because she is the co-author of a book that lots of you will be familiar with, The Emotional Thesaurus for writers. The more I look into it, the more I like this book and seeing how successful it's been as well.
It's opened my eyes a little bit to an area of our writing that it could be very helpful with, which is basically showing and not telling and how to do that. Keeping it fresh to help you show somebody is angry rather than tell the reader that they're angry using the language helpfully put together in these lists. So let's hear from Becca, hear a little bit about her writing as well, and then Mark and I will be back for a quick chat off the back of the interview.
Becca, welcome to the Self Publishing Show.
Becca Puglisi: Thank you so much. I'm super excited.
James Blatch: I didn't throw myself into your surname. Pug... So you better serve.
Becca Puglisi: It's Puglisi.
James Blatch: Puglisi. That's easy.
Becca Puglisi: It's easier than it looks.
James Blatch: Yes.
Becca Puglisi: For some reason it's very intimidating. I don't know why.
James Blatch: Is that Italian?
Becca Puglisi: Yes.
James Blatch: Puglisi.
Becca Puglisi: Clearly I married into the Italian surname. I can't claim it coming from myself.
James Blatch: Well it sounds like a nice wine. Shall we have a Puglisi tonight? Anyway, great. It's lovely to have you with us Becca.
I'm excited about this conversation because we haven't talked craft for a while on the show, and yet it's the one thing we all love to talk about the whole time. I want to talk to you about emotion and characters and in your book. Particularly I think I'm going to ask some male type questions because we tend to be unemotional story mechanics people and we forget the reason people are reading the book actually is not that.
It's not just the guy goes from A to B. It's why. So we'll talk a bit about that later. And also I want to hear a little bit about you and your background.
But first, whereabouts are you, Becca, in the world?
Becca Puglisi: I'm in Florida, in the U.S.
James Blatch: Oh yes, I think I read you're in Jupiter.
Becca Puglisi: Yup.
James Blatch: Which is where all the golfers live, right?
Becca Puglisi: Lots of golf, lots of tennis. Lockheed Martin is a spacecraft air flight engine production company, so-
James Blatch: Ah, Lockheed Martin, yes.
Becca Puglisi: ... That is really big here.
James Blatch: Wow.
Becca Puglisi: So that's it. That's Jupiter.
James Blatch: Golf and space. Sounds like my kind of place. I'll have to drop into Jupiter at some point.
Becca Puglisi: Well you know, when you think Jupiter, come on. It's the perfect place for it.
James Blatch: It's got to be, hasn't it? That big gas giant. Okay. That's good. Well, welcome from Jupiter Florida to actually sunny U.K. today, strangely.
Becca Puglisi: Oh, good.
James Blatch: And let's find out a little bit about you, Becca. So you're obviously a writer yourself.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Becca Puglisi: I grew up not writing at all. That was not on my radar. My son wrote his first story at four. I have it commemorated for future reference. And that was not me. I was just not that way.
But I got into it very late, when I was in my late twenties. I was teaching first grade and I thought, I can write a picture book. Come on. I've read a million of these. How hard could this be? And then I realised how hard it was when I started doing it. But I loved it and just felt like I had kind of a knack for writing.
My favourite thing to write is fantasy, and I like historical fiction too when I have time to do the research. And yeah, that's mostly what I prefer to write, but I don't have very much time for that right now because we're writing so many nonfiction books and those are doing very well. So that's where my time is mostly spent.
James Blatch: The books you have for us, the historicals, the fantasy, are they adult or YA or-
Becca Puglisi: They're YA. I just found for some reason I like the length of it and I like that it's... Not that it's simplistic at all. It's just it's a little less complex for me, the YA storylines. That's actually primarily what I read just because as a mom and a working mom it's hard to find time to read a big huge... Every once in a while I'll tackle a Stephen King, you know his latest that's got you know 800 pages. But I like that length. It's good for me.
James Blatch: I think lots of adults must read YA because it's such a huge genre.
YA is a huge genre and I figure there must be people at least up to their thirties I think and then maybe do it a little bit, but I think there's people doing it their whole life.
Becca Puglisi: I think that The Hunger Games really kicked that off. I was reading YA long before that. My husband is not a huge reader, and when I read the first Hunger Games book I said to him, read this book. I know you're not a huge reader, but you're going to love this book. And he's like, come on, it's for teenagers. He said it's the first book he ever read start to finish without being able to stop. He was up till like three in the morning. Because he just couldn't stop reading it.
