Archives for posts with tag: character-driven plot

Exposition kills story.
In your book. And in life.
(Read to the end. It’s not too long, and
this is important…)

There are three kinds of yada-yada words with high potential to turn people off to your story — and your life:

1. Backstory. Backstory fills in the cracks of the past — it’s the words that move backward in the story.

With backstory, we describe what already happened. It’s not about the future; it’s not about the present; it’s about the former.

Characters mull over what happened, rehashing events and recounting feelings. It doesn’t have to be in excess, but often backstory floods into excess — because the character is me-focused. The author is, too — writing from a personal agenda, trying to get more info out in the text than is needed. Most often, backstory serves the writer, not the reader.

Readers want to move forward.

2. Small talk. Small talk is dialogue (inner and outer) that doesn’t go anywhere — words lacking purpose.

Small talk dialogue runs on with weak, unimportant yada-yada. The character isn’t focused, direct, and active. The writer drinking the pablum of small talk isn’t necessarily me-focused; he or she simply isn’t aware, or is inattentive, unknowing, passive, and even careless with the words (ouch).

Writers who have too much small talk in the story need two things: either they need to learn more about how to write with power (learn! grow! get what you need!) — or the writer needs have the self discipline to cut text (practice… a focus on economy). Writing small talk serves the writer, not the reader.

Readers want crisp, forward-moving text.

3. Lack of plot. Lack of plot is the absence of dynamic movement…the deficit of conflict clarity and conflict resolution — in an action plan.

With lack of plot, the reader is served words upon words upon words — all without action. Characters sit with a drink, rather than get up and move.

Writers lacking plot haven’t spent the time developing a story plan — so because the plot doesn’t exist, the writer can’t carry it out. Then there’s the issue of actually doing the plan. Once the plot is crafted, there’s only so much time permissible in the War Room. We have to step onto the battlefield. Action is critical.

Readers want a pressed-forward plot, intensifying with swift, sure movement.

Okay. Here’s the deal.

If you don’t cut backstory, eradicate the small talk, and dig into a forward-moving plot, your story dies. Readers leave.

It’s that serious.

Now. In real life. This applies.
And it’s that serious, too.

There comes a time when words fail.
Talking only goes so far.
Action is critical.

The three Story Killers are also Relationship Killers.

* Focusing on the past kills forward movement in a relationship. Going backward only goes so far. There comes a point — sooner than later — where we have to get out of me-focused recounting and craft forward-moving life story.

* Excessive small talk saps the power of forward movement in a relationship. Small talk can be (no, often is) avoidance. Small talk lacks power, dynamism, and passion for life. There comes a point where we have to get out of yada-yada conversation and dig into life with passion.

* Lack of a planned plot with specific action points — a dynamic plan for life that’s lived out — ruins a relationship. I know I’m being strong here. But it’s the ignored, the neglected, and the head-in-the-sand day-by-day plodding that takes people to the proverbial end of life, death-bed moment that says, Why didn’t I do more? Lack of a plan — and of action — is the father of regret.

So if we want our story to be a good one (whether on the page or in life), it’s time to take action.

Get out of the past. (Focus on crafting a beautiful present.)
Kill the small talk. (Use powerful words.)
Make a plan. (Take action.)

* Thup


Hey, there.

Part 2 of my series of guest posts for James Prescott in the UK is up and running.  There’s been a lot of buzz about it, so I thought you might like to go here and check it out:

“Ten Life Messes with Potential to Improve your Life.”

(Let me know what you think.)

Raising my mug to you —
* Thup


Well. I’m letting you (and me) off the hook.
This isn’t about our personal character. (You know, the interior part of us, the part where integrity sits.)

And I’m not going to ask you where you’re from — your physical geography — the point on the map where you lay your head at night (as in the state of Michigan, where I live in the US, called “the mitten state” because it looks like a mitten).
This is about your story — your characters in that story.
Their personal, emotional states.
As in how we feel at any given moment.

