NaNoWriMo Scene Starter!

[So—like you all, I’m writing a book in month with NaNoWriMo! Just to encourage myself, I dragged out this conversation I had with an aspiring author on how to keep going!

If you want the entire Conversation on How to Write a Novel, check out Conversations with a Writing Coach!]


“How is your NaNoWriMo manuscript going?” I set my coffee down at the table where Sally sat waiting for me, drinking coffee and eating a cookie. A light frost tipped the grass outside, the lake frothy along the rocky shoreline.

“I think my brain is shutting down. I’ve written about two thousand words a day, but I am running out of ideas on how to start my scene.” Sally broke off a piece of her monster cookie, the fresh-baked smell enough to make me wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

“Have you done your scene preparation?  Figured out Layer One: what kind of scene it is, and the 5 Ws’?”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. And Layer Two isn’t so hard either. Creating Tension is easy once you understand the equation: a Character we care about who has a goal, as well as something to lose who meets obstacles that feel insurmountable so much so that we fear they’ll fail.”

“Right. The equation is: Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.”

She broke off another piece of cookie. A M&M dropped onto her napkin. “But finding the first line and getting going that is stumping me. I feel like the words should just come to me, but…I’m staring at the blank page.”

“I understand. Let me teach you my first line/hook technique that is simple and fast to get you going into the scene. This is Layer Three and it’s simply about making the Hook SHARP.

“S stands for STAKES. What does your character have to lose? What can go wrong? You must have this element or there is simply no reason to have this scene, and especially no reason for your reader to stick with the story. In an Action scene, it’s something that could happen. In a ReAction scene, it might be making a bad decision. To find this, ask: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? What does he/she fear?

“H stands for Hero/Heroine Identification. Why should we care about your character? What about your character makes us understand or even sympathize with him? To find that element ask: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story? Giving your character a realistic, sympathetic situation and realistic emotions is the key to creating that connection between your reader and your character.

“A stand for Anchoring, or Storyworld. Use your inner journalist to create place. By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? Then, add in the 5 senses. The Facts and Feelings work together to establish place and evoke emotions. The right storyworld can give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find that conveys this sense of emotion? Use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

“R reminds us to start your scene: on the Run. Writing craft instructor Dwight Swain in Techniques of the selling writer says that “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your scene should start in the middle of the action, as if drawing back the curtain on the scene to find it already in action on the stage. Ask: How can I start my scene with the characters already engaging the problem of the scene?

“P helps us to identify and weave in the Thematic Problem, or the Story Question, in the scene. You will have one story question, or thematic question that drives your book. This question permeates all the decisions your hero and/or heroine make throughout the story. Ask: What thematic question is my character grappling with in this scene? How can you weave in the theme, or some part of it?

“Once you have identified all these pieces, climb into your POV character’s “skin” (or head) and stand at the edge of the stage, looking at all the activity and ask: What am I (as the character) thinking right now? Not what am I thinking about, but what am I thinking?

“Use this sentence to start your character in the scene. You can change it later, but at this moment, you’ll be in your character’s skin and able to go forward in their POV and write the scene. (Because you’ll know the goals, stakes, obstacles and even the thematic problem they’ll struggle with in the scene).

“What if I get the wrong first line?”

“Sally, there’s no wrong first line. But at this point, you’re just trying to get words on the page. Try it – you’ll be surprised at how the words just start to flow out of you once you figure out these elements.”

“I don’t know. I like to let the scene just . . . flow out of me. Organic. Seat of the pants.”

I looked at her cookie as she finished it off. “When you make cookies, you use the same ingredients for almost every kind of cookie. Sugar. Flour. Eggs. Salt. Baking soda. However, have you ever started making cookies and realized you’ve run out of one of the ingredients? Suddenly you have to run to the store, and your baking is stalled.

“The same thing happens when you are creating a scene. First, you assemble your ingredients. If you skip this part, you don’t know what you’re missing and you’ll suddenly be stalled in your creation process. This way, you’re pulling your “scene ingredients” out of the cupboard (your head) before you start mixing it together. You’re still writing the scene “Seat of the Pants” but you’re using specific ingredients to help you build it. And since you’ve assembled them before hand, you can flow without having to stop and figure out what you’re missing.”

“You’ve been eyeing my cookie all morning haven’t you?”

Truth: Success with scene building and maximizing your writing session is about preparation and gathering your ingredients before you begin. 