I think that a lot of people have that experience and realise, oh my gosh, there are great books in the teen section. And I think that kind of started it. But I agree. I have a lot of friends my age who read a lot of YA. So I think it is very popular for adults too.
James Blatch: Well they do say that when you're writing for adults, you're supposed to write for a vocabulary standard that's basically just out of school.
Becca Puglisi: That makes sense.
James Blatch: That's probably why YA books work. In fact I read The Hunger Games. I read the Harry Potter books, thinking about it. I've probably read a lot of books aimed at people younger than me. So there you go.
Let's talk about what you're doing in terms of nonfiction, in terms of the way that you work with writers, Becca. How did this start?
Becca Puglisi: Ironically, it grew out of my fiction. Angela and I, who all of my books are co-writer with, Angela Ackerman, we met as critique partners on a site called Critique Circle, critiquecircle.com. It's basically an online site where people can come and submit chapters of their work or samples of their poetry or whatever it is that they're writing, and then people read it and critique it and then you return the favour. And we met.
There were thousands and thousands of people and we happened to log in right around the same time and just found each other, loved each other's work and started out as critique partners.
As we were reading and learning and trying to grow in our writing journey at the very beginning of that journey for both of us, I started noticing in my writing that my characters were constantly doing the same things. They were always shrugging or shuffling their feet or frowning. I saw the repetition and I couldn't figure out how else can I convey these emotions in a way that doesn't sound contrived?
So I started making lists. Okay, here's some other things that I can do when they're angry or when they're sad or whatever. And I took it to the group and said you guys, I don't know if you can use this, but this is something I'm struggling with. And every single one of them said, oh my gosh, this is a problem, and I know it's a problem, and I can't find anything to help me with it.
So we started expanding on these lists and just keeping a tab of all of these different cues for emotions, and over time everyone kind of petered out and it was just me and Angela charging away on our emotion lists. And those lists became our first book, which was The Emotion Thesaurus.
We started a blog about four years later, and Angela, who is a marketing genius, even though she probably would baulk at that term, but she is very intuitive and just has a really good knack for how to promote. And she said we need a blog, and I want some content that's going to bring people back. It's not just a one-time here's a really good something and here's a really good something.
Let's do something kind of a serial, almost, where every week we put out something new and it's more of the same that we offered before. And she said, we should do those emotion lists. We could call it an emotion thesaurus. And every week we'll do one emotion, and we'll highlight how people can show it instead of telling it and give them more ideas.
And so we were like, okay, we'll try that. In a very short time it took off. Everybody who was reading those thesaurus entries was like, oh my gosh, this is a problem. I have this problem. It seemed we realised it's a universal problem for writers, that figuring out how to show the character's emotion in a way that's really going to resonate with the reader is very difficult. It's not intuitive.
Our first impulse is to just tell it and say it. He was mad, or she was angry. Or to use these same kind of cliched phrases that we've seen over and over again.
James Blatch: Damn it!
Becca Puglisi: And so we just decided to do that, and it really resonated with people. And they started saying, when is this going to be a book? I'd really like to have a book when I'm working. And so we thought, okay, wasn't thinking about that but okay. That's a great idea. And that's really how we got started. That was kind of the evolution.
James Blatch: Let me take you back to those original lists you did. Can you describe them a little bit more because I'm having a hard time visualising those lists.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, it was like okay, anger. So I know my character's going to be angry sometime in my story. What are some things that he can do with his body that's going the show the reader that he's angry? He can clench his fists, but he's already doing that a million times.
If he's a confrontational kind of person he might make himself bigger and get in people's space. His voice is going to change to reflect that he's angry. He might start interrupting people. He might start actually going on the offensive and start picking a verbal fight with the person.
Those are all the outward cues that we naturally do as people. And if we can apply those to our characters, then the character's emotion becomes very obvious to the reader without us having to stop the narrative and explain what the emotion is.
It brings the reader in a little bit closer because they've experienced all of those things. They recognise intuitively, oh, I know that. I have felt that before. I know what that means. And they're not obviously consciously going through that process, but on a subconscious level they recognise that feeling and those cues.
It makes the character that much more authentic and pulls the reader more firmly into the character's experience, immersing them into the story instead of putting them at a distance just sitting back listening to somebody telling them what the character is feeling. They're going through it with them.
James Blatch: That's such a good idea. How many times has an editor said to me, show me this. Don't tell me that they're angry. And there you've got a list of things to do for your character.
