​Don’t go down halfway through

Our football team had our opponents on the run. At halftime, we were up 32-3.

Comfortable lead. So apparently the guys decided, during halftime, to take a little nap, maybe get in the sauna, watch a little television…I dunno.

Because they left their passion in the locker room when they took the field for the second half.

Now, I’ve never played college football, but I know it’s not easy. You have to show up just to not get hurt. But there’s something that happens when you’re so far ahead you think about putting in the third string. You let go of your zeal, start looking at your watch, thinking about the burger waiting for you after the game.

Or maybe you’re just tired. You gave it all in the first half, and frankly, you need a break.

I get it.

Because I start out a story on fire, writing furiously through the first four chapters. It gets a little harder as I forge my way through chapters 7-8-9…10.

And then it’s halftime. Or at least, half-way through the book.

And I’m tired.

And I still have half the book to write.

And I really want a burger.

By the way, your character might have this moment half-way through the book, too, where they feel exhausted, overwhelmed and ready to hang up their pads and go home.

This is when they look back and see WHY they’re on this journey in the first place. They’re reminded of not only their motivation, but their greatest dream. And that the fight is worth it.

You, and your hero have to press on, or their journey–and your book–will fall apart.

Sort of like our team did. We landed penalty after penalty, gave the ball over three times with sloppy playing and suddenly the score was 21 to 32.


Don’t let the fact you have the rest of the book to write cause you to write poorly, take plotting shortcuts and short-change the emotion of your characters.

Here’s a tip. Don’t look at the entire book, the entire journey. Just take it “play by play.” Give just the next scene your very best. Then, take a little breather, and write the next scene. Just keep going, steady on, until the end.

If you need to write it poorly the first time—that’s FINE. You can give yourself permission to write poorly…as long as you don’t settle there. Go back and rewrite it.

I had a conversation a while back with an aspiring author about how to start her scenes. You can read it here. (Read the entire conversation inConversations with a Writing Coach)

Thankfully, our team woke up in the 4th quarter and pulled the game back into our hands.

So can you. If you feel like your book is sagging, tighten it up by asking:

  • What’s at stake in this scene?
  • What happens if my character doesn’t achieve their goal?
  • How can I create tension by putting my character in a sympathetic situation and making my reader care?

If you get tired half way through, and let your writing sag, your reader will close the book halfway through. And then no one gets to celebrate the final victory. Bummer!

Your story matters, and the fight is worth it!

Go! Write Something Brilliant!


Susie May

P.S. My new book,The Story Equation launched this week! Need to know how to create an ORGANIC, properly motivated character, and build an organic, powerful, yet easy plot? Check out the “SEQ!”


P.P.S. This week in Novel.Academy, we’re talking about TRENDS in publishing! Learn what’s hot, what’s not, and how you can use it to build your novel career. Check out Novel.Academy, over 100 classes on how to get published, and stay published and make your story matter!

NaNoWriMo: 5 Steps to building the right SCENE FOUNDATION

[A note from SusieMay:  So, like you all, I’m working hard on my NaNoWriMo project!  To keep me motivated, I pulled out a conversation I had with an aspiring author about how to set up a scene.  (to read about the rhythm of storytelling, click here.)  Go! Write Something Brilliant!]

If you want the entire conversation on how to write a novel, check out Conversations with a Writing Coach!


Sally was waiting for me as I walked into the coffee shop.  The fallen leaves chased me inside and Kathy handed me a spicy pumpkin latte, with whip and a layer of caramel.  I sat down at the table and couldn’t help note the frown on Sally’s face.


“It’s just boring.”  Her hand rested on a stack of printed manuscript papers. “I mean, the story is good…in my head. But it seems to lack…well, let’s put it this way; my husband fell asleep somewhere between page 87 and 103.”

“Oh my,” I said, sipping the latte.  Just the right balance of whipped crème sweetness and pumpkin pie spice.  “So, what do you think is the problem?”

“He says I have a great story, with great storyworld and fun dialogue and even good emotional layering. It’s just…well, he says the scenes are boring.”

“This can be fixed, Sally, don’t despair.  What you have is the right ingredients to the second layer of a scene: storyworld, emotional layering, dialogue and even metaphors.  However, none of these matter if you haven’t built the first layer, or the foundation of the scene: the scene tension.”

“You mean what we talked about last week. The Scene Equation.”

“Right.  You have to understand what drives a scene before you can create the actual scene. Let’s review just a bit:  The scene equation is:

Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure. 

“If any of these are missing, you don’t have tension and are simply decorating the house before its finished.  Only after you build a solid foundation can you add the gleaming details that make your scene stand out.  (storyworld, dialogue, emotional layering, wordsmithing. emotions, metaphors and even a great hook.)