Dare: Do your prep work before you begin your writing session. An hour of planning will save you and hour of staring at an empty page!

Have a great writing week!

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”


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”


Jumpstarting your NaNoWriMo Story!

It’s Day 2 of NaNoWriMo! How is it going? Your brain hasn’t shut down yet, right?

I liken NaNoWriMo to running the 400 in track.  The first 100 meters you take off, you’re cruising and getting out in front of the page.

You then have to round the first curve and you settle into your rhythm.  Sure, a  few people might pass you, but you’re at a pace you love.

Then, you approach to the second curve.  You know you need to kick it up because you have to sprint that last 100 meters, but your muscles are starting to ache, and the tension of keeping up your pace is burning through you.  You could shut down, but the fact you’ve come this far keeps you going.  You muscle through the curve, and gear up for those 100 meters.

Finally, here comes the ending sprint.  Only it doesn’t feel like a sprint—you feel like you’re barely moving through sludge.  You are willing your body (and brain) to keep fighting all the way to the end, eyes on the prize.

And you cross the finish line.

You did it!  And it wasn’t easy, but you pushed through.  The key was—setting your eyes ahead, on the finish line before you even started.  And, of course, having a few tricks along the way to keep the story moving.


This month, I’m going to run the race with you and give you those tricks you need to keep going.


Leg 1:  The first 100 meters! (Aka: Act 1!)

When you’re just starting off, that first Act is a lot of fun. You’re establishing your characters, building their home worlds, causing their Inciting Incident and starting on the journey.

Along with the fun, however, you have to start your story in the right place, with the right balance of character information and action.  (notice I did not say backstory!)  So, how do you find that right balance?

I have 5 essential questions that I use to help build my beginning chapters:

First thing I do is start with the END. in mind – the things our reader MUST know by the end of the first chapter, things  I want to communicate through the action and dialogue: Competence, Lie, Fear, Focus/Want, Ignition/Inciting Incident.  I like to start with the deeper issues, and then build forward, sort of like a house – the bones first, then the pretty stuff.

I made it into a nice little acronym for you, because that helps me remember everything as I write, and because that’s how my brain works.  J.

Think of your first scene like a CLIFF . . . and you are about to send your character off it.  You want us to see him before he goes flying into the story.

  • Competence: Show that your character is good at something and can eventually win the day with these skills.
  • Lie: Where will your character start their inner journey (at MBT, we call it the lie they believe…which sets them up later for the “truth that sets them free.)
  • Ignition:  Set up the Inciting Incident. Perhaps it’s just the hint of the II. Maybe it is the actual II.  But hint that that something could be happening…even if you are setting up a perfect world situation, we will then suspect your character is about to fall, hard. J
  • Fear:  We want to know what your character fears – maybe he sees something, eh says something, it’s usually very subtle, but something that we can look at later and say, yes, we saw what he didn’t want to have happen!
  • Focus:  We want to see what your character wants, what his goals are.  What is he about?

Because you know your character, you should be able to craft this scene.  If not, start with a character interview.

Questions to ask you and your character to help build the first chapter

  • Competence: What are you good at?  What are your super power skills that we can highlight now to show how you’ll save the day at the end?
  • Lie:  What Lie do you believe and how do you show this in your everyday life?
  • Ignition:  What will happen in this chapter, big or small, that will change the life of your character and ignite him on his journey?  Inciting Incident!
  • Fear:  What fear hangs over the book and how can you (the author) hint at it in this first chapter?
  • Focus/Want: How can you (the author)  express your characters focus in this chapter?  Show who they are and what they want?

It’s key to go through these questions step by step, so you understand your character and what you need to accomplish in this chapter.

Now that I have all the elements I want to end up with,  I’m going to go back to the beginning and start forming my HOOK, those things that actually help me build the first line.  I call them SHARP. 

  • Stakes – What is at risk? What happens if they don’t meet their goal? If you’re writing a suspense, How can you weave in the danger of the suspense, or hint at the stakes of the story.  Think:  What can/will go wrong in this story and what will happen if they don’t save the day?  You don’t want to give us a chunk of narrative, but rather layer in the hint of the threat so the reader knows there is something at stake.
  • Hero/Heroine ID  – Emotion/Mood – What is your character feeling right now, and how are you embedding it onto the page? And how will we show that in a compelling way in the first scene? What situation, as the story begins, is most compelling, most sympathetic?  You are trying to get your reader to relate to your hero/heroine, and putting them in a situation that readers can relate to emotionally is paramount.
  • Anchoring – Storyworld, including the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, When, and Why.  What storyworld location can you use to create a sense of danger/suspense?
  • RUN – remember to start your story On the Run – meaning, the story already in action, as if you’ve simply thrown back the curtain to see the story in progress.
  • Problem/Storyquestion – what is the inner question that will drive your reader/character through the story?  AND, How can you end the scene with something worse, even the inciting incident that will propel your story quickly into the Noble Quest?

