Category: ask s

How does copyright work? In my story, my characters have an affinity for certain bands or artists that exist in real life (it’s sort of an urban fantasy). They often sing their favorite songs too. But if my work ever becomes public, can the author get in trouble for “advertising” or “plagiarizing” someone’s work? Or is that considered public domain?

Unfortunately, since none of the PLHL admins are legal experts, this question is out of our scope of practice. I know that song lyrics are copyrighted, so you will need to obtain specific permission to use them in a manuscript. However, please do your own research on fair use. We are not qualified to give any sound advice.

Best of luck,
xx Sarah

Outlining and Organizing Master Post

The words “pantser” and “planner” get thrown around a lot within the various virtual writing communities, especially those who participate in National Novel Writing Month. November has come and gone, but writers do not let the changing of the seasons stop their craft. If one is a planner, they find planning out their novel in advance to be most productive. Some people plan their stories for months in advance before starting to write. Conversely, if one is a pantser, they prefer to take a more freeform approach to their writing projects. In a way, the stories of a pantser write themselves because the author is not afraid to take a concept and run with it. 

I am a scientist by trade. My entire life revolves around meticulous planning in order to get the accurate and precise results I need. A byproduct of that is that I seem to not be able to do anything without creating a game plan first. If I don’t, writer’s block sets in and nothing gets done, or I get so focused on one certain detail that the rest of the work falls short. So, I’ve put together a master post of resources to help other planners (and people who want to be planners) organize their thoughts for a productive writing project.

As always, the links I find to be especially apt will be in bold.


7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story

How to Outline a Novel (Even If You’re Not an Outliner)

Outlining Your Novel: Why and How

How to Outline a Novel Chapter by Chapter

5 Steps to Outline a Story

Plot Outline Creation: 7 Smart Methods

How to Write a Character-Driven Plot Outline


How to Organize and Develop Ideas for Your Novel

How a Scene List Can Change Your Novel-Writing Life

Planning, Outlining, and Organizing Your Novel – Or Not!

A Novel Strategy: How to Organize Big Writign Projects

Organize Your Novel with Excel

Novel Structure Diagram [Image]


Everything You Need to Know About Planning Your Novel

Planning a Novel in Ten Steps

Your Novel Blueprint

25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story

The Ultimate 10 Step Guide to Plan and Write Your Book

How to Create a Special Snowflake (No, Really! Creating Fiction Through the Snowflake Method) 

How To Write A Novel Outline (Like the #WriteBoss You Are!)


The Story Map [Educational Tool][Flash]

Character Outline [1][2]

xx Sarah

I want my character to be spiritual/religious to an extent but the problem is it’s a partly world-built belief system and I’m writing a short story so I can’t have too much exposition or non-plot related fluff (especially since said beliefs do not relate heavily to the plot


You have no obligation to explain the fictional religion in your short story. 

The beauty of writing a short story is that you only need to include aspects of your religion that are relevant to the plot. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t a previously known religion or not. There is no reason to explain every single aspect unless you plan on using the precious page-estate of your story to expand upon it. Write the aspects of the religion that are relevant to the plot. Don’t focus so much on trying to make every single point make 100% sense if it’s not going to be used in the future. Your character is religious, the reader is unfamiliar with the religions in your world, and there isn’t any issue with that. 

Just don’t explain the religion.

If the religion is not all that relelvant to the plot itself, you can show that the character is religious by adding a sentence or two about how they leave an offering at a shrine before work or pray before every meal. Maybe they become uncomfortable when one of their coworkers uses the diety’s name in vain– there are so many options that indicate a person is religious without knowing the details of the religion. 

If you find yourself wanting to describe the aspects of the religion, add it in after you finish the first draft of your story. Sometimes it is easier to add details in after the big picture is completed. 

xx Sarah

Hi, I plan a Thriller and thought plotting I came up with ideas that are intertwined on multiple levels and would cover years inside the stories time frame. Sadly it would be too much for one novel so I got the idea of a triology but I am unsure about doing it. Would it be a smart idea to plan it as a triology from the beginning? How does plotting change then? Are there any downfalls to avoid?

My initial reaction is to say that you should plan your novel as a trilogy. If you plan out the trilogy beforehand, the books will seem more cohesive, and if you don’t like the idea of the trilogy, it is much easier to cut down a plot than it is to make up a believable twist on the spot. 

Let’s take a deeper look into the pros and cons, though.

