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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Overview Plot Development: Roadmaps

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“Facts exist independently, outside people. But they have meaning and/or significance only as we have feeling about them; react to them.” Dwight V. Swain.

Plot is a roadmap. Like other maps there are several ways/routes to plan the journey. The rising line of tension grows out of the characters as they struggle against reversals and recognition. The plot can be simple or complex depending on the story question.

Scene Basics

Scenes are considered to be the basic building blocks of story structure.

“It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.”….  It could be put on the theatre stage and acted out.” Jack M. Bickham

Within those moment by moment segments, though, are a series of cause-effect or stimulus-reaction. Dwight V. Swain refers to this as a motivation-reaction unit, which we looked at briefly in Character Development. These units combine to become the building blocks of scenes, the core motivation from cause and effect. The motivation stimulus=character reaction: feeling, action, and speech.

The trigger can be anything, positive or negative. “A motivating stimulus may come to you on a level at which you aren’t even consciously aware of it.” It is the why behind the how in your story, Swain says, that creates the situations for an individual to make value judgments, by responding to facts with feelings. We can’t control the way we feel—we just do. But in some degree we can control action.

Dwight V. Swain wrote a detailed explanation of a scene-sequel in his well-known book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. And, according to Swain, writing in a series of interlocked Motivation Reaction units gives the technical foundation to write scenes, which is a unit of conflict unified by time. The struggle may be emotional, or physical or mental, but there are no pauses. The scene completes itself. He compares the moment by moment to a series of blows and punches as in a boxing match.

Motivation Reaction Unit


            1. Needs to come from real feelings.
            2. Needs to be credible motivation.
            3. Avoid dead ends.
            4. Maintain credibility.
            5. Keep aiming towards goal.
            6. Keep in mind main conflict.
            7. Create interesting obstacles.

Action Steps:

1.     Take the motivations and goals that you developed for your character in the last the last session and measure them against the M-R unit.

2.     Fill in any that are missing or need to be made stronger.

Share: Which was the most difficult to identify for your age reader?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Overview Character Development: Story Question Part Two

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“The deep tension…comes from impossible situations, situations where there is no clear right or wrong, no clear winner or loser, no clear yes or no.”   Ronald B.Tobias

What’s the Story?
            Marion Dane Bauer

1.    Ask what the main character wants and what his problem is.
2.    What will the resolution be? Achieve? (may realize desire is not important)
3.    What is the climax?

When the character changes is when comes the point of resolution. She needs to struggle and not just internally.

Ask so what? Richard Peck says, “need to throw characters into the deep end and watch them swim out on their own.”

The hero must solve problem on their own. Adults must be absent or silent to the resolutions.

Deal with subject matter that is appropriate to the child’s age level. Understand a child’s sense of priorities or perception. One time a grandchild said with pride that his dad had let him be alone at the park, which we knew was impossible. In fact, his dad stood just a few feet away watching. But the child felt ‘big’ because there was some space between them rather than being hand held. His vocabulary though didn’t reflect the physical reality but did his emotional perception.

The subject matter must be true to the genre. An historical must stay true to the time period. Look at the motivations that can occur.

Start in the middle of the story with action & dialogue, no backstory upfront unless it is crucial to the character and must still be an active emotional encounter. Connect us to the main character immediately.

Who—what—when—where—why are timeless questions because they are relevant.

The story answers the main question what happens and this part must not be vague. Give specific answers, not only for the whole book, but also for each chapter. Each chapter (and sometimes scene) has its own mini story question. We’ll discuss this more next section in Plot.

As you are developing your options and focus keep asking a lot of “what if” questions. And then what happened. These ideas apply to developing conflict, the character development and the overall story trajectory.

Develop Possible Story Questions

            Make a cause-effect relationship between your character’s behavior and his fate, his deeds, and his rewards. Look at the various options.

            Will Joe get the girl?
            Will Joe get Ellen now that his arm is crippled?
            Will Joe want Ellen when he finds out she just wants his money?

