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






Conversations: What to do with your WriMo Chapters/How to edit a scene

I found Sally in line for coffee as I entered the coffee shop. She had already dumped her bag onto a chair, had already tugged off her gloves, her wool jacket, and wore her game face.

“What’s up? Did you not have a great thanksgiving?”

“It was fine. But, I’m 3000 words away from finishing my novel.”

“That’s great.”  I shed my jacket and motioned to Kathy. She gave me a smile, already on my order.

“No so much.”  She retrieved her coffee and handed me mine.  I nodded my appreciation.


“Because I only have 46000 words and I’m near the end of my novel.”


“It’ supposed to be an 80,000 word novel! How am I going to come up with 30,000 more words?”

“Oh, I see.  You think just because you finished NaNoWriMo with a 50,000 word manuscript that you’re done. Mmmhmm.”

“Well, I know it needs editing….”

“Sally.  What you have created is the shell of your novel. You’ve put down every great scene you can think of, and because you are racing through the novel to write it – because that is the point of NaNoWriMo – you are hitting all the big events.  I bet you have sentences like, “She argued with him until she got her way,” and “The clock read 7am as she got into her car for work, angry at…whoever.”

“So?  What’s your point?”

“Take a breath. This is normal.  You’ve rushed into your story and through your scene so you can quickly download the story from your head to the page without losing it.  That’s excellent. Now that you have the framework of your story, you have to go back and add the furniture, the decorative touches. Storyworld and description and emotional layering.

Let’s return to those simple sentences.  Instead of telling us that the argument happened, how about letting us hear that argument.  We want to be a part of it.

Instead of telling us what time the clock read, how about really putting us in the scene?

            The sunrise simmered over the far horizon, hot lava spilling over the tops of the birch and pine trees, splashing down upon the frost that covered her windshield.  She opened the car door with a creak and fished around for the scraper.  Shoot, she’d left it in the other car.  Digging through her purse, she found her old fitness club card. Well, it wasn’t like she’d use that anytime soon.  She attacked the front windshield, drawing thick lines through the frost, the ice curling up over her bare fingers, turning them numb.

Maybe the rest of her could turn numb, too – anything to stop the roaring heat inside that was sure to spill over onto Malcolm the minute she walked into the office.

            How could he steal her presentation?


“Okay, I made up Malcolm – “

“I already hate him.”

“But see, instead of telling us how she felt, I drew you into the scene slowly, letting the reader really see it. Your WriMo scenes are essential because they’ve provided the framework of your story.  You now need to go back and flesh out each scene, adding in all the beautiful details, the storyworld, the characterization, the dialogue, the emotional and the metaphors. You’ve only just begun.”  (You can sing along if you’d like).

She laughed.  “So give me a game plan.”

“Okay.  When you’re finished with the fast draft, go back to the beginning and analyze every scene.  First ask:

  • Have I created the right kind of Scene? Is it an Action or ReAction scene?  Define your goals, conflict, disaster, or your response, dilemma, decision.
  • Have I build in Tension? Remember your equation! Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacle + Fear of Failure  (for premium members, check out these past articles on creating tension in your scenes:

  •  Have I built in enough Storyworld?          

            Do I have the NEWS of the scene – Who, What, When, Where and Why?

            Do I have the 5 senses?

            Have I created a mood with the use of my 5 senses, the verbs and nouns I use?

  •  Have I used the right POV? (Point of View). Would the scene have more impact if it was in a different POV?  (remember, write it in the POV of the person who had the most to lose).
  •  Do I have enough Dialogue in the scene?  Dialogue moves a story and creates tension. If you have even one page without Dialogue, insert something – a remembered conversation, a phone conversation, even a letter or journal entry to create another voice.

Have you created sparks with your dialogue?  If it feels tired and expected, have your character say something they shouldn’t – that should cause some tension!

  • Have I created Emotion through Action?  Give your character something to do, and have it convey his emotions. What does the character do because of the way he/she feels? 

