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


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


Extreme Book Makeover: Help Me Hook My Reader: Starting on the RUN!

I watched the Oscars last night.  (Best. Oscars. Ever.  #OscarTwitterPic  #PizzaDelivery)

I’d only seen one of the movies in the Best Picture category – Gravity.  In fact, I saw it this weekend, in our home theater, where I think I only breathed twice in an hour.  Terrifying, in a non-horror-film, wow-I-never-want-to-be-there way.

The story, in a nutshell, is about a scientist who is working on the space shuttle – specifically OUTSIDE the shuttle in a spacewalk – when, due to a crazy set of circumstances — she gets untethered and thrown into space.  Her quest is to somehow get back to earth.

It’s an amazing movie – the special effects will blow your mind.

And, it’s a great example of starting a movie with just the right amount of PIPE.

Pipe is the distance between the first sentence and the Noble Quest. As an author, you’re opening the faucet of your story, and the pipe is how long it takes for it to start spilling out. The shorter the pipe, the sooner your reader receives the benefit of the story.

However, many authors suffer from Too Much Pipe Syndrome, or the belief that they must tell their reader everything about their main character before the story starts for the reader to enjoy the story.  Another way to put it is they start their story way too early.

Consider this:  when you meet someone, do you get to know who they are (and like them) by the information you know about them, or the events you experience with them?

Now, add this:  Would you rather be curious, even surprised by events in a story, willing to watch them unfold, or would you like to be told the significance of them before you start your story?

Let’s try it:

In Gravity, the story opens with the heroine outside the space shuttle, fixing equipment. We see that she is good at what she does, and from the dialogue, we know she’s had about 6 months of training before she started the mission. We don’t know what her mission specifically is, just that she is a competent scientist. We also know that she is tethered to the shuttle and not wearing a jet pack.

Suddenly, mission control aborts their mission, telling them that space debris is hurtling their direction. We sense the hurry, but don’t understand the significance until suddenly it begins buffeting them and one of their fellow astronauts is hit.  Then, the space station is bulleted, and she is suddenly hurtled into space.

The story starts there.

What do we know?  They’re in space. She’s competent enough to be in space, but isn’t a full-fledged astronaut.  And, she doesn’t have a jet pack.

But, what if we started the story with her in the shuttle, getting her orders to fix the shuttle, watch her suit up, maybe joke with the other astronauts, and then go out to fix the equipment?

Too much pipe. The story isn’t about her failed mission to fix her equipment. Nor is it about her relationships with the other astronauts. Or even, her ability to save the space station and or her job.

The story is about a woman floating in space who needs to get to earth.

When you’re considering where to start your story, factor in two elements:

  1. Delicacy:  How much does your reader have to know about your character to care about them? In this case, we only need to know that she’s in space, she’s alone and that she doesn’t have a jet pack. That is global enough for us to worry about anyone.
  1. Resonance: How difficult is it for us to understand the significance of the inciting incident?


For example, take a movie like Braveheart, which has a LONG pipe.  We have to understand the loss of his wife for us to understand what propels our hero into war against the English.

However, it is not difficult for us to understand the significance of getting launched out into space without a tether.  Yikes!

Another way to look at it is to ask:  How believable is my Inciting Incident, and my character’s subsequent Noble Quest?  Put in just enough home world for us to understand the motivation – then launch us into the story.

The key is to start the story with only the essential information, and as close to the Inciting Incident and start of the Noble Quest as possible.

Next well, we’ll talk about understanding the ending to craft the essential element of the First Act:  Your Character’s Greatest Fear.

Go! Write something Brilliant!

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PS – Interested in getting feedback on your first chapter?  Try entering our Frasier Contest!  Details HERE!



Conversations: First Chapter Essentials

“I’m angry with you!”  Sally said as she sat down.  She was smiling, so I frowned.  “You let me write the first chapter before I was ready.”

“Oh, that,” I said.  “Yes, I did, knowing you weren’t quite ready. But I knew you had so much story in you that if you didn’t get started you’d only get frustrated.  I know why you weren’t ready, but you tell me.”

“I didn’t really know what my character wanted, nor how to hint at his greatest fear in the first chapter, so I created exactly the wrong scene.”

“You created the scene that helped you jump start your story. You were doing a lot of “Wax On, Wax Off” and getting ansty.  So, I told you to simply let your character walk onto the page and let him start talking.  Did I know you’d have to rewrite your chapter?  Yes. But every author has to rewrite – it’s a part of the process.  I encouraged you to write for three reasons:

First – it gave you a chance to hear your character speak and see if he fit the profile you created for him.

Second – it allowed you into the story to get excited about writing and see your words on the page.  Part of writing is just the success of building scenes and chapters and then believing you can do it all the way to the end.

Third – It made my job of convincing you that you needed to start in a different place easier, because once you saw the story, you realized that it needed to move faster.” I smiled.  “Authors often think we have to lay out all the information about a character in the beginning. I wanted you to get that out of your system so you could go back and rebuild the chapter with just the essentials.”

