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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Your Story Engine

Writers can be meticulous planners, SOTPers/pantsters (seat of the pants writers), or somewhere in between. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, articulating your story engine before going ahead will clarify whether you even have a story, and if so, how you might go about writing it.

The story engine is comprised of three components:



The Story Goal is the task that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This task needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is successful, or not, by the end of the story.

Make sure that your story goal is something noble: for example, a protagonist who wants to achieve a powerful position so that he can impose his strange philosophy on many people will not be a sympathetic character, and his goal will not be something your reader will root for. On the other hand, if your protagonist is trying to, say, obtain money to help a little girl with cancer, your audience will be sympathetic. It is the protagonist's motive in his story goal that matters.

Your story goal should be able to be broken down into smaller goals. For example, if your character's story goal is to win a big singing contest, she'll need to be struggling in obscurity before learning of the contest, struggle for the entrance money, have classroom run-ins with nasy competitors who may ruin her reputation or costume, convince an important ally to work with her, and so forth before the big night and the climax of the competition. These smaller goals push your story forward since achieving each small goal brings you one step closer to the big goal.


The stakes determine why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he won’t be motivated to achieve it. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved? For example, in our singer's example from the previous paragraph, if the girl doesn't win she won't qualify for the college scholarship that will let her be the first one in her family to go to university... and she thus won't be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor and helping the people in her poor neighborhood. Make your stakes important enough, and noble enough, that they are worth great protagonist efforts in your story.


If your protagonist can simply achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, holding the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to never make it easy on your hero. Internal obstacles are within the protagonist; things like the protagonist dealing with fear, lack of knowledge, or hiding a deadly secret. External obstacles are more visible; things like the protagonist outsmarting an enemy, crossing difficult terrain, or needing to find an object. Before you start writing each chapter, list a few internal and external obstacles that your POV character will have to deal with. These obstacles will prevent writer's block as you go through the scene.


Take a few minutes now to work on your goal, stakes, and obstacles. Any events in your story should relate to your story engine to make sure the narrative pushes forward. Determine several different levels of stakes so that the story goal becomes increasingly important. Come up with imaginative and multiple obstacles so that the story goal becomes increasingly in doubt. This planning at the beginning will pay off dividends soon.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Most Important Error

I've been judging a bunch of entries for a writing contest. On Saturday someone asked me what was the top error I was finding. Even though I'm not finding *errors* per se, only better and worse ways to phrase something, I found this question easy. One hundred percent of the entries I've graded so far do this.

The Question: What do many novel writers do that weakens their writing?
The Answer: Use Objective Point of View (POV).

Let me say first of all that objective POV isn't *wrong,* but with it you lose the strongest aspect of novel writing: enabling the reader to actually become (in their thoughts) one or more of your story characters. I always encourage you to develop deep POV in your story.

How does POV work?

When telling a story you can use several perspectives:

First person: I did this, I saw that.

Third person: Jake did this, Nancy saw that.

With first person, since you're writing from the character's perspective you will hopefully give the reader access to his thoughts and feelings in addition to the plot.

Third person can be further subdivided into:

Objective: what a camera sees. This also, by necessity, is the POV that screenwriters must use.

Omniscient: the author tells the reader things that no one character in the story knows.

Deep or Penetrating POV: gives the reader access to one (and only one) character's thoughts and feelings in addition to the plot. The POV character may change with a scene change.


OBJECTIVE POV would sound something like this:

Marissa looked at the pool. The water rippled invitingly, and she turned her head to see an empty chair nearby. She put her orange-and-pink striped towel on the seat, and then carefully unstrapped her sandals and placed them on top of the towel.

Before she'd left for the pool she had told her neighbor that her husband Ron was on a business trip to Phoenix, so she knew the neighbor would keep an eye out for her to return. She had decided to take her son swimming since Ron wasn't home.

"Mom! Come on in!"

Marissa gasped as she saw her six-year-old son Timmy on the high diving board. She held her breath as he jumped off.

NOTES: this is not completely objective, but is typical for many manuscripts. A few words like "invitingly," "carefully," "wondered," and so forth imply thoughts, but these are descriptive and removed; not the genuine words that someone would say to themselves. Note also the addition of irrelevant detail: orange-and-pink towel, sandals on the chair, and the neighbor keeping an eye on them. This telling usually uses the passive voice: lots of "to be" verbs (was, were, had and so on) and other verbs that are pedestrian (looked, turned, put and so forth). It also has cliches (keep an eye out).