I've worked a lot with editors on my first book, and the one thing I am really learning here is, it's got to prompt that in the reader's mind. You've got to have the reader get to it themselves. It's a boring book if you ever tell the reader what they should be thinking is going to happen. It's got to be prompted there. And so to have that list of things to help you do that, even if it's just the start of writing that scene. How am I going to let them know this person's angry? I'm assuming you cover the gamut of emotions.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, our fist book we had 70.
James Blatch: 70 emotions! I'm trying to think how many emotions can there be?
Becca Puglisi: I know. It did really well, and then we just released a second edition a year and a half ago where we expanded it. Now we have 130 emotions.
It's everything from amusement, bitterness, confusion, defensiveness, suspicion, moodiness. Just every possible emotion along that range. But it's so, so important because emotion is what pulls readers in, and if we can't trigger our readers' emotions with our stories, very likely they are not going to be drawn into the stories. They are not going to be captivated by them.
One way to do that very well is to get them connecting with the character's emotion. And that's really why the "show, don't tell" portion of the emotion piece of the character, it does multiple things. It makes the story more interesting because it's not just information being narrated to them, but it also somewhat activates their own emotions.
That's what we read for. We all have different reasons why we read, but people want to have an experience when they're reading. They might want to be excited. They might want to be scared. They might want to be satisfied with a romantic kind of situation resolving satisfactorily at the end of the story. But we all want to connect in some way.
We want to have an experience, an emotional experience when we read. And one of the best ways to do that is to show the characters' emotions, so that the reader gets it crystal clear.
James Blatch: What have you done with those original lists? I know you talked about the thesaurus. Is that a book, or how does that work?
Becca Puglisi: Yeah. So we took all the lists and we made it into a book, The Emotion Thesaurus. In the front is instructive matter on how to show emotion. So there's different chapters on how you can use dialogue to write emotion, how you can use different physical cues. And we talk about subtext, which is huge in our interactions with each other, how we're not always honest and we're usually holding back and hedging a little bit, and if we can show that nuance with our characters, they're just going to be much more realistic and relatable to the people who are reading them.
The front section of the book is all information. Here's how you show emotion, why it's important, here's how you do it. And then the bulk of the book is two-page spreads that have an emotion, and it talks about physical signals or behaviours you can use with your character. That's the things that they're physically doing with their body.
Internal sensations that if you're in their perspective, if you're using a first-person viewpoint, you can tell what's happening internally, inside of them. What their mental responses might be.
We have a section on signs that the emotion is being suppressed. So a lot of emotions we're uncomfortable sharing, and it adds a layer of authenticity when we show a character who is fearful trying to hide that because it makes them feel vulnerable or it makes them feel weak, or whatever the reason is that they may not be comfortable showing their emotion.
It's very, very simple. It's a two-page spread for each emotion, and its not really meant to go through and pull out lines and insert them into your story because when we do that then those lines start becoming cliché, and it's also not specific to the character. And that's what we really want is everything that the character is doing needs to be very specific to who they are.
We encourage people to use it as a brainstorming tool to look through and get new ideas and then think, okay, I can use this one. I can see my character reacting in this way when he's feeling this way. I'm going to tweak this a little bit to make it more specific to who he is. And that's really how it works.
James Blatch: I can see straight away how useful that is. I think particularly because we write so much quicker today than people used to write. You read these old stories of Hemingway or whoever who'd agonise for a week over a sentence, and I can't... Although I have probably done that. I do like the idea of sitting there all day with this one paragraph trying to get it exactly right.
But most of the time you're in the scene. You know they're angry or sad, and you think for a moment about how to show that and what they're going to do, but you're really writing the scene. You're really writing the scene. You've got to get the scene done. You've got to move on. And then maybe in next revision you're going to make that better.
But it's going to be much better all around, isn't it, if you have a little aid to help you at that stage to flesh that out at an early point.
Becca Puglisi: We've found that the more you do it, the more you practise this showing of emotion, the more natural it becomes. Initially like you said it is more of a revision technique, because you're just getting the information down on the page and then you go back. And I know people who have put notes in their manuscript, show this emotion or expand on this emotion in later revision passes.
But what it does when you start practising this process is that when you start making your own database, your own lists of emotions, you're looking at people and you're seeing the way that they respond, you're watching TV or watching movies, which, the actor's getting paid to show you what this character's feeling, so it's a great way to find new and specific ways of showing a certain emotion that you can then transfer to your own writing.
The more you do that, the more you just start to expand past that first response that we all have. When my character's angry, I automatically go to this. And you start to grow past that. The more you do it, the easier it does become. It just becomes much more natural.