“And here’s the biggest question:  Have I glossed over moments in my rush to get to the end of the scene?  Have I allowed my reader to experience every important nuance of the scene?  Slow it down.  Describe the scene.  Take your time.  Your character will still go off the cliff – you are just helping the reader understand how dangerous it is and how hard he tries to stop it.

“And, speaking of cliffs – DON’T FORGET TO END YOUR SCENE WITH A NEW PROBLEM!!  (premium members check out:

“The mark of a great novelist is their ability to draw you into the world they see and allow you to feel it with the character.”

Sally was smiling now.

“Feel better?”

“Yes.  It’s like I finally get to read the story I’ve written.”

“Exactly. You’ve done the hard work of building the house.  Now this is the fun part –  decorating.”

“Just in time for Christmas.”

Truth:  Your first draft of your story just builds the story foundation.  Even if you are a “punster” you’ll need to go back and add in the rich details and layers to make your story satisfying.

Dare:  Finish your fast-draft, then go back and allow yourself time to rebuild, decorate and savor the story you’ve written.

Happy Writing!

Susie May

P.S. By the way, if you sign up for the daily Flashblog reminder in your email box, you receive the 5 Elements of a Best-Selling
Novel. A quick class on those foundational elements every editor is looking for! Sign up at:

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Writing a A Not So High Action Scene

So yesterday, we went through a high action scene, working through the details that went beyond structure to words and cadence.  “But, Susie, I don’t write a thriller!” you say. 


Not a problem.  You can still write a riveting scene using the basic princicples I laid out yesterday….


First, we: Start with Setting and the Current State of Affairs

Then we establish the Goals of the scene

And we won’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your characters action/decisions

Finally we can write the Action of the scene. 


And we’re going to pay special mind to the sentence structure and words we use to create mood. 


This excerpt is from Finding Stefanie – it’s a subplot character named Gideon who wakes up in Stefanie’s house after a horrible event.  He’s 18, and on the run with his two kid sisters.



He’d died and gone to paradise. Only, Gideon knew he didn’t deserve paradise, so perhaps this was simply a dream. Or maybe just an old west movie, because everything about this place screamed cowboys and horses and an episode of one of those ancient Lone Ranger shows. From the warm, dry single bed, with the wool red and black checkered blanket, to the bull riding posters on the walls, the trophies lining the dresser, a coiled rope hung on the bedpost of the other single bed, to more trophies on the opposite dresser. Whoever had lived here had overachiever written all over them.  Still, Gideon lay in the bed rested for the first time in – he did the mental math and couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t slept with one eye open, waiting for the nightmares, both real and imagined.


[I set the scene, and used it to also compare and contrast how Gideon feels about himself]


No nightmares last night. Except, of course, the big one – the fact he’d burned down the house of mega-rich, mega-star Lincoln Cash. Yes, that should make the news and send the cops running in his direction. Apparently, he still had the knack of knowing how to really blow it, and big. Gideon’s eyes had nearly fallen from his sockets when he’d seen the movie star walk up – in fact, he would have considered brain-altering smoke inhalation before he believed that Lincoln Cash owned the house he’d commandeered, and by accessory, incinerated. But Stefanie Noble – she introduced herself and her big brother Nick, the guy who had probably saved his life, when they reached their ranch – had no problem identifying the actor.


[State of Current Affairs]


He wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve Stefanie Noble’s loaded shotgun defense – he’d expected to be led off in handcuffs, right back to juvie hall. He made a mental note never to cross Stefanie Nobel.

Although it felt good, way too good, to have someone on his side.


[Motivation to trust her, alittle]


Especially when she offered him a place to stay, as much as he hated to say yes. But Haley and Macy needed some place warm. One night, he’d told himself. One safe, quiet, night. And tomorrow he’d hike back to the ranch, fetch the Impala, pile his sisters inside and head…somewhere.