Story grows out of research and brainstorming different possibilities.
Research—need to read ***. Are you visual? Gather photos. Write out the scenes you see in your mind. Use brainstorming techniques that work for you: journals, writer’s notebook, or idea file.

Consider three stages of story development. First the General overall for ideas. Next the Specific for genre, setting, sounds etc. and third Detail for atmosphere and accuracy.


            Make an outline not even a draft but “a preparation” Tobias says as your framework to think in
1.    Start with a beginning.
2.    Pick an ending.
3.    Set some short-term possible objectives for your character.

            When developing your story questions Swain suggest that the first step is to get the idea of your story clear and it requires five key elements: character, situation, objective, opponent, and disaster.
Then suggests you ask the “will he or won’t he” pattern.

Action Steps:

1.      Write a brief sketch for a plot that involves a character in an external purpose and an internal struggle (mental/psychological).

2.     List three or four turning points, possible crisis points, from your story.

Share: Name one objective or disaster you choose for your character.

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Overview Character Development: Story Question Part One

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“Stories help us see what is true, and that visions of truth are nourishing to the human spirit.” Katherine Paterson


As mentioned last week a story grows from the character’s emotional core. What? Why?

Dwight V. Swain says a story is a succession of motivations and reactions. Every story deals with specific instance. Even sci-fi and fantasy are grounded in concrete realistic details.

An issue or stumble is not the event itself but how the character perceives and reacts to it will direct the degree of value to it. The character makes his own judgment and does this based on his own feelings.

For example, a single fact can cause a multitude of reactions such as a late BART or freeway delay. What are some personal reactions being experienced? By the adult driving? By a child passenger? How much of their emotional focus is tied up into where they are going, or a situation left unresolved earlier that day that one or the other fear the delay will be used to discuss the unfinished conversation?

For the story to work the reader has to care about the character and care if he succeeds or fails or at least identify with his need to succeed or fail. Therefore the reader identifies with the character’s feelings and struggles.

Because something happens as in a previous event #1, therefore Event #2 follows=cause and effect.

            Cause becomes motivating stimulus.
            Effect the character reaction.

The reaction contains three components: feeling—action—speech. Sometimes one of them is implied rather than stated outright.

Take some of the motivational sentences you’ve been working on since the segment on tone and expand them according to a deeper cause and effect that reflects and responds to your characters’ background.

Here is an extended motivational two-sentence structure from Dwight V. Swain.

a) The first sentence is a statement that establishes, character, situation and objective.
“When humans suddenly begin to grow to twelve feet height, John Storm tries to find out why.”

b) The second sentence asks a question while identifying the opponent and disaster.
But can he defeat the traitors in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extra terrestrial plot?"

 As you work up your story questions, themes, direction, and characters this form may become more succinct, but for now it’s a good start towards creative possibilities.

Examine Possible Conflict

There are two dogs but only one bone.

Examine many possible layers of motivation. Keep asking ‘what if’ questions to find the depth of motivation, both external and internal.

 Continue to write up potential story lines.

Andrea wanted to get a job at the ballet.

Then list twenty things that could go wrong. Include creative offbeat possibilities.

Put your character between a rock and a hard place, says Ronald B. Tobias. Forget easy solutions.

It applies from the youngest reader up. One of my youngest grandson’s favorite books is Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea. As you can see the story question/conflict is in the title. The little dinosaur battles a pile of leaves and a bowl of spaghetti, a big slide and talking grown-ups, J and many other daily conflicts. And with every encounter he WINS! Except… guess what?

Action Steps:

1.     Practice reading openings or titles. Notice what details jump first.
2.     As you read stories beginnings write down what you think the story question is. See if it gets answered.

3.     Write down your possible story idea in the question form.

4.     List twenty possible obstacles—include really crazy ones.

5.     Write up in two as in two-sentence structure from Swain.

Note: Also look at the back cover or market introduction—does it fulfill its promise re the story?

Share: What was the funniest obstacle you wrote down?

