On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pet Peeves

Every time I go to the store and read the "Ten Items or Less" billboard I grit my teeth. One time -- once -- I actually saw the sign written correctly, "Ten Items or Fewer," and congratulated the cashier. She had no idea what I was talking about.

Grammar questions quickly get me into deep weeds, but this is one point on which I'm rock-solid. It is this:

Less -- non-delineated category
Fewer -- delineated category

I say that I have LESS free time than I used to, but I have FEWER minutes to spend as I please. I have LESS sand to move, but FEWER shovelsful of sand to lift.

A related concept is Further and Farther.

Further -- nonmeasurable distance
Farther -- measureable distance

I read FURTHER about the event as I read FARTHER down the page. I went FURTHER into my thoughts as I walked FARTHER down the road.

When I was in middle school I was a voracious reader, a book a day, but grammar seemed irrelevant to me. When I started having my work professionally edited I began to appreciate how important are these picky little points. Yes, grammar matters, if for no other reason than that it augments the precision of our communication.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

One Million Kindle Downloads

Well, it happened again on June 21 2011 -- a self-published author hit the marker of one million downloads for the Amazon Kindle. John Locke has created two idiosyncratic novel series that both have devoted readerships. He prices his books at $0.99, and produces them quickly so his readers always have another episode available when they've finished the last one.

E-Publishing is exploding the traditional publishing paradigms since it allows single authors and small presses to compete with traditional presses on an equal footing. It takes just a little time and no money to format and upload a manuscript to Amazon for the Kindle and Barnes and Noble for the Nook. The writer can choose how much money he wishes to charge, and keeps a substantial percentage of the sale price: for the Kindle, 35% if the book is priced below $2.99 (minimum $0.99) or above $9.99, and an amazing 70% if the book is priced between those bookend prices.

Locke has recently released a nonfiction book: How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! He discusses his development of a serial product and methods to place it and develop a readership using social media. Some of his steps are not no-brainers -- for example, not everyone can produce a book every few months -- but it certainly gives one an appreciation for what goes into creating and selling a niche product.

Locke joins Amanda Hocking, the only other self-published author who has sold one million downloads, reaching this goal in March 2011. She also writes book series, in the paranormal romance YA genre, and recently signed contracts for a traditional publisher and film based on one of her books.

Is that inspiring, or what?

Friday, July 22, 2011


E-publishing is exploding the established paradigms for publishing. It allows the independent author or small publisher to compete on a level playing field with the big traditional publishers to sell books. Since an author can produce and distribute his e-books for free or low cost on the same platforms (Amazon, Barnes&Noble) as the traditional publisher, he may even have the advantage of being able to charge a lower price for his works.

E-Publishing uses e-readers, computer tablets, computers, or other electronic devices to display books electronically on a screen. Some examples of e-readers that display commercially sold books include the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony Reader, and Apple i-Pad.

Very roughly speaking, Amazon's Kindle uses half the market, and the other e-readers take up the other half. In August 2010 Amazon announced it sold more Kindle books than hardcover books. In June 2011 Amazon announced it sold more Kindle books than DTBs (dead tree books). E-books in other formats are also selling well.

There are 3 general types of formatting for e-books, and the formatting determines which book can be read on which e-reader. The three types of formatting are: .mobi/.azw, .ePub, and PDF.

The .mobi/.azw formatted e-book is read on Kindle reader, Apple I-pad, and devices such as computers that have downloaded a free app from Amazon. The .mobi format was originated by Mobipocket and bought by Amazon in 2005. It's proprietary to Amazon. The .azw format is, for our purposes, interchangeable with .mobi format

The .ePub format is considered the “default” format for e-books, and is the formatting used to lend e-books from libraries. .ePub formatted books are read by Nook and other e-readers except Kindle. Kindle users can convert .ePub documents to read on their e-reader, but this is a laborious and technical process.