[Goals – he wants to make sure everyone is okay, and then keep moving with his sisters.  The last thing he wants is to get caught and have them go back to foster care.]


(note: I deleted a bit of backstory here that also went to motivation)


He sat up, hung his head in his hands. Laughter – was that Haley? — drifted from the kitchen.

He stood, grabbed his jeans and shucked them on.  Then he crept toward the door. The aroma of breakfast – eggs and sausage? roped him in and he grabbed his shirt and edged out, into the hall.


[Okay, now we’re moving into the ACTION of the scene]


“I put a pair of Rafe’s old jeans and a shirt in the bathroom. You can take a shower and help yourself, if you want.” The voice came from behind him, and he turned, saw the woman he’d hit last night – Stefanie? – pulling a towel from the closet. She handed it to him and he saw her jaw had begun to purple.

“I’m really sorry about that.” He nodded to the bruise on her jaw.

“Don’t worry about it. Get cleaned up – breakfast is almost ready.”

She had pretty eyes – dark, yet they bore a kindness that made him duck his head.  She didn’t look that much older than himself – with her long dark hair she’d plaited into two braids, and the pink tee-shirt under a brown corduroy shirt, her low-rider jeans. Yet, something about her made her seem…wise, maybe. He took the towel.  “Thanks. We’ll be out of your way in a—”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”


[So, I start into the scene in a normal pace, interjecting some thoughts (-Stefanie? – ) but then we have our first conflict.  She’s not going to let him go so easily.  But remember, he wants to trust her…so this is good inner dissonance…she’s nice, but he doesn’t want to get caught]


He looked up at her. Her smile had vanished, and for a second, he saw the scene last night, and the way she’d dismantled Lincoln Cash with her bare hands. He stepped back, toward the bathroom, and refuge.


[He isn’t sure what power she has…note some of the words – dismantled, refuge…he’s nervous].


“Unless I’m reading the situation wrong, you have little money, an old car, no place to stay and two sisters to care for. You’re either runaways, or homeless, and my guess is that if you leave, you’ll simply drive until you find another vacant house, squat there for a while until some other disaster happens.”

“We’d make do.”

“Oh yeah, eating out of garbage cans, stealing. Sleeping in the car. How long before something happens to Macy, or Haley while you’re out ‘making do?’ And what, exactly, will you have to do to “make do,” Gideon? Because, you’re not in jail now, but from my vantage point, you might as well start forwarding your mail.”


[She dives right in with the attack, and I put it in language that would bowl him over, as well as long passages of speech that seem to go on and on, like a barrage. ]


He already knew she didn’t pull her punches, and he wondered now if he might be bleeding. “Hey, I have a job. And I’m taking care of them.”

            She held up her hand. He noticed the calluses. “Hold up. I’m not saying you aren’t trying. But is it the best life for them?”

He clenched his teeth, looked away. “Just, stay out of it.” What did she know? “I should have never come here.”

            Stefanie stepped to block his entrance into the bathroom. “You absolutely should have.”


[Shorter dialogue pieces can give the feeling of either fast snappy talk, or profound statements.  Don’t bury the important stuff in lots of dialogue – set it apart]


            By the tilted head, the way she folded her arms over her chest, she didn’t look easily moved. Great. Only, for a second, relief streaked through him.

            Which was why his, “What do you want from me?” came out less caustic than it could have.

            Her eyes gentled. He felt like a piece of cellophane. If he didn’t watch it, he’d start babbling again. He looked away.

“Okay, the truth is, I want to help.” She lifted a shoulder, looked down at her stocking feet, then back to up, wearing a smile. “I know this is going to sound strange, but in a way, I think you’re sort of an answer to prayer. I’d like to help you, and your sisters, if you’d let me.”

            Why would—oh, of course.


[This is a good way to show realization – cut off the sentence, and then have him figure it out mid-thought.  The key is to SHOW the thought process by the way you arrange the words on the page].


