Using Discovery To Make Your Novel More Layered (And To Write It Faster)

I’m a planner when it comes to novel writing — no surprise if you’ve read Super Simple Story Structure.

Once I have my overall plot in mind, I first draft pretty quickly. But finishing a novel always takes longer than I expect.

I think I finally know why.

I tend to forget about the time and effort needed to go from the initial idea for a novel to figuring out the plot.

There’s a name for this phase of writing a novel (or other type of story).

It’s called discovery. Until recently, I was mostly unaware I was doing it, so I failed to set aside enough time for it.

What Is Discovery?

I first heard the term “the discovery phase of writing” a year or two ago. I had a bad reaction to it because in law, discovery is a process that can be drawn out, frustrating, and stressful.

In litigation, discovery means asking the other side to give you information about its case and evidence. Attorneys argue a lot about what needs to be handed over to the other side.

That type of conflict is only fun for people who like to argue and make life difficult for everyone. (Not all attorneys like that! Seriously.)

In fiction, the discovery process is much more fun because you’re finding out about and expanding your characters, settings, themes, and story.

When I was practicing law full-time, I didn’t realize I was engaging in discovery for my fiction because it happened in odd moments.

At court while waiting for my case to be called I’d scribble notes about my character on a legal pad. Later, standing in line at a Corner Bakery, I might look at the people around me and imagine what they were thinking.

I thought of what I was doing as “daydreaming.” It didn’t seem like part of the writing process. It was a way to entertain myself when I was bored.

It also was a way to feel I was making progress on my novel despite having little time to put words on the page.

What I didn’t realize was it wasn’t just an illusion to make myself feel better. I really was making progress on my novel.

How To Do Discovery

Now that I’m devoting most of my time to writing, the discovery process is more purposeful and I’m more aware of it.

Some things you might do in discovery:

  • Read Non-Fiction

This reading is different from research on specific topics. It’s about big picture topics and themes that might or might not help generate more ideas or prompt turns and twists in your story.

For my second mystery in my new series, I’ve been reading websites aimed at immigrants to the U.S. from various countries and paying attention to newspaper articles about immigration. A missing woman in the book is an immigrant who overstayed her student visa.

(For more on the creative pluses of reading rather than watching the news, check out Reading The Newspaper Can Spark Ideas For Your Novel.)

I’m also reading books about causes of death (the photo at the top of this article is from a recent trip to the library).

  • Images

Before so many images were available on the Internet I used to page through magazines and tear out photos of people who either looked like my characters or whom I found striking for one reason or another.

On the right is a photo of a magazine page that inspired the character of Erik Holmes, a wealthy CEO with an obsession about the end of the world and obscure religious cults in my Awakening series.

I also saved photos of outdoor and indoor scenes that evoked strong feelings.

Now I do the same thing but online through sites like Instagram and Pinterest. These sites also allow me to post and organize photos I take that relate somehow to my novels.

  • Documentaries

Watching documentaries is also great for prompting ideas and scenes.

Though I had no plan of including snake handling in my Awakening series, I happened to see a documentary on it. It solved an issue I had, which was how to put my protagonist in great danger without it being clear who was behind it. I chose a setting where snake handling was still practiced and plunged her into an underground cavern filled with rattlesnakes.

  • Music

Many writers create collections of songs that fit their stories or characters.

It doesn’t mean that these songs would need to be played as a soundtrack if your book were a movie, though you can create a soundtrack if you like. But they are songs that suit a particular mood or character.

Choosing them helps figure out how the characters feel and what’s happening in their lives.

Free Writing/Talking

I like to scribble in a notebook or on scratch paper, or type quickly into a document, random thoughts about my story and characters. Often I never look at these notes again.

The thoughts might or might not be directly related to the story. It’s a way to hang out with my characters or explore how possible twists and turns might affect them.

Sometimes rather than writing, I pace and talk.

Attending Events

Concerts, art exhibits, garden or city walks, sporting events, and just about anything you attend that stimulates your mind and helps you relax can also be part of the discovery process. All trigger emotions and set your mind free to wander.

It doesn’t matter if you love the event of not. Some of my best ideas for characters and plot developments came to me while sitting through a concert that bored me nearly to tears.

Why Do It

Embracing the discovery process can save you a lot of time later.

With my first mystery I had what I thought was a pretty solid first third of the book finished and a rough draft of the rest.

To my surprise, when I sent it to my story editor, her main response was that the mechanics of the plot seemed fine but, basically, who cares? Why does your main character do what she does and why does it matter to the reader?

Had I allowed myself more time for discovery, I likely would have developed more layered and engaging characters before plotting the book and writing the draft. But I didn’t, so my rewriting process took three or four times as long as I’d expected.

Taking time to read and daydream and look at photos (or anything else from the above list) pushes me to really get to know my characters and consider different plot turns and twists I might have otherwise overlooked.