PDF formatting preserves the exact layout of the document across forums. These documents are easy to read on the computer using Adobe Acrobat (available for free download). The advantage is that PDF documents can be viewed on all e-readers. The disadvantage is that text size and layout cannot be manipulated on e-readers, and therefore may make the document difficult to read.

While the .mobi/.azw and .ePub documents are formatted in HTML (hyper-text markup language), there are a number of platforms that can convert Word documents directly into the correct formatting. Smashwords is a well-known site that converts and lists e-books, but I'm not as big a fan of Smashwords as some people because you lose some rights going through them. (They can always list your book, and you can't withdraw it from their site). Over the next few months I'll talk occasionally about how you can format and list your own e-book for sale.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Designing the Story's Plot

The plot describes the outward shape of your story. This is what people usually think of for a “story,” and what they will describe to you when you ask what a book or film is about. Unlike nonfiction in which you clearly present the material without leaving hanging questions, in fiction you should always have at least one, preferably many, intriguing bits and uncertainties throughout. The reader or viewer will eagerly continue to discover the answers to these points.

There are three large components of the plot that move it forward:

1. Story Goal and Story Question

Before you start writing, you need to know your STORY GOAL, which is the thing that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This goal needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is attained, or not, by the end of the story. Whether this goal is attained or not becomes the STORY QUESTION.

For example, in Lion King, Simba is the young (lion) heir to the throne when Scar engineers Simba’s father’s death to seize control. The story goal is for Simba to regain ownership of the kingdom. Failure occurs if Scar remains in control. The story question is: will Simba become king?

In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond is falsely imprisoned, then escapes and gains an enormous fortune. The story goal is that he wishes to take revenge on those who stole his youth, his career, and his fiancée. Failure occurs if the wrong doers get away with a great evil. The story question is: Will Edmond be able to suitably punish the guilty (without losing his integrity)?

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is a hobbit who comes into possession of the One Ring, which is the focus for evil power and greatly desired by many. The story goal is that Frodo must destroy this ring. Failure occurs if the ring is not destroyed. The story question is: Will Frodo be able to destroy the One Ring?

2. Stakes

You also need to decide why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he could just go home and eat dinner instead of knock his socks off to achieve. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved?

For example, in Lion King if Simba does not become king, Scar will govern as a tyrant, and irrevocably ruin the Pridelands and let the hyenas take control.

In The Count of Monte Cristo if Edmond cannot wreak an appropriate revenge, great evil will go unpunished.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, if Frodo fails to destroy the One Ring, Middle Earth will fall into chaos and horror under Sauron’s dominion.

3. Obstacles

If your protagonist can simply go and achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, that hold the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to NEVER MAKE IT EASY ON YOUR HERO.

For example, in Lion King Simba is a little cub who runs away when his father is killed. He must grow up, learn that he needs to fight for his kingdom, then battle hyenas and ultimately Scar. Internally he must overcome feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

In The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond must learn to live alone in prison, then to escape, then to find the men responsible to wreak his revenge. His revenges are elaborate and full of twists. Internally Edmond copes with rage, power, and losing and gaining love. He also grapples with the role of mercy mixed with justice.

In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo must make his way past the Nasgul and fights Orcs, rough terrain, Gollum, and other varied creatures and problems. Internally he finds carrying the Ring of Power an almost unbearable burden.


There is obviously much more to a plot than just these three plot components. However, if you don’t get these right, you won’t HAVE a story.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Study with the Story Template Part Two

The "hidden need" of the protagonist is an emotional lack that he solves during the course of the story. I first heard this term from Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue at a writing conference where I attended their first "NANGIE" instructional class in 2005.

The hidden need not only hurts the protagonist, but most ideally it also hurts those around him or her. Some examples of this hidden need might be someone who is afraid to confront others, or who loves money more than family, or who is unconsciously arrogant.

The hidden need triplet describes 3 specific stages in which this flaw is actually solved in your protagonist:

1. Demonstrating the hidden need
2. Solving the hidden need
3. Demonstrating that the hidden need is solved

These stages normally occur in the second half of act two, right after the midpoint, and often form a "mini-story" to give a break from the excitement and story ramifications of the midpoint.

