30 November 2008


What: Craft a draft of your work into a novel, memoir, screenplay in a month’s time.

Who: Anyone who has written a draft of a novel, memoir, or screenplay and is now ready to craft the project into a coherent piece worthy of publication.

Why: The first draft of any writing project is considered the generative phase. The muse is often responsible for much of the generative phase. The writer acts as a conduit and allows the inspiration to come through onto the page. The generative phase is all about getting the words on the page.

At the end of the generative phase, a writer is often faced with a manuscript full of holes and missteps, confusion and chaos. This is part of the process in that editing in the generative phase risks stifling the muse, which often results in stagnation.

When a writer completes the generative phase the real work begins—crafting the words into a coherent story. This is where International Plot Writing Month comes into play.

Many writers, when left with pages and pages of words, are often at a loss as to how to take their writing to the next level. Rather than shove the words about on the page, join the Plot Whisperer as she takes you through the process of crafting what you have into a viable story.

When: International Plot Writing Month begins December 1st. Visit: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/ daily throughout December for step-by-step guidance to prepare your manuscript for draft two.

Where: Plot Whisperer blog: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/

26 November 2008

December: International Plot Writing Month

Have a draft of your book? Wondering, now what?

Follow me here everyday for tips and tricks and inspiration beginning Dec. 1st.

No writing required.

It's a time to analyze what you have and brainstorm for an effortless draft two in January '09.

17 November 2008

Plot Tips for NaNoWriMo Writers

30 days hath November.

I fear pulling out my tricky little formula for determining the parameters of your story. Before you groan in disgust, I know, I know. Horrors that I deem it necessary to reduce the creative process to a mathematical equation. Hey, I'm just trying to help. You want to get to the end of the month with some semblence of a story, don't you? I don't expect those natural born story tellers would visit this site anyway. But, for you writers who are looking for tricks and tips to keep you on track during your month-long journey toward completing your novel or memoir or whatever, try this.

According the 1/4, 1/2, 1/4 rule for the Beginning, Middle and End respectively, you left the Beginning (1/4) of your story around the 7th or 8th of the month. By now, you are deep in the Middle of the story world itself.

In about 5 days or so you'll reach the highest point in your story so far -- the Crisis (3/4 give or take). Therefore, you are smack dab in the middle of or quickly approaching the quicksand of the territory of the antagonists.

Identify what the protagonist is after, wants, desires, is fighting for. Use as many antagonists as you want to interfere with her achieving her goals and to build tension. When we are under the most strain and stress and conflict do we reveal who we really are. Same with your characters.

Adversity does not build character.
Adversity reveals character.

Get the energy of the story moving higher. If you've fallen in love with your characters and are resistant to place them in danger, think again. You're creating a story, not hanging out with your best friend. No one said this was going to be easy. Amp up the tension. Get out of her head and into scene. Show us emotion.

Show us who the character really is. Get her moving toward the Crisis -- a breakdown, dark night of the soul, or the Climax of the antagonist. Make it exciting.

No matter what, keep going. December is National Plot Writing Month. We'll shape your words into a compelling story then.
Are you still writing? Did you start strong only to find yourself wavering now? Still hanging on? Is the tension rising?

10 November 2008

Plot, Platform, Publicity

In a recent issue of The Bookwoman, the official publication of Women's National Book Association, Fern Reiss gives hints on how to publicize your novel. One of her methods is to put a nonfiction hook in your novel. Hooks provide a potential platform as well as leverage for publicity. Riess' words shot through me. Of course! Brilliant!

I often guide writers through the pitfalls of creating the Middle of your story in two ways. The use of antagonists is one. The other is to create an unusual world. When the protagonist leaves the old world, they enter the story world. Not only does this technique support your writing, as Reiss points out, creating such a hook leads to so much more.

Write what you know. Create the story world around your passion -- that which you know and love.

Or write about that which you do not know, but fascinates you enough to immerse yourself in until you become an expert.

Readers and audiences love to learn or experience something new and exotic. Provide that in the world you create in the Middle.

Take raising a wild coyote (the core of a new memoir coming out 12/2 by Simon and Schuster -- The Daily Coyote) or learning about life as a queen (as in CW Gortner's new historical novel by Ballantine Books: The Last Queen). Not only do the exotic worlds of contemporary Wyoming and 1492 Spain provide excitement and plot twists, they also provide a potential platform from which to publicize your work.

For instance, Barnes & Noble writes of Daily Coyote: "This full-color illustrated book will change your view of an entire species." This is big, news worthy, and holds importance beyond the book itself, beyond Shreve herself. News outlets -- T.V. and radio, newspapers and magazines are more likely to do a story on Shreve and her book based on that one statement than simply doing an interview about the book itself. Therefore, the unusual world she elaborates on -- raising a wild coyote -- becomes her platform which an entire publicity campaign centers around.

What unusual world does the story world in the Middle of your story involve???

04 November 2008

Finish by Year's End -- Take the Poll

On the wheel of life, this is both a time to reap the harvest of all we have accomplished for the year and also a time to reflect on whether we actually planted the seeds we intended and nurtured them to fruition.

If you started your writing project and finished -- this is a time to celebrate!!

If you started and haven't finished, it's not too late.

Even if you haven't started, it's not too late.

You have until year's end.

How many words, pages do you envision your completed project? Divide by the 58 days before the end of the year.

An average book is between 250 pages = 4 pages everyday until the end of the year to 320 pages = 5 1/2 pages a day to the end of the year.

What about you? Finished? Started, but not finished yet? Haven't started?

01 November 2008

Top Down or Bottom Up??

Two vastly different plot consultations for two vastly different writers.

One, a female with a logically well-thought out detailed plot and the different parts of her story -- scenes and chapters -- sequentially lined up and arranged in logical order.

The other, a male with a wildly creative premise and lots of random ideas for the overall story.

1) The logical writer had so many details and parts of the story figured out that it took nearly the entire two-hour plot consultation before I fully grasped the overall story. Based nearly entirely on real life, still, the writer has chosen to write a novel rather than a memoir.

Though she had thought out many of the parts, she still had trouble grasping what the story was really all about -- the coherence and meaning were muddled and confused. In the end, we found the whole, thanks to the Plot Planner visual aid in front of me that I later color-coded and, because character and emotion are a bit of a stretch for her, included lots of notes on developing the character, the very heart of the story itself.

2) The intuitive writer could see the big picture for his story but had difficulty with the details, like what to put where. He had a sensational twist but could not "see" a way to get there. This isn't the first time he has come to me for help in outlining his story for him. After two successfully published novels, still, because of his random nature, he craves linear support. He intuitively knows what he wants but no idea how to get there.

As he flits from one idea to the next, I continually bring him back to the parts or the scenes. We start with the answer and work backward. He knows what he means but has trouble finding the best way to get there. He does well with his own individual Plot Planner because the visual map grounds him and gives him step-by-step support to reach his vision of a story that is based mostly in fantasy.

Most people are whole brain learners. But it's amazing to me how many writers I come in contact with through my plot workshops and plot consultations who are distinctively one or the other.

What about you? Are you a logical planner with a firm grasp of the scenes but confused about the overall story itself? A more random visionary with the bigger picture in mind, but struggle with a way to get there?? Or, are you one of the lucky ones who has a enough of both sides to sail through your writing projects?

30 October 2008

Winner Announced!

Thank you, Kathrynn Dennis for posting last week -- Pets in Plots: Help or Hindrance.

Last night, I reread the first couple of chapters of Dark Rider for a Romance Writers Plot eBook I'm putting the final touches on and was once again swept away by your writing, your crafting, your plotting, your heart. Great writing. Looking forward to reading your latest and award-winning Shadow Rider. Congratulations on all your success!!

The winner of the drawing for a free copy of Shadow Rider is Becky Levine!! Congratulations, Becky. Enjoy.....

Thanks again, Kathrynn.

22 October 2008

Pets in Plots: Help or Hindrance?

KATHRYNN DENNIS is the author of Dark Rider and Shadow Rider. The Romance Times Reviews recently awarded Shadow Rider 4 Stars! and writes: "The color, vibrancy, and excitement of the Middle Ages allows Dennis to create a memorable tale of two people whose destiny is tied to a mystical colt. Dennis tells her story with passion, drama, and a love of animals that will enthrall readers."

Horses take center stage in her stories. I asked her if pets are a hinderance or a help to plotting? (naturally!)