“Let’s go a bit deeper and explore each of these pieces of the equation:

“Sympathetic Characters:  Building Sympathy isn’t just about putting our characters in sympathetic situations – it’s about seeing ourselves in our characters. What situation is your character in that we can understand or identify with?  Or, what common emotion do we share with the character that helps us sympathize.  Consider this:  When have you felt the same way your character feels?  Can you build in either this situation, or actions that help us connect?

“Here’s an example:  In my book, You Don’t Know Me, my heroine, Annalise, is in the WitSec program. However, she’s never told a soul – including her husband and family.  She is leading a normal life…until her WitSec Agent appears in her world and unravels it.  Although most of us haven’t been in the WitSec program, we do have situations where we fear a secret might emerge. It’s this feeling I built into the scene where her past shows up.  I created a scene in a coffee shop with all of Annalise’s friends and community around her – including her husband – and made her stumble to keep her secret and composure in the face of this awkward situation.

“Goals: What does POV want?  Emotionally, physically?  What do they need?  Why?  Answering these questions gives the character a purpose for the scene – something that pushes them forward.  Your character must have a goal for every Action Scene.  (and a dilemma to solve for every ReAction scene).

“Obstacles:  These can be People or Situations, (weather, or machines, or even government) – but at the end, they are the conflicts that stand in the way of the character reaching her/her goals.  Tension is created by the use of these external and internal obstacles.

“Stakes: What will happen if the character doesn’t meet their goal?  What fear hovers over the scene?  Both the character and the reader must see what might go wrong in the scene to create tension. This involves using the Push-Pull rhythm, a MBT technique for creating the right motivation.  (in short, it’s the PUSH away from something negative, and the PULL toward something positive.)

“Fear of Failure:  This is the secret ingredient to keeping tension taut in a scene.  Without this fear, and this believe that it could happen, the scene is flat.  If we know the outcome is a sure thing, then why bother?  Even if the tension is only inner dissonance, it’s that fear of losing themselves that keeps the tension high.

Sally, go through every scene and ask:  Why should I care about this character and this scene? What’s at stake?  What are the Goals and Obstacles, and finally, do I fear the character might fail?  Answering these questions for every single scene will help you reshape your story into something that won’t put your husband to sleep.”

“It might have been the Vikings game, and the way they crumbled after the first quarter.”

“Yes, that was painful. I would have rather been sleeping.”

Truth:  Wordsmithing can only get you so far in a story; if you don’t have tension, your book will suffer the “put it down in the middle” syndrome.  

Dare: Analyze every scene and build in the right foundation before you add in the riveting details.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

Conversations Postcard bigLet’s have a conversation about how to be a published author! (only $4.99 on Kindle!)

“I was so excited to see that Conversations with a Writing Coach contains the lessons and writing aids that took me from being an unpublished writer to published with a multi-book contract. Susan’s talent for teaching the craft of writing is phenomenal. The lessons are easy to understand and will help beginning writers understand and develop their characters, plots and settings. And not just beginning writers—the workbook is a great refresher course for me as I begin my 5th book in two years. Patricia Bradley, author of the Logan Point series”


Build powerful TURNING POINTS in a novel (An Equation!)

For most authors, setting up the right Act 1 feels natural – you introduce a character, give him a problem, invite him on a journey and then. . .

All the fun starts. But what do you DO during the party?  You can’t simply throw up obstacles, because obstacles do not create tension.  Great tension is created by a sympathetic character who wants something for a good reason, who has something to lose, so they create a goal which is then met with a realistic and overwhelming obstacle.

It’s the push against this obstacle that causes tension.

More, it’s the AFTERMATH of confronting that obstacle that causes that character change. And that, after all, is the goal of your story – to create a powerful character change.

But what kind of obstacles are worthy of your story?

The best obstacles are external devices that cause an internal dilemma. And it’s this combination of Obstacles + Internal Dilemma that are the TURNING POINTS in your novel. 

I got sucked into Last of the Mohicans last night (can it truly be that that film is 22 years old?).  Great character change, great external obstacles leading to internal change.

last of the mohicansMeet Hawkeye.  He’s a white man adopted into the Mohican tribe, wanting nothing to do with the war, or the military, or rules, for that matter.  His external goal – to have a family (he is unmarried), but also to stay a free indian warrior.  His values are loyalty (to his family) and freedom.  (remember this.) However, Hawkeye’s big flaw is that he doesn’t want to get involved, he wants nothing to rule him.

Hawkeye and his party (his father and brother) happen upon a British garrison who have been attacked by a Huron war party.  Hawkeye helps save the women, and agrees to help them get to Fort William Henry.

This decision is bolstered by the presence of Cora, the pretty daughter of Colonel Munroe.  Cora is different than the other “white” women – she seems to understand Hawkeye and he begins to fall for her.

Enter the Turning Points.

A great Turning Point contains the combination of an External Obstacle that leads to an Internal Confrontation (usually the battle between two values) and results in a Change of Character.

Let’s take those Turning Points apart.