James Blatch: So you're saying there can only be so much fist clenching that you can have in one book, and the editor's going to pick that up anyway. Thinking about it, this is a great manual for actors, isn't it? You mentioned acting there, but that's what they do, right? They get the script in black and white on a sheet, and some directors, I think it's George Lucas who famously almost says nothing to his actors. Ron Howard works very closely, as a former actor, with his actors saying well let's try moving physically together whatever scene in those workshops he does.
But a lot of the time actors have got to do exactly what we're describing writers having to do. That's a really good way of thinking about it. Because if you were directing a film writing this scene, what would your stage cues be to the actor, then write that down to make that happen.
I could imagine actors flipping through that book thinking, he's angry in this scene. What physicality am I going to bring to it? You've already answered some of those questions for them.
Becca Puglisi: I think that would be awesome. We haven't heard from a lot of actors. Ironically we get a fair amount of e-mails from psychologists and therapists who have found it and are using it with their clients on the autism spectrum who have a hard time identifying emotions in other people, and they're able to study the major emotions that they see on a regular basis and recognise, oh, this person is frustrated with me or this person is sad. And that was incredibly validating. So exciting to see it being used on that kind of a level, on a personal level, with people outside of their career just in helping them relate to people.
Somebody told us that she was using it with an addiction therapy group with people who had eating disorders because she was using certain emotion entries to help them see... Because her clients were being triggered by certain emotions, and then they would binge when they were feeling that emotion. And if they could just identify the emotion before it really gets started, then they can take steps to cope and to keep it from progressing to the next level. So just hearing stories like that, it's amazing to think that this book is helping people on such a practical day-to-day level. It's kind of awesome.
James Blatch: When did you release the book for the first time?
Becca Puglisi: 2012 was the first edition.
James Blatch: Gosh, it's a few years old now. You did this work back then. Okay. And how's it gone?
Becca Puglisi: It's great. We have seven books now in this series of different sources that tackle different areas of descriptive writing, and this one is still easily the most popular. It manages to outsell each individual book. I think it's just so universal. Like I said, everybody at some point has to come to grips with this. So it's just something that most writers can use.
James Blatch: What are the other books then?
Becca Puglisi: When we finished this one we thought okay, wow, well that was exciting. What else can we do that can help writers? And so we went back to our own writing and thought, where do I struggle? What do I need help with?
The next logical thing that we both noticed that we were having a problem with was characterization, was creating these characters that are fully fledged. They're not cardboard. They're not two-dimensional. They have a mixture of positive and negative traits that all make sense together so that you can create an authentic character that just reads as real to readers.
So that was what we tackled next, and we put out a two-volume set with that. We have a book on negative traits and a book on positive traits, and the front matter in that is actually really interesting because it goes into where traits come from and how they form.
I think a lot of writers when we're creating characters we start out creating the characters that we like or that are interesting to us, maybe because they have these traits that we really admire or these traits that are really quirky and kind of off the wall and it makes them unusual, but there's really no basis for them, and so they don't really read as truly authentic.
But when you can look at, okay, what has happened to my character? Why might they be this certain way? What positive traits might help them to achieve their story goal? I want to make sure that they have some positive traits that are going to serve the story in that way. Or what flaws might trip them up and make things more difficult and create more conflict for them throughout the story? And craft your characters in a more well-rounded way that looks at the character but also looks at the story. And that's really what we focused on with those two books.
And it's the same exact format. It's got some front matter in the front that talks about where these traits come from and how you can show that your character is impulsive or controlling or cowardly or whatever it is, instead of telling it. That's an element that's in all of our books is how do we show this instead of tell it. And then the rest of the book is again entries, two-page spread, that tells you how to show that information for your character.
James Blatch: I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds it much easier to write the good qualities for your heroes and the bad qualities for your baddies.
Becca Puglisi: Sure, yeah.
James Blatch: I struggle to write the flaws and the bad qualities of your heroes and the redeeming features of your baddies.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, absolutely.
James Blatch: Because you do that from the beginning. You set this person up to be the baddie and this sort of hero, and you're not really thinking about that rounded dimension that you were talking about. It's so important though.
Becca Puglisi: I think that that's kind of where we all start. This is my good guy, and I really admire him and I like him, and I don't want to make him unlikeable. So here are all of his good qualities. And if he has a bad quality it's going to be something really minor, like he's messy or something.
James Blatch: Which is cute.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, right. Exactly. So it's really important.