Pets and animals have a lot to contribute to plot—I’m not talking about Old Yeller, or Black Beauty, where the animal is the plot, but rather books where the animal plays a role, though not so prominantly. Animals can be developed as stand alone characters that take action and thus move the plot in a particular direction, or they can add a layer of character to their owner’s personality. How, exactly, do they do that, you ask? The literature is rich with information on the human-animal bond and why people choose the pets they do. It’s called pet-owner profiling. Pets and animals in the story help the reader get into the head of the human characters. There are good studies which suggest pets are an extension of their owners—in looks and in behavior. People tend to chose pets that look like them, much like they choose a human life-partner. Take a look at Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Jake Gyllenhaal with their dogs. It’s hard to miss the physical similarities. Pet owners also tend to choose pets with personality traits like their own. Turns out you can learn a lot about a person’s character just by knowing what kind of pet they own. Here’s what the seminal research by Kidd and Kidd (1980) tells us about pet-owner personality traits:

• Cat lovers are high in autonomy and low in dominance and nurturing.

• Dog-loving men are high in dominance and aggression. Dog-loving women are high in dominance, too, but low in aggression.

• Horse lovers in general are assertive, introspective, and self-concerned, but limited in cooperativeness, nurturing, and warm human relationships. Male horse-lovers are aggressive, dominant, and less expressive in general. Female horse-lovers avoided aggression and are easy going.

• Turtle lovers are hard-working, reliable, goal-oriented, and see the world as lawful.

• Snake lovers are unconventional, informal, novelty seeking, and unpredictable.

• Bird lovers are contented, courteous, expressive, social, and altruistic.

Pet owners in general are considered to be more nurturing and low in autonomy, no matter what kind of pet they own. I’ve noticed dog and cat-loving characters enrich a fair number of romance novels (for an early example, think of Georgette Heyer’s Ulysses in Arabella) and the personality of a male horse-owner certainly has the makings of a historical romance hero—think cowboys, knights, and men who were rich enough to fox hunt. Dominant men. Aggressive, alpha males who had trouble expressing themselves (until they met the heroine, of course).
I keep thinking about Rex, the hamster in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Rex embodies the character of a bounty-hunting woman who keeps a hamster for a pet. She’s high in autonomy and not especially nurturing. Neither is Rex. Both make me laugh.
I’ve not seen many romances where a character owns a nontraditional pet (fish, lizards, or pocket pets like Rex), but I’m sure they are out there.

There are also some interesting reads on the pathological condition known as pet hoarding. Profiles of hoarders suggest the condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder and affected people usually come from chaotic, unstable homes. Just google pet hoarding and you’ll turn up a fair number of psych reviews on the topic.

If you’d like to dig deeper into pet-owner profiling, check out Why We Love the Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality by Stanley Coren (Simon and Schuster; ISBN 978-0684855028). There are some interesting chapters in there about dogs (breeds) for introverts and extroverts, dominant people, not-so-dominant people, trusting, or controlling people, and an in-depth examination of the dogs owned by various leaders and famous personalities--what their dog-ownership reveals about their non-public personality.

If you understand your character, the character will drive the plot. Not the other way around (a pitfall for writers). So pets can enrich the plot, especially if they are used as character enhancers. They are only a hindrance if they serve no purpose. I love an author who can weave a pet into a plotline or incorporate a pet or an animal to enlighten my understanding of the owner’s character. As a reader, can you recall pets that helped move a story along, or helped you better understand the character of their owner?

I’ll give a free copy of SHADOW RIDER to a randomly chosen commenter!

Thank you, Martha, for inviting me to blog!

For more about Kathrynn Dennis, please visit for a plot interview where we asked Kathrynn about her writing process, with an emphasis on plot.

(NOTE: I had the great honor of working with Kathryn on her book's early development.)

17 October 2008


National Novel Writing Month is fast approaching. In preparation for the big event, I'm working with several writers who plan to write the first draft of their novel in a month. A couple of the writers are veterans to the event and eager to utilize their time more efficiently than they have in past years. The other writers are undertaking the challenge for the first time.

As the official NaNoWriMo site explains: "National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30."

This approach works best for "pantsers" or those writers who prefer to write by the seat-of-your-pants, in other words, to work things out on the page with little or no pre-plotting. Typically, these writers allow their characters the freedom to determine the direction and flow of the story. These writers are often more right-brained, creative types who abhor structure and plot (well, maybe not abhor and definitely not all of them, but I've been slammed by enough stanch "pantsers" who believe their way is the only way and that the work I do stifles the creative process -- which it might true for them, but not for all writers -- that I'm a bit touchy about the subject!)

Left-brained or more analytical writers find NaNoWriMo only works for them if they put a bit of time and thought into what they hope to write before jumping into the actual writing.

For any of you who wish to take take part in NaNoWriMo and wish to prepare ahead a time in order to make the most of the upcoming month, I recommend that you create a Plot Planner or a Scene Tracker template now for the project you wish to produce then.

Both templates -- Plot Planner for the overall story plot, and the Scene Tracker, for plot at the scene level -- allow writers to stand back from their projects in order to see the entire story as a whole. As writers we spend the majority of our time at the word level. Many writers end up drowning in their words or stuck down a dead-end dark and scary alleyway with no direction out. A Plot Planner is like a road map to help guide you on your journey throughout the story.

Yes, you have to be flexible and toss the pre-plotting if/when the characters bully you into taking a different route. However, many writers find the pre-planning structural support comforting and allows them to persevere all the way to the glorious end.

Are you a "pantser" or a "plotter'? Are you going to participate in this year's NaNoWriMo??

Great good luck to all of you who are......

15 October 2008

Plot for Memoir Writers

Join me in my first ever teleseminar plot talk. It's for a memoir group of writers, but any writer is welcome and will benefit. Below is the press release blurb.
Looking forward to tomorrow.......

October 16-2008 11 AM PST

Plot for Memoir Writers

We are pleased to have Martha Alderson, an expert on plot and structure and author of Blockbuster Plots, present a special topic that challenges all memoir writers: how to create plot and structure in a memoir. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha Alderson employs helpful strategies to help writers develop plot for writers of all genres.

Memoir writers struggle with what parts of their life to put into the memoir and what parts to leave out. The challenge is to choose what is most important.
A memoir needs to focus on a specific time period that illuminates and develops the thematic significance to the writer's life, often with the hope that these themes and the lessons learned might benefit others. But being so close to the story of “what really happened “challenges the memoir writer to think in terms of plot.

1. What is plot and why is it important?

2. How to construct a plot plan for the overall memoir

3. The art of writing plot in scenes

4. The importance of the main character -- You!

Martha’s Bio
Martha Alderson, author of Blockbuster Plots has created a unique line of plot tools for writers, including the upcoming Plot for Memoirists eBook. She teaches scene development and plot workshops privately and at conferences. For plot tips, visit: Blockbuster Plots for Writers

Best-selling authors, screenwriters, memoirists, writing teachers and fiction editors turn to Martha Alderson, M.A. for help with creating plot. She has won attention in several literary writing contests, including the William Faulkner Writing Contest and the Heekin Foundation Prize.
Martha takes readers and writers alike beyond the words into the very heart of a story.
As the founder of Blockbuster Plots for Writers, she manages a popular blog: Plot Whisperer

If you are interested, email Linda Joy Myers, President and Founder of NAMW ASAP

09 October 2008

Character Emotion

In order to continue to reading or watching, readers and audiences need to understand and care about the characters. Even bloggers have to create a compelling character in order to hold a reader's attention. Yes, the action has to be exciting and there has to be some meaning attached to the writing. But, what people most identify with is the character.

One terrific way to help a reader connect is to "show" the character's response to the conflict and action. Not the character's internal monologue about how she feels about what just happened to her through the conflict and the action, what is best is an actual action or behavioral response.

Early in the story, the character's emotional responses as shown through their actions help identify and develop the character. Later in the story, the character's transformation is revealed through the transformation of their choices and behavioral responses.

We connect to one another through emotion.

A character's emotional reactions that come as a response to other dramatic action incidents deepen the readers and audience's understanding of who the character really is. When we know how the conflict emotionally affects the character, we care about the character.

Each time the character succeeds or fails as they go after their specific goals, follow up by "showing" their emotional reaction to their success or failure. By this, I do NOT mean, to "tell" us in internal monologue about how they are feeling, but to "show" us as an actual dramatic action response.

Writers are usually great at showing the character in dramatic action. Often, however, writers fail to "show":

** the character in preparations for conflict


** the character in reaction after the conflict

Of the three -- (1) a character in preparation for conflict, (2) a character in conflict, (3) a character in reaction to conflict -- what scenes flow the most freely from you?

05 October 2008

The Middle

I recently worked with a writer who, when she hit the Middle, lost the passion for her story.

When the allure of the Beginning is over, the story starts getting messy. Characters act out. Everything she writes seems boring to her. All her fears about the unworthiness of her project interfere with her ability to create new scenes. She wants me to give her the scenes or at least give her ideas for the scenes.