Oh — and if you’re not a writer — keep reading, because
there’s something important here…
(it all makes sense when you read to the end).

There’s a not-so-secret secret to help you create compelling characters (and a compelling plot line, too).

(You ready?)

State doesn’t come from outside influences
(what people say or do “to” you).
Your personal state comes from you.

That’s right.
You and I create our own states.
(And your character will create his or her state.)

Like this…
eat computer or this happy at the computer

You create state in three ways (and they’re very cool, by the way):

1. Your focus. Answer me this: At any given moment, what are you thinking about — and what are you doing? Wherever you place your thoughts and energy on feeds your state.

2. Your language. And answer me this: What do you say to yourself, day after day, in your mind and out your mouth? Words are uber-powerful. What you think and say to yourself, in your head, matters. What you say toward others around you matters. Even what you say to objects — things — in the world around you matters. It all feeds your state.

3. Your physiology. One more question: How are you moving your body? Are you slumped and breathing shallowly — or are you sitting tall and taking in deep, full breaths? How you sit, stand, walk, breathe — and how you look on your face — it all feeds your state.

Your focus, your language, and your physiology.
All three ascribe meaning to your life.

(how you interpret the world)
(what you believe in the world)
(what you do in the world)

The coolest thing is this: Master your emotional state, and you can master your life.

So. Writers.
We want our characters to struggle, right?
If you want your character to wrestle with demons big time, then have him or her…

  • focus on past mistakes and hurts
  • focus on how they’ve been wronged, whether imagined or real
  • focus on impending doom in the future, whether imagined or real
  • focus on how someone will supposedly hurt them (imagine the worst)
  • focus on how everything will be bad, or go wrong, or have no solutions in the future (pessimism)
  • speak out negative imaginings
  • speak angrily, with disdain
  • curse people, things, and events
  • rehearse what went wrong — and what could go wrong
  • imagine the worst case scenario, then make decisions based on fear
  • sit still — don’t move
  • breathe shallowly
  • slump, hunch, slouch, drag, look down, sigh, frown, be static, stare, and stay in one spot

And if you want your character to gain momentum and grasp onto triumph, then have him or her…

  • focus on the present
  • focus on personal responsibility and personal growth
  • focus on the positive possibilities
  • focus on responding well him- or herself, not on how others are responding
  • focus on a faith-filled vision
  • speak out positive outcomes
  • speak with kindness, from though-based discernment
  • speak words of hope and faith over other people
  • rehearse what will go right in the future
  • imagine the best outcome — and all the other positive possibilities
  • move — act — get up and go
  • take deep breaths, with their eyes upward and smiling
  • stand tall, stride, grasp the sword, bound, be alert and quick, grin, be active, meet others’ eyes, and get going

Maybe this isn’t just about the characters on the page, after all.

* Thup

PS. Thank you to my dad (Hugh Brown) and Tony Robbins (who I’ve followed since he and I were young) for bringing these ever-so-cool life truths to my attention at an early age. Sure has made life easier and more enjoyable — and helped get through life’s ever-changing story arc. hugs to you both.

There are three kinds of out that shake up our lives.

Out of commission.
At some point in time, all of us are thrown out of commission. We’re absent: either slipped out or torn out of what used to be.

We face challenges, trials, and off-the-grid events that pluck us from “normal life” (whatever that was). And the new day-to-day that results, in this intermediary land of out of commission, is downright weird. Bizarre. Unsettling.

Some pull back. Some lash out. But no one stays the same.
(All have some kind of response.)

Outside the norm.
At some point in our lives, we get a jolt: Something that we thought was okay is not.

We face new challenges, new ideas, and in-the-face reactions that spin us into “fresh perspective” (whatever that is). And the new day-to-day glimpse at the nuances of this revealed life, in the land of outside the norm, is downright disassociating.

Some pull back. Some lash out. And some reject the jolt — and stay the same. They avoid change, purposefully or by default (ignoring).
(And, someday, the jolt will rise up again…most likely, worse.)

