The Easy Fix to creating MOTIVATION (and adding tension to your scene!)

Extreme Book Makeover: Saggy Scene Solutions – Creating powerful MOTIVATION

Have you ever read a scene where the character says or does something that seems to come out of the blue?  Or, you expect a character to do or say something – and they do the opposite?  Which makes no sense?

The flip side is that they choose the predictable, boring decision?  And now you’re yawning through the chapter.

Suddenly, as an author, we’re stuck, right there in the middle of the book, not sure where to turn, what to do.

Let’s stop here and talk about Walking Dead for a moment here. (A show my college kids started binge watching over Christmas, and now, thank you so much, I’m hooked.)  If you haven’t seen it (and I’m not saying you should, but it’s actually an interesting show about character growth), the show is about how to survive a Zombie Apocalypse.  Rick, the leader, and his band of refugees are just trying to find a safe place to live/stay/survive, and are currently roaming around Georgia, raiding grocery stores, trying to avoid other groups of renegade refugees and generally exploring the concept of survival verses living.

All while killing zombies, of course (which they call Walkers).

Now here’s why I’ve subjected you to this:  In every episode, at least one of the group members has to walk into a scary building/house/prison/vehicle and face the possibility of being eaten.  And every time we are shouting at the screen: “Don’t go into that building – there is a walker in there!”  But they do it anyway.

And we’re okay with that as long as he/she has a good reason.

And that’s the key to the aforementioned problem as creators of story – your character must have a good reason for every action he/she takes.  Otherwise, we all know it’s simply a plot device instead of an organic decision we all agree with.  More, when a character steps into an “unmotivated bad decision” territory, the author risks the reader not going along on the journey.

It’s possible, if this is done incorrectly, you could motivate your readers right into putting the book down.

But your character can’t make the right, sound decision every time, or the book becomes predictable and boring.

So, how do you convince your reader that a bad decision is actually a good one?


We talked about Push-Pull PLOTTING earlier in this series as a way to convince the character (and the reader) that your character should go on his/her journey.  But now that you’re in ACT 2, we need to re-utilize this technique to convince the character to move forward through the murky scenes of character change.

A Push-Pull Motivation employs a physical or emotional PUSH from behind, and a physical or emotional PULL ahead to propel your character on the next step of his journey.

It works like this:

Please, no, I don’t want to go into the warehouse. I know there are walkers in there who will eat me.  Worse, it’s dark and murky and I can hear moaning noises.

Yes, says Rick.  You have to go. . .

And here comes the PUSH:

The rest of us are injured. (You’re the only one who can go.)

We’re starving to death (The stakes are high)

This is the first store we’ve seen in miles, and maybe the only one we’ll see.  (it’s the only option)

And, it’s getting dark out, so you’d better hurry (there is a deadline)


The PUSH outlines all the negatives that push your character forward in the decision.


Now, here comes the PULL:


This is a former Super Walmart, so there’s bound to be food inside. (The opportunity for success is high)

I’ll give you my super awesome Colt .45, as well as Michonne’s super cool sword. Besides, you’re a state track champion – there’s no way they’ll catch you. (you’re armed with the best stuff & you have super powers.)

You used to shop at this Walmart – you know where the canned food is.  (See, you have some tricks up your sleeve!)

Once you stop by the pharmacy and pick up some bandages, we’ll all get better and help you battle the Walkers. (This will lead to a great outcome!)


The PULL offers a powerful reward for taking the chance. 


Now, the final ingredient to creating believable motivation is to reasonably dismiss all the other choices:


But Rick, what about going into that warehouse in the back?

Rick – no, because it’s locked and probably has Walkers trapped in it.


But Rick, what if we wait until you’re better – you’re not that hurt.

Rick – I hate to tell you this, but I am actually turning into a Walker.


But Rick, maybe we should just hijack that motorhome sitting in the parking lot and keep driving.

Rick – To where?  This Walmart is 30 miles from the next town.


But Rick, I don’t even know how to shoot a gun. Or swing a sword.

Rick – But you’re fast.  And wiry.  Maybe you won’t even need them!


Okay, fine, I’ll walk into the creepy dark building filled with walkers, armed only with a sword and a rusty six-shooter, grab a shopping cart and fill it up with food and medicines. Alone.


It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?


Now, here’s the secret.  Look at your character’s choices. Which one seems the riskiest, with the highest reward?  Can you give your character a strong Push-Pull to choose this one?  Can you find reasons to dismiss the rest?