My advice for this writer is to list the themes she's interested in exploring in her piece. I am NOT referring to the Thematic Significance Statement here. She isn't ready for that yet -- she hasn't even finished the first draft of her project and thus has no idea what her piece will end up meaning in the long run. But for now, she is aware of many of the themes that thread through her story thus far:

Life in this country as an immigrant
Her love and respect for older people and her ease in relating to older people rather than people her own age
Loss of older friends
Hurt that comes with loss
Women empowerment
Live life with a sense of humor
The guts and resourcefulness and resilience of a strong woman

This is just a sampling of the themes that have popped up in her story. By listing them, she hones the focus of the scenes she writes now for this added dimension = meaning. By exploring what she wants to convey, the scenes are no longer quite so episodic or boring to her.

The coherence that came with the sequential order of her story can now be deepened into coherence through theme.

What are the themes that most inform your writing?

25 September 2008

Help Your Readers/Audience Connect

In most plot consultations, I never read a writer's work. Instead, the writer tells me their story scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter. I find I can better "see" the plot and structure minus the words. Sometimes, however, in an on-going plot consultations after we have worked our way through the first draft and I understand what the writer's vision for the project is and have a pretty firm idea of the overall plot and structure, I will read and comment on the manuscript itself.

In the case of a recent "reading" plot consultation, I was delighted to find that the writer I had been working with not only has created dramatic action with compelling characters and significant meaning, he also has a flair for words in creating his wonderfully imagined "exotic" world and delightful characters. It's one thing to listen to what a story is about and quite another to read that same story. Thankfully, this writer's project works at both levels.

However, I am finding, among other things, one consistent problem -- author intrusion. In the middle of a terrific scene, he will suddenly switch to summary and in his own voice describe one of his clever inventions for the story. This quirk of his not only instantaneously yanks the reader from the "dream" he's created in scene, his digression confuses the reader. The reason for this? Often, he spends time describing something that leads nowhere.

Example: the protagonist -- a boy of 13 -- has gotten in trouble yet again. This time the principal gives him a three day suspension from school and demands he meets with the board to hear whether he will be sent to a prison or a reformatorium. The author then goes into great detail about the prison and even includes a picture of the prison. The prison is named where the reformatorium is mentioned only as one of many.

Since the protagonist is sent to the reformatorium not the prison, the only thing the prison name and description contributes to the story is to create confusion.

The reader and the audience is constantly scrambling to determine what is important to remember throughout the story. When a character or a setting is given a name, we generally assume that which is named is something of importance.

In the first draft, get the story down. In subsequent drafts, consider your audience and write to them. Keep your reader in mind throughout. Do everything you can to make the transition into the story world seamless and effortless for the reader. If the reader becomes confused, they usually will not blame you as the author, but themselves as the reader. Before long, they give up. And you lose a potential fan.

Do you write primarily for yourself? When, in the process, do you usually consider your reader?

21 September 2008

Character Consistency & Writing in Scene

Two recent consultations. Two common problems.

1. Telling rather than showing.
A scene shows. A summary tells. The difference? A summary puts distance between reader and character (this also applies to bloggers who blog about themselves). A summary is necessary for a variety of reasons, but scenes are where the story plays out.

Invite your readers in by setting the stage and creating a compelling reason to stick around (character dilemma) and read more (dramatic action). Do this in scene and stick to the universal story form for structure and impact.

2. Not keeping the character consistent.
Determine what the character does to sabotage herself from achieving her goal. This becomes the basis for the character transformation. Be consistent. If her flaw is that she doesn't stick up for herself, then don't have her fighting back in the first 3/4 of the project.

Any other ideas???

18 September 2008

Addendum to Previous Post

I ran into a couple of writer friends yesterday, one of whom usually comments on the blog. They each said they had read the last post, but hadn't left a message.

Too chaotic to ask why not, but I wonder -- did the subject of breaking through emotional walls put them off???

I find the quest in the question posed in last week's post a worthy one. The closer we get to ourselves emotionally, the closer we can get our characters. I found a list of emotions I'll share below. Try exploring these emotions with your protagonist.

The key is not to ask yourself what you would do in the situation, but ask yourself what you would do if you were the character in the situation. Always bring the emotion through the character herself.

Identification with the protagonist is paramount to creating a compelling read, whether a novel, screenplay, memoir, or a blog. Readers identify with characters, through the character's emotion.


Did I miss any???

12 September 2008


I recently received the following query. Any of you have anything to suggest???

I really enjoyed the workshop and have gotten so much out of it. I will definitely be contacting you for future plot consultations.

I really want to break through my emotional walls in order to take my writing to the next level. Do you have any recommendations for books that may help with this? I have been looking at Julia Cameron and Eric Maisel. There are so many books on this topic that I wondered if you had any favorites.


I used to call Carolyn Myss my spiritual guru. Although I haven't followed her for a few years, the help and insight she offered remains with me. I especially benefited from listening to the audio version of Energy Anatomy: The Science of Personal Power, Spirituality, and Health.
I have reread The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle more times than I can count and am rereading it yet again now.

Although both of these resources are more spiritual guides than emotional, I found great help and comfort in them. I hope they might serve you well, too.

09 September 2008


At the writers conference this past weekend, I asked an audience of writer which of them knew the Crisis of their story. I had been talking about the three important scenes -- one each in the:
Beginning (1/4) -- End of the Beginning
Middle (1/2) -- Crisis
End (1/4) -- Climax

We had reached the Middle section and after I discussed the parameters of the Crisis, I asked for a show of hands. Barely a smattering. Surprised, I reworded my question. Still just a few.

I asked if they were worried about that. The answer lay in their looks of bewilderment.

I've always been fascinated in the study of energy. I tried to show this pivotal scene energetically. With the help of the Plot Planner template, I showed how a story rises in intensity. The dips only come in moments of introspection and planning by the protagonist (under-the-line scenes). The rest is conflict that rises with obstacles and antagonists and insight into the character's issues (above-the-line scenes), deepening what was introduced in the Beginning.

After having read for this long, the reader/moviegoer demand a release or irritation will set in. The best place for the scene of greatest intensity so far -- the Crisis -- is around the 3/4 mark in the story. What does the protagonist still need to learn? A story is about character transformation. What situation can you put your character in that flows from the story and would provide the greatest impact energetically to both the reader and the protagonist?? For a new self to be created, the old self must be stripped away. What would best provide a mirror for the protagonist to see who they really are?? How they get in their own way?? Sabotage themselves?? Write that scene = the Crisis

The Climax at the End will show the newly created self, the character transformed. The protagonist confronts her greatest foe at the Climax and prevails in a way she never could have at the beginning of the story.

Each ordeal, each obstacle, each antagonist in the Middle provided the protagonist with opportunities to learn about herself. The Crisis in the Middle is the moment she can no longer hide her head in the sand or talk her way out of problems or rationalize her failings or blame others for her inadequacies. The Crisis forces her to wake up, become conscious, begin the process toward wisdom.

Do you know the Crisis of your story???

04 September 2008


Tomorrow begins the East of Eden Writers' Conference. Steinbeck Country is difficult to describe to anyone without some first hand experience in dry, dusty heat, yellow hills and giant oak trees, hawks and buzzards, cows and sheep. The road trip runs through dirt so rich it's called black gold. Men and women bend in the hot sun to pick strawberries.

250 anxious, eager, inspired, tortured writers will be on hand at the conference -- energy galore.

For me, the excitement is teaching writers plot and scene and structure.

I'll let you know how it goes....

When was the last time you put yourself out there for your writing???

25 August 2008

Blogging and the Muse

A writer recently left the following message:
"Sometimes when I'm writing I feel like someone else is in my head writing it for me. Weird when the characters take over but not uncommon apparently. This doesn't happen when blog writing by the way."

I surmise it is the muse in the form of the characters that is taking over. Somehow, this writer is able to surrender his/her ego (what some call the critic) long enough for the creative force to work through him/her when writing fiction.

I find it interesting that blog writing isn't the same. I wonder if that's true for others???

Perhaps blog writing is so quickly accessible to public scrutiny that the ego (critic) can't let go. Does that make blogs more ego-driven???? The writing more self-conscious???

Any thoughts???

21 August 2008


I respond to the first query about villains with intrigue. I teach writers to use as many antagonists as needed to create conflict and excitement on the page. I seldom concentrate on the archetype of the villain. The antagonists I focus on are the seven internal antagonists that plague our characters (as well as ourselves). There are also seven external antagonists.

I generally address only dictionary definition #3 of villain: a character in a story or play who opposes the hero.

My intrigue turned leery when I noticed the same message appear in the comment's section of the blog -- this time repeated three times.

Before I have a chance to post, I personally get slammed in the face with #4 definition of villain: one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty. Caught completely off-guard by the vehement anger and resentment thrown at me, I could not help but note the timing. My hesitancy to write about the villain paired with the email experience forced me to face my fear of the villain. Bullies scare me. So much easier to see them as antagonists -- a concept. Removed.