Let me use the movie U571 to demonstrate. It's a movie made in 2000 about a submarine crew in WW2 that wants to capture a Nazi Enigma machine (story goal). If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it! It's very exciting and beautifully done.

Stage One: Demonstrating the Hidden Need
Tyler is the second in command who likes to be a "big brother" figure to those under him, but is afraid to lead. Right after the midpoint disaster in which the captain is killed, he finds himself in command of a crippled ship. The men are worried. Tyler admits to them that he doesn't know what they're going to do. This scene starts at 55.1% of the whole.

Stage Two: Solving the Hidden Need
The chief petty officer takes Tyler aside and privately tells him to never, ever say to the crew again that he doesn't know what to do. The captain, the chief petty officer says, is an awesome figure, and must always present a strong presence in order to give courage and inspire loyalty and confidence in his men. Tyler listens carefully. This scene starts at 58.9% of the whole.

Stage Three: Hidden Need is Demonstrated to be Solved
The Americans surface and see a small Nazi plane flying overhead. Since they're on a German Uboat, Tyler tells his sailors to wave as if they are also Germans. One of Tyler's sailors orders the one manning the guns to strafe the Nazi plane, but Tyler orders him not to. There is hesitation but the gunner holds his fire, the sailors wave, and the Nazi plane seems to be fooled as he flies past. Then Tyler turns and punches out the sailor. "This isn't a democracy!" he growls. This scene starts at 60.5% of the whole.

Near the Darkest Moment when the Hidden Need is again Demonstrated
Close to the darkest moment, Tyler needs a functional torpedo tube, but it's underwater and for anyone to fix it will be dangerous and likely fatal. Tyler orders one of his crew to go in there and FIX it, darn it, and do it now! This scene starts at 93.2% of the whole.


I could show you this same pattern in story after story after story. I included the percentages not to be rigid and say your hidden need triplet MUST occur here, but instead to give you an idea of the natural reliability of its placement. My student Emily was amazed to verify how closely different points of a story (not just hidden need triplet) tended to fall. This is another subject, however.

The hidden need triplet is a specific sequence of actions that solves the hidden need. Just having a protagonist with a hidden need suddenly acting better at the darkest moment is not the same, and will not have the same resonant effects.

When designing or editing your story, make sure that your protagonist has some sort of flaw that needs to be healed. Then, demonstrate clearly exactly how it is healed. By doing this your story will carry a strong emotional punch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Study with the Story Template Part One

One of my high-school students, Emily, did a school project using my story template algorithm. Her goal was to examine classic and non-classic stories to find any differences in the story structure. She decided to use just movies since the analysis is quicker, although still not trivial: for each story she broke it into a list of scenes, timed each scene, then calculated percentages of whole for duration and placement. Her definition of a classic was a film that had been adapted from a novel, had one or more sequels, and/or was recognized as the epitome of its genre. Furthermore, the original novel or film must have been made at least 25 years ago (1985 or earlier), since it takes at least about a generation to be recognized as a classic. Non-classics were films in that same time period that did not fit the "classic" criteria. She tried to choose films from a variety of genres.

She chose well-known movies:

Charlotte's Web
Prince Caspian
Tuck Everlasting
High Noon
Raiders of the Lost Ark

Heaven Can Wait
War Games

To analyze these movies, Emily studied the story template and then broke it down into 16 specific testable points. After doing her research, and contrary to all of my expectations, she found a real difference in structure between the classics and non-classics.

15 of the 16 points were present in all the stories. However, 1 of the points was present in 6 out of 7 classics, but in none of the non-classics. This blew me away. When she did a Fisher's exact t-test for binary data on the presence or absence of this one variable in identifying a classic, in a two-tailed test (which is harder to reach significance), she had a p value of 0.03, considered significant. (The p value means that if you did this test 100 times, in 3 out of 100 trials you would expect to obtain these results by chance. Scientific standards typically accept a p < 0.05 to be considered significant, meaning that the scientist is probably measuring a real phenomenon). This result indicates the presence of this one story point is highly correlated to having a "classic" whereas its absence means it is linked to being a non-classic.