 Haley. Everyone loved Haley, with her big innocent eyes. In fact, it had been social services’ decision to list Haley for adoption that prompted Macey’s panic, and their subsequent escape from the foster shelter.

            This woman wanted Haley. She’d probably give Gideon and Macey a full tank of gas and a bag lunch if they’d agree to leave Haley behind.

Sorry, but he hadn’t boosted a car and committed a couple misdemeanors for this know-it-all woman to swoop in and steal his sister.


[Note how here, he immediately reverts back into teenage street language, and from here on out, he’s the tough guy.  The shift in how they view people, how they refer to things in their thoughts is a great way to convey body language, tone and demeanor].


“I don’t need your charity,” he snapped, and shoved the towel back at her. He brushed past her, thumping down the stairs, his chest tight. He stalked through a nice-looking family room, leather chairs, stone fireplace, lots of homey, sweet family pictures on the wall, and into the kitchen.


[Note the use of verbs here:  snapped, shoved, brushed, thumping, tight, stalked… and it’s juxtaposed with homey, sweet…everything he doesn’t have].


Haley sat at a wooden table, clutching that stupid, grimy stuffed cat with one arm, scooping cereal into her mouth. Macey sat beside her, eating an apple. Although Haley wore a clean shirt over her grubby pants, Macey still wore her same filthy black I-hate-the-world uniform, the sleeves pulled down over her hands, her thumbs sticking out of a hole she’d made in the cuffs. She looked up at Gideon, but didn’t smile.

The pregnant woman he’d seen last night stood at the stove, scrambling eggs. She glanced at him. “Morning.”

He gave her a look, then went over to Haley, lifted her from the chair. “We’re leaving, Mace. Now.”


[Note his use of his nickname for her, establishing his territory, reminding everyone that he is their protector.]


He saw her jaw tighten, but for once she didn’t argue. Just stood up, and grabbed another apple, stuck it in her pocket.

“Gideon!” He heard Stefanie’s voice, but he didn’t turn, even with Haley’s hand limp in his.

“Thanks for the hospitality,” he said, not nicely.

“At least eat something.”

For a second, a crazy impulse inside screamed stay! Stay here and see what this woman, this family had to offer. He looked down at Haley, and her eyes had widened, her face pale.

Stay…so they could call social services, maybe even the cops and have him hauled away, back to prison. Only, this time he’d go to adult lock up.

Even he couldn’t deny the fear that snaked through him.

“C’mon Haley,” he said, tugging her.

Stupid. The word pulsed in his mind as he opened the door, walked out into the brisk air.  He kept a grip on Haley he thumped down the steps.


[When you have a moment of hesitation, as if something is pulling your character back, write it like that.  Stay.  Stay here….  Etc.]


The sky seemed to have collected the smoke from the night before, gunmetal gray in tone, it mirrored the misery that Macey and Haley wore on their faces. The wind skimmed up dirt, spit it at him as he walked past corrals of horses, the cherry red truck from last night, miles and miles of pasture land. Off in the distance, he could hear cows mooing.

[I wanted him to get a good glimpse of what he was giving up, while still reflecting his attitude.  Gunmetal gray, smoke, dirt skimmed up, spitting at him….juxtaposed with a cherry red truck and miles of pasture, contented cows.  Scenery is a good way to mirror, reveal mood].





[We don’t even have to know who says this to feel the jerk, the pull of desperation in her voice].


He didn’t turn at the voice, refusing to even let it slow his step.

“Where are we going, Gideon?” Macey said softly.

He didn’t answer.


So, no  jumping off boats, or beating up bad guys.  But plenty of conflict (Remember: conflict in every scene!) and most of all sentences and words that convey mood and help the reader sense Gideon’s emotional tug of war. 


We’re almost at the end of our character’s journey!  Next week we’ll be talking about the final leg of the journey, and how to wrap up your story!  Have a great weekend!