The pros to “winging it” and not planning it as a trilogy in the beginning is that if you end up running out of steam mid-novel, you will have the majority of your world building and character development already finished.  There will be less pressure to push on and possibly end up with a finished product that you don’t particularly like. If there is one aspect of your story you are particularly drawn to, you have the option of letting the plot end there until you have the resources to expand on the world and character development whenever you wish. If you decide to stop after one book, you will have a self-contained story with the option of continuation. If your writing style tends to be succinct, then you won’t feel forced to expand your story over several novels.

The cons of “winging it” is that there is less motivation for you to spend time elaborating on specific parts, because you may or may not continue your series. Everything needs to be somewhat restricted and contained into one novel just in case something happens and you decide to end the story at one book. You will have to cut back greatly on the lore you planned on explaining in the first book because there just simply might not be any room or use for it in the future. Character development will have to be more abrupt, the depth of your world may be shallower, and there just generally would not be enough “page-estate” to add a significant amount of detail. 

The pros of planning the trilogy are that you have the freedom to expand and draw character development out for however long you can imagine. There is no set timeline of when you need to have certain points wrapped up, as long as it happens before the final climax. You would have much more space to play around with your characters and mold them to their final selves. You say that there is a lot of lore you want to develop during the course of your plot, and by planning the trilogy out beforehand, you can choose exactly when these developments happen. It is much simpler to spread years of plot over the course of multiple books than it is to try to cram it all into one. 

The cons of planning are that if you decide you don’t want to continue, you will leave piece of unfinished work. If you decide to publish and then run out of steam, you may leave fans hanging about the end of your storyline. There is a lot of pressure to finish a story than has been planned out in three novels. If you tend to struggle to meet word lengths requirements on essays, having to elaborate on the world and character development will be more difficult because you will need to be able to spread out your arcs. 

It’s your choice as to what direction you take when writing. It depends on your comfort level, writing style, and ultimately commitment level. 

I hope I answered your questions in full. Please follow up if you still have questions. 

xx Sarah

(subplot 1/2) I’m stuck on one major subplot of my project I’m working on; have you ever heard of the Sentinel & Guide trope? Well I decided to rework it around my universe and I did it by having this group of empaths. Basically they need a partner to help them fight in battle. The Empath can do both defensive and offensive attacks, but their partner can do mostly offensive, but they don’t have powers like their Empath partner yet they’re still strong enough to take on a battle.

(subplot 2/2) With the S/G trope the Sentinel is the one who has the advanced senses and the Guide is just there to help them come back down, so they don’t do much- but I want to expand on my version but I don’t know how. The Empath is my version of the Sentinel but I don’t know what to turn my Guide into. I’m sorry, I read fanfic alot but this idea popped up in my head and I didn’t know who to ask, so if you can’t help that’s totally fine.

I must admit, I had to look up the Sentinel & Guide trope, but I think I know some ways to help you out. 

They way that I understood the Guide is that they are someone who has to “ground” the Sentinel. You say your Sentinel is an Empath, so how does being an Empath require someone to bring them back to reality? Are your characters just partners in battle, or is there any room for personal relationship in your story? A bad example of what I’m thinking of is L and Watari from Death Note. On one side you have a person who has near-magic levels of intelligence and analysis skills, and on the other you have his handler, who is somewhat of a fatherly figure and acts as a liason to deliver information to the “Sentinel” (I remember something about Watari being able to calm L down when he gets riled up, but I may be misremebering).  

Your Sentinel is an Empath, but your Guide can be a handler, or assistant, emissary, intermediary– the possibilities are endless. Even just using a thesaurus may give you inspiration if you’re looking to change the title. The direct opposite of an empath is a narcissist, although that word generally has negative connotations/is not exactly a superpower. Since empathy is the ability to share and understand feelings, the opposite would be one who has no ability to connect emotionally to others. If the Empath can’t stop themself from augmenting and aprehending the emotions of others, how does the Guide help to protect the rest of the team.

Who is the main character in this story? If you decide to focus on the Guide, I see no reason as to why they can’t have their own development outside of the Sentinel. If the Guides are capable of some supernatural ability, how does being a Guide affect their usage? There are a lot of directions in which you can go that allow the Guide to be so much more than ‘just’ a Guide. Just as a general warning, make sure your characters (and powers) have balanced strengths and weaknesses. That alone may prevent the Guide from being ‘just a Guide.’