Instead of an actual post, I twittered about villains. Cop-out, I know. But still, a step...

Before I have a chance for an actual, the message returns, now with a threat. Don't answer and the writer will take his question elsewhere. My deepest reaction? Relief.

The message comes back.

Here goes:
The protagonist of a story of any kind, even in a blog post, sets out on a journey. Along the way she is tested both internally -- fears, hates, and / or flaw. She is also tested externally -- society, nature, other people, machines. Other people can be family members and friends, anyone out to stop the protagonist from getting what she wants.

A villain is darker and meaner. Family and so-called friends can be or become villains. The villain welds power enough to demand their own plot line. They are not changed and transformed by the dramatic action in the story -- as the protagonist is -- but their story has to hit the same key scenes in universal story form.

Have you ever faced a villain?? Not an antagonist but the archetype of a villain?? How dark and how evil? How do you deal with a villain -- in life and in your writing?? I only have that once. My lasting impression is being overpowered by blackness.

14 August 2008

Plot at the Local Children's Shelter

Seven young adults between the ages of 12 to 17 shuffle inside the Children Shelter’s classroom. The boys loom large. The girls shift from motherly to sexy and back, like blinking red lights.

I break down some stories to them with a focus on the Beginning 1/4 of the story and ending at The End of the Beginning. I ask them to write the beginning of a story real or imagined that leads to a moment of no return, a moment when life shifts, when good turns bad or bad to worse. I suggest that the character want something that now becomes seemingly impossible to attain.

For a girl with clear brown eyes, her main character wants more time with her dad. The End of the Beginning is when her dad dies. Another girl shows a mom in heaven remembering her beautiful little girls. The End of the Beginning is when the girls go live with an uncle with a belt.

For the Middle of their stories, I asked them to describe the new world the main character is now living. I ask for three bumps that shake the character, stop the character, interfere with his/her dreams and leads to a Crisis. The Crisis is is the dark night of the soul.

Before I release them to their writing, we play charades. The two biggest boys and a girl with incredilbly long eyelashes act out emotion cards. The other kids and volunteers and counselors guess at the emotions. I stress for descriptions of what they see that leads them to know the emotion. I wanted them to "show" the character in the emotion, not "tell" the character.

To demonstrate anger, the biggest boy grabs a chair, swings it over his head and slams it to the floor. The girls reel backwards and scream. Counselors leap to their feet. I ask him to do it again but without the violence. Then we dissect his facial expressions to find the more subtle signs of anger and rage.

After a lunch of pizza and juice, we trudge back inside for the End. The room is stuffy and close, but feels safe and womb-like.

I give examples of characters overcoming tremendous odds at the Climax and being deeply transformed by the experience. We talk about what stories mean overall: a tough time leads to a lifelong belief that people are no damn good? (my father throughout his life) Good triumphs over bad (the girl with the belt). Bad triumphs over good (the boy with the rage).

My hope is that giving the kids an opportunity to get the bad stuff out of their bodies and moving is good. Rather than let it sit and fester, to bring the fear and disappointment out to the light of day is a good thing.

What have you left buried deep inside????

07 August 2008

Allow Your Dreams to do Your Heavy Plot Lifting

Following is an inspirational way to use your dreams to write your stories by hynotherapist, author, and radio personality Kelly Sullivan Walden.

Like Kelly, I, too, use my dreams to support my writing and you'll usually find me up before dawn, writing.

"While I was up to my elbows mid-way through writing my recent book, “I Had the Strangest Dream…the Dreamer’s Dictionary for the 21st Century” (Warner Books), I developed the practice of rolling out of bed and into my “writing station.” While still in the in-between-worlds place I would open my laptop, take a deep breath, and with eyes half closed, let my fingers do the tapping. Before my logical brain woke up, I would give myself permission to write whatever wanted to be written from my subconscious/dream state.

This “dream state” writing would often wind its way to being relevant to the particular aspect of the book I happened to be working on. Even if my writing took a detour I would nonetheless find myself opened to a smorgasbord of thoughts and feelings that I could apply to the subject at hand that never would have occurred to me otherwise.

If there was nothing in particular that wanted to be written, I would simply write about my dreams from the night before. This actually has become a practice I believe will be with me ‘til the day I die, and perhaps the most valuable practice I have ever discovered. I believe there is a brief and precarious window period between the realm of sleep and awake, and if accessed, our entire day becomes brighter with a heightened awareness and aliveness. I actually feel that this may very well be the short cut to truly developing and strengthening our intuition. As a writer, what gift could be more valuable?

I believe it is specifically due to this practice that I was able to “dream up” an entire novel. About a year ago, I awoke at 3am (many writers tell me that their best writing ideas come to them at this god forsaken hour) with the entire story…the beginning, middle, end…the characters, their names, dress, voice tonality, the whole 9, as it were.

Without having to painstakingly try to figure out these characters and plot line, it was delivered to me, and all I had to do was take dictation.

I’ve talked to many writers that receive their best ideas, or plot lines from their dreams…and why not? Our dreams connect us with the vast aspect of who we are…as we sleep we dance with souls from time immemorial and explore realms about which have heretofore never been written. Why not let your dreams do your heavy plot lifting for you so that you can spend your precious awake time downloading these inspired messages. Who knows, tonight you just may receive the plot twist you’ve been praying for!

May your wildest and most wonderful writing dreams all come true!"

Kelly Sullivan Walden is a Hypnotherapist, Dream Coach, and author of Warner Books’ I HAD THE STRANGEST DREAM, THE DREAMER’S DICTIONARY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. Author of DISCOVER YOUR INNER GODDESS QUEEN, an Inspirational Journey from Drama Queen to Goddess Queen, Kelly is also the publisher of GoddessQueenMagazine.com. Her specialty is in empowering people to live the life of their dreams. Kelly is a regular guest on FOX news New York, CBS/AOL Psychic Radio and has recently been featured around the country on ABC, FOX, and NBC news, as well as in Cosmopolitan, Woman’s Day, SELF, ELLE and the Chicago Tribune. Kelly is the creator of The Dream Project, a local movement for Global change.

Join Kelly’s Dream Circle Membership Program and receive Kelly’s FREE Weekly Dream Symbol and subscription to Goddess Queen Magazine. If you are interested in more information about the Dream Project, talking with Kelly about private dream coaching sessions or booking her for any future speaking engagements, you may contact her at: kelly@kellysullivanwalden.com.

Do you use your dreams to help support your writing? Write while the rest of the world sleeps?

06 August 2008

Tells the Story -- What or Who?

Have you ever been told your characters read like cardboard figures? Agents complain about not being able to get close enough to the main character? That they couldn't stay interested? It happens to all writers, whether action-driven or character-driven.

Writer's Test:

You're in an elevator with the exact right agent for your book. You have three floors to attract the agent's interest, get her to ask, "what happens next?" and, at the third floor, give you her card to send the first 50 pages.

Do you:

1. Start by saying something about the character: It's a story about a beautiful Swedish girl who comes to America looking for love. She gets a job in the kitchen of a society family in New York City. The family's silver and gold go missing. The man who interrogates her is tall and handsome. She has to defend herself with only the English she learned in school.

2) Start by giving an overview of the dramatic action: "It's a story about a land deal in New York City between the Elks Club and the mob. Money and silver go missing from the Elk leader's home. The next day he is found dead.

3) Start with a brief idea of the theme: It's a story about corruption and greed, the wealthy and poor, loyalty and love.

I have ideas about each of these, but lately am fascinated by #2. I'll post some tips and tricks in the coming weeks. Be patient.

05 August 2008


I never write two posts in one day. I'm lucky if I get in one a week. Rather than do what I should be doing -- getting my free monthly Plot Tips eZine out to awaiting writers -- I procrastinate instead.

My procrastination took the form of reading a couple of writers blogs new to me. In one, a writer hesitantly and respectfully reported he had started a new project, mere sentences -- a tender blade barely broken out of the earth. Still, he was writing.

I congratulated him with enthusiasm. A story of 80,000 words begins with just one.......

I went on to tell him that I usually caution writers not to talk too much about about what you're writing about -- you can talk it to death. Talk all the energy right out of it

Since blogging seems to have replaced verbal communication, it seemed only right that the same must apply to him -- he was blogging about his writing. Granted, not any specifics about his project, but still....

I could be wrong however. Sometimes it seems as if blogging about the process has become the new process. Not the means to the end, but the end itself???

Is that why I'm blogging right now and not working on my WIP? What's your excuse??? Why are you reading this and not working on your work-in-progress???


