Why readers fall in love with your stories

Hope you’re writing week is off to a great start.

Me…I’m in a show hole.

You know, that darkness that you fall into when you finish a great show and you know that nothing, not even reruns of Quantum Leap, will fix it.

But, the darkness does allow you time for contemplation as you mindlessly flip through Netflix offerings. Why, oh why, did I love that show so much.

So, I confess, the show I am missing today is Hell on Wheels. I know, I know, it has some historical issues, and before you judge me on the violence, I watched it with the hubs, who loves cowboy shows. And this is about as cowboy as you get.

But I watched it for the lead, Cullen Bohannon.

Image result for cullen bohannon

If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to give anything away, but I will say that it’s not for the fainthearted. It’s a rough-edged western about the building of the transcontinental railroad. I’m pretty sure not a lot of it is factual, but who knows.

Let’s skip to the important part—Cullen Bohannon. Aside from being darkly handsome, I loved the deeply layered character who came to the page, with all his issues, his unshakable honor (although one might have a conversation about what his definition of honor is) and his determination to build the railroad. Most of all, I love how the writers took Cullen from a stereotyped, angry former confederate soldier with a jaded, broken heart, bent on revenge to a man who won the hearts of his workers, found compassion and finally followed his healing heart to the woman he loves.

It took five seasons. And I can imagine that the writers started with a prototype, not unlike we do when we start building The Story Equation. They began with an adjective and a noun. Angry Former Confederate Soldier. Angry—why? Because he’d lost his wife and child to Yankee bandits. The Former Confederate Soldier description brings in all sorts of external images—stoic, a southern accent, a sense of upper-crust breeding (he was a plantation owner) reflected in his clothing (he always wears a vest with a pocket watch). Still, he’s a renegade with long hair, a beard and a quick draw.

When you’re building a character, start with an adjective and a noun. The adjective helps you understand your character’s state of mind as he walks onto the page, and helps you discover the inner journey. The Noun gives you his externals.

But that’s just the beginning. As you write your story, the goal is for the reader to discover your hero’s essence. Who is he on the inside?

As Cullen moves the railroad west, he has a few love interests, and each of them get a glimpse of the essence of Cullen Bohannon. One sees the wounds he suffered, as well as the gentleman in him. Another sees the fierce protector as well as the wanna-be family man. The last sees his good heart, that he really does want to do what’s right. In fact, she tells him, “I see you.”

At his heart, Cullen is a hero, a man deeply affected by his times, but someone who is willing to sacrifice anything to do (what he considers) is the right thing.

Your job, as an author, is to bring the essence of your character to the surface. To reveal him, through his actions and choices. To help the reader “see” your character.

One way I do this is to ask: Can my character do something at the end, that he can’t at the beginning? And, if so, why? (and can my reader see the why, that motivation?)

Telling a great story about an epic event like building a transcontinental railroad is only as good as the characters who embody your story. Start them out with an external identity…but slowly reveal their essence, and I promise you, readers will fall in love.

Now, anybody have any good shows they’d like to suggest?

Your story matters! Go, Write Something Brilliant!


Susie May

P.S. If you are in a “career” hole and don’t know what to do next, may I suggest checking out the Author Mastermind Summit? It’s a 2-day, online event (you can register for the recordings if you think you’re going to miss) that coaches you on writing, platform development and effective marketing (even time-saving techniques) from 7 Masterminds who I know and trust. There are some pretty fantastic give-aways and I know this online summit will be an amazing boost to your career. Check it out, and if you have any questions, shoot me an email! susan@mybooktherapy.com.

P.P.S If you are interested in The Story Equation, how to build a layered story by asking one essential question, check out the book on Amazon, or our full classes at Novel.Academy

The Power of the Greatest Fear in crafting a novel!

The Power of the Greatest Fear

Want to build a powerful climax to your novel? Harness the Power of the Greatest Fear to bring your character to an external plot climax, as well as an internal crisis.

We talked last time about the power of the Dark Moment Story in building that layered character. The Dark Moment story is also used to create the capstone of your novel: The Black Moment Event. This moment is not only the climax of the story, but the point of change for your character and sets up the epic finale of your novel.


