Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Motivation reaction units are so important, I thought I should repost my blog entry, What in the World is an MRU? MRUs are the engines that move a story along and keep it interesting. Mastering this technique will take you or your homeschool student a long way in becoming an accomplished story teller.

Let’s talk about motivation reaction units (MRUs). The first time I heard these explained was by Randy Ingermanson, creator of the Snowflake Method. He read about them in Dwight V. Swain’s classic. Techniques of the Selling Writer, which is available on

So what is a motivation-reaction-unit? An MRU is the fundamental grouping of words that form a story.

The first component of the MRU is a sentence or several sentences which comprise a cause. The cause is something the reader can see. It is totally outside of the point-of-view (POV) character, and can be anything tangible or intangible, conscious or unconscious that stimulates a change in the character. Neither the POV’s name nor pronouns that refer to him may appear in this part of the MRU.

The paragraph that follows contains the second half of the MRU. It is a sentence or group of sentences that show the effect of the stimulus. It is about the POV character and shows the change in his behavior or state of mind in response to the motivating stimulus.

The following is an excerpt from the prologue of my novel Kokoweef, which may be accessed by clicking the tab under the banner. I’ve labeled the alternating pattern of motivation and reaction. Notice that the motivating sentences are completely outside the POV. Also note how the stimulus produces a change in the POV that moves the story along

The soldiers assumed their posts. Commander Lucifer positioned himself on high ground opposite the wormhole, his generals at his sides. [MOTIVATION]

Malum drew his swords. With Michael and his army vanquished, what would Lord Lucifer do next? Attack High Heaven? It had been eons since the Enemy cast them out. A victorious return would be joyous. [REACTION]

The wormhole rumbled, and Lucifer raised his hands. [MOTIVATION]

Malum’s swords shook. Steady. Only moments until Lucifer signals to attack. [REACTION]

A low whine grumbled in the passage. [MOTIVATION]

Malum tightened his grips. [REACTION]

The noise rose in pitch and volume. The tunnel’s crystalline walls vibrated. [MOTIVATION]

He swallowed, and his breaths quickened. The surface on which he stood rolled and swayed. He fought for traction then furrowed his brows. Something was wrong. The resonance frequency had changed. An operational wormhole never made that high, warbling sound. What was Michael up to? [REACTION]

Fire roared from the wormhole and incinerated several soldiers. The tunnel warped. Squealed. Folded inward. In a blink, it disappeared. [MOTIVATION]

Malum cursed, and turned his attention to Lucifer. [REACTION]

Rage contorted the commander’s faces. He bellowed and lashed out with his swords. The heads of his generals rolled down slope to Malum’s feet. [MOTIVATION]

His hearts lurched. [REACTION]

So why are the MRUs important? They provide the momentum that moves the story along. Strings of MRUs form scenes and sequences. Alternating scenes and sequences then produce the story pattern.—Quinn

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Young adult (YA) literature incorporates nearly all genres. Its main target is youth between twelve and eighteen, but older people may enjoy it as well. The plots are primarily plot-driven and coming of age.

Writing techniques employed in other genres also apply to YA.. However, sentence structure is less complex and vocabulary is simpler. A typical story runs between 40,000 and 70,000 thousand words. That’s enough to develop a multi-dimensional story, but not so much that the reader loses interest. While secondary characters can be any age, primary characters must be teen or college age.

The readers experience the story through a believable and empathetic main character (MC) that they can identify with. As they feel the MC’s emotions and participate in his problems, they can take part in their resolutions. They vicariously overcome crises, reaching milestones on their way to adulthood. This can give them a sense of security, validation, or meaning to their lives. They might also experience psychological or emotional transformation.

Before you begin to write, get to know young adults. Listen to their vocabulary and speech patterns and how they interact. Study their books and magazines for style. Determine what plots or themes are overworked and aim for something fresh.

Teens are constantly bombarded with new experiences. Everything is big, important, and intense. Possibilities are endless. They may feel invincible or they may feel vulnerable and inconsequential, isolated and craving community. Many that desire to change the world care deeply about things of substance.