I don’t want to force feed you ideas, but some plot points could be:

  • Guide becoming fed up with their position
    • Possibly want better assignment/different Sentinel
    • Guide not fully understanding why they have the role
      • Why Sentinels exist and the reason Guides are needed
  • Sentinel turning against Guide in moment of confusion
    • How Guide reacts to this (emotionally, physically…)
  • Guide feeling inadequate becaues of Sentinel
    • Guide finding their own self satisfaction/self worth
  • Guide dealing with the downside of their own powers

xx Sarah

I’m writing a story about two girls in highschool, A and B. They just found out that there’s a secret organization in the school ran by deliquents. They were threatened not to tell anyone or else the organization would reveal some of their horrible secrets in the past. A is terrified because this would ruin her reputation as a good student, but B isn’t. She’s planning on writing an exposée in the school paper (to get all the glory of cracking a huge case). But A and B are getting closer [1/2]

I’m planning to make B choose between A and the glory, and I need help on the reason why B would insist on wrting the exposée, even when they’re already close (without A knowing of course), up until the very moment she would have to make the choice. I’d really appreciate if you could help me out. Thanks! [2/2]

Greed. Selfishness. Fulfillment of some deep desire for power.  

I’m going to start this off with pseudo-case study. If you look at the social climate in some of the top univeristies in the United States, I guarantee that you will find students who are willing to sabotage their classmates for the sake of their own well being. It makes for a terrible environment, but when the stakes are high, some people will do anything to make themselves come out on top. Whether that be cheating, unplugging their roommate’s alarm clock, or purposely destroying a curve. That isn’t true for every student and every university, but people like that do exist. 

If B has the chance to write an

exposé that may increase her credibility, or gives her a chance at rising in the ranks at the school paper, she may be blinded by her own selfishness. In her eyes, the pros of writing the piece may outweigh the cons of possibly losing a friend. People aren’t always rational thinkers. If a person is motivated enough to betray one of their close friends, they will do it. Human beings are selfish creatures by nature– being selfish is a trait that is explained in part by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Survival of the fittest, doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

Rebekah has answered a few[1,2] questions in the past about writing stories in the high school setting. I highly suggest that you read them over.

xx Sarah

Hello ! I’m writing a novel where the MC and the Protagonist are two different characters. In regard to that, do you have some advices on how to plot the story ? Is it any different than usual ? (knowing that the MC isn’t just a passive observant and is trying to be involved in the protagonist’s plotline while still having her own subplot. She just doesn’t drive the main story)

Your protagonist is the character who grows the most over the course of your story. While they are generally the same character as the main character, they don’t need to be. This might be a bit confusing to write at the beginning, but it is not completely unheard of. I would argue that in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter is the main character while Neville Longbottom is the protagonist. I admit, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it gives a clear example of what I’m trying to describe. 

Your plot can be anything you wish, to be quite honest. Having two different characters for the protagonist and MC will not make or break different plot types. The protagonist could be the main character’s enemy (making your main character an antagonist), or someone the main characters mentors to grow– the possibilities are endless. Just make sure you give the necessary amount of time to your protagonist, because if she isn’t growing, then she isn’t a protagonist. 

For something like this, I would recommend against using multiple points of view when writing, because then your protagonist will become a main character, and then all of the hard work you’ve put in to build up a protagonist without her being a main character will be for nought. 

I wish I could be more helpful, but it isn’t all that different from writing a typical MC/protagonist combo. Writing with this cast structure is a really good exercise for anyone who is looking to test their character development skills. It can be much harder than it sounds. Good luck, and happy writing!

xx Sarah

Hai! I literally just got a cool idea for creating an alternate present day where part of the population can use magic and because of incidents throughout history involving magic, magic users are kept under tight government sanctions and social pressure. Sort of like the X-Men situation. Do you have any advice, or links that could help me develop this more, and avoid and potential pitfalls?

It seems like you already have a good idea of where to start, plus a point of reference, so my advice is going to be short. 

  • Keep your magic system straightforward and stick to your world’s “laws of magic.” 
    • More about magic systems here and here.
  • If you are drawing inspiration for your magic system from other cultures, be respectful. 
  • Keep your lore in line. Unless it is a plot point in your story, make sure that there aren’t any unintentional loopholes or contradicting notions. 
    • Try researching urban fantasy and read some samples from books in that genre. That may help spark some inspiration as to how magic/non-magic persons live in modern society.
  • Don’t use magic as an allegory for a repressed people.

We have a great post about building fantasy lore here, and a post comparing and contrasting different types of fantasy here.

One of the reasons why I’m purposely trying to keep this post short is because fantasy is a genre that is completely unique to the writer. I don’t want to put words in your mouth or different ideas in your head and possibly throw you off your original track because to be completely honest, you don’t have to take anyone’s advice about your world. Since you’re writing a fantasy story, there is no limit as to how you can develop your plot. Anything is possible as long as it can be imagined.

xx Sarah

Theres a sizable portion of my story where the main characters go through training of various sorts; two of them are training in combat and to become symbolic leaders of a revolution and the other is being taught to control his new powers. This comes relatively late in the story and im worried that since theres really no montage equivalent in writing itll get boring. I planned to maybe put some romantic tension in, but will that be enough?