The Black Moment Event hinges on understanding your character’s Greatest Fear.

Every character has a deep and abiding fear, based on his Dark Moment Story that has molded him as a person and helped established motivation for all his decisions and choices. This fear, as the novel opens helps determine what your character wants (namely, not ever repeating this fear) and guides his personality.

The key to having a greatest fear is that you want to create something that could possibly happen again, maybe not with the same people, or even the same event, but to create the same painful, emotional scenario.

This is how an author goes beyond a stereotypical, cardboard character. You, as the author, get to build your own person with his own wounds. Your character’s reaction to their dark moment story might be different than another character’s reaction to a family fight.

More, every dark moment is going to surface different kinds of fears. You can pick any fear you want out of that Dark Moment Story. It just depends on what you want to do in your story, and what story you want to tell.

The interesting part is that much of the time, authors pick a fear we relate to, which means that we will have truth in our past that we can then apply to the story. So now we’re creating characters that we can tap into in an authentic way.

In My Foolish Heart, I created a heroine who was agoraphobic. It was based on a talk show host, who’s never been in love and was trapped in her home. The reason she was trapped in her home is because she had panic attacks as a result of seeing her parents die in a horrific car accident right outside their home.

I did not understand my character. I knew her Dark Moment Story and her Greatest Fear but I couldn’t relate to her . . . or so I thought. See, I’ve always been a “brave” person–even living overseas and raising four children in Siberia. I looked at Izzy, my character, and thought she was weak.

Until . . . I started rooting around my past. I went back to a time when I myself was struggling to leave my home. I wasn’t afraid to leave but rather–overwhelmed. When I was in Russia, I had four children under the age of five, so young I had to carry two of them when we left the house. We lived in a high rise, on the ninth floor. We didn’t have a phone. We didn’t have Internet. We didn’t have running water. I didn’t have a car. And we had to walk two blocks to the little grocery kiosk. There would be times when my husband would be gone for two or three days and we’d have saltines and peanut butter in the cupboard. I’d stare at the empty shelves, wanting to conjure up anything to eat. I would think . . . I don’t know how I’m going to leave the house to buy food. I wasn’t afraid but I felt trapped, and that was enough for me to relate to Izzy and say, “Yes, this is what it feels like to be trapped in your home.”

From that emotion, I was then able to create a scene where Izzy actually was out of food and she had to go to the store. More, I was able to accurately portray her struggle.

If your character’s Dark Moment Story is something you can related to, something you can pull from your own life, you’ll create authentic situations and authentic emotions as you build that character’s story. So, don’t pick a greatest fear you can’t wrap your brain or emotions around. However, the beauty of the Dark Moment Story is that you can pick whatever greatest fear that you want. So choose wisely.


[Tweet “Use the Power of the Greatest Fear for your characters external plot climax & internal crisis http://bit.ly/20vkOgK #amwriting #plotting”]


The Greatest Fear is going to be helpful in two ways.

  1. Recreate it in the Black Moment Event. Using the Greatest Fear as a template, you’ll find an event or situation that resurrects this fear in a tangible, believable way, played out in the Black Moment Event. This gives you plotting fodder! You don’t have to set the Black Moment in cement, but you can brainstorm a number of fantastic ideas to help in the formation of your plot.


  1. The Greatest Fear adds both motivation and behavior to your character from the first page. Characters are wired to stay away from things that are going to hurt them, especially their greatest fears. So as your character walks on the page, he’s already going to be making decisions that will protect him, and keep him from getting into that dark place.


e.g. In My Foolish Heart, Izzy never wanted to leave her house. So she rigged her life so she never had to leave. She knew all the delivery numbers by memory, paid someone to deliver groceries and had a work-at-home job.


The Greatest Fear is the single most powerful ingredient you as the author can pull from the Dark Moment Story to help you build motivation, behavior and the essential Black Moment Event that builds the external climax and sets up the character change.

Next time we’ll talk about creating a powerful Internal Journey by understanding the Lie your character believes.

Until then, Go! Write Something Brilliant!





Susie May

P.S. Need help crafting a novel?  Check out our Brilliant Writer series in kindle! 