Now, pull out your first scene draft.  What elements from this first scene reveal your character’s identity?  Add that to the recipe.


As a review, here are the Big 10 Elements you want to have in your first chapter:

  1. Have you created sympathy for your character so we love them?
  2. Have you shown us your character’s home life, so we know where their journey begins?
  3. Have you shown us your character’s competence, and their identity?
  4. Have you given us a glimpse of your characters greatest dream?
  5. Have you given us a hint of your character’s greatest fear?
  6. Have you given us a hint at your character’s lie?
  7. Have you delivered the story question that will drive us through the book?
  8. Do you have crisp, interesting dialogue?
  9.  Have you honed your hook to include the Storyworld, including the Who, What, Why, When and Where’s of the story? Have you used the five senses?
  10. Finally, have you ended the scene with a disaster, or something that makes the reader want to turn the page?


Start the first scene with your character on the edge of the CLIFF…ready to take off into the story.  Build in the 5 elements: Competence, Lie, Ignition, Fear, Focus, then build the SHARP elements and you’ll have a powerful first chapter.

Next week we’ll talk about rounding that first curve and getting into a rhythm—Keeping your Story Flowing with Scenes Rhythm!

Have a great writing week and Go! Write something Brilliant!


Writer’s Math: Prep a Scene with 5+5+1

As a novelist, I thought I’d escaped all things numerical. Fine with me, as the mention of numbers is reason to cue the white noise in my brain.

Through the years. I’ve learned that even wordsmiths like to devise equations for the writing process. Susie and Rachel have developed a variety of writer equations and — Surprise! — I’m formulating a bit of writer math myself.

I love the process of fast drafting — writing the first draft of my manuscript without stopping to rewrite, using it as an act of discovery about my characters and my plot. But how can I ensure that even my fast draft is as strong as it can be?

Simple. Whenever I write a scene, I remember the equation: 5+5+1.

5 + 5 + 1

The first 5 stands for the 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Before I begin writing a scene, I type out the 5 Ws of the scene. I like to do this in red so that it stands out. I list:

Who is in the scene? Specify the main POV character and any other key character

What is going on? Focus on the main action.

Where does the scene takes place? In a castle? On a boat?

When does the scene happen? What time of year is it (if that’s important) or what time of day is it?

Why is this scene important? What is the goal of this scene? Is it an Action or ReAction scene?

5 + 5 + 1

The second 5 stands for the 5 Senses: Touch, Sight, Taste, Smell, and Hearing. I consider the main character for the scene I’m writing and then run their POV through the list, one by one. (I also type this out in red.)

EXAMPLE:  What if my main POV character is a shool teacher and the scene takes place on the playground? My list might look like this:

Touch: the chainlink of a swing, a young child’s hand, some stray trash blowing across the schoolyard, an abandoned lunchbox

Sight: children climbing on the monkey bars, one child sitting by himself off to the side, a kick ball soaring over the fence into the street

Taste: bitter aftertaste of coffee

Smell: hint of autumn on the breeze, scent of cherry chapstick she applied

Hear: children laughing, footsteps running across asphalt, the sound of a school bell

Sometimes as I write out the 5 Senses I stumble upon a possible symbol to weave through my scene.

5 + 5 + 1

The 1 stands for the main emotion of the POV character in the scene. I’ve discussed the importance of determining the specific emotion the POV character is feeling in other posts. Use one word: anxious, rejected, elated, content. Write this down too — yes, in red.

Now that I’ve done my prep work, which takes 10-15 minutes, I’m ready to start writing. I don’t have to interrupt my forward motion by wondering about Storyworld — what my character might see or hear or touch — and knowing the character’s main emotion keeps the scene anchored.

TIP: You can also use the 5+5+1 Prep a Scene Equation as you finish writing for the day. Consider the scene you’ll start writing tomorrow and type out the 5 Ws, the 5 Senses, and the POV character’s main emotion for it before calling it quits. You’ll have a jumpstart on tomorrow’s word count.

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