“No” is a powerful word. It has two meanings – both yes and no. If someone offers you a slither of your favorite cake (mine is red velvet – homemade, not out of a box), and you say no because you’re trying to watch your figure, chances are, what you really mean is “Yes, I’d love to have a piece of cake. Glad you asked.” But, there’s something in you that answers for you, namely your waistline that threatens to bulge if you dare even dream of having even one bite.

The reasons for saying “no” varies from situation to situation, from person to person. But what’s important is the REASON that the “no” is said. It could be because a young girl wants to hold onto what’s sacred to her. It could be that a father doesn’t want his child to learn the life lessons he had to learn. Maybe it’s a the CEO of a company who doesn’t want his job to be jeopardized by an up-and-comer, so he turns down the ambitious inquiries that the employee makes.

But here’s the thing. A “no” in writing is a wrench in the reader’s heart. Why? Well, because readers inwardly want the story to work out well for the main character. She wants to see your character to succeed, to see her excel in all he does. But there’s a balance.

Too much ease equals a soured reader experience.

Let your main character experience some “no’s.” Maybe he needs his wife to let him go to California to train with the best boxer if he is ever going to make it to the title. Let her tell him no. A no here tests your character to find out what’s really inside of him, teaches the main how to deal with disappointment. This takes some patience.

But you’ll have a much better story when he overcomes the no. Maybe he realizes that his wife never supported him, that she only wants what’s best for her. Maybe he realizes that his wife wants him to be safe so they can have a happy life together, and boxing poses so many dangers that she doesn’t want to bring into their marriage. Maybe he cheated on her some years before and she forgave, but it was with a woman in California. Or maybe…just maybe, she is a tyrant and has the intention to watch his dreams crash and burn.

See how a simple no here helps get the story moving in a different direction. The goal of the main is still the same, but how he gets there is different. Give this a shot when you can. It’ll test you as a writer, because everything won’t work out like you expected it to. You’ll have to challenge yourself to think like your other characters instead of only thinking like your main, but the payoff is invaluable. It’ll make for a more likable main character as well as a better story.

What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “NO MEANS NO…SOMETIMES

  1. mariathermann

    I love the way you used the word “no” instead of saying “conflict”, which is a concept many writers seem to struggle with. And I like that you have included self-denial in this “saying no” business, for we can construct wonderful internal struggles with this: say a hero/heroine is determined to stay sober or not “indulge” before his or her wedding day but temptation is all around them and they have to deal with this. Or a writer could use this to create a deeply flawed anti-hero, somebody who starts off as a fanatic and eventually realises that his/her “no” is negating life, love and friendship for the sake of false prophets/ideology. Turning the “no” into saying “yes” to life would thus be what underpins the plot.

    Since you don’t seem to be getting all my email messages: do you have a photo you want me to include in your F at F interview? If so, please email it to me at the usual address. Thanks for sharing this blog post.

    1. wstadler Post author

      Hey, Maria. You’re right about the “inner indulgences.” There’s so a struggle for a reader when a character should say no and when a character wants to say no but the character goes ahead with the decision anyway. That leads to a lot of turmoil both for the character and the reader!


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