The Power of the Dark Moment Story in Fiction

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plot your entire story by asking one question?

You can.

Last time we talked about the Storycrafting Checklist, or everything that has to go into a finished novel.  But how do you get all those pieces in?

Over the past 12 years and 55 novels, I’ve discover a “Story Equation” that helps me discover and build into a story all the essential pieces. (And I’ll be blogging about that “SEQ” –or Story Equation this year).  But the center of the equation starts by asking ONE powerful question:

Who are you?

From that question, the equation pulls out two key elements: Identity and the Dark Moment Story.  From that Dark Moment Story we’re then going to pull all our essential ingredients to create our compelling character and riveting plot: The characters greatest fear, his lie, his flaw, his competing values, his wants, his wounds and the big why that drives the entire story.

In the advanced layer, we’ll also find our secret desire, his greatest dream, and the other elements that help us build our plot.

WHO are you?

The SEQ starts by asking the character, “who are you?” Often, we bring to the story what we call the story seed. This is the naked story idea that has sparked–probably from something we’ve heard or read about, a big question, a situation, a historical figure or event, even a great what-if.

You're the One that I WantOwen Christiansen: Troublemaker

One of my favorite characters to develop was the final character in my Christiansen family series. I’d already explored all his other siblings, but I had no idea who Owen, the family troublemaker was until I got to his story.

I needed a SEQ.

My conversation with Owen went something like this:

Who are you? “I’m a prodigal fisherman.”

Why are you a prodigal fisherman? “I’m a fisherman because this is the job that I could get. I’m working on a crabbing boat. It’s a short term job, temporary. I don’t have to commit to it. I can just work hard for a season, get money and go on because I’m a vagabond. I’m on the run, hence why I’m called a prodigal.”

Why are you a prodigal? “Well, because I don’t want to live in the life that my parents don’t really want me to live but I can’t go home.”

Why can’t you go home? “I sort of made a mess of things at my sister’s wedding when I was visiting.”

Really, what happened? “I don’t know really what happened but my brother, Casper, got freaked out on me, got really upset, attacked me in the middle of the wedding and we got in a huge fist fight. I don’t know what his problem was. Or . . . actually I do. Apparently he fell in love with this girl that — okay. Yes, I had a one-night stand with. I realized it was probably a bad thing but I did. He fell in love with her and when he found out we’d slept together, he took it personally and got angry. I got mad too and we got into a huge fist fight. I realize now that probably I handled it badly.”

Why did you handle it badly? “I’ve had a rough go of it because I–you might not know this about me but I used to be a professional hockey player and I had the whole world and then — well, my brother-in-law actually hit me with a hockey stick and he made me blind in my eye. My whole career is destroyed. What do you expect from me? I had this life and now I don’t anymore. So thank you very much. This is my life now.”

Perfect. Now, as an author, I have a little picture of Owen. I also have a hint of the dark moment story–which is probably losing his eyes.

I can also build on that and easily ask: what is his greatest dream and secret desire? He wanted to play hockey. He wanted to be somebody.

Now that I’ve drilled down the adjective, I’ll move over to the noun. Fisherman. This gives me a hint of what Owen looks like on the outside. He’s got an eye patch because he lost his eye. And, he’s working the high seas, so we can attach a pirate vibe to him. He’s probably a hard worker because he needs to earn money. Probably also a bit unkempt, scruffy beard from being at sea for a month. He doesn’t really care what he wears, old it-shirt, old sweatshirt, this sort of thing.

We can go even deeper and ask: What’s his attitude? Who is this guy who’s now working on a fishing boat? He’s named himself a prodigal. A person that’s named himself a prodigal probably has a little bit of regret. When the story opens, Owen knows he’s not doing the right thing but he feels like there’s no way back. He probably wears a small chip on his shoulder, and most likely feels very alone. Perhaps he feels that he can’t get close to people because he feels guilty about hurting his brother–which means he might even regret his womanizing ways. Perhaps he’s even tried to amend his actions, but still feels like he can’t go home.

However, based on this analysis, his secret desire is definitely to go home.

(By the way, get Owen’s story, You’re the One that I Want here!)