These aren't clean statistics since the original project design looked for 16 variables. The likelihood with this many variables is that one might reach a level of significance with one of the variables just by chance. However, 1) none of the other points changed -- they were all present in both classics and non-classics; and 2) this point makes a lot of sense to me that it might distinguish the lasting stories from the throwaways. At the minimum, it seems to be important to remember to include this point. It sure can't hurt.

I'm sure you're wondering what this variable is? Well, this blog entry is already long, so I'm going to save that till Friday. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think it might be. Happy writing.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Creating Tension in Your Story

Tension in your story must be in every chapter, every paragraph, and even every sentence. A good definition of tension might be: The uncertainty of at least one issue.

Tension is not generated when the writer describes exciting (or not so exciting) events that the protagonist wrestles through, but in the end these events don't push the story along. They simply add word count. For example, a POV character will find a chilled bottle of water, unscrew its tight cap, take a few sips of the cold liquid, then screw the lid back on and wipe her hands on her black summer-cloth-weight Capri pants, feeling refreshed now. If the character has arthritis then her method of opening a bottle might give a grace note to her character, but otherwise this is throwaway stuff.

So how might one push a story along? There are many techniques to do this. Perhaps the most reliable device to add tension is to include a ticking clock: a time limit to accomplish a goal.

The core principle is to consistently raise the stakes for the protagonist: put more in jeopardy, make it uncertain that the protagonist can accomplish a goal that is vital to him and for the long-term success for the story. Everything counts, including little actions. Who cares how the character opens a bottle of water? But if the character isn't sure that she will be able to sneak a sip of water to calm a cough before she has to make an announcement, it might become more interesting.
When you write a sentence, paragraph, scene, or more, ask yourself, “Do these words and events matter to the story?” If not, get rid of them.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Motivation Reaction Units (MRUs)

Dwight Swain first described these. MRUs are the smallest units by which a story is told, and when these are consistently used correctly your story will powerfully draw in the reader.

There are two parts of the MRU, the stimulus (cause) and the response (effect), that string together to form a narrative.

The stimulus is external to your character. In other words, it is something occurring in the environment that could be seen, heard and/or touched by any character in that location. It should be significant to your POV character so that he will feel he needs to respond. Some examples of a stimulus might be a dog breaking its leash and viciously growling as it runs toward the POV character, the hard-won note with secret information fluttering from the POV character’s pocket, or the POV character’s love interest whom he thought hated him unexpectedly kissing him.

The POV character is not written as the subject of the stimulus because this distances the reader from your character. In other words, you would say, “The drawer pinched Sharon’s finger,” not “Sharon felt the drawer pinch her finger.”

The response describes your character’s reaction to the stimulus, and must occur after the stimulus. In other words, you wouldn’t say, “Sharon yelped and pulled her hand away after the drawer pinched her finger” because this is out of order. First Sharon feels the pinch, then she reacts. This may sound obvious, but it happens more frequently than you might expect. Although the reader may not identify the reversed order, he will feel as if something is off.

The response has four components that must always be in the correct order. These components are: emotion or sensation, reflex action, rational action, and speech.

Here's an example:

A loud crack ripped through the canyon. (stimulus)

Jack started (emotion/sensation) then looked up in the direction of the sound. (reflex) The careening boulder was almost on him and he grabbed the bush to pull himself out of the way. (rational action)

“Too close,” he said. (speech)

The boulder thumped where he had stood a moment before.(stimulus)

He felt the ground vibrate (emotion/sensation) and shivered. (reflex) He hadn’t escaped yet. (rational action)

“Ryan, we’ve got to get out of here now!”(speech)


Most of the time you will not use all four of these response components. When you use fewer than four, just make sure that the ones you do use are in the correct order.

When do you use all of these reaction components at once? Since these components intensify the reader experience, you use all four when you want to increase tension or else to highlight something important.