Make them choose THIS option and guess what – you’ll suddenly add tension to your saggy scene!  Because who isn’t turning up the volume and sitting on the edge of their seat as our heroine walks, fearfully, bravely, into the creepy Walmart?

In Summary:

To add tension to your saggy scene, have your character pick a risky, yet rewarding next move.

Gird it up with:

A Negative PUSH:

  1. Exclusivity (your character is the only one who can do it)
  2. STAKES (for a good reason)
  3. Limited Choices (this is the only option with this outcome)
  4. Deadline (hurry! Time is running out. Or, this is the only time this option will come around)

A Positive PULL:

  1. A real possibility of SUCCESS
  2. You’re armed with the right TOOLS or a SUPERPOWER
  3. The Strategy is clever/You have TRICKS
  4. If you do this, everything will get BETTER


Finally, solidify the decision with a few options that are reasonably dismissed.


Next week we’ll talk about how to increase the tension of ACT 2 by making each turning point worse.


Until then, go, write something Brilliant!

smw sig without background






What the Lord of the Rings Taught Me about Crafting Tension in My Novel

In our daily lives, we’re all about doing whatever we can to decrease tension. But when it comes to the lives of our fictional characters, we have to be willing to ramp up the tension … more … and more … and yes, a little bit more.

I relearned the importance of tension while watching a favorite movie a few days ago.

The movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The characters: The members of the Fellowship, including Frodo and his trio of Hobbit friends; Gandalf, the Gray wizard; Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor; Elf Legolis, Dwarf Gimli, Boromir, son of the steward of Gondor
The scene: The Mines of Moria leading to the passage of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm

What you need to know: The fellas in the Fellowship are running from hordes of Orcs – nasty bad guys. Tension? Yes.

But wait, there’s more – tension, that is.

• The Fellowship is running through the Mines of Moria – and of course, it’s no easy escape. They traverse a narrow set of high stairs, which is bad enough if you don’t care for heights.

• And then … their escape is halted by a broken part of the stairway. Of course it is. Increasing tension. Forget falling over the side of the narrow bridge. Now they have to jump across a gaping chasm.

• Legolis and Gandalf make it across. And then Orc arrows start flying. It’s one thing to have to jump across a crumbling bridge – it’s another thing altogether to do it while you’re dodging arrows and, if you’re Legolis or Aragorn, to think about trying to jump while you’re defending the Hobbits. Increasing Tension. Keep moving and protect others.

• Boromir jumps with two of the Hobbits, but causes the bridge to crumble even more. (And I confess it was only in this, my who-knows-how-many-times-I’ve-watched-this-scene viewing, that I noticed the side of the bridge falling apart after Boromir jumped. Increasing Tension. The leap for everyone else just got wider.

When Frodo and Aragorn are the only ones remaining on the wrong side of the bridge — which yes, has crumbled more as others jumped across to safety — a falling rock hits the bridge behind them. Now Frodo and Aragorn are precariously perched on a small portion of stone weaving back and forth in midair. Increasing tension. Can’t go forward. Can’t go back.

• Oh … and while all this is going on, the Balrog, and ancient demon of fire and shadow, is advancing on them. Sorry, forgot to mention him. Increasing tension. One more very bad guy added to the mix.

The lesson about tension is a simple one: Pile it on, people. Pile it on. Don’t cut your characters a break.

One caveat: While you’re piling on the tension, make it plausible.

Some of the tension-creating circumstances were subtle, such as the edge of the bridge crumbling when characters jumped from one side to the other. And some were as blatant as a random piece of falling scenery destroyed part of the bridge. But never once while I watched that scene did I doubt what was happening. Every action and reaction – every “Oh, no! Not that!” was realistic for that fictional world.

Select a scene in your work-in-progress (WIP). How can your ramp up tension?

[Tweet “The Lord of the Rings: Adding tension to your novel @bethvogt #amwriting “]

Act 2: Scene Flow..Suspense and Romance, what’s the difference?

Sceneflow:  the difference between a suspense scene and  a romance scene?

If you read the last two weeks of posts and chapters about Limelight, you’ll notice that I took a bit more time in those chapters to develop the romance. (Read Chapter 5 & 6 Here Chapter 5 Luke  Chapter 6 Kenzie)  I could have split those chapters into shorter scenes/segments, but I wanted to really cement the romance between them before I launched more into the suspense.  Note they were longer chapters– as the book starts to move faster, I’ll have shorter chapters, or perhaps two or three shorter scenes in a chapter.

