Writing Basics

Post image for Conflict Fuels the Story by Rebecca Talley

In life we generally try to avoid conflict. We tend to avoid confrontation and contention in hopes of finding peace and tranquility. We work hard to avoid problems at home or in the workplace.

In writing fiction, we must create as much conflict as possible because without conflict there is no story.

Conflict can be classified in the following categories:

1. Man vs. Man
2. Man vs. Self
3. Man vs. Society
4. Man vs. Fate/God/Nature

Man vs. man is when the antagonist is another person. The main character, or protagonist, is trying to obtain his goal but another person stands in his way, preventing him from his goal.

Man vs. self includes stories when the protagonist fights against himself and he stands in his own way of accomplishing his goal. Perhaps, his goal may be to become a heart surgeon but his fear that he’ll never be smart enough to get through medical school paralyzes him and prevents him from becoming a surgeon. Self-doubt can be a strong adversary and makes for dynamic stories.

Man vs. society is when the protagonist fights against the rules or laws of society to obtain his goal. A woman may want to marry a man that her society forbids her to marry. She must then struggle against society in order to reach her goal of marrying.

Man vs. fate/God/nature includes stories when the protagonist fights against elements out of his control. A man who wants to reunite with his family after an argument but runs into a hurricane, must fight against the hurricane in order to reach his goal: his family. Natural disasters or other unexplained difficulties placed in the way of the protagonist would be classified as man vs. fate/God/nature.

You must include conflict in writing your fiction because conflict is what fuels the story. You aren’t limited to only one type of conflict, but whichever conflict, or combination of conflicts, you choose to use make sure they are not only realistic, but that they are organic to the story. Otherwise, your story will soon run out of gas.


Rebecca Talley grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. She now lives in rural CO on a small ranch with a dog, a spoiled horse, too many cats, and a herd of goats. She and her husband, Del, are the proud parents of ten multi-talented and wildly-creative children. Rebecca is the author of a children’s picture book “Grasshopper Pie” (WindRiver 2003), four novels, “Heaven Scent” (CFI 2008), “Altared Plans” (CFI 2009),  “The Upside of Down” (CFI 2011), and “Aura” (2012), and numerous magazine stories and articles. You can visit her blog at www.rebeccatalleywrites.blogspot.com.

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Post image for “Their” As a Singular Pronoun by Annette Lyon

A reader recently called me out on using their as a singular generic pronoun. (I forget who right now; feel free to claim the comment as your own!)

The issue: What pronoun do you use in a situation where the gender of the person acting either isn’t known or isn’t relevant? For example:

When an employee arrives . . .

The rest of the sentence is about the employee, who must sign in. What pronoun do you use?

When an employee arrives, ____ must sign in.

At one time, writers simply used he as the generic pronoun:

When an employee arrives, he must sign in.

But eventually came the complaints of sexism. (What if the employee is female?) That’s when we started seeing a lot of he or she, just to be sure we covered our bases:

When an employee arrives, he or she must sign in.

That’s seriously clunky and awkward, but it’s better than the other weird compromise, s/he.

Others have opted to use she instead of he. That’s annoying to me as a reader, because a) it’s reverse sexism and b) historically he has a far more neutral feel than she, which jumps out like a flashing red light.

(Good writing should move smoothly, without jolts or flashing red lights.)

To keep the gender thing fair, some writers alternate between he and she throughout a piece. Personally, I think that goes beyond annoying and enters the range of shoot me now.

I’ve seen magazines that alternate on an article level: this article uses he, and the next one uses she. Not a particularly elegant solution, but at least it doesn’t have me wanting to hit something.

So the gender-neutral problem persists: English simply doesn’t have a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Finnish does have a gender-neutral pronoun, and I have to say, it’s really convenient when you see a baby but can’t figure out the gender. You can totally compliment the kid without offending the parents. Too bad English doesn’t have an equivalent of hän.

(Another side note: Finns often use se instead of hän . . . which means it, even when referring to people. Totally works in Finnish. Not so much in English. Can you imagine referring to your friend and saying you’re going to lunch with it?)