OMNISCIENT POV would sound something like this:

Marissa looked at the pool. The lifeguard on the high chair noticed her dark hair and turquoise bathing suit, and wondered if she was married. Marissa saw him glance at her then shook her head. He was handsome and reminded her of her college boyfriend, but she wasn't attracted. She put her orange-and-pink striped towel on the empty chair next to her.

Six year old Timmy scanned the crowd, and after a moment he saw his mother. He was excited to be going on the high diving board for the first time. "Mom! Come on in!" he called.

Marissa gasped as she saw Timmy on the high diving board. She held her breath as he jumped off.

They didn't know that a stranger was watching them from the other side of the pool.

NOTES: this section gives the thoughts of the lifeguard, Marissa, and Timmy. This is known as head hopping. The section also gives information that neither the lifeguard, Marissa, or Timmy know: a stranger is watching them from the other side of the pool. While omniscient writing was popular in the nineteenth century, it is currently a no-no in the writing world.


DEEP/PENETRATING POV would sound something like this:

The pool looked inviting.

Marissa felt as if she was about to drop from the heat. It wasn't as hot as Phoenix, where Ron was attending his meeting, but on the other hand he was in an air-conditioned hotel.

She dropped her towel on the chair. Where was Timmy? She'd been hoping to go swimming with him.

"Mom!" she heard. Oh my, there he was, on the high diving board. Was he really going to jump?

NOTES: you'll notice that there are fewer outward details, and Marissa's direct thoughts and reactions rather than the author telling what is happening.


I have never found deep POV difficult, but I think many writers do as indicated by how often I run across it. As I mentioned, 100% of my current group of contest manuscripts are written in objective with an occasional head hop. This one technique more than any other, I believe, will elevate your writing to the next level.

Two good books to help with POV are Jill Nelson's Rivet Your Reader with Deep Point of View, and Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint. I hope this is helpful for you.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Designing Your 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 fiancé. 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 The 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 Rings 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!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Step by Step Writing

"I had the most exciting day yesterday. Steven proposed!"

"Ooh," Maggie squealed. "Tell me all about it."

Cathy stuck out her hand, showing Maggie a flashing ring. "Well, I woke up when my alarm went off at 6:30, like it always does," she said. "I pushed back my favorite green fluffy quilt from childhood that my Aunt Mary repaired and surprised me with last summer. The quilt always makes me smile because it reminds me of our family's Christmas celebrations at my childhood home in Minnesota." Cathy's brown eyes went dreamy for a moment. Then she continued.

"I got up and looked out the window to see a blue Ford drive past the red brick apartment building across the street where my best friend Judith lives. The car honked as it went by. The sun was in my eyes so I reached over to pull the shades closed, and then I put on my fluffy orange slippers and walked into the bathroom. The pink tile looked a little grey, and I wondered if I made the right choice with this color when I retiled the bathroom two months ago."

The rock on Cathy's finger caught the sun and glistened. "I turned on the shower and listened to the water run as I brushed my teeth. I studied my face in the mirror. My brown eyes seemed sad. When the water was warm I got into the shower and turned around in the water to get my long brown hair wet. The water felt like warm spikes on my skin. Then I noticed on the shower shelf that there was a new bottle of shampoo on the shelf. 'Oh yes,' I thought, 'I remember changing that yesterday.' It was a new brand and I wanted to try it..."


This conversation seems silly, doesn't it? Maggie doesn't want to hear this irrelevant chitter; she wants to get to the meat of Steven's proposal.

Although it's hard to imagine a conversation like this happening in real life, unfortunately many writers litter their chapters with this type of inconsequential detail that pumps word count but doesn't go anywhere. While this vignette DOES give us a feel for Cathy's life -- she's living in a city environment, far from home, and she has either time, money or both to retile the bathroom -- we're left wondering: Do we care?

Step-by-step writing (SBS), in which the writer describes every step, no matter how trivial, on the way to complete an action, or every detail on the way to describe the setting, is an easy trap for you to fall into. You are imagining the scene vividly in your head, and simply writing what you see. The problem with this type of writing, if not edited and boiled down, is that it's, frankly, boring.

In fiction, unlike in life, the words must always push ahead without dead space. You, the writer, must incorporate many pieces of information -- story, character flaws, descriptions, and even morals from which the reader can learn a lesson -- in a way that is compelling and doesn't feel forced.