James Blatch: I've written a thriller, but this is important in every genre, right? You could write sweet romance, and some of those books really have specific expectations of what's going to happen and when it's going to happen. But within that you still have to have a hero who can't be perfect.
Becca Puglisi: Right.
James Blatch: So this is an important thing for every writer to understand these layers.
Becca Puglisi: Absolutely. And it really should tie in so much to character arch, right? We have characters, they enter a story a certain way, and there are certain things that they have to accomplish or overcome in order to be successful. And it's a matter of figuring out what those problem areas are that they're usually blind to in the beginning, or they recognise them and they see them as kind of a strength.
I know that I'm stubborn but it's a good thing, and it protects me in this way. And then it turns out being their Achilles' heel that they have to deal with. That's a huge part of characterization is figuring out who your characters are but knowing why they are that way and how that is going to play into the story.
We explored that more, to jump ahead, in a much later book on emotional wounds that looks at all the different traumatic things that could happen to your character in the past and how that can transform them into who they are at the start of your story, so that all of those flaws, and even some of the positive traits, they make sense because they're coming out of this event from this past and the way that they were raised or something specific that happened to them. So many different possibilities.
They engender new character traits and the person, the character, who they are at the start of your story is going to be the result of what happened in their past. And as they go through the story, the reader is going to see pretty much exactly what they're going to have to kind of deal with and overcome.
So when they get to the end and they've finally overcome, if they're successful... I mean, they may have a failed arc where they end in a tragedy, and those stories can be satisfactory too, but the characterization, the character's personality traits are hugely important to that. And they come very often out of events from your past. That's how we are as people.
Why I have the traits that I have today is partly because of the way I was raised. Partly because of the influencers in my life, positive and negative. Partly because of certain key things that happened to me at different times in my life. And it all goes back to authenticity and making our characters as much like real people as we can.
James Blatch: You talked earlier about this perhaps lending itself to the revision process typically when we might go back and fill some of this in. Seems to me this might be a good thing to have right from the beginning.
Is this how you'd recommend using these books?
Becca Puglisi: Well you know, this is what I love is that you can use them both ways. I find that people who are newer to the writing process, they use them in advance because they are training. They're learning beforehand, okay, this is how I need to write this, and this is the research I need to do on my character. And then you have other people who are a little more pantser rather than plotter. They don't want to put in a whole bunch of time upfront researching everything. And they're going to use it more on the backend. So it really can be used however you need them to be used. Whatever works with your process.
James Blatch: But do you have a recommended way of working, or do you think that does vary, as you say.
Becca Puglisi: Well, I do think that the backstory pieces, the emotional wounds and to a certain degree the character traits, those things need to be figured out beforehand. I really do believe that your story's going to be stronger if you're able to get that figured out. And again, there are various degrees of this.
You can kind of go into crazy detail and spend a lot of time in flowcharts and outlines and everything else. Or you can just have a basic, bullet-point list of the important things that you know. And so, whether you do like to plan or you don't like to plan, there are different levels of research that you can put into it.
I do think that for emotional wounds and for the characterization, figuring out the character's backstory before you start, it makes the writing process so much easier. Because you have a really clear idea, from the get-go, who my character is, what their tendencies are, how their emotional responses are typically going to be, what their go-to reactions are, because you know who they are and kind of what their triggers and their sensitives are from their past.
Having that in place, I think it actually saves you a lot of time in the writing process because you get a lot of that in there that first draft. Without consciously thinking about it, you just know the character and you know how they're going to react. And so then you don't have to spend so much time in revision going back and plugging stuff in and making things consistent.
We have our books, but we also have a website called One Stop For Writers which takes all the entry content from our books and it puts them into an online database, where it's searchable and hyperlinked. And that, to me, is actually a really good tool for getting ready to writer your story. We have a tool that we created called a character builder that allows you to look at the different common aspects of characterization, and it pulls information from our sources. And you can choose, okay, here are some emotional wounds that I think work for my character. Here's what their outer motivation I think would be for the story. Here are their positive and negative traits that I think are going to be part of who they are. Here's their occupation and how that ties into things.
As you go through the different aspects of characterization, the tool collects the information that you tell it to collect, and it creates a character arch blueprint for you that basically says, here's what happened to my character in the past, this is the lie that they believe about themselves now that's causing the problems. It's created a lack and a basic human need that now has to be filled because that's how that works as human beings. So here's who they are at the start of the story. This is going to be their goal because they believe that's going to fill that inner need that they have. This is the story goal. The outer goal. And here's the fatal flaw that's going to be a problem for them all the way that they have to deal with by the end of the story.