So, now that I’ve given them their first kiss, we’re about half-way through the story. (For the purposes of teaching, I’m keeping this novella at 12 chapters – about25K).  I’m going to let the suspense plot take over for a bit here until we’re ready to move into our next kiss.

But first, let’s start with our chapter momentum interview.  Since we ended in Kenzie’s POV, I’m going to let Luke do the talking next. Continue reading “Act 2: Scene Flow..Suspense and Romance, what’s the difference?”

Writing (High Action) Scenes

So, the last few weeks we’ve been talking about Character change – bringing him through the various steps, until he’s finally on his knees, (black moment)  realizes what he needs to sacrifice to change, (epiphany) accepts the truth, and then emerges a new man to test his resolve and fight his final battle. 


Awesome.  Lot’s of great theory and structure there.  Now, let’s get specific with scene building for a bit here.   We’ve already covered Scenes and Sequels (go to the articles section to read more) as well as action objectives.  We’ve also talked about sizzling dialogue, paring your backstory to a minimum, and using strong sensory words to create mood.  So let’s talk about how you put those elements together. 


It’s about beat, and drawing the reader inside the character’s head, and using your sentence structure to create the right pace/emotions. 


First, as you enter the scene, regardless the kind of scene (action (scene) or reaction (sequel)) you need to set it up so the reader can keep up with what is in your head:


1.       Start with Setting and the Current State of Affairs (response from previous scene)


2.       Then establish the Goals of the scene (What do they hope to accomplish?)  Of course, sometimes the character doesn’t even know…but you as the author know and you want to hint at it.  For example, a woman comes home from her husband’s funeral.  She doesn’t know that the purpose of the scene is to find his secret will hidden under the mattress.  No, her goal is to just go upstairs and deal with her emotions. During which, she gets so upset she rips all the sheets off the bed…revealing the envelope containing the will.  However, as the author, you might say, in the beginning of the scene, something along the lines of:  Of course, he’d left her with nothing but a giant mortgage, a three year old and a fixer-up list that could wallpaper her cold bedroom.  Her goal might be to:  she just wanted to go upstairs and climb into bed, maybe never emerge.   If you establish these at the beginning of the scene, it sets up the elements you can use to cause conflict, and dilemmas with which to end the scene. 


3.      Don’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your characters action/decisions.  A woman who has a houseful of guests after a funeral probably isnt’ going to go to bed.  BUT, after her mother-in-law says something terribly harsh (and esp. if they have a bad relationship), she might go HIDE in her room.  And have a bit of a emotional breakdown.  Establish the motivations for every action/decision. 


4.      NOW, you have the Action of the scene.  This is where you pay particular attention to the cadence and beat of the sentences, pick out the specific words to create emotion.  If your character’s thoughts are running over each other, or if you have a lot of chaotic action, you may want to consider a run on sentence with a few fragments thrown in.   (English teachers should probably avert their eyes from this paragraph).  Likewise, if you have a lot of quick, sharp action, use shorter, more succinct sentences.  Even one word sentences. 


To really add pop to a scene, sometimes I create one word paragraphs.  The key is to create mood and feeling from the way you use your words and sentence structure.


Now, because I write Thrillers, I chose a HIGH ACTION scene.  Tomorrow, we’ll dissect a slower scene using the same techniques.


This is from Wiser than Serpents, where Yanna and David escape from Kwan, her captor. 



Think, Yanna, think!  Yanna stared up at David, at the horror on his face as he clutched her stupid little knife and her brain went blank.  Aside from being exactly the last scenario she would have conjured up for meeting David again, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that right now his brain was checking out every possible egress route from the tiny boat cabin, every possible angle where he wouldn’t have to blow his cover to save her life. 

            And probably coming up empty.


[Setting, and Current State of affairs, goals]


            Contrary to current appearances, Yanna made her living using her brain and solving problems.  And from her viewpoint, David had only one option. 

            Kill her, or be killed. 

            And, neither of those seemed acceptable.  At least, not to her.   

[Motivation for decision/action]


            Yanna caught eyes with David.  And then, with everything inside her, she kicked out at Kwan’s gun hand. 

            She connected in a bone-jarring crunch.  The gun fired, missing David’s head, or where his head had been because the moment she exploded, he turned her cute little knife on Ying, or maybe Yang – whomever, because Chinese thug went down, bleeding from the neck. 


[a mix of shorter sentences with one long run-on sentence designed to show that a lot of action happened all at once, too difficult to separate out]


            Yanna followed with an inside kick to Kwan’s knee.  He collapsed, but not before he grabbed her arm, pulling her with him. 