                                                         Read deep, marcy

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Overview Character Development: Theme

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“Theme is your melody, the motive, the dominant idea you develop through your story. This is what the story is about.”  Lee Wyndam


As mentioned last week the traditional stories have been handed down from generation to generation, first orally and later many were put into print. They include proverbs, parables, wisdom stories, creation, family heritage, cultural, songs, fairy tales, and folk-tales.

One surprise is that this workshop section we are discussing character development and when we revisit the powerful traditional stories we often find that many rely on stock characters, especially the folktales and parables. The characters are called by their class name only—beautiful daughter, poor woodcutter, banished prince. The characters are usually familiar and predictable to their audience, which frees the listeners to concentrate on action and ideas.

This opens the relationship of theme to action and often a discovery about universal human yearnings. Sometimes the connection was subtle and sometimes blatant. Jesus often used this style in His own teaching, and His parables always had an unexpected end from the one His listeners expected. They were still stories though, not didactic teachings, which made them so powerful. His themes were implicit within the story and its twist would continue to effect the listener long after.

The other power of theme in the basic stock characters was the strong cultural base common to traditional genres. Yet within each culture there usually would be an identifiable emotional connection/resonance. Even when the end turned out to be unexpected the historical and personal resonance would be familiar enough to capture the listener’s attention.

So how can we borrow that concept along with developing ‘real’ characters? Aim for the heart thematically. Make it integral to your story question.

Betrayal                        What happens when your best friend tells all your
                                                to the school gossip?


The idea that holds the story together, the central idea, or main meaning must contain the theme. Then the truth behind the story will last long after the characters/events of the story are forgotten.
Think again about some stories you remember that made you laugh or cry or create a hunger in you. Which books do you re-read? Why?

Not set up as a moral or a lesson—more we read and discover that not only have we been entertained, but our understanding has been enlarged, and we have made a discovery of some kind. (Lukens)

Explicit themes

Are stated openly and clearly, for example Wilbur says, “Friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world.”

Implicit themes

Are underlying, or revealed through the readers’ perception, for example, White’s implicit theme is that friendship can be found in unexpected places.

Multiple Themes

Every story usually has a primary theme but there can be multiple themes alongside if appropriate. They too can be either explicit or implicit. For example, in Charlotte’s Web a secondary theme is death.

            Usually the secondary themes are linked to the primary themes such as good vs evil, especially in fantasy and sci-fi which have much more space to include multiple concepts.

As you are reading books in the genre and age category you are most interested in make a note of whether the themes you notice fall under universal themes, personal themes, or author themes. Each theme can be explored in many facets because each character and situation will be different.  So each story is fresh in spite of incorporating well-known themes.

Action Steps:
1. Choose from hope, love, faith, trust, beauty and do a cluster or mapping.

2. Then take your word and make a list poem: hope is…. Or I believe beauty… .
3. When you finish your list poem go down your list and see if you can turn each line into a metaphor.

For example: hope is ...a waterfall.
/ Hope is a waterfall like rushing wind.

                                                / Hope is an hourglass waterfall.


4. Brainstorm possible one-line summaries like the opening that support some suggested themes below given by Story Sparkers (cannot find my source reference)

—trust, differences/individualism, competition, friendship, fear, bravery/heroism, conflict, sacrifice, loss, change, honor.

                                    Try doing a few for different age categories.

Share: What one-line summary or metaphor did you like the best?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Overview Character Development: Classic Literature

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults
“So the tale as it is retold on the page should still be pleasing to the ear.” Jane Yolen


What to you makes a classic? What is your favorite classic? What favorite stories did you hunger to read as a child, as a teenager, as an adult? What do they have in common? What is different?

Common Ground

There are many variations of genre and style that are listed as classics but they all have some common features. Our books may never become a classic but if we can study and integrate some of their characteristics then our stories can carry a stamp of credibility.

Classics attract readers from generation to generation. Many once began as oral tales such as Tales of King Arthur, One Thousand and One Nights, Aesop’s Fables and Cinderella. The delivery style might change but not the core heart of the story.