Though “push” is really the wrong word.

When I let myself spend time in discovery I don’t feel pushed at all. Instead, I feel relaxed and happy to be spending time with my characters in a place that isn’t about hitting word counts.

It reminds me of how I feel when I’m reading a novel I really love. It’s as if I am living in another world that’s amazing, fascinating, and heart wrenching.

If that’s the experience I want my readers to have, and it is, I need to be able to go there myself first.

I started this purposeful discovery process about two weeks ago for my second mystery novel (working title The Charming Man).

I’ve been shifting between creating a rough outline and doing more reading, meandering, and discovering. We’ll see if overall this results in less rewriting than I did for the first one.

That’s all for now.

Until next Friday —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For help on developing your characters, you can download my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Characters And Emotional Pain

Lately I’ve been struggling with creating brand new characters after having written four books in a single series. One thing that’s always been hard for me is showing the main character’s inner life and feelings.

As I got to know my characters over the four books, it became easier, but now I’m starting from scratch.

The standard Show Don’t Tell advice was so drilled into me during college writing classes that I became afraid to share anything about my characters’ thoughts, past, and emotional baggage.

I often need a separate rewrite completely focused on making sure the characters’ emotions come through. 

It’s especially challenging now because in my new Q. C. Davis mystery series my main character had a significant childhood trauma and in response became a very controlled, driven, and outwardly calm person.

That’s why this Friday I’m recommending an article from The Creative Penn: What Is Emotional Shielding and Why Does it Matter For Your Character? by Becca Puglisi.

The concept is that humans-and so characters-who suffer deep emotional wounds find a way to protect themselves from similar pain in the future.

That way, though, often leads to unhealthy behavior or coping mechanisms that cause other challenges or more pain as they go forward in life.

Even if your characters don’t have a particular single trauma to get past, the points in Puglisi’s article can help walk you through how your characters cope with painful experiences and hard times and how that influences who they become and how they act at the time your story takes place. (How’s that for ending on a run-on sentence?)

Until Sunday-

L. M. Lilly

P. S. For more on developing your characters, feel free to download my Free Character Tip Sheet/Questionnaire.

Scarlett O’Hara, Lizzy Bennet, And Character Values

What we value drives all our decisions, from the friends we choose to the jobs we take to where we live or what types of families we have.

This is also true of your characters.

You don’t need to know everything your character values, but the more you know, the better you’ll understand who your character is and what drives her (or him or it).

Also, the more easily you’ll be able to create conflict. That matters because without conflict, there’s no story.

Values-Driven Conflict

You can create conflict by starting with a character you’re drawn to, figuring out that person’s values, then choosing conflicting values for another character who opposes the first.

For example, if you want to write about a protagonist who highly values peace and getting along with others, you might give him an antagonist who believes that disputing every point is the best way to get to the truth or to foster the most honest relationship.

This difference can create great conflict—and so spark a story—whether you’re writing romance, horror, literary fiction, or any other genre.

On the other hand, if you have a plot but no characters yet, you can start with what values your significant characters would need to serve that plot.

Lizzy Bennet

In Pride and Prejudice, protagonist Elizabeth Bennet highly values happiness and love in marriage, as well as compatibility, having seen her parents’ unhappiness.

Those values place her at great conflict with the practical realities of her life.

We learn on page one of the book that she is one of five Bennet sisters who, along with their mother, face homelessness and poverty when their father dies, as his estate passes to a distant cousin.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth, defying her mother’s wishes, refuses to marry the cousin.

The marriage would ensure she, her mother, and her sisters will be protected upon the father’s death. If Elizabeth didn’t value happiness—or perhaps avoiding definite unhappiness—in marriage so highly, she’d accept the proposal to protect herself and her family. But there would be no conflict, so no story.

And Scarlett O’Hara

As another example, in Gone With The Wind Scarlett marries her sister’s fiancé to get money to support the family’s home.


Her highest values are saving her family’s plantation and keeping her family from starving. She’s sure that if her sister marries the man, his money will not go toward the family or their home but toward the sister alone.

Someone whose highest value was loyalty to her sister would make a different choice, as would someone who valued romantic love above all.

Love Scarlett or hate her, admire her or criticize her, does anyone doubt that she would marry her sister’s beau in those circumstances? Not for a second. That’s a character with strong, clear values. Gone With The Wind is full of conflict as a result.

Think about the protagonist and antagonist in a story you’re writing or plotting.

What do they value most? Do those values conflict? If not, is there a way you can alter their values so that they do?

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on developing characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Money And Your Characters

Writing believable, compelling characters requires knowing what’s happening in their minds and hearts. It also requires a deep understanding of human behavior.

One key to both is to figure out the relationships your characters have, including their relationship with money.

That’s so because people’s finances hit on all the same emotional issues as family, romance, and friendship.