Topics that interest them are romance, independence, friends, influence of peer groups, and milestones like first date, first car, first job. Stories for older teens may deal with drugs eating disorders, cutting, and other intense subjects.

Stories about romance and darkness are most favored. Fictional romance from the MC’s unrequited love to his love relationships helps the readers understand their fantasies. If the readers feel trapped and helpless, they may turn to tales of dystopia and vampires. Identification with the MC makes them feel more in control of their lives. Stories such as death, suicide, and cutting allow readers to explore dark topics safely.

The focus of all YA is growth. Readers who experience the MC’s conflicts and resolutions gain more maturity and insight, which inches them along toward adulthood.—Quinn

Monday, September 22, 2014


You, or your student, have completed a novel and want it published. Since most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, what will you do? You need to find a literary agent. Query several agents and send proposals to those that are interested. (See archived blogs) If one believes the story will appeal to the market and will fit into what his agency represents, he will accept it and act as the go-between between you and the publisher.

On first contact, the agent presents the manuscript to an acquiring editor at a publishing house. If it fits well with the publisher’s product line, he will submit a proposal though the firm’s acquisitions committee. They will view the work as an investment in which they might profit. To get past them, the book must have certain attributes. It must be well-written and entertaining or informative. It must have potential for enough distribution to make its publication profitable. It must be able to compete with similar titles. And it must have a promotable platform.

If the work meets the criteria and the committee members decide to publish, they send it to the contracts and legal department. The author’s agent negotiates with the acquiring editor. In addition to the amount of advance money the author will receive, he will negotiate what type of rights are involved. The document must state whether rights can revert to the author after a period of time, whether he retains rights over foreign publications and films, and what deadlines he must meet during editing. Once the author signs, the work no longer belongs to him.

After the contract is signed, the manuscript goes back to the editor. In his first pass through it, he decides whether more or less text in required, whether chapters should be shuffled for flow, and whether information is clear and accurate. He then sends the manuscript back to the author for revisions. In the next pass, the editor makes line edits and asks for corrections and clarifications. If he is pleased with the revisions, the author finally receives a “payment on acceptance” check. This is an advance against future royalties.

The acquiring editor then sends the edited manuscript to the copy editor who looks at grammar, spelling, clarity, and makes sure the style and grammar matches the market. Next stop is design and layout. They do typesetting, page layout, and prepare files for e-books. They also decide on the quality of the paper and create a dust jacket. Photos and illustrations are added. Everyone reviews page proofs.

Meanwhile the sales and marketing people will provide information about the book to the book distributors and overseas publishers to try to determine what potential sales are. If interest is high, they may recommend that a co-publisher be employed for a large run, thereby cutting unit costs. If interest is low, they may recommend that the print or marketing be reduced or the book’s publication be dropped. Feedback from marketing also affects formatting, sales strategy, artwork, design, and production of ads and marketing material like catalogs.

Before printing, printers produce a pre-press proof for the publishers that show how the book will look. This is the last chance for corrections. When the publishers sign off on it, it goes back to the printer. Following the printing, the pages are folded, fixed to the board, and covered with the cover.

Marketing continues. It has three components, advertising where publishers pay to place a book in the media or print, promotion which is anything that draws attention to the book, and publicity where print and media pieces on the author or book are used to increase sales. Publicity also sets up book signings and tours.

Months before their release, the sales department matches genre and formats to the right market in the right quantity. They also present titles to buyers and make presentations to buyers form chain stores and independent stores. Advance copies are sent to the publisher, author, editor, and agent for publicity mailings.