I'm super, super excited about that tool because it basically takes a lot of the information that we've collected in various books, and it brings it all into one database, and it's a smart tool that takes what you choose and creates a character arch that's personal to your character. Every one that you do is going to be different because it's pulling from that emotional wound that is a problem for them and from the character traits that they have and from the lie that they believe. So it's completely, each one is individualised to fit your character. And that to me is hugely helpful when you're writing a story, to have that information in place.
James Blatch: That's amazing. This has taken some amounts of AI or something. I don't know how you'd describe it. But something going on in the background that puts this together.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah. Absolutely.
James Blatch: How did you design that?
Becca Puglisi: Angela and I were working on a couple of setting books, and we were contacted by Lee Powell who was working on Scrivener. He was working on the Word version of Scrivener. And he said, I'm a writer. I really love your books. I think they're super helpful. I think we should have an online database where it's all in one spot.
And we thought, okay, that would be great. And so we teamed up with him and created. It initially started as just a database for our thesaurus collection. And then as people were using it they started asking us, what do I do with this information? How do I tie these things together?
And we though, okay. So we started creating some worksheets, some templates and some little tools here and there. And it just has evolved into a place that people can go and get mostly what they need in order to write their story.
We have a character builder. We have a story mapping tool that helps people structure their stories using the three-act structure. We have a scene-mapping tool for people who really want to go into detail with their scenes and plan those out before they write. We have world-building surveys for people to figure out the specifics of their world and the settings so that they can get those details straight.
We have tried to take the information that we have written and apply it in a more practical way, I think, in this one online spot. That's how it started.
James Blatch: It's like a membership thing? I mean obviously you can buy the books, but how does it work beyond the books?
Becca Puglisi: Yeah. The books are separate, and One Stop For Writers is a subscription-based website. So you can sign up for a month, you can sign up for a year. We do have a free two-week trial so you can try the whole thing out for free and see if it's something that would benefit you. People kind of have different options.
We have people who really like the books because they like doing it their own process. They like the instructive front matter to be able to refer back to that. And then you have people who really like having it all online on their computer. While they're writing they've got One Stop For Writers open in a tab and they're looking at different thesaurus entries or they're looking at their structure tool to see what's supposed to happen next. So it's different options for different writers.
James Blatch: I'm just having a look at the prices because I know people will be asking how much it is. It looks like you can do it for as little as nine dollars for the month.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, nine dollars a month and then if you wanted to do a whole year, you know the price is slightly discounted. It's 90 dollars for a year.
James Blatch: That's great. So this has blossomed from that early little support group that you had of writing that down.
Becca Puglisi: It really has.
James Blatch: What a great idea, though, and very, very helpful. It's very, very seldom an editor will come back and say, you're showing me far too much here. He's going to say you've skipped this. I don't know why they're angry. And it's what we struggle with a little bit as writers, particularly when you have, as you say, ultimately you are... You've identified all these emotions, right? But actually we write a lot about a few of the big ones a lot. And I think that's one of the problems.
I joked earlier, there's only so many times someone can clench their fist. But that's a real problem for writers. The person's angry several times in the book or he's in love several times in the book, you're going to run out of these adjectives. You're going to run out of these ways of describing it. So I think it's a really, really useful tool for people.
Becca Puglisi: One of the things that Angela and I advocate is knowing your character's emotional range. So you want to know, that's one of the things you kind of want to figure out in advance if you can, is you want to know where they fall on that spectrum between reserved and demonstrative. And if you know where they are then you're going to know what their reactions are going to be and what's normal, and then you know how to escalate them. If something really big happens, you know where they're going to go.
The other part of that, in terms of figuring out the emotional aspects of your story is making sure that your character's experiencing a wider range of emotion, like you mentioned. Because if every scene they're going from sadness to anger to fear to happiness, it's going to read flat after a while because there's nothing new, really, for the reader. It's just the same thing over and over.
I love the Save the Cat method. He has a method where you take a Post-it for each scene, and there are certain information that you record for each scene so that you can see your whole story and every scene certain things that are happening. And one of the things that he says to do is to record the emotion change. Your character in every scene should be starting with one emotion and not ending with the same emotion. Or if they do end with the same, it's got to go somewhere in the middle.
When you record each scene, okay, my character starts out happy and then they end up afraid. Okay so the next scene he's going to start out afraid and he's going to go to confusion or whatever it is. It shows you not only making sure that your scenes have that emotional progression, but it shows you your range of your character's emotion. If you see the same emotion over and over on your storyboard, then you know you've got to mix it up a little bit, and you've got to get some different emotions in there.