Recently, I asked a random sampling of writers not familiar with my work what they thought of plot. Most of the answers I received bordered on hostile. I include a few of the tamer ones here:

"I view plot as an enemy that must be destroyed, lest it pilliage my village and rape my wimmins." UJ

"When I think of plot, I stop thinking about writing." JT

"I have a deep disdain for plot, really." LJ

I was most surprised when I read AK's comment: "All anyone cares about is plot, plot, plot."

Most writers I come in contact with "care" about plot because they're grappling with not only what plot is but, even more importantly, how best to use it.

Plot is more than a prescribed course of dramatic action.

Action in and of itself is not dramatic. Conflict that creates tension, suspense, mystery, and/or curiosity make action dramatic.
Random action is not dramatic. Action that unfolds through cause and effect is.
Action that happens in scene can be dramatic. After all, scene "shows" the action happening moment-by-moment on the page.
Action that happens in summary is not. After all, summary merely "tells" about action.

When a character emotionally anticipates conflict that is coming, emotionally reacts to conflict at hand, and emotionally responds to conflict after the fact, the action is dramatic. Dramatic action paired with meaningful character emotional development then becomes plot.

Plot is deeper than structure.

Dramatic action that happens in a novel, screenplay, memoir, short story, and any other kind of writing that causes a character(s) to react and thus be affected by and changed at depth over the duration of the story. The crux of every good story is character transformation.

Plot is the full integration of dramatic action, character emotional development and thematic significance in a story.

Some writers prefer to start writing about or with characters. Other writers begin with action. Still others begin with only a point they want to prove. All starting points are equally valid. It's the showing up and starting that counts.

Are you confident about what you know about plot and how to use it? Are you ever intimidated by the concept of plot? Confused by it?

I keep asking these types of questions because I'm afraid plot gets a bad rap. I'm hoping by asking what you think when you think plot, I might better understand the opposition.....

31 July 2008

When the Character is You

Many writers beyond memoirists find themselves creating a protagonist who is patterned after themselves. This can pose a problem or two.

One, many writers tend to be introverts and thus their character ends up passive and sort of floating from one event to the next.

Also, I've found that although most people are quick to identify other people's flaws and faults, they have difficulty pinpointing their own. Without a flaw, the character arc becomes more difficult to manage.

Do you find yourself creating a protagonist that is patterned after yourself?? If so, do you have trouble getting close enough to the character to create a full-blown characters with good and bad qualities, warts and all??? Just curious.......

28 July 2008

No-plot, Really No Problem??

I recently received the following:

"I've a topic for you. What about the no-plot novel? I've always argued that a novel doesn't need a plot as long as it has a point, also there's the whole "character is plot" argument. The plots in my books are neither here nor there, just things to get my characters to do while I write about them."

I'm not certain what he's getting at here. "...as long as it has a point." I assume this refers to the deeper meaning of the piece or the Thematic Significance. "....character is the plot." I assume this refers to the Character Emotional Development. "...just things to get my characters to do while I write about them." This, I assume, is the crux of his query -- no dramatic action? Perhaps. If the "things" involve conflict that the character then has the opportunity to respond or react to emotionally, I'd say he is writing a novel with plot.

Again, I define plot as a series of scenes deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict in order to further the character's emotional development and provide thematic significance. In other words, when the dramatic action causes the character to be changed at depth over time the story means something.

What do you think??? Is he writing with plot or no-plot? Perhaps I'm reading too much into what he's written because I dread thinking he's writing with no conflict involved. Don't get me wrong, I believe character carries the story. Still, even with beautiful language, internal conflict without any external conflict, could end up a slow, boring, flat read indeed.....

17 July 2008

2 Plot Tips for the Middle

Two recent plot consultations revealed the same dilemma -- both writers were faltering as they made the approach to the Crisis, which occurs about 3/4, give or take, through the entire project.

The Problem
Characters, setting, set-up, premise, and action move from the superficial, introductory mode of the Beginning to the gritty, challenging world of the Middle, the heart of the story world itself.

In the middle, masks fall away and the characters reveal themselves for who they truly are, warts, flaws, fears, prejudices, and all. At this point in the relationship, just like in life, the story tends to get messy. Fights can ensue. Feelings can get hurt. Because of that, writers often back away, afraid of what the characters will reveal about themselves, doubting their ability to manage the dark side of the characters.

Writers tend to want to back off when they approach the Crisis. And why not? We shy away from disaster, drastic upheaval, or deep loss in our own lives. Why would we want to do any differently for our characters? Yet, that is exactly what the Crisis is -- the suffering that occurs when the protagonist's whole world shatters and doesn't make sense anymore. Because only out of the ashes of the old self can a new self come into being -- the beginning of the character's ultimate transformation.

When things get messy, writers often long for the good old days at the Beginning of the relationship when things were smooth and happy, and superficial. Don’t give into the urge to go back and start over again. The truth of the relationship and the characters emerge in the Middle.

Plot Tips and Tricks
1) Use of Antagonists
Writers who make friends with as many antagonists as they can create seem to slog their way through the Middle without as much mishap as those who have not fostered such relationships.

The six basic antagonists are: other people, nature, God, machines, society and the characters themselves.

If you are trying to deepen your skill at showing character development, of the six antagonists, the inner workings of the characters themselves offer the richest form of support. In terms of plot, three basic character traits have the potential to create scenes with the most conflict, tension and suspense or curiosity: the character’s flaw, fear, and hatred.

For example, in the Beginning of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee introduces Scout, the protagonist, with the flaw, among others, of being insensitive to other people’s feelings. In the Middle, Lee turns the tables on Scout. Now, rather than continue to see all the ways Scout demonstrates her insensitivity to others, the reader sees how Scout suffers the effects of others’ insensitivity, from her cousin acts of cruelty towards her to how a white townsperson married to a black woman deals with the insensitivity of the community around him.

Scout’s flaw is not the only antagonist that creates more conflict, tension and suspense in very scene. The Middle is fraught with antagonists of every sort. Her father serves as an antagonist when he asks Scout to control her temper and her fists. Because of scenes in the Beginning showing Scout’s impulsive fits of anger, the reader knows as well as Scout and her father just how hard it will be for the eight-year-old to control these two shadow aspects of herself.

Lee employs other antagonists in the Middle: an old mad dog down yonder; Mrs. Dubose, a neighbor who symbolizes the collective consciousness of the town folk or society at large; Aunt Alexandra; grown men of the community; etc.

2) Unusual world
The Plot Planner mimics the universal story form with a line that moves steadily upward to denote the necessity of giving each scene more significance to the character and more conflict, tension and suspense in the dramatic action than the scene that came before it.

A trick that can help you over the roughest territory of all: the middle of the Middle is to create an unusual world. So long as you keep a measure of conflict, tension and suspense alive, the actual dramatic action can flatten out a bit in the middle of the Middle. Here, the writer can take time to deepen the readers’ appreciation of an unusual job, setting, lifestyle, custom, ritual, sport, belief or whatever your imagination dreams up.

This world, whether real or imagined, comes alive with authentic details most relevant to the unusual world, specific details the average reader does not yet know or appreciate.

For example, in the Middle of Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden shows the world of the geisha as the protagonist herself learns about the expectations, dance steps, joke making, dress and hair.

In the Middle of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak shows us through six pages of illustrations the unusual world of wild things making rumpus.

In the Middle of My Half of the Sky, Jana McBurney Lin shows the everyday life of a tea seller in China.

The next time you find yourself bogged down in the Middle, don’t resort to going back and starting again. You will only end up finding yourself in a seemingly never-ending cycle. Instead, make a list of all the antagonists you can think of that are relevant to the overall plot or thematic significance. Add the development of an unusual world, and see if you don’t find yourself jumping from one scene to the next, and bypassing the quicksand of the Middle all together.

Do you have any tips to help writers slog their way through the middle??? Any tips about writing the build-up to and the actual Crisis??? Please do share.......

01 July 2008

Dialogue, Introspection and Narrative, Scene and Summary

1) Question:
What is a good percentage mix of Dialogue, Introspection and Narrative? Is there a good mix, or is it just what fits the story? Suspense romance writer -Florida

A story unfolds in scene, of course. And, scene is usually made up of dialogue and always action. But the dialogue I'm talking about is dialogue that advances the plot, NOT dialogue that is mere information dumping.

Introspection can give insight into the inner workings of the character, but is inherently flat and thus slows the plot. Therefore introspection should be used sparingly. This also goes for narrative. Telling--summary--puts distance between the reader and the story. Showing--in scene--draws the reader deeper into the story. Use "telling" sparingly.

2) Question:
I noticed that on page 189 which is Appendix 5, you plotted the beginning Summary in the "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines Plot Planner example.