 In the example above, the first three sentences establish the promise of an interesting story, and Maggie is poised to learn more until Cathy goes into SBS mode. Cathy would have done better by cutting to the chase. Any more of this and your reader will close your book faster than you can say "page 2."

You avoid SBS by incorporating a forward direction at all times to your story action. Don't include extraneous details; only put in what is necessary to understand the story. For example, no one cares that a character is opening a bottle of water. However, if your character has only a few seconds to sneak a sip and calm her cough before giving a speech, the question of whether she can get that bottle open in time becomes pressing.


There are at least four good techniques to create tension and thereby avoid SBS:

Technique #1: Intrigue

New unexpected plot twists or provocative information add valuable sweet spots throughout your text. These prick the reader's curiosity and cause her to want to know more.

Intrigue is also a fabulous technique with which to start your story. Since your reader is not yet bonded to any of your characters or events (unless this is a continuation of a series), intrigue will draw in the reader at the start without her needing to understand your story's background.

Here are some examples of possible opening lines:

He hadn't thought dying would be like this.

Sadie didn't know it at the time, but Brandon's entering through the side window, rather than the door, would change her life.

The pin cushion was from the nineteenth century, delicate brocade caught up in a flirty twist at the top.

These lines all have in common the attribute of raising questions or curiosity in the reader.

Depending on how strong is your hook, after the opening line you may even be able to switch topic for several paragraphs before returning to the opening issue. The reader remains riveted through the routine because the opening line has made her curious about the situation or what will happen.

Technique #2: Write in Deep POV

Point of View (POV) is a challenging topic that takes more time than I can cover in this short article. Suffice it to say that many writers write in objective POV without realizing it.

Two examples:

(Objective): Jenny and Paul sat across from each other at the table in the corner of the ice cream parlor. She was nervous because Paul was so charming, and she didn't want to say anything wrong. Jenny twirled the long silver spoon in her hand. After a moment she noticed her chocolate ice cream was melting, so she neatly took a large bite of the icy treat. It suddenly triggered a transient trigeminal spasm, and she grimaced.

(Deep): At the corner table of the Double Dip Jenny caught Paul's wink, and she felt those familiar butterflies. Darn it, why did she keep falling apart like this? She dug her spoon into her ice cream so Paul wouldn't see that he unnerved her -- and shuddered a moment after the ice cream went down. She waited for the headache to pass, trying not to notice that Paul was staring at her.

The objective POV example describes what a camera would describe, and uses words at a distance from the characters. We are told Jenny is nervous instead of being shown actions that would allow us to conclude this. This passage uses objective words that Jenny would never say herself while living this scene: "took a large bite." and "icy treat."

The deep POV example focuses on Jenny's reaction to Paul, rather than the mechanics of eating ice cream. The passage uses Jenny's direct thoughts: "familiar butterflies" and "Darn it." The rest of the description notices what Jenny is noticing. For example, unless she's a medical student she would never think, "Gee, that ice cream just triggered a trigeminal spasm, so I'm grimacing."

Two excellent instructional books for POV are: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson.

Technique #3: Ticking Clock

A ticking clock is a great way to increase tension. Your character must do something, or avoid something, before a fast-approaching deadline arrives.

Technique #4: Set a Story Goal

This is a basic trick for creating story conflict. In order to be engaged, your reader needs to know for what she will be watching, and this is best done by stating a clear story goal before the scene unfolds.

The goal statement must be a clear sentence that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Here are some examples of a story goal that can be the first line of your new chapter:

Susan had five minutes to find the necklace before Richard returned to the room.

Timmy didn't know if he'd be able to convince his mom that he'd just seen his dad's ghost -- but he'd have to try.

Claire gasped as she saw William was no longer in the car. He must have run away. She had to find him before his medicine ran out.

Follow your goal statement by going into the conflict phase of the scene, where your viewpoint character deals with a series of internal and external obstacles.

Finish with an effective ending: either a YES BUT or a NO AND FURTHERMORE. You can read more about designing a scene in Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure and my own book, Amy Deardon's The Story Template.


SBS writing is a helpful stage for the writer, because it teaches you to notice detail rather than skipping through a scene too quickly. However, adding the forward arrow helps your writing become compelling and fascinating. Try it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

26 Golden Rules for Writing

some basic rule's of grammar to which we would all Do well to adhere, to:

1.Don't abbrev.
2.Check to see if you any words out.