That's a really good process that I like in terms of being a little more deliberate with your character's emotions throughout the story and making sure like you said that they are experiencing a better range. Because that's the human experience, right? We don't just have four or five emotions. We have 130.
James Blatch: Yes, yes, apparently. And it's you don't have a story much without that. And funny enough I was watching my... A lockdown thing that lots of people have done I've done with my 17-year-old daughter is to watch the Marvel films in cinematic universe order. I'm really enjoying it. I didn't really watch them before and I'm really enjoying it. One of them is the Incredible Hulk with Ed Norton in 2008, and there's a film that is a great example of why some films don't work. And I said to Emma, we talked about it afterwards. She's obviously doing her A-levels now in the U.K.
We talked about it afterwards, and even she was able to identify that what the character wanted at the beginning of the film was exactly the same at the end of the film and it was exactly the same in the middle. He got chased around a bit, but that's basically what happened in that film.
I don't understand how a multimillion dollar film gets made with that script going from hand to hand without somebody saying, there's no real character journey here. But it was obvious to me now I think a bit more about why, and it did flop, the film. It didn't do very well compared to the other Marvel films. It's very obvious to me now. It doesn't matter whether you're a superhero or falling in love or playing baseball. There's got to be that change.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, I agree.
James Blatch: That's what it is.
Becca Puglisi: Angela and I have conversations about this because there are films and stories where there's not a big change with the character. You look back. And I find that they're mostly older, like the early James Bond stuff from the '60s and '70s. He was the same in every story, same goal, get the bad guy, get the girl, or whatever. Not a lot of change.
Indiana Jones, the first Indiana Jones movie. Same thing. And I think with action thriller stories in the past, that was the goal. It was all about achieving the goal and not so much about the character achieving internal growth.
But the most compelling stories that I find are the ones that has that character going through some kind of change. Where they have to grow, they have to learn, they have to evolve or shift in some way. Because that's super compelling to us as people. We all want to be better 10 years from now than we are today. And so we want the same thing with the characters that we read and that we get to know and that we admire. We want them to be going through that growth.
Again, you do see in certain genres that there's less of that. But I think it's a really, really good idea, and you should do it whenever you can.
James Blatch: Yeah, definitely. And I think counter to that was the first Thor films either before or just after the Incredible Hulk, where at the beginning, Thor is young, impetuous, wants to start a war, fights with his dad, says you're doing it wrong, we've got to prove ourselves. That's the only way we're going to win.
Within half an hour that film, all of that being said, you're so engaged in it because you know he's hot-headed, you know he's probably wrong. You know his dad's probably wise. But you know he's got to go through something to find all that out. That's what you're there for, for the ride.
So I think that's probably a good idea as well when we talk about setting that up, that journey. It doesn't necessarily have to be, in fact it's quite good for the film to signpost ahead for readers to think, oh, this is probably where they need to go. You can of course surprise them here and there. But I liked Thor. I liked knowing that we were on this journey with him and he obviously was going to have to at some point learn the hard lesson that that's not how to get to what he wanted to do. And of course by the end of the film he changed.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, and I agree. It's a fine line, that line of predictability-
James Blatch: Conceal/reveal.
Becca Puglisi: You don't want the story to be super predictable where you know exactly what's going to happen. But it is satisfying, I think more on a subconscious level, when as a viewer or a reader, you can see. I've figured it out. I've solved the mystery. I know what he needs to do. And then you know what to root for. You know what you really want to see. And then when he struggles and falls and makes stupid mistakes, you're like ugh.
I agree that having that certain level of obviousness is good to get people into it.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's the trick. Dan Brown does it brilliantly, I think, in his books. As a reader you're always a couple of pages ahead of him, which is a clever trick. Because you know what needs to happen and you get frustrated when things don't go their way because you're ahead of them. It's a brilliant writing style. And it's rewarded him very well financially, I believe.
Becca Puglisi: No joke.
James Blatch: So he's got that bit.
Becca Puglisi: I do think that readers do like to figure things out on their own. And that's part of why the show-don't-tell is so important. Because when you're telling it, you're telling them straight upfront, and they aren't able to intuit anything or infer anything, and there's something really satisfactory about reading a story and just putting the pieces together and putting the clues together to figure out what the character is feeling or what they really want, what their inner motivation is and what the secret is that they've been hiding or that they are trying to protect. Whatever it is. I think that's a huge part of a good story's success is letting readers figure things out as you go.