Why is that so? I thought we were not suppose to plot summaries? Is it because this is the very first opening sequence which introduces the inciting incident which happens to be a Summary and not a Scene? You note on this page that "this story begins with Summary, establishing the overarching conflict". I'm confused. Your clarification would help. -New York

You're right -- you are not suppose to plot summaries for the reason stated above.
The Plot Planner is a device meant to give you a visual picture of your story. I stress scene over summary primarily because the #1 problem I see many writers make is "telling" the story rather than "showing" the story. Summary may introduce vital information and thus is helpful to have available on your "visual plot map." However, I would indicate on the Plot Planner, if/when you include a summary. That way you can assess the frequency with which you use telling in place of showing for pivotal scenes.

3) Question:
I'm presently working on my plot planner and was reviewing your book again and was curious again about a few things you mentioned about summaries and would like some clarification please. -New York

On page 74, why do you ask to "determine if there is conflict in the scene or summary you are analyzing" if we are only to analyze and track scenes?

You're right!! Drat! Thanks for catching the discrepancy. I'll delete summary in that statement in the next printing of the book. Thank you.

4) Question:
Also, on page 67, you noted that "if your story begins with a summary there may not be any real action to indicate on the scene tracker. Summary is telling and so it does not usually involve real action." So are you saying that if you start your story with a summary and it has some action that we should track it on the plot planner (and this would be the only scenario to track summaries?)?? I'm only asking this as you noted that summary does not "usually" involve real action. So when a summary does involve real action, is it still a "summary" or a "scene"??

Hmmmm, does summary ever involve real action? Summary "tells" about action that has happened. What is important in a story is the action that is happening moment-by-moment on the page. True action is the step the character takes right now at this moment in story time. Again, I think you have picked up an oversight in the editing of the book. I apologize for any confusion this has caused you and will change the wording in the next printing. Thanks again for your help!

***Any of you writers out there have any comments or help to offer??? Thank you in advance.

06 June 2008


You know how a recorded voice sounds when the power dies? The words elongate until the sounds becomes one long moan? Well, the writer had not succumb entirely, but her words were hesitant and apologetic.

I had consulted on her murder mystery a year or more ago. Then, we had worked primarily on developing a dramatic action plot line that would challenge her protagonist in a transformative way. We had also toyed around a bit about the underlying meaning of the story --thematic significance.

She had finished her story and received feedback from an editor. Two secondary characters weren't providing depth and meaning -- they needed development.

In the present consultation, we concentrated primarily on the romantic challenge (NOTE: its nice to have a romantic challenge on some level, no matter your story. In middle grade fiction, this might translate a friendship challenge. In a murder mystery, a partnership challenge.) A romantic challenge reveals a personal aspect of the protagonist beyond the dramatic action challenge. (NOTE: I label each of these and all other plot lines as "challenges" in order to keep in the fore the need for conflict, tension, suspense, and curiosity.)

We explored ways in which the investigative detective and the protagonist interactions could be expanded. As written now, the protagonist and detective meet several times over coffee to discuss the case. The relationship goes nowhere, but the protagonist admits early-on that since the murder she has considered owning a hand gun. Her aversion to guns stands in her way.

In the revised version, they meet over coffee once. Because that happens, the detective calls with news of the case and tells the protagonist to meet him at a given address. The rest is about what happens next and then because of that what they do together what happens after that. (NOTE: I leave this vague because I don't want to give away her story). In the process a relationship between the protagonist and detective grows, albeit fraught with conflict, tension, and suspense. In the end, her confidence with the work they do serves as a metaphor for the growth of confidence in herself. (NOTE: With so much emphasis on guns, of course, they have to show up for real in the story. With so much emphasis on the protagonist's use of a gun, her new-found skill will have to be tested in the story. Ups the ante a bit, doesn't it?) (NOTE: For help on guns and all other police and detective stuff, visit Lee Lofland's blog: http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/)

Since the writer still had the Plot Planner I had developed from the first consultation hanging on the wall of her writing studio, I suggested she plot out each of the two secondary characters' plotlines.

1) Put up color-coded post-it notes (one color for each character) over every scene where the secondary character is present as the story stands now
2) Analyze those appearances -- their frequency and location
3) Plot out a story line for each character in much the same way we had the primary challenge or the protagonist's character emotional development plotline. a) The character goes after a goal (NOTE: the more closely related thematically to the primary plot, the better). b) She / he is thwarted at every turn

These secondary plot lines can be "thin" (NOTE: Term comes from a writer's comment on the last post. Fitting). Secondary characters are there to enhance the primary story and contribute to the meaning of the piece overall.

At the close of the consultation, the writers voice had turned from sluggish and slow to upbeat and energetic. The way for her was clear......

In your writing process, what turns your way from clear to murky? What makes you lose energy for the writing??????

02 June 2008


You finish your rough draft. Now what? How do you write an effective second draft of your story rather than just edit what you've already written or simply move words around?

I have a few tips.

1) Fill out a Scene Tracker for your project. Scenes that fulfill all seven essential elements of plot -- date and setting, character emotional development, is driven by a specific character goal, shows dramatic action, is filled with conflict, tension, suspense or curiosity, shows emotional change within the scene, and carries some thematic significance -- keep. Any scenes that do not fulfill each of these elements may not carry enough weight to belong in your story.

Evaluate your Scene Tracker for your strengths and weaknesses. If you find your Scene Tracker has lots of Dramatic Action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense, but little Character Emotional Development, in your rewrite, concentrate on your weakness.

For those scenes that do not fulfill each of the seven essential elements, see if you can integrate more of them in your rewrite or consider lumping together two or more weak scenes in order to make one powerful scene.

2) Create a new Plot Planner for your story. Locate the three most important scenes -- the End of the Beginning, the Crisis, the Climax. Evaluate how many scenes fall above and below the line. Consider how the energy rises and falls. The visual representation of your project should give you clues as to where to concentrate during the rewrite.

3) Write a brief outline of your story by chapter -- simply one or two sentences per chapter that will gives a feel for pacing, plot, and flow. The process of writing the outline should start to reveal holes and weaknesses throughout.

4) Write a one-page synopsis of your story.

Of course, you can always sign-up for a Plot Consultation. I'll let you know where to concentrate the next time around.

How do you go about preparing for a rewrite? What is your favorite method for "seeing" the whole of your story in order to evaluate what's needed for the rewrite???

18 May 2008


Livvy asks:
On your Blog, under the Plot Consultation page, you have an image of your plot planner which shows The Beginning section of the planner to be disconnected from The Middle section. However, in your book, the plot planner is different and is shown as one fluid line.

I know that in one of your DVDs (not in your book), you mentioned that the reason for this is that the end of the Beginning Section is to be considered as the "Point of No Return".

Martha answers:
I usually talk about the end of the Beginning Section as The End of the Beginning. Pretty simplistic, I know. The beginning accomplishes unique goals -- all introductory (I've written more specifically about those goal in other posts. Check below). The End of the Beginning symbolizes that the beginning is over. It's a moment that launches the character into the story world itself.

It's an energetic thing. If a relationship lingers too long in the introductory mode boredom sets in. Same with a story.

Since writing Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple, I've changed where the line for The Middle begins. Now, I put it at a lower level than the End of the Beginning. In most of the books and movies I've analyzed, The Middle begins energetically lower than the End of the Beginning. If there is to be a time jump in the piece, the beginning of the Middle is generally where that jump occurs. It a spot of least disruption to the reader and moviegoer.

Livvy asks: I'm a little confused. I thought that the "Point of No Return" is considered to be the Crisis, which is the Turning Point right before the ending of The Middle Section of the plot planner.

Isn't it in the Crisis, where you mentioned on page 158:

"you want your protagonist to be confronted with her basic character flaw...that she can no longer remain unconscious of her innerself". Thus, "This creates the key quesiton: in knowing her flaw, will the protagonist remain the same or be changed at her core?"

So wouldn't after that revelation, the protoganist cannot turn back to who she or he was, because she is changed?

Martha answers:
Yes, once she becomes conscious at any level, the protagonist can never go back to being unconscious. The question after the Crisis becomes: Will she change her behavior, or not? The answer is determined in the Climax -- the final 1/4 of the project.

Livvy asks:
I was wondering then, how do you figure that the end of The Beginning Section which is considered to be the inciting incident, the "Point of No Return"?

I believe at this point of juncture (the inciting incident), the protagonist still has options to either accept or refuse the "call of action" because he/she is still being ruled by his/her character flaw. But with the crisis, now there is moment of enlightenment which cannot be ignored. Thus the protagonist must proceed forward.

Martha answers:
I couldn't put it any better. Excellent analysis! I would only add that where the movement forward takes the protagonist has not yet been determined. This destination is revealed in the Climax.

Livvy asks:
Playing devil's advocate here, I suppose it would make more sense to make the Point of No Return as early as possible in the story, because if you don't make it compelling enough for the Main character to HAVE to move forward from the onset of the story, then that means the story goal question is weak.