She made a face at me, then smiled. “Okay, Mr. Miyagi, what are the essentials of the first chapter?”

“I watched Frequency, an old, but favorite movie this weekend.  I love the opening because it so well captures all the elements of the first chapter/scene.  The story is about a fireman and his son, and how they reconnect via a time/sun spot anomaly.  It’s a thriller, fabulously plotted, and if you have a chance to see it, you should.”  (btw:  Here’s the YouTube clip of the first scene:

“The first 2 scenes capture what I consider the 5 essentials of the first chapter.

  1. It sets up the character’s Competence (or what he does well).
  2. It sets up his inner journey issue – that he isn’t “behind” his son. He’s too much of a risk taker. (the bicycle scene)
  3. It sets up the greatest fear – him taking too much of a risk so that they lose each other.
  4. It shows what both characters want in a very poignant moment when the “Little Chief” (the other main character, John) sees what they want, or what their focus is: a great family.
  5. Something happens that ignites the plot, and sets up the Inciting Incident.  In this case, it’s the aurora borealis.

Note: Because this movie is a thriller, these first scenes also set up the suspense plot (the nightingale murders hinted at in the radio).

All this is wrapped up in his home world – the 5 W’s – who he is, when it is, where it takes place, what he does for a living, and why (his current motivations).

By the end of the first chapter, your reader has to know through the action and dialogue these five things: Competence, Lie, Fear, Focus/Want, Ignition.

I made it into a nice little acronym for you, because that helps me remember everything as I write, but think of it 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.”

“I should have expected another acrynom,” she said, winking.  “So, when I rewrite I want to create a scene that shows these five things.”

“Exactly.  Tomorrow, in Quick Skills, I’ll give you some ideas on what to ask your character if you are stuck.  Here’s the truth.  A great novel isn’t written – it’s rewritten.  (I don’t know where that quote comes from, but it’s not mine.) Sometimes you just need to let your character speak to you before you can craft that first scene. But if you want to build a solid story foundation, you have to start with him on the edge of the CLIFF.”

Sally was somewhere else.  Finally she looked at me and smiled.  “I’m not angry at you anymore,” she said.

“I’m very glad to hear that.”

Truth:  Rewriting is your friend.  Letting your character have some breathing room in the first chapter allows you to get to know him, but it may not be your actual first scene.

Dare:  When you’re ready, go back to the beginning and craft a scene with the 5 essentials.

Tomorrow in Quick Skills: some questions to ask your character to help you build that solid first chapter!

Susie May

P.S. Would you like a one-time 24-hour all access pass to the Team Member Locker room and all the perks of the MBT Team Membership? Sign up here, and get an invitation to Thursday night’s MBT Open House!




Quick Skills: Make your Hero/Heroine unique

How do you make your hero or heroine unique? Have you ever written a hero or heroine and thought…oh, they seem just like the last character I created? It’s easy to do – you can only pick so many creative combinations for your character…UNLESS…

…Unless you go about character creation from the inside out. I’ve talked at length about finding an identity for your character unique to him, and then building the “outside” to match that inside identity. However, I have a quick trick to help make him even more unique. To make him stand out on the page without going over the top.

Yes, we’re going to start with identity again, but this time we’re going to focus in on his greatest fear. We’ve asked him about his dark moment of the past, and discovered that fear, and now we’re going to build a FLAW out of that fear.

Consider this: A man’s greatest fear stems from the dark moment in his past when his father’s drunk driving accident killed a man in their small town. Our hero always walked around with this stigma, and feared, one day, doing something to brand his own family.  His fear is disgrace. So, his flaw stems from that – he is overly conscious of “doing the right thing.” So much so, it actually immobilizes him because he fears saying the wrong thing. He is often tongue-tied, maybe even wishy-washy, maybe he even runs himself ragged trying to be all things to all people. And his flaw is that he never really gets angry (even when he should) because he fears it.

Now, lets take it one step more. I am going to create One Mannerism that shows this character flaw. Maybe he presses his hand to his chest, taking a deep breath when he is confronted with a problem. Maybe he stutters. Maybe he gets migraines so he is always rubbing his temples. Maybe he drinks milk whenever he goes into a bar. The key is I’m trying to connect his behavior with his flaw with his fear.

Now, I’ll use it in the story in a couple ways.

  1. First, I’ll have the character simply behave this way as a part of his character makeup. I won’t explain it away with some sort of backstory narrative, I’ll simple embed it into his characterization.
  2. And, somewhere in the book, I might have someone mention it. “I think you need something stronger than milk, Jerry,” the bartender says to him when he sits and simply stars at the milk in the bar as his life falls apart. Or he is in his office with his head in his hands, rubbing his temples and his secretary brings him a glass of milk and aspirin. “You’re allowed to get angry, Jerry. Preferably before your head explodes.”

Whatever the mannerism may be, now you’ve made it a believable element to your hero, based on his unique fears and flaws.

Quick Skills: Find your character’s fear and ask: What flaw results from this fear? How can I manifest this flaw in a mannerism or behavior? (Or even a physical attribute?)

Have a great writing week!

Susie May