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.

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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

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

Rewards

Desire

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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Do I like you? (creating LIKEABLE characters!)

I’ve been on quite a few planes lately as I travel to conferences, and one of the blessings is meeting new people. And every once in a while, I get lucky and sit next to something not only unusual and fun, but who is a hero.

Such was the case last week when, travelling from Minneapolis to Dallas, I sat next to a guy named AJ.  Who was a. . .firefighter!  Not a volunteer, but a professional, full-time firefighter for a town in New Jersey.  And, he was willing to talk about his profession and give me a plethora of great story ideas.

It wasn’t just his profession, however, that made him heroic. . .that was just the foundation. It was his quest.  AJ was flying down to Dallas to pick up a DOG of a friend who had passed away and driving that dog to a new home back in Jersey.

Sweet, I know.

We’ve been studying the Character Change journey over the past few weeks (http://learnhowtowriteanovel.com/blog/category/search-by-series/extreme-book-makeover/extreme-character-makeover/).  We started with understanding the steps, and building the Story Equation, staring with the Dark Moment Story.  Then, we added a Goal, fueled by the Why and the What.

But it all starts with the WHO.  Who are you and why should we like you? 

When your character walks onto the page, this is the first obstacle an author must address. . .making a reader LIKE your character.  Often, a reader resists going on a journey because they simply don’t like the character.

It’s a delicate balance because the flip side is that your character must have a FLAW.

The Flaw is key because it is through the flaw that we understand your character’s change.  A flaw is the outward, behavioral expression of a character’s fear.  We avoid relationships because we are afraid of getting hurt.  We are overprotective because we don’t want our children to be killed.  We make rash decisions because we fear losing opportunities.

(I’ll bet if you look at your flaws, you can trace them to either a past fear or a future fear).

Because a great story confronts a hero’s greatest fear, and offers an epiphany, which then heals his flaw.  It’s a visible character change.

But if we don’t like the character enough in the beginning, if his flaw is too great, we’ll never stick around to see the change.

Which brings us back to likeability.  Often authors start too strong with the flaw.  They know their character has issues, and they start with him in that dark place.  Danger! If he’s too much of a jerk, the reader immediately thinks:  why should I hang around with this oaf of a guy (or gal.) They’re suddenly looking through the free books on their Kindle.

Let’s fix that.

Enter, AJ.  I am sure the guy has flaws – I didn’t hang around with him enough to know, however.  But he made a great profile for a character. Someone who, at the core, was heroic.  And that core propelled him to a heroic purpose.

When you’re creating a character, you must start at the core of your character – WHO he is, drilling all the way down to the Dark Moment Story.  But don’t stop there.  Ask your character his Happiest Moment Story as well. This is the opposite of the Dark Moment Story, but it functions on the same way.  It is something in his past that produces a greatest dream and helps cement his WANT.  (You can also use this to determine his happily ever after ending.)

AJ’s father was a firefighter.  There’s a story there, I know it.  (I didn’t want to make the guy ask for a seat change, so I didn’t pry that deep.)  But something in his past – probably good – propelled him to be a firefighter.

The Dark Moment and Happiest Moment stories comprise his core.

Now, everything he does emerges from that core.  Like saving people  (as AJ mentioned, he’s not there to save a house, but to save the lives in that house).  And, saving a dog.

So, how does this translate onto the page?

  1. Start with the core of your character. (Dark Moment Story/Happiest Moment Story).  Who are they at the core?  Teacher? Healer? Rescuer?
  2. How does that translate into a Noble Quest? (saving the dog!)
  3. How can he SHOW that core element at the beginning of the book, just a little (for example, as I was putting up my bag, I saw AJ glance my direction, as if willing to help. . .in a book, the hero might take that step, even if it might be reluctantly.) I call it the Boy Scout moment.  (James Scott Bell calls it Pet the Dog, or Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)).

Now you’re free to add in the FLAW.   Show him helping the gal with her bag, (maybe it’s about to fall on him) and when she turns to thank him, he shrugs it off . . .not willing to engage in conversation.

Characters should be complicated – because people are complicated.  But they also need to be likeable.  Start your journey with a hero (even just a hint of one) and your readers will sit down with him and hang out all the way to Dallas.

Go! Write something brilliant!

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Step-by-Step: Storycrafting Process

My brother ran a ½ marathon last weekend.   For him, this is a regular occurrence – he has a wall full of finisher medals from marathons and iron man competitions around the country.  I love seeing him cross the finishing line – so much triumph in his face.

It’s exactly how I feel when I finish a novel. 

I handed him a water bottle as he met us in the finishers area.  “I’d love to run a marathon someday,” I said.

He leaned over, groaning a little, stretching out.  “You might not say that around mile 10,” he said.  “When everything starts to hurt and you think. . .why did I do this?”

Yeah, he’s right.  I amended my statement to reflect truth:  “I’d like to SAY I ran a marathon!”

We laughed, but that’s a little like the conversation I have with aspiring authors.

“I’m going to write a book.”

I love it when I hear people declare this!  I love standing at the edge of a brand new project, seeing the possibilities of the story, the twists and turns, the character growth, the amazing ending.  So much potential embodied in that statement.

And so much struggle.  Because writing a great story doesn’t just happen.  From idea to finished story, each chapter and step in the character journey is wrestled out of our brain (and hearts).   As Hemingway is reported to have said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

The problem with writing a great novel is that we want to rush ahead to the good stuff, to the chapters and happy ending without stopping to take the time to work through each step.  But without completing the characterization and plotting, the themematic exploration and developing the storyworld and the tension, it’s akin to me jumping off my sofa, grabbing my old running shoes and leaping into the crowd.

I’m going to die, long before mile 10!

First Scene and Synopsis ImageAnd this is why, I believe, aspiring authors give up around chapter 7. (or before). Because enthusiasm can only fuel us so far down the journey.  Without proper preparation, we’ll fizzle out when we get to the mire of Act 2.

At MBT, we have a Peptalk every Thursday night to encourage and train our members on the craft of storycrafting.  This year, one Thursday a month, we’re building a book together, working through the process step by step.

Last week, we opened up our private Peptalk to the public to take a peek at what we do.  We quickly summed up the process, then talked about how/when to craft the Inciting Incident.  We outlined our goals for Chapter 1, then Rachel Hauck and I shared some tips for getting the story on the page.

And, because we had such an overwhelming response, I thought it might help if we shared the replay.

Get the video replay of the class – Build-A-Book:  Inciting Incident and Getting the Story on the Page.  (You’ll also get the PDF Slides that are rich in the content we talk about.)
 
Quickly, here’s a rundown of the process we cover:

  1. Start with your Story Seed (or idea that sparked the story)
  2. Decide on your Genre
  3. Discover your Setting
  4. Create your Characters
    1. Find the Dark Moment Story
    2. Use the Story Equation (a MBT Tool) to build the plot
    3. Put your elements together in a loose plot (using our grid for story structure)
  5. Ask your Storyquestion
  6. Create a short premise
  7. Create the Act 2 elements (we use a 4 Act plotting structure)
  8. Decide on your Inciting Incident
  9. Craft your home world/Chapter 1 elements
  10. Put together your plot & Tell Yourself the Story

WRITE!

You can run a marathon (aka, write a brilliant novel!)  You just need to plan for success.

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

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Susie May