The Starting Point for your Character’s Inner Journey

I am up north at the writing cabin this week, getting ready for next week’s Deep Woods Writing Camp.

It’s gorgeous here, quiet and last night I was able to catch up on one of my television indulgences, Blue Bloods. In the season premier, wise police commish Frank Reagan sat at the dinner table and talked about the loss of one of the main characters in a freak accident (I’m not telling you who). He said, essentially, that we sit for a while at the table, sharing the journey with our fellow hungerers, and it’s during this ‘meal’ we make an impact. When we leave, our empty chair is noticed, and not easily filled.

We sit among the hungry.

The book business can be overwhelming. I do a lot of “sample downloading” before a trip, then read through the samples to find the books I’m going to relax with on the plane, or on a boat, waiting to dive, or even early in the morning, on the beach. I’m picky with my time, my content…I want a book that will entertain, help me escape and leave me feeling nourished. The books that linger with me are those that leave me strangely healed, at least for the moment.

Healed. It’s not like I walk around with gaping wounds, but like everyone, I have little lies, painful emotional nicks and scratches and when I read a book filled with truth, whether it’s a romance, or general fiction, or suspense, I feel as if I’ve been fed. Someone at the table has offered me a morsel of nourishment on the journey.

Why are we here? More importantly, why do we write?

We sit among the hungry.

I attended a women’s retreat last weekend, and the speaker pointed out Matthew 9:36. When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Harassed. Helpless.


Hungry for grace. Hungry for forgiveness. Hungry for Hope. Hungry for love.

What have you hungered for? What has nourished you?

Grace? Hope? Redemption?

If you’ve hungered for grace—write a story about grace. If you ached for second chances—write a story of redemption. If you are hungry for hope…you get the picture.

Because if you hunger for it, so do others.

(and by the way, giving your character a hunger is the starting point for understanding his/her inner journey!)

Your job in this world, and especially as a novelist, is to pass the potatoes–to nourish those at your table with the nourishment you’ve been given.

Your seat at the table matters. Your story matters.

Go, write something brilliant.

Susie May

P.S. We are all about going deep in a novel, to understanding not just the plot and characters, but the life-changing themes a novelist layers into their work. If you want to learn how to write books that change lives, then you’re a good fit for our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat in Florida, Feb 23-27. We just opened registration. Payment plans available. Click HERE for more details.

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! Why would someone pick up my story?

Make your reader care with the Story Question!

Why should someone pick up your story and read it – all the way to the end?  We talked the last two weeks about having Story Stakes – or a reason your character should care about your story by giving your character something to lose.  Last week we dissected the difference between High Concept and Low Concept stories (and how tell the difference), noting that High Concept stories are driven by high public & personal stakes, whereas Low Concept stories are fueled by the characters’ inner journeys, or the private stakes.

This week, we’re going to add another potent ingredient to the mix…the fuel for the inner journey of your character, the Story Question.

The Story Question is that question your character is asking as the book opens, ignited by the inciting incident and lingering in their mind throughout the second Act of the story.  All the tidbits of truth your character discovers along the way contribute to the answer they discover at the Aha! Moment of the story, or the epiphany. 

Consider one of the classics – Casablanca.  Rick is a broken-hearted soul who can’t forgive the woman he loves for abandoning him.  He’s become apathetic and refuses to get involved in the lives of those who come to his bar.  Then, one day, his lost love, Elsa walks into gin joint and suddenly…the inner journey ignites. Yes, the external plot drives the story – but it works in tandem with the internal journey.

What is that internal journey?  The road to forgiveness, and even true love.

The story question – Can Rick love again? And, if he does, will it change him into a better man? 

Obviously, this question is at the heart of countless stories through the ages.  One of my favorites is The Count of Monte Cristo.  A man, wrongfully imprisoned, vows revenge on the man who stole his life.  The external journey is his quest to enact revenge.  However, his inner journey is about forgiveness.  The story question – Can a man so wrongly aggrieved, forgive? And could it finally set him free?

The external plot only causes the character to grapple with the big question of the storyOne might say that the entire purpose of the external plot is only to cause the hero to confront the big story question and find an answer, with the hope that because of it, he changes and becomes a better man.

Frankly, isn’t that what life is about?

It’s this inner quest for the answer that drives the inner journey – and thus, becomes the fuel for every external decision your character makes.

So, how do you find the Story Question that will fuel your story? 

First – take a look at your theme.  Love?  Redemption?  Forgiveness?

Then ask – What are you saying about it?  You can love again?  Denying love only makes you bitter?  Unforgiveness is a prison?

Now – turn it into a question that relates to the character.

  • Can Rick learn to love again, and will it free him to become the hero inside?
  • Can the Count of Monte Cristo choose forgiveness over revenge…and if he does, will it finally set him free?

Now, instead of using “Can…” to begin your sentence, try – What if…

  • What if a man, broken by love, has to rescue the woman who destroyed him?
  • What if a man has to forgive the man who stole his life in order to find it again?

Suddenly, you have a story question that you can use for two things…

First:  It gives your story direction and helps you start the story with the character already wounded, already searching.

Recently, I started watching a new series – Torchwood.  Being a Whovian, I’ve always wanted to dive into this spin-off, so I found it on BBC and began to TiVo it.  However, I clearly started in the middle and the first episode I caught focused on Owen, one of the team, clearly broken hearted and tortured over the loss of someone he loved.

As the story opened, we saw him in a bar, picking a fight.  Then, he volunteered for a suicide assignment…only to end up nearly sacrificing his life.  Worse – he’s angry that his teammates saved him.


If I were writing Owen’s story, I might start the book with this run of events (although shortened), and the rest of the book would be his quest to make peace with himself, find love again and become the hero he is supposed to be.