Author Wesley Chu tackled something similar in his book The Lives of Tao. He used the training period as a means of fleshing out the MC and building bonds between him and other important characters. So, at the end of that section of the book, the main character changed both physically and mentally. Authors write about extensive training periods quite often. Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, Jim Butcher, Veronica Roth, and many more exploit this plot point to show differences between characters, strengths and weakness, and character development. Training times are excellent for showing growth, since it’s a time for literally nothing more than learning and improving. If you can reliably write how your characters change and grow during what I am assuming to be a particularly grueling time in their life, there is no reason to think that it will be boring. Your main character is learning how to control his new powers, so how is he dealing with the new responsibility that has been suddenly thrust upon him? How do they feel about becoming a symbolic leader? Both of those points are a lot of pressure to put on a person. There is definitely room for some emotional growth during that training alone. Since you say that this training comes relatively late in the course of the plot, think about how the added stress of the prior events affects their well being. Are nightmares or flashbacks affecting his ability to train? Is there any unchecked rage towards a certain group or person that has yet to be tied up? There are so many directions in which you can go to expand on what you have already written. 

If your characters knew each other beforehand, how does the training affect their friendship? If they didn’t know each other, how do they react being forced together in such a way? You characters could become completely different people because of the training and have to build their friendship from scratch. That last example was somewhat cliched, but it would add emotion and spark to your work. Since I do not have the full picture to your plot, I want to refrain from plot point suggestions. Just keep in mind the pressures that your characters will be under in this situation and how they react. 

As for the romance, I’m generally not a fan of adding romance when the plot doesn’t necessarily call for romance, but if you find that it is fitting for the plot and situation, go for it. I find that too many novels add romance just for the sake of pleasing a certain audience. When romance is shoved into a piece where it is not quite fitting, it tends to seem forced and takes away from the rest of the plot (read my mini-rant about sex scenes in media here). On the flip side, however, romance that is done right can be heartbreaking in the best way. If a few of your characters begin to develop feelings for each other and are pitted against each other during or after their training, that adds a special type of conflict for your characters. If one of the romantic interests is deemed to be unfit for the job, how do your characters react to that situation? There are so many roads that you could take to add drama and tension without making seem frivolous. 

If you decide to add romantic tension to your story, but it doesn’t seem like it’s enough to be interesting, it might be time to take a slightly different direction in your writing. Continuously adding different plot points to try to liven things up can lead to the storyline becoming cluttered and hard to follow. It is best to keep things simple and cause tension through the characters’ personal and interpersonal struggles. From the small taste of your world that I was able to glean from the question, I can imagine a great number of areas from which you will be able to draw fuel to keep your story interesting.

xx Sarah

My plot needs one of my characters to be separated from the rest for a long while. I’d planned to split the POVs between her and her brother (who is with the others), since the events of both POVs are important, but for exposition purposes i need to add flashbacks from the brother’s perspective, to explain their family situation and introduce an important character. Would that make it too hectic? I was considering having her explain her events to the others later but that seems dull. Any advice?

The way you’ve explained it seems a bit hectic, but it might turn out well on paper. 

One of the best examples of using flashbacks as a storytelling device I’ve seen is with Lost. The plot of the episodes were accompanied by flashbacks that evoked similar emotion to what the characters were experiencing in the episode. If a character felt a certain type of fear, it was paired with flashbacks to another time where the same character was feeling the same type of fear, if that makes sense. A technique you could use is to express the flashbacks as a sort of prologue to each new chapter, similar to the way dreams are expressed in novels. These are generally written in italics to differentiate between the normal prose. If that does not fit with your vision, short snippets of flashback that are spaced appropriately throughout the novel will work as well. Just make sure the snippets stay snippets, and don’t completely take over your text. There is nothing wrong with long flashbacks that require their own chapter; the issue lies in breaking up so much of the main plot with the flashbacks that it becomes muddled and confusing. 

Writing from multiple points of view should not be an issue unless you begin to add pointless scenes to try to make their respective “episodes” longer. If your characters are equally important as main characters, then multiple POV is useful in progressing the plot. But, if you find that you are liking the brother’s development more than the sister, do not be afraid to write more about the brother’s experiences. Just don’t try to give equal the sister equally long chapters if all she is doing is waiting for an event to happen. 

xx Sarah