Chicago and a lot of other style guides suggest avoiding the problem altogether. Either 1) reword the sentence so you don’t need the pronoun, or 2) change the sentence so you can grammatically use the plural:

When employees arrive, they must sign in.

That works fine at times, but it’s still not a solution. Sometimes a piece needs the singular, and making it plural or otherwise doing acrobatics to avoid their as singular sounds odd.

This is precisely why their is becoming increasingly accepted as the singular pronoun, at least in conversation and informal writing. I’m in the camp that accepts this usage already (obviously), although some people still foam at the mouth when they see their used this way. (Just as I foam at the mouth at infer used for imply and other losing usage battles.)

That said, if I’m writing for a professional journal or something similar, I avoid using their as a singular. You write to fit the register you want the piece to fit in. If something isn’t accepted in that arena, don’t use it, and no, their is not accepted as Standard English.


I believe it’s just a matter of time before their is considered correct and perfectly fine to use this way. People already do, often, sometimes by accident and other times absolutely on purpose (raising my hand here).

The new rule actually reaching style guides? That may take some time, but it’ll happen.

Grammar Girl agrees with me and adds that “it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use they with a singular antecedent today.”

What can I say? I live on the edge.


Annette Lyon  is a Whitney Award winner, the recipient of Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction, and the author of nine novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide, plus over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon.

Need a little extra grammar help? Get Annette’s grammar book, There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd.

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Finding Story Ideas by Rebecca Talley

March 21, 2013
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I’m often asked where I find ideas for my stories. As a writer, I’ve learned that ideas are everywhere. Many of the magazine stories I’ve written have been based on a true experience. One such story was about my son. He’d saved money to buy a set of Legos. He was so excited when he’d […]

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Anaphora is a funky term that essentially refers to a stylistic effect with repetition at the beginning of sentences or phrases. Before your brain starts spinning with “what the huh?” let’s look at some examples you’re probably already familiar with. Note the bolded sections: One of the most famous examples in modern times is from […]

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Point of view, or POV, can be tricky. POV can be defined as the character(s) through whose eyes readers experience the story. Usually, the POV character is the main character, but that’s not always the case. Once you decide which character will be telling the story, you’ll also need to decide if it will be […]

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Every Day or Everyday? by Annette Lyon

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Which do you use? When? What’s the difference? Is there one? The everyday/every day mix-up is easily one of the most common mistakes I see in my editing work and one of the most common questions I’m asked. Kinda figured it made sense to address it here. I do mention it in There, Their, They’re […]

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When I give my school presentations to young aspiring writers I always tell them that in order to write, they must read. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually writing and no matter how many books you read, you won’t be a writer unless you write. But, the best writers are generally those who read. […]

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People joke that I’m the Grammar Nazi. My critique group says that I know exactly how to use commas (and then they go comatose, and tweet about it, if I try to explain why a semicolon is correct on page 5). For that matter, rumor has it that when they speak about our group and […]

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I am looking for advice on publishing an LDS children’s book.  My book is in the very early stages.  I’ve written a first draft, and have an artist who has agreed to do illustrations.  Everyone who has read the story has told me I should get it published (without me asking, and without them knowing […]

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November 15, 2012
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As writers, it’s easy to get discouraged. Don’t. With housework, full-time jobs, kids, appointments, volunteer opportunities, political involvement, grocery shopping, caring for aging parents, feeding animals, going to school, or a multitude of other commitments that eat away at writing time, sometimes it’s hard to not give up. Add in rejection letters, time spent waiting […]

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Finding a Good Editor by Tristi Pinkston

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Part 1: How to Work with an Editor [LDSP note: So many of my clients have made a bad match with an editor. I once had a self-published author who approached me about traditionally publishing or distributing their book. After reading the first chapter, I told them they needed to have it edited. They told […]

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Believe me, I know how you feel. You’ve written a book, it’s taken you months/years/decades, you have large chunks of it memorized because you’ve gone over it so many times, and when you look at it, you see a big pile of blood, sweat, and tears. It represents all the nights you went without sleep, […]

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