Or I could possibly look at it under this light instead: The inciting incident is the point of no return for the "dramatic plot line" and the "crisis" is the point of no return for the "Character Emotional Development plot line".

Martha answers:
I love this!! Very well put. Writing is fluid. These are just pointers. Art is difficult to pin down. The Beginning, The Middle, and The End are containers. An understanding of each of these three parts and how they rise to a high point with an expected energetic shift eases a writer's life. Such is my fervent wish.

06 May 2008

What do you think when you think plot?

Kids and teens learn in school that plot is a series of events linked by cause and effect.

That definition of makes me think a jewel thief wrote it. Someone dressed in black in a room full of shadows. A lightbulb hangs from the center of the room. She's wearing all black, and chalking out for the others her plot to steal a diamond ring.

Step One:
Get past the guard at the front door

Right off the bat and she is in trouble. HOW does she get by the guard at the door? The character element.

If you're a more intuitive writer, you come at this story from the character first -- A woman dressed in black breezes past the bank guard, her lips pursed in a kiss reserved for friends only.

Either way, a writer asks: because that happened, what happens next? (scenes linked by cause and effect).

Character messes with a straight-forward plot based on the series of events.

I prefer thinking about plot as all three threads intertwined:
Character Emotional Development
Dramatic Action
Thematic Significance

What do you think when you think plot?

29 April 2008


I received this question from Livvy a long, long time ago, and am only now answering. My apologies, Livvy. I'll get to your other questions soon......

Hi Martha,

While rereading your book for inspiration, I came across a few points that I would like some clarification on.

The Overall Story Goal; The Protagonist's Personal Goal; and the Protagonist's Dream.

So what is the difference between a Protagonist's personal goal and Dream?

The grand question is if a Dream is not attainable and goals are,
then how can the long-term story goal be more of a dream than a goal? Don't we want to have a story goal that is eventually attainable at the end of the story resulting from the character's internal & physical journey?

If we utilize a "Dream" as "THE STORY GOAL" and the only way to attain it is with a little magic, wouldn't that be more like "deus ex machina"? A writing device that cheats a reader out of a more realistic and natural occurance of events?

Would it make more sense to refer a protagonist's dream as his/her desire instead?? which can be separate from the story goal and not always attainable. So when this desire/dream is attainable, it gets attained or resolved at the resolution, since the climax is reserved for resolving the Major Story Goal.

I look foreward to hearing back from you soon and anyone else who would like to contribute to this posting, to clear this up for me.

Thanks in advance!

My answer:

Excellent analysis, Livvy! Very well put.

Yes, the character's personal goal and the overall story goal needs to be attainable by the character. The character may need help, but he or she must be the initiator of the ultimate action that creates the fulfillment of the story goal at the Climax. This is true even for children's books and young adult novels. The child or teen in the story may need the help of an adult or the police or a teacher or whomever, but the teen or child must initiate the action and/or the call for help.

Often, the story goal that begins the story changes because of the action that happens at the End of the Beginning (the first 1/4 of the page count for the book) and catapults the protagonist into the very heart of the story world -- The Middle (1/2 of the page count).

One technique to creating depth in a story is to create lots of goals throughout the story -- a romantic goal, a mystery goal, a personal goal, a political goal, a dramatic action goal, etc. Goal setting, as I have said before, is easier for Dramatic Action-driven and left-brained writers, and more difficult for Character-driven and right-brained writers. Goals ground the story and allow the reader or movie-goer to know what is at stake for the character and thus root for their success, mourn for their failure.

I recently finished Cara Black's, Murder in Montmartre. In this mystery, Aimee's overall story goal is to prove her friend did not kill her partner and thus absolve her of the crime. Aimee also has a personal goal and that is to solve a mystery about her father. Both of these goals help keep her at the task at hand even when the stakes are at their highest and the most dangerous.

Dreams or desires add yet another layer. Since dreams generally rely on the help of others or a bit of magic, they can create an added twist at the end of the story. For instance, most writers I work with have the specific goal of finishing their WIP (work-in-progress). Beyond that, most first-time writers dream of securing an agent. Published writers with an agent often dream of one of the following: to win the Pulitzer Prize, appear on Oprah, and/or be listed on the New York Times best seller list.

These writers' dreams are usually beyond the writer's direct control. The writer writes the very best product they are capable of writing. They send out queries. But, as in creating any deep connection, the agent figures into the equation. If they have just signed on a new writer, chances are they won't sign on another new writer right away. If they have a stack of manuscripts a mile-high waiting on their desks, they look for excuses to reject. If they have a full list of writers, they may not be willing to add yet another. And so on.......

At the beginning of Black's murder mystery, she shows Aimee's boyfriend breaking up with her. Throughout the story we feel Aimee's loneliness and how much she misses her beau and longs for love. Thus, when she unexpectedly finds a man who excites her passion, the story takes on added depth and excitement. By Aimee finding love and achieving her dream, an added element is created = the reader is excited about the next book in the series coming out in order to learn if the two lovers last as a couple, or not.

What is your character's story goal? What is her dream? How they work together or against each other in the story overall???

23 April 2008

Guest Blogging

Tomorrow, Thursday, 4/24th, I'm guest blogging at The Graveyard Shift, Lee Lofland's blog. Lee Lofland is a retired police detective and the author of Police Procedures & Investigations: A Guide for Writers. Please stop by and say hello.

E is for Excellence

Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers has just won its second award! Dorlana from Supernatural Fairy Tales presented the honors. Please accept my humble gratitude, Dorlana. Thank you!

The Rules: By accepting this Excellent Blog Award, you agree to award it to 10 more people whose blogs you find Excellent Award worthy. You can give it to as many people as you want but please award at least 10. You deserve this! Feel free to recognize blogs that have already received this award. (Just copy the graphic.)

Daily Coyote
Graveyard Shift
Nature Shows and Dreams
Vespa Vagabond
Becky Levine
Susan Writes

That's it for now. I'll add the others when more time opens up.

Thanks again Dorlana.

28 March 2008


Adversity does not build character.
Adversity reveals it.

The Beginning of a memoir or work of fiction (1/4 of the entire project) for any age group serves -- among other things like the setting, the dramatic question, the mystery - if there is one, the love interest- if there is one, and the like -- to introduce the character's emotional development. This is where the character strengths and flaws, loves and hates, dreams and goals are introduced.

The Middle (1/2 of the entire project) serves to reveal the deeper nuances of the character's emotional development. This is the part of the story where the writer thrusts the protagonist into as much adversity as possible in order to reveal to the reader or movie goer who the character really is. (Plot tip: make a list of all possible antagonists-- other people, nature, society, belief system, and/or machines -- that can help to create conflict, tension and suspense or curiosity and thus reveal who the character is under pressure -- the more pressure the better)

The End (1/4 of the project) is that portion of the project that actually shows how the character's emotional development has been affected by the adversity in the Middle and reveals how the character has been transformed.

These steps in the overall character emotional transformation can be plotted out on a Plot Planner for ease in developing your project.

What is the most revealing adversity you have experienced either through your character or in your own life?

04 March 2008


When writers get stuck, it is usually because one or more of the three plot elements has been ignored by:
• Concentrating on action only, forgetting that character provides interest and is the primary reason that people go to the movies and read books.
• Organizing solely around the character and overlooking the fact that dramatic action provides the excitement every story needs.
• Forgetting to develop the overall meaning or the thematic significance of their stories. When the dramatic action changes the character at depth over time, the story becomes thematically significance.

It's tough to juggle all of these elements at once. We end up trying too hard. Our writing suffers. We become stiff and self-conscious. The joy of writing diminishes.

This isn't such a bad thing, if you're committed to being a writer. Learning the craft of writing is constant. The more you know, the more you appreciate how much you don't know.

In a plot consultation, the omissions slowly become clear to the writer. The more she understands both her strengths and her weaknesses, the faster she is able to identify what isn't working, why, and how to proceed.

The only way to know our strengths and weaknesses is to get feedback -- from a critique group, an editor, a plot consultant, or by individual plot analyzation.

Plot is made up of three intertwining threads:
• Character emotional development
• Dramatic action
• Thematic significance
In other words, the protagonist acts or reacts. In so doing, he or she is changed and something significant is learned.

When you write, do you juggle all three plot lines at once? Or, do you write one plot line a draft? Always curious about other writers' process......

20 February 2008

Do Characters Talk to You?

Hi Martha,

Here's a question that I'm almost too embarrassed to ask.

My SceneTracker is strong from Chapter 1 Scene 1 through Chapter 3 Scene 7.

I have the big scene for Chapter 5 Scene 15.

It's the empty 7 scenes between that is making me anxious and doubt myself. I could develop characters in each scene and provide their POVs but I feel like I should know the flow and what will happen next "because she did this ...."

Does this happen to others?

And what would be the best way to prime the muse to have the characters tell me the rest of the story?