3.Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.

4.About sentence fragments.

5.When dangling, don't use participles.

6.Don't use no double negatives.

7.Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.

8.Just between you and I, case is important.

9.Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.

10.Don't use commas, that aren't necessary.

11.Its important to use apostrophe's right.

12.It's better not to unnecessarily split an infinitive.

13.Never leave a transitive verb just lay there without an object.

14.Only Proper Nouns should be capitalized. also a sentence should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop

15.Use hyphens in compound-words, not just in any two-word phrase.

16.In letters compositions reports and things like that we use commas to keep a string of items apart.

17.Watch out for irregular verbs that have creeped into our language.

18.Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

19.Avoid unnecessary redundancy.

20.A writer mustn't shift your point of view.

21.Don't write a run-on sentence you've got to punctuate it.

22.A preposition isn't a good thing to end a sentence with.

23.Avoid cliches like the plague.

24.1 final thing is to never start a sentence with a number.

25.Always check your work for accuracy and completeness.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why Should the Reader Care About Your Story

The Story Question is something that can be unequivocally answered yes or no by the end of the story: WILL Taylor be able to convince Kristen to marry him? WILL Donna be able to realize her dream of being a rock star? Will the X-Thumpers be able to save their home world Terranthia from the invading evil aliens? Your protagonist will actively pursue this story goal, encounter many obstacles, bravely fight, learn something about him- or herself, and ultimately triumph (or not, although failure stories don't tend to be popular unless there is a compensatory win -- think Rocky).

Once you have a good story question you're almost there: you only need to make the reader CARE about whether the story question is answered. To do this, you simply have to make the reader care about the protagonist, and therefore since the protagonist cares about the story question the reader or viewer will also.

OK, so how do you make someone care about your protagonist? The quick answer is not necessarily to make him likeable, but instead to make him someone with whom the reader or viewer can identify with to understand why he does what he does in the story. There are several techniques you as the writer can use:

1. Create Sympathy -- if your protagonist suffers from something, whether an injustice, a physical defect, or a terrible loss of some sort, this will go a long way to create reader identification because the reader will feel sorry for him and therefore of course want him to win.

2. Jeopardy -- any time a character is in real danger, whether physical or emotional threat, the audience is riveted.

3. Likeable -- we all tend to want to be around pleasant rather than unpleasant people, and this is no different in stories. The person may behave well, or be funny, or be good at his job, or whatever -- he has likeable traits that the viewer can appreciate.

Another thing to remember is that a story question (which at the beginning can be a bridging question rather than the main one), and the protagonist, need to be established in your story as early as possible. Your audience needs to know who to root for, and what they're rooting for -- otherwise your story is irrelevant drivel that your audience will only have so much patience to plow through before throwing your book down in disgust. (Unless, of course, your reader is being forced to read this for a literature course in High School, but if this is the case you as the writer are probably dead now anyway :-)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Don't Waste Your Life

I don't remember who spoke at my high school graduation, but all these years later I do remember her opening line:

"You've already lived one quarter of your life."

This was powerful stuff for an eighteen year old. As I've thought back on her talk through the years, I am grateful that she pointed my attention to be careful, not to waste life, while I was still young.

Life IS very short, isn't it? When you're 18, it seems like it will last forever, but by the time you're 28 you've already made some pivotal decisions of the direction your life will go (marriage, career, family, location) and by the time you're 38 these decisions are even more entrenched. And so on. Yes, you can always alter your path, but it gets progressively harder.

And no matter what you do, the past years are already gone.

You feel the touch of the mortal hand: bodies age, people die, disappointments multiply, safeguards fail. Life is not limitless as it is when you're 18. More and more potentials become actualities as you build the legacy you will leave, stone by stone.

What legacy will you leave? Sweetness or bitter? Gratitude or anger? Emphasis on others or yourself?

You've heard this one before, but what would you do if you only had a day/week/month to live? Would you change your focus for these last hours or days, or would you more or less do what you're doing now? Do you think it's important if you'd change your focus? What is your guiding principle in life?

Will you choose to follow God? I believe this life is the only place you can freely make this decision, and also that this is the most important question of all.

Ponder these things. In the meantime, let me make the statement that the woman made to our high school class:


Make your life count. Build your legacy, whether it is to play with your children, be with your family, or do your job that will make life better for many. Design that computer program, start your dream business,write  your masterpiece. Love and bless others. Search for truth. Search for God.