Rainy Days and Mondays

It is 56 degrees in Minneapolis today. And raining.

Here’s a glimpse of my gloomy backyard.

But…all is well because I’m leaving in two days for sunny Destin, Florida, for our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat. This year, again, we have a full house, and about half of our retreaters are repeaters (say that fast five times!) Why? Because although we change up the retreat classes every year, we always offer the same essential content: Encouragement. Brainstorming. Fellowship. And, most of all, a clear path to plotting your novel.

We watch and dissect movies. We read passages from books and discuss why they work (or don’t) and we brainstorm everyone’s story from the inside-out, putting their plots on giant pieces of paper (like these).

Our goal is to give people tools to help them build brilliant books.

Our biggest tool is The Story Equation. It’s a cool technique that I developed, with the help of my writing partner, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hauck to help get the story on the page.

Randy Ingermanson, author of the Snowflake Method and Fiction for Dummies called it pure genius. And my writing heroine, Francine Rivers said she wished she’d learned this method years ago.

Yes, I’m flattered, but mostly I’m just super happy that it works. That it takes the complicated process of storycrafting and drills it down to the bones, makes the process logical and organic.

And did I mention, fun?

Frankly, although storycrafting is hard work, my favorite part about the Deep Thinker’s Retreat is the fun we have together as we bring a story to life, watch it emerge from the dark corners of our brains and onto the page.

I remember, years ago, when I was starting this writing gig, I said to myself, “Suz, if you want to make a career out of this, you need to figure out a way to write a brilliant book, every time, on deadline. A system, a plan, a technique, a process.” Now 54 books later, I use the SEQ for every single book. Meet every single deadline. And write stories that readers enjoy.

What is your process? Your method? How do you get the story on the page, meet your deadline and build a career even when life feels gloomy? Whether you use something like the SEQ, or a combination of many great techniques (e.g Randy’s Snowflake Method, which is a super way to get started!) (or James Scott Bell’s LOCK method) you need to develop something to help you write consistently excellent books.

(And it helps to get away with friends who understand this method brainstorm, too!)

So, my encouragement for you today is figure out YOUR method. Your process. Develop it, hone it, master it. Make it work for you even when the muse is tucked under a blanket, refusing to emerge.

Your story matters. Go, write something brilliant!

Susie May

P.S. If you’d like to check out the SEQ method, you can pick up the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LWXKLZV/

And, by the way we have a mini-course that teaches the SEQwith 2 free lessons to get you started! http://novel.academy/p/theseq

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!)

A Storycrafting Checklist

storycrafting checklist

Do you have all the pieces of a brilliant novel?  Before we dive into our storycrafting checklist, let’s talk about the debate between character driven and plot driven novels.

Character Drive versus Plot Driven Novel

Think of the last story you read, the last great movie you watched. Even your favorite television series. Were you more interested in the plot or the person? I would bet that the element that drew you into the story were the characters.

Let’s think about this. Plot is interesting, but not unless it is about someone we care about. A fantastic example is the Hunger Games. The plot construction and premise is fantastic–a dystopian world where one District makes the other Districts pay for their rebellion (and earn their food allotment) but making two champions from each district fight for their survival. Interesting and tragic, but not compelling until a champion rises. And not just one champion, but two–one who loves the other, and both who choose to defy the system and inadvertently start a revolution toward freedom.

The Hunger Games are interesting, but it’s the compelling fight for survival of our champions that makes this book (and series) riveting.

Another great example of this is the Firefly series, a sci-fi series about a renegade smuggler who is just trying to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. As the series progresses, we care about Mal and his crew as they struggle to stay alive and save the life of a girl who is on the run. When they encounter peril, we dive in and care because we want Mal and his crew to live.

The key to this series, however, is that we understand Mal, the captain’s past, and what drives him, the wounds he carries, his greatest fears and his great loyalty to his crew. We also know that this group of people has survived a war together. Without this insight, we’d simply think, “Here’s another space adventure.” This is the point of a great television series–the people we care about.

So, there is really no such thing as a plot-only driven book. All books are about characters.  Your plot just serves to push your character forward. You can have some powerful, intriguing external stakes, but a brilliant story is always about the people that are involved in those things.


Overview of Story

A great story, summed us, is about a character that we care about who wants something for good reason. This character is driven by some sort of dark event in their past that has molded them into the person they are when they walk onto the page.

This character also has a fear about something which they’re trying to stay away from while they’re going about their normal life.

Then, something happens. This something (called the Trigger, or the Inciting Incident) creates a compelling dilemma that they must solve. Either to put right what went wrong, or to pursue something positive that is now necessary. This is called the Noble Quest–a worthy, justifiable goal. Restated, they either have something negative that happens and they need to pursue a positive outcome or they have something positive that happens and they want to keep that positive outcome.

The Noble Quest also gives rise to a secret desire. It’s that deep want, sparked by their greatest dream that starts to fuel the Noble Quest. The Noble Quest is always shown through an external goal. However, it’s driven by that internal desire.

Thus, they launch on their “journey,” either physical or metaphorical. While the journey has an external, physical goal, the journey itself–the entire story, is about character growth. The story is not about how they achieve their Noble Quest, but rather how the Noble Quest sets the character free of their fears, heals their flaws and gives the character their secret desire.

The Noble Quest reaches its apex toward the end in Black Moment Event–or the realization of their Greatest Fears. As a result of this event, the character experiences a Black Moment Effect–or the realization of their need to change. This effect drives them to their metaphorical knees where they experience an Epiphany, or realization of the point of their journey, some universal TRUTH that sets them free, changes them and gives them the tools to do something at the end they couldn’t at the beginning, sometimes called the Grand Gesture or Sacrifice.

If your character hasn’t had a black moment, an epiphany and a character change, then they haven’t completed their journey.

Figuring out how to construct this internal character change against the backdrop of external goals can, admittedly be overwhelming.

Or not, if you take it apart, piece by piece.

Or, you start at the beginning, the Character Bio, or Dark Moment Story.

This is the center of your story equation.


We’ll dive into the Dark Moment Story next week, but for now, ask yourself: Does your character have a true journey?

Here’s a checklist:

  • Does your character have a powerful motivation for their Noble Quest?
  • Does he/she have an external goal, something tangible that he/she is “questing” after?
  • Is it propelled by a Secret Desire or Greatest Dream?
  • Does your character have a greatest fear?
  • Does your story have a Black Moment Event, or the realization of that greatest fear (often the antithesis of the Noble Quest).
  • What does your character realize about himself/herself after that Black Moment Event, or a lie they believe?
  • What Truth (Epiphany) sets them free?
  • Can your character do something at the end that he can’t in the beginning?  (A Grand Gesture or Sacrifice?)

If you can say yes to all of these elements, then you have the bones of a brilliant story.  Stop back next week and I’ll teach you how to develop that brilliant story from the inside-out.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!





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