His Story Question might be (and don’t tell me what happens!) –

  • After losing someone you love, is it possible to be whole again?


  • What if a man lost the one thing he loved and thought his life was over…how could he return to life – and love?

Obviously, the external plot offers plenty of opportunity to explore these questions, and I might make his epiphany be a moment where he truly has to choose between loving again…or dying.  (We’ll see!)

The key is, the Story Question helps set up the home world and beginning sequence of the story.  Then, it fuels all his decisions and creates truthlets…and situations in Act 2 that challenge or offer insight to that question.

But finding the Story Question also assists in…marketing!

See, after you deliver your pitch – focusing on your external story stakes, it’s time to tell the “real” story.  Aka – the Story Question.

Returning to the loose Torchwood example….your pitch might be:

When aliens invade the planet, only one man can save earth. (now, clearly, that is not in that episode…but it could be part of the longer running series).

(And, I acknowledge that is the premise of nearly every episode of Torchwood…or Dr. Who for that matter).

However, to add in the layer of the inner journey, weave in the Story Question:  Our hero, however, isn’t interested in saving the world – not after losing the woman he loves. Will he learn to love again – and is it in time to save humanity?

Stakes will sell you book, and ignite the journey.  It will keep your reader glued long enough to love your character.  But’s It’s this inner question that will keep your reader turning pages all the way to the end.  (Because, frankly, they want to know the answer too!)

Extreme Book Makeover Exercise:  Do you have a Story Question for your novel?  Remember – what is your theme?  What are you saying about it?  Ask a Can…or a What if question personal to your character. 


Other articles that might help: 

High Concept vs. Low Concept Stories:

Creating Story Stakes:


Next week we’ll start breaking apart the pieces of a Tired Plot into Acts (Act 1-2-3) and we’ll take a close look at Act 1, and how to HOOK your reader from the first page!

Go – write something brilliant!

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PS – Don’t forget to check out the Frasier Contest to get great feedback on your first scene and story idea!

PPS – want to continue the conversation?  Join our FREE Voices Community.


Extreme Book Makeover: Help! I think my plot is boring!

I have to admit, I’ve never met an aspiring author who has said their plot is boring. Usually, what I get is a detailed waxing of the story, without any major explosions except the ones happening inside the author’s head.  And lest you think I’m harsh, I’ve often been one of those authors!  You know if you are boring someone, however, if they keep smiling at you while glancing away, or better, nodding, sighing and saying, “Wow! All that in one book?”

I was mentoring an aspiring author this weekend, and she said…well, why is my book different from every book out there?  My answer:  because she is different, and her voice is different, so she will tell her story differently.

But that still doesn’t make it sellable.

Sellable books come in two categories:  High Concept and Low Concept. 

Now, before you think:  a low concept book isn’t sellable, let me stop you with a few low concept classics:  The Secret Life of BeesThe Kite Runner.  Or…even Pride and Prejudice could be considered low concept.  The magic of these books is told in the unravelling of the story.  It’s the inner conflict and the writing that drives a low concept story.

  • One women’s quest to help children see their worth in the world by having them write their stories. (Freedom Writer)
  • A professor of a stuffy prep school breaks convention and causes his students to think freely for the first time.  (Dead Poet’s Society)
  • A woman writes the story of the African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi. (The Help)

These are fantastic books/movies with low concept themes that made blockbuster hits.

To make it easier, a low concept book biggest event is the relationship in the story. 

A High Concept book is easy to spot.  A high concept story is about an external event and can be summed up in one line: 

  • A forgotten young boy discovers he’s the wizard who can save his world from darkness world.  (This high concept can be applied to many titles and movies – from Star Wars to the Hunger Games)
  • When the world/country is invaded, it takes a ragtag band of misfits to save it.  (could be Red Dawn…or even Independence Day).

The key to a High Concept story is that it centers around an EVENT in the story. Then, the “what if” can be summed up in one line.

When a volcano erupts in a small California town, the mayor must choose between saving her town…or her family.

  • A man discovers a hidden map on the back of the declaration of Independence that just might lead to the greatest treasure ever hidden.

But it doesn’t have to be a “world-is-ending” event.  It could be an irony or “twist” to the event that creates the high concept.

  • A man falls in love with the donor recipient of his wife’s heart without knowing it.
  • When a man travels back in time and changes his family’s destiny, he must change it back or face his own obliteration.

Are all of these about relationships?  Yes!  But the summary sentence (or, in movie-speak: Logline) immediately tells us the conflict and what’s at stake.

How do you decide: Low or High Concept?

When you’re trying to decide if your book is low concept or high concept, look at the stakes.  (we talked about this last week).

  • Are your stakes Public/Personal?  Then you probably have a HIGH CONCEPT book.
  • Are your stakes Private?  Then you probably have a LOW CONCEPT book. 

Why is this important to the crafting of a plot?

First:  Once you decide what kind of story you have, you can craft your one line summary/logline/pitch.  Now, when someone asks you what your story is about – you’ll have a short, succinct answer.

Then:  Ask yourself – what about YOUR plot is different?  Stepping back to take a good look at it, ask yourself:  Why do we care?  What makes this story unique?  Is it set in an unique time period?  With unique characters?  With an interesting twist?

Stepping back to take a good look at your story will allow you to see beyond the weeds of the story.  And then, when someone asks you what you’re writing, you’ll be able to wow them –not only with your pitch, but everything after that.

(By the way, this is the just the tip of the iceberg for making a tired plot exciting – so start wide, and then we’ll narrow into detail over the next few weeks!)

Next week we’ll be taking about the Story Question, or the fuel for the internal journey of your story!


Go! Write Something Brilliant!

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If you want more on this, try:


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