Out from under.
At some point in our lives, if we’re lucky or blessed or smart enough, we realize we’re free to choose how to respond. No one can make us (on the inside) think or believe anything. And no one can make us (on the outside) react in any way. No matter how an event presents itself in our lives, we alone create the meaning of the event. We frame an idea, and our perspective comes on the heels of our beliefs. Our actions, then, follow.

No doubt: We’ll face people, places, and events that challenge.  But (again, if we’re grown-up enough), try-as-they-might, those events (or people) won’t be able to push us down, hold us back, or mold us into something we’re not. And the new freedom, in this fresh understanding of how we are free to choose our response — no matter what happens — is downright grace-filled.

Knowing when to change and when to stand in your boots is the definition of wisdom.

Authors. Screenwriters. Storytellers of any kind.
These are the realizations that your Hero goes through, in story.

Your Hero will be thrust out of commission. He will be pushed outside the norm. He will be faced with ideas and actions and decisions that make him question his core. I hope. And, at some point he will emerge, out from under someone else’s indictments. I hope. Because “out” is part of the character’s arc.

(It’s in our arc that we grow.)

* Thup

When you first meet someone,
what makes that person memorable?
(What’s unique?)

I met a woman this morning. At the bank.

I stood in line. She sat in a chair, off to the side,
waiting for assistance.

She wore a beautiful black felt hat, its curve soft,
with a small buckle tucked to the side of the black ribbon
wound round the hat’s base.
(The hat caught my eye.)

Then I saw her white hair, waves set with care,
flowing to frame her face.

Then her glasses, petite and silver-rimmed,
and her eyes, smiling in half-almond arcs beneath.

Then her scarf, flowers wound in loose layers of silk
falling down to her hands, folded, in black leather gloves.

I smiled back. “What a beautiful hat,” I said.

“Thank you.” Her words were measured,
her tone as one cultured, with a slight Asian accent.
“It keeps me warm.” She paused, lips pressed,
her grey eyes looking straight into mine in a way that didn’t carry threat.
“I have Parkinson’s. A coat is difficult. So a hat is necessary.”

It’s then that I noticed: she didn’t wear a coat.
Instead, she wore a thick sweater.
(I could only imagine the physical struggles she faced.)

“Well,” I said, “it is beautiful.”

With a smile that made more wrinkles, she closed her eyes and leaned with a slight nod forward, as if to honor me.
(It’s I who should honor her.)

The hat made an impression. But the way she responded, in her words and actions, told me so much more. I wanted to ask her to join me for cup of tea or coffee and hear her life story. I suspect I’d find a woman of grace, through joy and pain.

In the book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says that our first impression is a true one.

Your character intro (the first time we meet a character on the page) is critical.

A student asked me this week, how do I create a character introduction that’s really great? My answer: Check out successful authors’ works. Study the first time a character walks onto the page. Some authors have a pattern, a formula (check out Rick Riordan’s character intros for this).

And there’s more.
As with the woman in the bank, look. Really pay attention.
(Write in the hat. And see beneath the hat.)

For life.
Oh, that we could all see beneath the hat.

* Thup

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try,
you can’t hide it.
The everyday camouflage isn’t working.

Like this.
(“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”)
<<Pay no attention to the scone beneath the lid.>>

Who are we fooling?

In good story, your Hero’s shoving down the Capital-P Pain.
In good story, your Hero thinks he’s okay.
He thinks he has this handled.
(“No worries. It’s not that bad. I’m okay.”)

But we all know.
<<he’s not okay>>

If our Hero doesn’t take care of whatever it is,
it’s all going to come crashing down.
(As I always say, good for story, bad for real life.)

We all have things we hide,
under the big bad umbrella of Capital-P Pain.

People walk all around us, sit next to us, talk to us…
(maybe it’s even us)…
All trying to cover up Hidden Pain.

What Hidden Pain is your Hero trying to cover up?
(And what-cup-lid-circumstance is he trying to put on top,
but it isn’t big enough?)