It's such a struggle because as authors, especially in the beginning, we doubt our ability to get that across. We know how important it is, the emotion. We've got to get it right. So we just put it out there in a really heavy-handed way. And it doesn't provide the same experience. So it is a balancing act.
James Blatch: Yeah, what to leave out, what to put in.
Becca Puglisi: Right?
James Blatch: We could talk for another hour on that subject alone-
Becca Puglisi: No doubt.
James Blatch: ... But it's been gripping talking to you, Becca. Thank you so much for coming onto the show. I feel that we do need to come back and probably, we could just choose one book, one area, and just talk a bit about that because I think it would be like a little workshop, if you don't mind at some point.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, that would be awesome. I'd love it.
James Blatch: Be a free consultation for me is the main thing here-
Becca Puglisi: That's great, whatever.
James Blatch: ... But everyone gets to listen in as well.
Becca Puglisi: You're the host. You can do whatever you want.
James Blatch: Yeah, exactly. I've got to get something out of this. Yeah, brilliant. Thank you so much. Just give the website another plug.
Becca Puglisi: Our website is onestopforwriters.com, and our blog is writershelpingwriters.net.
James Blatch: Brilliant, and of course the books are in every good online bookstore.
Becca Puglisi: Yeah, and you can find them at our blog.
James Blatch: Super. Thank you so much indeed for joining us from Jupiter, and we'll let you get on with the rest of your day.
Becca Puglisi: Thank you so much.
James Blatch: There you go. Becca Puglisi. I love that name. And a really good set of books that she's done. Really useful for us authors. And that's been my biggest writing journey I think is understanding that you don't tell the reader what to think. You don't tell the reader someone's angry. You paint the picture and allow the reader to enjoy coming up with that themselves. And it's difficult particularly I think for first-time writers who tend to over-write. But that's a really useful tool from Becca and her co-author colleagues.
Mark Dawson: Absolutely. You get better at that kind of stuff with practise obviously as with most things. But yeah, I remember reading the first drafts of your book and thinking, you've got about, well it was too long, wasn't it?
James Blatch: Yes.
Mark Dawson: But there was quite a lot that we could strip out, which is obviously that's been done now and it's a much better book because of it.
James Blatch: Yeah. It was a process to go through, and I'm definitely somebody who learns by doing something, getting it wrong. I can't necessarily read a book on how to do something, an academic approach, and then, oh I'm going to do it this way. I have to get my hands dirty, learn on the job. It's how I do everything. My Facebook ads I've learned through trial and error.
It's funny enough, reading the books now that I've read it. So I'm now reading Save the Cat, which is a really gripping thriller. It's a description on how stories work, one of the many books on that subject. It makes much more sense to me now that I sort of know a little bit of what I'm talking about. I couldn't just sit there and read that academically. Some people I think can.
We're all on a journey. Mark, you can't get away from the J-word.
Mark Dawson: I'm not on a journey. I'm on a voyage.
James Blatch: Just a thesaurus away from a journey.
Mark Dawson: Exactly. A voyage of discovery.
James Blatch: Good. Sounds like a fantastic voyage. Good. Well thank you very much indeed. Mark, do you have anything else to add this week?
Mark Dawson: No, I had my jab on Friday where I mentioned... On Thursday, actually and then-
James Blatch: You were pretty rough, weren't you?
Mark Dawson: I was pretty rough, yeah. Friday night and Saturday was pretty dreadful actually. And it's funny, Lucy, my wife, didn't have any effects at all. She's like, I didn't even know I had the jab. My mum, my dad were fine, my brother. But I was laid up in bed on Saturday and felt pretty rough. And I feel fine now, but it wasn't the best weekend I've ever had.
James Blatch: Which one did you have?
Mark Dawson: AstraZeneca.
James Blatch: Oh yeah, I had that. I was a bit tired the next day. But it's really affecting people differently. But I think as you said in the morning on your social media post, you'd rather have a rough day and a half than the alternative. Which is the pandemic we can't get away from.
Mark Dawson: Absolutely no question. I'd rather have felt like that for a week rather than get COVID and long-COVID potentially and all that kind of nightmare. No, I'm much happier to have it in my arm. And I'll be ready for the next one in June. Bring it on.
James Blatch: Yeah, me too. Get your jabs if you get to get your chance soon. Okay, thank you very much indeed. Thank you very much to Becca Puglisi being our guest this week. And we look forward to announcing who our Book Lab participant is in the next couple of weeks and we'll get busy with that in the background. Until then, all that remains for me to say is a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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