Do your characters "talk" to you? I've heard writers say this.

What do you honestly think?

Writing in North Carolina

Dear Writing in North Carolina,

One technique would be to leave the scenes empty for now and forge ahead.

If you believe that the Climax -- the final big scene before the Resolution at the End -- determines what comes before, the sooner you reach the Climax the better.

Sounds like creating Dramatic Action filled with conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity is intuitive for you and Character Emotional Development less so. Why do I say that? You wrote first that "I could develop characters in each scene" and followed with your gut feeling: "I feel like I should know the flow and what will happen next "because she did this ...."

Stay in your strength while keeping the goal of writing your first draft all the way through. The important thing is whatever keeps you writing.

My characters seem to take up residency in every aspect of my life for as long as it takes me to finish a project, which can be a long time. I usually know the end before I begin. I take it draft by draft by draft, knowing each draft will deepen my vision of the project as I sink deeper into the story and spend more and more time with my characters.

Look to research to help dream up and develop scenes. Once you know:
1) what the character wants
2) what stands in her way
3( What she stands to lose
4) The character's flaw

Find inspiration and ideas in researching the unusual world you'll develop in the Middle, any major historical, political, spiritual, scientific events during the time period including contemporary.

I'll put the word out for input from other writers.

Good luck.


12 February 2008

Plot Tip ~~ THE END

Writing scenes for The End can be more uplifting than writing scenes in The Middle.

Think of the Middle as the tunnel of darkness, fraught with antagonists of all sorts. The Crisis, the high-point of the Middle, is the dark night of the soul, hitting bottom, when the protagonist becomes conscious of who she really is, or what she has been avoiding or denying. A light snaps on, and thus begins the process of transformation.

In the End, the protagonist still has foes to confront and overcome. Only now, she is armed with a new understanding of herself. For the first time, her goal comes into focus.

The Climax at the End (1/4) serves as the light at the end of the tunnel. The protagonist moves toward the light -- one step forward toward the ultimate transformation, three steps back, a fight for a couple of steps, being beat backwards.

The Climax spotlights the character in full transformation demonstrating the necessary new skill or personality, gift or action.

The Climax is the crowning glory of the entire project. The Climax is where protagonist "shows" in scene her acting in a transformed way -- in a way she could not have acted in any other part of the story because she first needed to experience everything she does in the book to get to the final stage.

Ask yourself what scene will most dramatically show her demonstrating her transformed self?

The Resolution ties everything up. If the story resonates with thematic significance the reader is left to ponder the deeper meaning.

07 February 2008

Flashback versus Prologue

HI Martha!

I've been reading all the information available on Flashback and why it may not be the recommended route to begin a novel. Then I suddenly realized, by golly, this isn't a flashback, it's a prologue! My story starts back in history to provide a backdrop for the current story. My question ... how to you plot a prologue when it's the first "scene" in your book? Is it a chapter unto itself called Prologue? Can it be scene 1 in Chapter 1?

Thanks so very much!

Writing in North Carolina,

Dear Nancy,

The Prologue is a chapter unto itself, comes first, and is generally very short -- 2 to 3 pages. Chapter One follows the Prologue.

Or, you could make it scene 1 in Chapter 1.

The pros of one are the cons of the other, and visa versa.

For instance, readers sometimes ignore the Prologue. Changes in time right off the bat can confuse readers.

Best way to plot this first "scene", be it the Prologue or Chapter One is to make sure the scene introduces one or more of the three major plot lines -- dramatic action, character emotional development, or most likely, provide thematic significance and foreshadow what is to come.

I'll put out a request to some of my writer friends for more input and their take on the issue.

Hope this helps.

Great good luck with your project. Let me know how it goes.


20 January 2008

Blog Review -- Plotter versus Pantser

In a recent blog review, Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers scored a 9 out of a possible ten.
Comments: Good blog, solid advice (even if I don't agree with it all) - a useful resource for any writer.

When I asked the reviewer what he didn't agree with, he replied: "I just tend to avoid plotting. For me, personally, it seems to take some of the life out of the story. I write rough, let the story appear, and then polish it out the way it asks."

Plotters versus pantsers ("writing by the seat of your pants").

Is plot something you do -- a verb? Or, is plot an intergral part of a story, like dialog and authentic details -- a noun?

Pantsers work the story out on the page.

Plotters outline first and then write.

Either method, it seems to me, benefits from a firm understanding of the universal story form. And, the universal story form is directly related to plot. Therefore.......

Oh, well, the battle continues. I've received comments like this since I first started teaching and writing and obsessing about plot. Neither way is right or wrong.

Whatever it takes to get writers to put words on a page. That, to me, is all that counts.

P.S. For anyone who is interested in a "pantser" turned "plotter", please read my interview with Jana McBurney-Lin, author of My Half of the Sky at http://www.blockbusterplots.com/tips.html. Enjoy.......

14 January 2008

Drowning in Meaning

One of the most fascinating aspects of being a plot coach for writers is learning about other writers' writing process.

Usually, I find that writers have a preference for communicating their projects through one plotline initially over the other three plotlines --- character emotional development, dramatic action, and thematic significance.

Most writers divide into one of two groups -- developing characters versus developing action. However, every so often I find a writer who approaches a story through the thematic significance or deeper meaning of the piece. Recently, I worked with a writer who not only excelled in thematic significance, she was drowning in it.

Sara, I'll call her, is a memoirist. Throughout the plot phone consultation, Sara’s fears of not being able to do what she had set out to do constantly interrupted the flow. Her self-doubts about her abilities and worthiness were doing to her what they do to all of us -- stall, cripple, and damage the writing process more than any lack in actual writing abilities.

To protect herself from her fears, Sara stayed in her head. She seemed incapable of bringing the story down into her body. As difficult as it was to get her to consider the dramatic action needed in her story, she was oblivious to developing the characters. Sara had spent years intellectualizing her memoir. She had never written a word.

Sara had strong beliefs she was determined to bring forward, points to prove, judgments to render. When given the chance to stay in the intellectual, Sara's voice grew strident. I sensed she had to force herself to bite back true anger. Yet, her bitterness was the very emotion preventing her from actually ever writing her story. To get around her anger about the unfairness of the establishment, I kept asking her to consider the protagonist's (her) transformation and what actions got her there.

We finished the consultation after more than three hours with a good plot planner in place. However, I worry about whether or not she’ll ever get beyond her self-doubts and anger to actually get out of her head and write the story. I hope so. The story has merit. We’ll see….

*FYI: For a technique to determine what parts of your life to include and which to cut in your memoir, go to http://www.blockbusterplots.com and click on Memoir Writers.)

**FYI: Sure, lots of natural-born storytellers excel at all three approaches to writing at once. But, for the rest of us, a firm understanding of our strengths and weaknesses can help us achieve balance in creating our stories.

I have a test for writers to determine whether they are a character-driven writer versus a dramatic action-driven writer on http://www.blockbusterplots.com/test.html


Ask yourself if you prefer to develop the character and break down at coming up with conflict, tension, and suspenseful dramatic action? Or, are you great at creating breakneck excitement on the page, but come up short when it comes to character?


Do you live through your mind and like to intellectualize about life? You could be best at developing thematic significance.
Are you active and live through movement and your body? You could be best at developing dramatic action.
Are you spiritually driven -- this does not mean religious, but spiritual? You could be best at character emotional development.

07 January 2008

Subject: Help!!

I have purchased and read your book "Blockbuster plots pure and simple" and I still don't understand. I'm starting with a basic logline for a plot and don't know how you come up with scenes if you don't even know what the story is about. It would seem to me that in order to create scenes or follow the plot planner portion of the book you need to know more about how the story is going to unfold than you know when you just get the idea. It feels like there is a step missing between the initial idea and being able to come up with scenes.

What am I missing?? Please help!

Dear Muriel,
Often, with a firm understanding of the Universal Story form and the natural trajectory of a story, writers can better come up with scenes needed to create a story.

If character most intriques you, start with the character emotional development profile (info can be found in BBP, on the website, and in entries below).

If dramatic action ideas bubble forth, start with the action.

Study the three biggest scenes in a story: The End of the Beginning, The Crisis, and the Climax (in the second half of BBP -- Plot Planner portion of the book -- also, the blog has info on these three critical scenes below).

See if you can visualize any of those scenes in your story.

How do you get your character from the beginning to the End of the Beginning?
What events are you interested in exploring, writing?
Do you plan to use any true historical events?
How can those events work into creating one of the three major plot lines (examples are in the book and below)


Start with whatever you've got. Write that in scene. Then ask yourself: because that happens, what happens next.... Write that scene. Then ask yourself again -- if that happens, what happens next?

Hope this helps.

I'll put the word out for other writers to give their ideas as well.

Great good luck.