Give us a Dark Moment Story

The goal is to get to the heart of your character by asking why, until you land on a Dark Moment Story.

The Dark Moment Story is the core of your SEQ; it’s the secret sauce behind what all the stuff that your character does. The Dark Moment Story gives your character motivation, it combines with the greatest dream to find out what he wants, which then gives him a goal, establishes his lie, and helps develop your character’s flaw. (Which we’ll expand on next time) All the pieces of your equation come from this dark moment story.

We can find a dark moment story in almost every great movie.

In Braveheart, William Wallace’s Dark Moment Story is played in out in the first 20 minutes of the film. First his family dies and then the woman he loves, his wife dies.

In one of my favorite movies, While you Were Sleeping, the Dark Moment Story is told by the heroine, Lucy, to Jack during their walk home through Chicago. (Hint: it’s the story of her father, always wishing to go somewhere, and her never taking a trip because he got sick and she had to take care of him. Her wound is her empty passport. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves!)


Three essential elements to a Dark Moment Story

  • The Dark Moment Story is a specific event.

Often, when authors develop character, they sum up their past with an overview: “Well, his parents got divorced or his mother died or his brother ran away or he was bullied in school . . .” These are certainly traumatic, life-changing events, but none of us clue us in to what shapes your character. As an author, you have to create a specific event in which that seed a rejection fear, unforgiveness, bitterness took place.

It needs to be something that happened, something they remember, and something they can detail. And often, it isn’t the main event, but an ancillary event that really matters.

  • The Dark Moment Story is Relatable

You’re looking for something poignant, something that will tug on the heartstrings. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, or even that dramatic. It could merely be the day when no one showed up to your character’s seventh birthday party. Or the day your character thought he was going fishing with his father, and he got left at home. Sure, it might be powerful–the death of a family member, for example. But often we jump to the dramatic when, in fact, it’s the small things that wound so deeply.

  • The Dark Moment Story is Poignant

You, as the author must be able to dream it up and feel it first. Have your character tell it to you in first person, and write it down in detail, so you can hear and feel the inflection of their voice, their words, and their emotion. Once you make that emotional connection with the story, you can share the deeper layers of it–and your reader will connect with the emotion and story as well.

The magic of the Dark Moment Story isn’t just in developing character; it’s also a tool you’ll use in the story to develop the bond between characters and between the character and the reader.

In most cases, you’ll insert that story in dialog in your second act to help solidify the motivation for the Noble Quest as well as build the Character Change journey. Yes, you might modify the story in the retelling on the page, but getting the foundation down now is the key.

Once you have your Identity and your Dark Moment Story figured out, you have the tools to build the rest of the SEQ.

If you are a true organic, and you just can’t bear to do any more planning, then stop right here. You know who your character is, and what motivates him.

Or . . . you can keep going and start to pull out the plot.  Which I’ll show you next time.

Go write something brilliant!





(P.S – Wanna learn my secrets?  How to Write a Brilliant Novel!  Only $4.99 on Kindle!)

Extreme Book Makeover: Reconnecting with your Story

I wrote a story 5 years ago that I didn’t finish called Limelight. A project for what I called our “Blog-A-Book” series, Limelight was a teaching novella that put application to the theory of writing by deconstructing the story-crafting process step by step. I worked with our blog and MBT Voices audience to pull together characters, a plot, the inner journey and then went scene by scene . . . until I hit Act 3.

Then I landed an unexpected writing project and something had to give.

The novella sat unfinished, my hero and heroine on the verge of their Black Moment Event, their Epiphany and their Triumphant Ending, free-framed, waiting for me to find the time.

Find. The. Time.  Right!  As time wore on, the story flow began to subside, and although I still loved the story, whenever that elusive “time” showed up, getting back into the character’s heads, the emotion and flow of the story seemed overwhelming.

Until . . . two weeks ago.  I pulled out Limelight to teach as series for our MBT Premium Members called “Build-A-Book” where we start with an idea and end with a publishable book.  As I started to read the story (and realized I still liked it), I knew I had to finish it.

But how to get into the flow again?