For example, Cinderella is the most familiar folktale worldwide with over five hundred variations listed in Europe alone. According to Wikipedia there are over a thousand known versions. Picture books, poems, novels, operas and films explore this age-old blueprint, originally told in the traditional form of an anonymous storyteller.

And we still keep adding to the collection in both novels and movies.

Classics continue to be read across the centuries and across cultures. They cross genres as well showing up in historicals, fantasy, sci-fi, regional and mysteries. How do they engage such a diverse audience of readers?

One point is the credibility of the characters. Each of the classics taps into the emotional core of feelings even when their circumstances are beyond our reality.

Another is the reality of conflict. The conflict the heroes and heroines experience isn’t manufactured but true to their own emotional and physical events.

The themes underlying their struggles are significant and not superficial.

Then the storytellers engage their readers with their quality of style. They use language and metaphors and pacing that resonates with their listeners.

Most of the classics have their roots in the categories of traditional literature such as legends, fairy tales, tall tales and folklore. Also included are religious stories, songs, fables, myths and epics.

Action Steps:

1.     Choose which category listed above one of your favorite classics has roots in and read some modern adaptations.

2.     Look for any movies that may be based on your childhood choice.

3.     Make a list of what has remained the same and what is different?

4.     What scenes do you still find enthralling? Why?

Share: What is your favorite classic and why?

                                                       Read deep, marcy

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Overview Character Development: Part Four: Tone

My apologies for the long delay returning to this workshop. I did not expect to be absent from the blog for a whole year. Hope your writing has been forging ahead. For those  who are just joining the conversation--welcome!

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“Anwara doted on the baby, and until the onset of the child’s strange persistent tantrums, had bloomed with joy.”  The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw

Tone is expressed throughout the story in several ways that need to be a consistent thread in order to wrap the reader into its ambience. It includes the writer’s voice in that it will be consistent with his/her work worldview. It affects the narrator’s personality. Tone includes attitudes among the characters’ voices, the world at large, the genre, the age group, and the physical setting. Basically it affects all atmospheres, whether spoken or silent, direct or implied.

To be effective tone grows organically in response to the motivation stimulus of your character’s background, attitudes, dynamics, and insights as well as purpose.

Tone blends internal and external motivation with action and setting. We’ll discuss tone in setting more thoroughly in a later segment but for now think of some catch phrases from stories or movies that capture the combined ambience of words and location. “It was a dark and stormy night.” “May the force be with you.” “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.” The level of dark, light, serious, frivolous, happy, sad, will edge the tone into the genre and its story question.

For example, in a dialogue; an adult approaches a young child and says, “Did you eat all the cookies?” The tone of voice in the question will set up not only the reply but also the mood of the relationship. Is the question asked with a teasing voice, an angry voice, a confused voice or a disappointed voice? Does either character in the dialogue speak loud or soft or neutral? Whatever combination the author chooses will impact the overall tone of the situation and character both internally and externally.

Use of time boundaries impacts tone. Is the character’s journey in a brief moment, a few hours, a week, month, or century? Is it a calm conversation exploring life’s curiosities or a life or death race?

The tone reaction a character makes can also affect plot links and build tension. Put your young child hero in a campsite where suddenly a skunk walks into the site where he is sitting. Does he try to run or hide or search for his camera? The danger is objective but fear or curiosity is subjective. Both produce insight into the story and a tone to match.

Action Steps:

1.     Recall a time when you felt vulnerable, either as a pre-teen, or teenager, or young adult. Describe that time without using any words that explain how you felt. Convince your reader you were lonely or frightened, sad etc. without mentioning any abstract terms.

2.     Write a one-page story that begins, “Nothing of real importance happened that day,” and then reveal through the thoughts or actions of a character during a day’s sequence of unimportant events that something important did happen internally.

3.     Practice writing motivation sentences. Write a sentence about an action. (The car screeched around the corner.) Follow it with a sentence about your character. (Bill looked up, saw who the driver was and began to run)

Share: One of your motivation sentences.

Read deep, marcy

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