Write that.
That’s your character motivation. That’s your character arc.
Maybe that’s even the root of your plot twist.
(Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.)

Oh. And, friend.
We all carry Capital-P Pain. Yours. Mine. Ours.
Pulling back the curtain and looking it in the eye
is a good thing.
(Don’t let it get you. You’re bigger than that.)

* Thup

If you’re like me,
you’re always looking for the sweet deal.

It can be a sweet deal at the store (80% off)
or a sweet deal at the pump (20 cents less)
or a sweet deal at the coffee shop (a free taste of a sweet treat. mmm).

More so,
we look for the sweet deal in life
(the school experience)(the job)(the relationship)
with our happily-ever-after.

But. In real life.
Sweet deals are hard to come by.

Let’s talk character and story.

Your Hero wants the sweet deal, too. What is it?
(be sure you know)

When the sweet deal doesn’t come
(because it needs not to come, you know),
you have a disappointment.
Or two.
Or three.
Or ten.

(Now we have a story.)

How will she deal with disappointment?
Wait for it.

Do you have an idea?
Write another.
And another.
And another.

Sweet deals are nice.
But what happens to us when we don’t get the sweet deal,
and we change. Good. Or Bad.

Now that’s story.

* Thup

In story, bland characters get lost.
Lose a character’s unique qualities, and you’re left
staring down at a conspicuous, gaping hole.

What goes into creating a dynamic character, intricately intertwined and imprinted into the story with passion and clarity?

I have some ideas.

* Make the character memorable. Okay, nothing new here. But how?

Most writers take the make it memorable part as giving your character the proverbial big nose, scar on the cheek, or limp. Memorable is not just a physical characteristic written into your character’s introductory description and never seen again. Something enduring has to stand out, to create individuality continuing across the page. There’s nothing worse for me than a reader saying, Now who’s this guy, again?

* Make the character quirk. I know, quirk is a noun. But I’m talking about exercising the quirk. (Let’s make quirk a verb, shall we?)

We all quirk. We say and do things that are, truth be told, a bit off. Whether it’s an OCD behavior or a slobbish moment…whether a way of speaking or a habit of pausing before we speak…we all have a “thing that we do.” Quirk away. But don’t get too bizarre. Use normal quirks. We all have ’em.

* Make each character speak differently. I’m not talking about giving your character a southern accent or broken English. It’s more.

I’m talking about short phrases vs. long phrases.
Formal vs. informal speech.
The line ending on a strong verb or ending on a preposition.

Speech tells us about the character, too.

* Give your character an object to interact with. I’m not talking about Gandalf’s staff. Think subtle. Objects tell about the person, and objects we carry often can show values and motivations.

What do you carry? I have the ever-present coffee cup. What does that say about me? Many things. Yes, I love the taste. But coffee is also part of my routine for waking, for writing, and for traveling back and forth with kids to dance lessons. I can’t stand to be cold, and coffee keeps me warm. More importantly, coffee is a part of my family’s culture.

Personal backstory…
I’m going to get personal, to make a point.

As a small child, I remember sitting with my mother at the morning table;
the just-perked silver pot of coffee on kitchen counter, poofing its breath of steam,
my mother cupping between her hands the mug of the just-poured syrupy black;
placing the cup with care on the freshly-wiped plastic tablecloth,
then scooching her chair tight to the edge,
her eyes stayed on the hot liquid
as if her intent gaze kept the cup in its place;
pouring cream from the skinny waxed-cardboard box that reminded me of school lunch milk
and stirring slowly,
deep in thought of things my small mind never knew (and will never know);
as I filled my cup with an inch of coffee, feeling grown up,
then adding milk to the rim,
then pouring sugar from a height too tall for her comfort,
making a miniature waterfall of granules wisping off the teaspoon;
stirring in movements echoing my mother’s slow arm,
creating “coffee milk,” to sip and savor.