Summertime can be such a challenge for writers—vacations, kids camp schedules and house repairs cut into our writing time and we can find our writing flow disjointed, our minds scattered and our ability to identify with our characters stunted.

I discovered, as I went back to my writing chair with this story, a few tools to help me get back into the current of the story.

  1. I pulled out my Synopsis. Whether a story is contracted or not, I always “tell myself the story” in a rough synopsis form whenever I finish plotting and doing my character work.  Although I give myself freedom to veer from this plan as I see fit, having that outline helps me know:
    1. If my Plot makes sense
    2. What research I’ll still need to do
    3. If I’ve completed the character’s inner journey
    4. If I’ve build the romance correctly.
    5. If I’ve capped it off with a sufficient happy ending

After I write the synopsis, I separate it into chapters so I can see, roughly, what I need to accomplish in each chapter.

I dug up the synopsis for Limelight and tracked down to where I’d left off.  Now I had a game plan.

  1. I pulled up my Character Layering and Essential Scenes Guide. The synopsis gave me an external blueprint of the story. But I still needed to dive into the character and discover how much of himself he’d revealed to the reader—and the other characters. Character layering (and unlayering!) is a powerful way to reveal backstory naturally, mimicking the way we get to know people. In this way you can save character secrets and their dark moment story until exactly the right time for the reveal to move the story forward.  Although I read the story over to get momentum, I still needed to catch up to what the reader knew about my characters, and take the next logical step.


My Character Layering Chart helped me track this revelation, and the Essential Scenes told me what I’d accomplished . . .  and what I still needed to write.


  1. My Character Change Journey Chart. Along with my character revelation, I also needed to track my character’s inner journey.  While it can sometimes feel like an organic process, the character change journey is actually a step-by-step process, something I plot out in the story.  Grabbing this chart helped me figure out what scenes I still needed to write.


MBT Character Change Journey/Chart

Act 1
Snapshot of DreamInvitation to change

Need to change


Act 2
Attempt and failureCost consideration



Attempt and mini-victory

Training for Battle


Act 3
Black MomentEpiphany

New Man (& Testing)

Happily Ever After



  1. I re-read the story, without editing. Although I love to dig into scenes and create a more powerful emotional experience, I needed to “feel” the story, to step into the storyworld and reacquaint myself with the characters, to worry about them.  Stopping to edit would only slow this down.  (as an aside, I did take rewrite notes and asked questions to answer later, after I’d finished the story.)  I am an Outliner AND an Organic writer, meaning I create a plan, and set up the right structure for my scene, but I also love to “feel” my way into a story and let my characters take over, so reading the story gave me that final push into the flow of the story.


  1. I told my writing partner the story. Nothing helps keep you on track like a story partner with whom you can discuss the overall flow and brainstorm the next scene.  Hearing yourself talk it out will assist the scene in coming to life.


  1. I blocked out a huge chunk of writing time. Knowing it would take a bit to get my legs into the story, and estimating it would take about 15,000 words to finish, I scheduled 3 full days to write, stocked the fridge and warned my family that I would be “going dark.”


The good news is that I finished the book.  And I can’t wait to put it together for the MBT audience (although with my creation notes).  But if you are working on a story this summer, and need to stay “in the flow” despite your crazy schedule, here’s a few tips (in summary)


  1. Tell yourself the story (so you have a game plan)
  2. Keep a copy of the Character Layering Chart and Check off your Essential Scenes as you write them.
  3. Plot the Character change journey and assign each step to chapters, so you know (generally) where you are (so you can pick up where you left off)
  4. Read the scene just before the one you are going to write, without editing, at the top of your writing session.
  5. Keep your writing partner current with your story so they can brainstorm with you and give you ideas (and help keep you on track)
  6. Block out time to write, even if it isn’t every day. Stock the fridge, trade babysitting with a friend, send the kids to camp . . . whatever.  We all know that time is valuable, so even if you don’t keep a regular schedule, don’t just give up—hunt for and protect that time.


Writing a great book doesn’t just happen.  And when we have to fit it around summer fun, it has to become intentional.  But with the right strategies, you can get that chapter written—and go to the beach, too!


Go! Write Something Brilliant!


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