First, start with the External Obstacle.  A great ExO always stands in the way of the External Goal.  Hawkeye’s short term goal is to get Cora and her sister to Fort William Henry (and back to their father.)

His long term External Goal is to keep Cora alive.

The result of confronting the External Goal is the effect it has on Hawkeye’s values – Freedom and Loyalty.  With each step, he gains one and loses another.

Let’s take a look.

The first Turning Point (after the Inciting Incident) occurs when they come across the destroyed homestead of a friend.  Hawkeye knows that a war party has committed the violence, and refuses to bury the bodies, lest they return and discover Hawkeye’s trail.  His goal – keep Cora alive by hiding their presence. The obstacle – she wants to bury the dead.  The conflict – she doesn’t trust him.  He wants to keep his word to her that he’ll get her to the Fort safely, so he tells her a story about himself (in MBT we’d call that the Dark Moment Story – and for those who were in last week’s Premium Member Peptalk, note that it happens in Act 2A!) which makes her respond in a way that strengthens the bond between them.

However, with this step, he’s compromised, just a little, his freedom.  He’s starting to get involved.

External Obstacle causes Internal Confrontation, which leads to a Change of Character.

The second Turning Point happens when they reach the fort.  There, the Colonel is informed of the attacks on the homesteaders – many of whom are the wives and children of his militia.  He refuses to let them leave to protect them, so Hawkeye engineers their escape from the fort. . .an act of sedition.  However, instead of leaving with them, he decides to stay.

Why?  Because:

Jack Winthrop: You’re not coming with us?

Hawkeye: I’ve got a reason to stay.

Jack Winthrop: That reason wear a striped skirt and work in the surgery?

Hawkeye: It does. No offense, but it’s a better looking reason than you, Jack Winthrop.

More, the FRENCH are digging in and are going to overrun the fort, and he knows it.

Let’s return to our equation:

Goal – To keep Cora Alive.  External Obstacle – His crime of sedition and the need to escape before he’s discovered.  Internal Confrontation – freedom versus loyalty.  He again chooses loyalty (which is morphing into love) and that choice puts him in Cora’s arms. . .and then in prison.

Note how while the obstacles increase in danger, it’s the effect of the decision as a result of the obstacles that worsens Hawkeye’s situation.  Authors often confuse making the obstacle worse when actually the worsening OUTCOME, or the EFFECT of the obstacle is the goal.

The Final Turning point happens when, after the fort falls and the British surrender, the escaping troops are ambushed by the Huron and Hawkeye and Cora (and friends) flee their attackers.  They find themselves trapped in a waterfall and Hawkeye must face his final External Obstacle – stay, and fight to the death and lose his chance to keep Cora alive.  Or flee, and hope that he can rescue her.  Remember, those External Obstacles always block the character from his main goal.  (Keep Cora Alive!) He then has an Internal Confrontation, choosing between loyalty and freedom, again.  This time, although it looks like he’s choosing freedom, he’s actually choosing to rescue her.

936full-the-last-of-the-mohicans-photoCora Munro: You’ve done everything you can do. Save yourself. If the worst happens, and only one of us survives, something of the other does too.

Hawkeye: No. You stay alive. If they don’t kill you, they’ll take you north, up to Huron land. Submit, do you hear? You’re strong, you survive. You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!

 (Most romantic dialogue in history.  Next to – “it wasn’t over! It still isn’t over!”)

He is choosing to save her by escaping – and then racing to free her.  But the character change here is that he binds himself to the task of rescuing her. He’s no longer free and is now completely involved in this war, in saving her.

He’s gone from uninvolved hunter, answering to no one, to warrior, answering to the call of his heart.

The Black Moment, of course, is up next, when he tries to trade himself for the woman he loves, sacrificing his freedom, and life for love.

How do you make your Act 2 compelling?  In MBT, we rely on a book by Brandilyn Collins, Getting into Character, where she talks about the D’s – building your story around creating a series of increasing disappointments, – Disaster, Destruction, Devastation.  We affectionately call them the D’s. But you can simplify – Bad, Badder, Baddest.  Or whatever you want to call them – just make sure that each Turning Point contains the following:

An External Obstacle that is set against the main Goal (Keep Cora Alive),


which causes an Internal Confrontation (between values),


and results in a Character Change (even if it is a small step).


Not every obstacle is a turning point.  Not every value choice is a character change. But the lethal combination of the External Obstacles combined with the Internal Confrontation can make even the most hard-hearted, leather-clad, long-hair warriors (with incredible brown eyes) sacrifice themselves for the sake of love.

Next week we’ll touch on 5 quick touch ups to add tension and make your scenes more emotional.

You CAN write something Brilliant!

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P.S, if you’re not a Premium Member, you might consider checking us out this Thursday for our weekly Peptalk as we continue our Build-A-Book series, talking through how to take a rough story idea and turn it into a plot, including the inciting incident!  Try us out for a week, freeclick HERE.

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 “]