As an adult, I remember standing in the kitchen
— always the kitchen —
with my oldest brother and siblings
at family events, at holidays,
between laughter and philosophy,
cradling various ceramic cups in hands, brewing pot after pot,
stretching time;
my oldest brother’s laughter rippling between the “ha!”
his head thrown back, smile wide, head nodding, eyes split-second closed
to a silent laugh so infectious it brought tears to the corners of our eyes;
of his carefully-chosen words between sips, tasting lips,
his mm-hmms and the crinkled corners of his listening eyes, intent.

The last time I saw my brother, before the accident,
it was in a kitchen, with coffee mug between his hands.

You see, for me, coffee is more than a drink.
Coffee embodies meaningful relationship.

Your character has something like coffee,
doesn’t he? Doesn’t she?

A characteristic.
An action.
An object.
A connection to history particular to him, to her, creating depth and intrigue
(most likely simple,
yet filled with meaning).


* Thup

We all need [[support]],

whether it be strong pillars
or a light hand for a moment
[[support]] is critical for Life.
(capital L)

We don’t have to go far
to find an axiom, aphorism, or apothegm
about the value of support:
surround yourself

Support toward us.

But. There’s more.
(isn’t there always?)

Look outward.
Move [[support]] around.
BE [[support]].
Because when we become [[support]] to another,
something magical happens.
(imagine. act. it’s big.)

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations
in life,
that no man can sincerely try to help another
without helping himself.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

(what goes ’round comes ’round)

BE [[support]].
(it’s magical)

(drum roll…WIP time)
Who is your Hero’s bestest most wonderfulest and greatest Ally?
(Does your Frodo have a Sam?)

Someone who is
a dreamer,
a doer,
a thinker,
and a see-er of greatness.
(we all want it.
and since your reader “is” your Hero when he/she reads,
then we want that kind of Ally)

Switch it up.
Let your Hero
help your Ally.
(for by giving, he’ll help himself)

(what this season’s all about)
The swirling dance of relationships.
Who we want to be around and who we want to be.

“One friend sharpens another”
(Proverbs 27:17, The Message)

“Non nobis solum nati sumus….
Not for ourselves alone are we born.”


I’ve been asked.
“Where do characters come from?”
(You really want to know?)

They might be from you.

Because all writers
takes bits and pieces
of the people around them

and use those bits and pieces
to create, form, and craft
an individual on the page.

Circumstances that swirl around us
become the breath of circumstances
in the characters’ lives.
(if even just a little)

A moment of tenderness
seen, felt, tasted, touched
(or wishing to
see, feel, taste, touch)
becomes a sliver of the beautiful
on the page.

Shifted liquid from icicles of pain here
become icicles of pain in the story.

An argument here becomes
the seed of an argument on the page.
(even if just in flavor, feeling, or tone)

People we admire become the story’s Mentors
imparting knowledge and beauty
in which to revel,
on our backs and face up at the stars.

The friend we have
(or wish we had)
becomes the Ally
of secrets shared and got-your-backs.

The bringer of bad news
(and the change we never imagined)
becomes the Herald
screaming into our lives
words and worlds we never wanted.

Real Life.
Pulled, twisted, and braided
into the pages.

Don’t let anyone fool you.
— we’re all on the pages —

Writers draw from the breath of life.
Good. And Bad.

So the old saying,
be careful around an author,
or you may end up on the page,
is true,
if even in just a tickle of the word.

The pieces of humanity
touching us deeply
become pieces of pressed paper,
the page.

For instance.
My mother is failing.
ever so slowly.
different today than yesterday.
And as whispers life change and float away,
a character forms in my mind.
A character to grace the pages of my book
and somehow make immortal
what I hold dear.

Writing takes the threads of life, so many,
and with colors and weights of variance
fills in
opposites, poles, north and south.
The outstretched arms vs. The brushes with shadow.
all. part. of. story.

For what we really want — is it not true? —
is that, when we read a story,
we immerse, feel, experience the characters
in a way that we know them.
Truly know them.

And somehow.
Through knowing.
We are able
to deal more gracefully
with the life around us.

* Thup

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