            She landed on top of him, pinning him with her chair.  Kwan grabbed her hair. 


[shorter, succinct sentences, a sequence of actions]


            She looked up just in time to see her knife go spinning across the floor, knocked from David’s hand by Yang.  But David dispatched him in two blows, and in a second, he’d picked up Yang’s gun. 

            Then, for a moment, all Yanna heard were three people, breathing hard. 

[Again, a run-on sentence that almost feels as if you are out of breath.  Punctuation gives the reader a chance to breathe, and I wanted to make it feel breathless.  But then, I slowed the scene to a screeching halt with a “for a moment” beat.]


            “Let her go.” David pointed the gun at Kwan.  “I won’t ask twice.” 

            Outside, shouts, running could be heard.

            “You’ll be dead long before they get here,” David added.

Kwan released her hair.  “You’re the dead man.”

David pulled Yanna to her feet, helped her wiggle from the chair.  Before he could force the handcuff key from Kwan, the door burst open. 

            “Run!”  David pushed Yanna ahead of him, towards another door. 

Yanna stumbled through it to a narrow hallway.  

            Shots fired behind her as David burst through the door, slammed it behind him.  “Run!” 


[I restarted the action with a series of shorter sentences, crisp dialogue.  The things that took a little more time, (like helping Yanna to her feet, helping her wiggle from the chair), I made into a compound, slower sentence.  When we needed more movement, I shortened the sentences. And, things that happened all at once, I gave simultaneous movement to (shots fired…as…)]



            Yanna fought for balance, her hands cuffed behind her.  She reached the stairs and stumbled up them. 

            Twilight, the sun setting on the far horizon, turning the ocean to fire, beckoned from the bow of the yacht. 


[I set off the setting in its own paragraph because I imagined her stumbling up the steps, blinking into the sunlight, and I wanted it to sort of sideswipe her for a moment. ]


            David had her by the arm, running, pulling her, now flinging her right over the edge into the frothy depths. 


[Again, movement so quick she can’t separate the actions, so I used a string of sequentials all in the same sentence.]


            Cold! The ocean gulped her whole, sucking her under, stinging as she went down.  She kicked, and kicked, surfaced with a greedy gulp of air. 


[I used the one word, Cold!  Abrupt and with an exclamation point to emphasize the impact.  Then, again, I let the ocean suck her under and overwhelm her by a longer sentence.  Note the section sentence is three almost separate sentences, strung together.  If I had used and AND conjunction in that last sentence, it would have slowed it, and I still wanted to keep the action fast.]



            And David was right there, arm around her waist, pulling her against him.  “Kick!” 

            Yeah, okay.  She coughed, but kicked, letting David drag her against the hull of the yacht.  Above, voices yelled, clearly searching for them. 

            “Shh.”  David’s voice, his cheek rested against hers, his voice calm, as if they might be out for a leisurely swim.  “Stay calm.” 


[Now, I wanted to slow the action, give the reader a chance to breathe.  Notice I used the word ‘rested’ – almost as subliminal cue for the reader to breathe. ]


The key to writing a HIGH ACTION scene is to write it like the character is experiencing it, while still allowing the reader moments to breathe/catch up.  Try writing it without the rules (here’s hoping the English teachers still aren’t looking).  Write it how it feels.  You can always go back in and clean it up later.


And don’t forget, whatever you do, end the scene with a new dilemma…


Yanna stared up at David, breathing for the first time.  He braced one knee on the seat, both hands on the wheel, glancing back over his shoulder now and again.  The wind parted his long dark hair, which sailed out behind him, and, in his flamboyant silk shirt and wet jeans – which had torn somehow in their great escape – he looked uncannily like some modern day pirate. 

            All he needed was a tattoo. 

            And, look at that.  As his shirt flapped open in the breeze, what did she see but the etchings of a design.  An eagle.  

            David Curtiss had turned into a scallywag. 

            She looked up at him, and for a split second couldn’t help but smile. 

            Apparently, however, he had the demeanor of a pirate, too, because he frowned back.  “We’re not outta trouble yet, Yanna.”  Then his eyes softened, and something so much like relief filled his eyes, she felt herself completely wordless. 

            Well, at least one of them was still in serious, way-over-her-head big trouble, indeed. 


*grin* Okay – now, Go to VOICES and post YOUR high action scene in the SCENES discussion.  Let’s learn together!  See you tomorrow!