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Three-Dimensional Writing by Karen S. Wiesner

Applied to writing, the word three-dimensional is easy to define as solid, realistic, rounded, and lifelike, even living.

The hard part for authors comes in translating these concepts into the craft of writing. Most writers know what is not three-dimensional writing. Simple words and phrases convey what’s lacking: flat, cardboard, paper doll, archetypal, convenient to the story, lacking history with loose and undefined ties, predictable, unrealistic, unremarkable, undeveloped or underdeveloped, dead.

Writing that is three-dimensional seems to have length (essentially the foundation of a story), width (structure), and depth (the completeness of fully fleshed-out characters, plots, and settings, as well as multiple layers and rich, textured scenes). Length and width are story basics, and generally, even novice writers grasp these concepts. Depth is where complications arise. Three-dimensional writing is what allows a reader to step through the pages of a book and enter a fictional world, where plot and characters are in that glorious, realistic realm that starts with little more than a line and progresses into shape and, finally, solid form. Once three-dimensionality is within reach, all things are possible: direction, motion, focus, vivid color, texture, harmony, and variety in which change is attainable and value becomes concrete.

In preparation for writing my new reference from Writer’s Digest Books, Bring Your Fiction to Life, I read everything I could get my hands on concerning three-dimensional writing. There’s a fair amount out there, but all contained only small pieces of the whole three-dimensionality package. Using sketches to develop the necessary multidimensional layers of character, plot, and setting is the technique that comes closest to reaching our three-dimensional goal. Each major character in a book needs a present self (the person she is in the here and now of the active story), a past self (who this individual was before), and a future self (who she may be in the future of the story, by the end of the book, refined and shaped by current situations, conflicts, other char­acters, and her settings).

If you want three-dimensional protagonists and antagonists with heartbreakingly realistic conflicts set in a world so vivid readers can actually enter it alongside the characters, you need to have all three “self” dimensions.

This leads to the obvious question you may be wondering: Is it even necessary to do these sketches for each dimension of self? That question, fundamentally, points to the main reason writers don’t usually provide P/P/F Dimensions: They don’t believe much will change from past to present to future. The purpose of this book is to shatter the illusion that any of the dimensions can be cropped, foregone, forgotten, or neglected, whether deliberately, inadvertently, or justifiably (when an editor decides too much is too much). Remember, even if you don’t include everything you come up with concerning P/P/F, you need each dimension in some capacity in every scene, and you as the author need to know all the dimensions thoroughly for every main character.

Characters wouldn’t be growing and developing if they remained static throughout their lives. Everything you go through in your life, whether it’s traumatic, evolving, or even constant, will change you in big and subtle ways. In the same way, in order to create layered, developing characters, you have to see where they are currently, where they came from, and where they may be heading.


Present Self

In sketching the present dimension, you’re essentially starting every character in the middle of her story. Present character is always the person she is currently and sets the focus of the story you’re writing in the here and now. The more you get to know the character through present dimension, the more development you’ll gain in sketching her past and future dimensions.


Past Self

You need to weave pieces of the past throughout a story to flesh out the character’s past dimension. You can’t truly understand who someone is until you’ve seen her developmental years, what she’s been through, and where she’s come from. Backstory is everything that occurred before the current story that directly impacts what will happen in the story. Your character’s past dimension should inspire more development of her present, as well as the future dimension waiting in the wings.


Future Self

In contrast to backstory, the future we’re talking about in respect to “future dimension” (future self, future setting, future conflicts, etc.) throughout this book is not specifically referring to actual future events of the fictional characters we create. Nor is it a “futuristic” way of looking at what’s going to happen in the future of this story in the character’s life.–i.e., after this book is over. In other words, we’re not trying to show the character in a setting or situation decades in the future of the current story. Instead, the future self is about projecting forward to what may come in the future of this story and what resolution may result at the conclusion of the story, based on the ever-evolving development of current events.


If you don’t give characters fully fleshed out situations, conflicts, and goals and motivations for the future scenes in this story, you essentially leave the reader with nothing to hope for or look forward to. Whispers of the best and the worst that could happen are the very things that keep the reader engaged in the story. Don’t underestimate the importance of including this in each and every scene of your story. Without an undertone of what’s ahead, a reader will read each page wondering Where is all this going? What’s the point of this? Is it worth reading? These hints of potential developments are the very things that keep the reader engaged scene by scene. The future dimension anchors and deepens the context for a resolution because the reader needs to be aware from one scene to the next where this story is (or may be) going, in what the direction events are unfolding, and where it may (or may not) conclude. A reader who isn’t engaged is one you’ll lose sooner or later. For that reason, future dimension is as pivotal as the present and past.

All main characters need a fully fleshed-out future dimension of a character, woven in throughout scenes. Without it, there can be no satisfactory, logical—yet unpredictable—ending.


More to come on this topic in Karen’s April 23-29, 2018 workshop at Savvy Authors titled THREE-DIMENSIONAL WRITING. Find out more and register here.


Based on

Bring Your Fiction to Life:

Crafting Three-Dimensional Stories with Depth and Complexity

by Karen S. Wiesner

BringYourFictiontoLifeFind out more about this book

Craft a Story That Towers Above the Rest

You know it when you read it: In page after page and scene after scene, a truly engrossing novel has qualities that set it apart. Authentic characters, a well-rounded plot, and immersive settings work in harmony to create a three-dimensional experience–one you can practically step inside and explore.

But while you can recognize this work when you read it, writing it can be much more challenging. Bring Your Fiction to Life teaches you how to build a solid narrative structure and layer in lush, textured scenes to create a story that rings true. You’ll learn how to:

  • -Master the three-dimensional aspects of characters, plots, and settings using detailed sketches that define the past, present, and future aspects of each element.
  • -Develop complex opening, resolution, and bridge scenes that expertly lead readers through your fictional world.
  • -Construct and analyze an outline for your manuscript, using tools and techniques to analyze scenes that lack dimensionality.
  • -Brainstorm, research, and draft efficiently and effectively, and juggle multiple projects with ease.

Packed with story-development charts, worksheets, and checklists, Bring Your Fiction to Life shows you how to craft a vivid story world that readers will instantly recognize as remarkable.


Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 121 titles published in the past 19 years, which have been nominated/won 134 awards, and has 44 more rele...