What Money Means To Your Character

Your Character And MoneyMoney has lot of layers.

First, it has a practical and literal meaning. Unless your character lives in a society that is all barter, she needs money to survive.

Money also places a value on things, work, and—in some people’s minds—people. 

The average Major League baseball player in the U.S. earns about $4.47 million a year, while the average salary for a high school teacher in the U.S. is $47,760.

How Much Your Character Earns

You can argue about whether or not this statistic means our culture actually values ball playing more than teaching and what other factors go into those salary differences.

For the purpose of building your characters, though, it hints at many important questions.

For instance:

  • If the amount your character earns per year is zero, does that affect her self-esteem?
  • What if it’s in the top 1%?
  • How about if it significantly increases or lowers one year?
  • What if it’s higher or lower than the character’s best friend, sibling, spouse, grown child, or parent?
  • What does the amount earned per year mean to your character?

Money might be how your character measures success. It also might be a measure of good or evil.

To one person, being well-to-do financially could indicate being a good person who is showered with the bounty of God or the Universe. To another, it might symbolize selfishness or greed and signal underhanded dealings.

Does Your Character See Money As Love?

Money can serve as a proxy for love, which is why some wills and trusts lawyers advise clients to leave an exactly equal amount to each child, regardless of circumstance.

Going back to our ballplayer/teacher comparison, parents whose only real asset is a modest house may look at their baseball player child and think it’s ridiculous to leave him half of it. It will be a drop in the bucket to him. But leaving the entire house to the high school teacher child might cover a grandchild’s college bills, be much needed to supplement a retirement fund, or fund a move to a nicer neighborhood.

But giving everything to one child, even when the other is in excellent shape financially, can create bitter, “Mom always loved you more” feelings.

Disputes About Money

The best way to figure out how your character feels about money is to ask what she would do in a dispute over money.

Let’s say your character gave a sibling $5,000 two years ago to help pay for a child’s car or tuition. Your character believes it was a loan, the sibling says it was a gift. Your character absolutely does not need the money.

(You can switch the amount to $100 or $1,000 if that’s more realistic.)

  • If the dispute is never resolved, how long will your character think about it or talk about it?
  • Would your character consider talking to a lawyer or suing to get the money back?
  • Would your character ask for the money from the college student/car buyer?
  • Is it likely your character would stop speaking to the sibling?
  • If your character says, “it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing,” what is the principle?

These issues overlap into family, and that’s part of the point. If money means love, success, who is right or wrong, who is honest, etc., that’s magnified when it’s someone with whom the character has a personal relationship.

Because of that, drawing out your character’s feelings and beliefs about money reveals a lot about what matters to him and who he is.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. This article contains excerpts from Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out, which is available in paperback and Kindle editions (and is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers).

Improving Your Dialogue

Writing dialogue is a challenge for most writers. There’s making it sound “real” or “natural” without it actually sounding the way people talk, which includes constant “uhs,” incomplete thoughts, and sentences that make no sense.

(I discovered that last one in my law practice when I read transcripts of testimony. I was surprised how often people say things that everyone understands in the moment but that is confusing or incomprehensible when read later.)

Then there’s the rhythm and musicality of great dialogue. Read or watch a David Mamet play (Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna) or Aaron Sorkin show (West Wing, The Newsroom, Sports Night) for great examples of that.

Also, there’s character. Just as people don’t all talk the same way, your characters should sound different from one another. This difference is not only about how they speak but what they say.

All of which is why this Friday I’m recommending you check out this podcast episode from How Story Works on Character & Dialogue:

Have a great weekend!

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

Character And Personality Theories

If you get stuck as you’re creating your characters, try checking out some of the theories of personality and/or personality quizzes on line.

One I’ve found especially helpful is the personality type theory of C.G. Jung as used in the work of Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine C. Briggs.

The four aspects of personality Myers and Briggs talk about are:

• Extraverted/Introverted (E or I)

• Intuiton/Sensing (N or S)

• Thinking/Feeling (I or F)

• Perceiving/Judging (P or J)

Check out these descriptions of the different traits and combinations of traits. Creating characters who fall at opposite ends of the scales for them is a good way to ensure enough conflict in your stories.

Some other personality theories and inventories you may want to check out include:

  • The Big Five Personality Domains, which covers Extroversion; Agreeableness; Conscientiousness; Neuroticism/Emotional Stability; Openness to Experience
  • The Hexaco Personality Inventory, which focuses on Honesty-Humility; Emotionality; Extroversion; Agreeableness/Anger; Conscientiousness; and Openness to Experience.
  • Enneagrams, which divide people into 9 personality types such as Adaptive Peacemaker and Quiet Specialist.

Regardless whether you think these approaches are accurate for people in real life, they can help you figure out your characters.

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on character development, you can check out my new release Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out.