After the printing, the books are packaged and sent to the publisher’s warehouse to await distribution. The resale schedule depends on the competition and the number of sales necessary to generate a profit. Next stop is the distribution centers where the books are unpackaged, inventoried, and shelved. The whole procedure from acquisition to the bookstore shelf may take two years.—Quinn

Friday, August 8, 2014


Well, the school year is about to start, and it's time for homeschoolers to get their curriculum together. As a supplement to American history, you might consider two childrens' books written by of all people, Rush Limbaugh. They are Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims and Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Both have spent weeks on the New York Times best sellers list and have earned Limbaugh recognition as the best children's author of 2013. The novels are historical adventures where middle school teacher Rush Revere and selected students time-travel through history on the talking horse Liberty. Though written for ten- to thirteen-year-olds, younger children and adults enjoy them as well.--Quinn

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Occasionally, I will mention a book that I feel is very important. This time it is Dinesh D'Souza's, America: Imagine a World without Her. Told through the eyes of an immigrant, it is an overview of American history that has not been filtered through a "progressive" mindset. If you see the movie version, take a hanky and be prepared to cheer.--Quinn

Friday, May 30, 2014


After the writer submits a query letter to an agent or editor, if the project fits the agency’s or publisher’s interests, they will request a proposal. So, how do you write a proposal?

Begin with a cover letter. This is similar to the query. In the first paragraph, remind the editor that he asked for the proposal. In the last paragraph, describe the enclosures.

 The next page is the title page. Your name and contact information single-spaced and in block-style goes in the upper left-hand corner. Using 36-point and italicizing, center the title. Make it five words or less, have it be catchy, and indicate something about the story.

A table of contents is optional. If you use one, place it after the title page.

 The executive summary introduces the project in a succinct form. Often the editor will make a preliminary decision based only on a scan of this summary and a few of the submitted pages. Write its nine points in an outline form. The first point is the title. Follow with: the genre and sub genre, then the high concept sentence, the target audience, the length, indicate whether the project is polished and available or give a completion date, next comes a one paragraph summary, then a short one-paragraph biography. End with a short marketing summary.

 Ideally, a high-concept one-liner contains twenty-five words or less. Confine yourself to one or two major characters and stay with one thread of the story. Show how the character is in conflict and use words that promote empathy.

 Be specific about the target readers. Select them based on their worldview, interests, gender, age, or anything that narrows down the pool of readers to indicate particular people to whom the marketing should aim.

 The word count for adult fiction runs between 60,000 and 120,000 words, depending on the genre and the publisher. Always check guidelines before you submit.

 The next page of the proposal contains the competition. Research and find three to five books in your genre. List their titles and authors. For each one, write a short paragraph summary and tell how it is similar to and different from your work.

 Though not mandatory, you can include character sketches. Write approximately a page for each major character. Include any essential back story, their goals, and how they relate to the story.

 A two-page single-spaced or a three- to five-page double-spaced synopsis comes next. Write it in third person present tense. Focus on the main plot points and write them in order, showing the story’s beginning, middle, and end. The first time a character appears, write his name in capital letters. Open with a hook that contains the main character and a crisis. Show how he intends to solve the crisis. Be sure to include motivations and emotions.

An expanded version of your biography comes next. Write it in third person. List your credits, pertinent education, and life experiences.

 The all important marketing section appears last. The editor wants to know about your platform and who you can reach through organizations, speaking engagements, columns. Include the URLs of your website and/or blog.

 Your well-written proposal is the first step in a long process. If the editor is interested, he’ll ask for the complete manuscript. If he likes that, he passes it on to the first of several committees that ultimately decide whether the book will be published.—Quinn


Friday, April 11, 2014


So, you or your homeschool writer have completed and polished a manuscript, and are ready to have the story or article published. The first thing thing to do is study market guides. You can find agents and editors to query in such books as Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers’ Market Guide, Writer’s Market published by Writers Digest, and the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents edited by Chuck Sambuchino. All can be found on Amazon. For convenience, editors and agencies are presented by genre.

Each publisher or agency lists the types of fiction and/or nonfiction it handles. Follow their contact instructions. Some only accept referrals or contacts they have made at conferences. Others request a synopsis and sample chapters. Many will only accept a query letter.

So what is a query letter? It is a one-page sales pitch whose purpose is to entice the agent/editor to ask for the full manuscript. This is one's opportunity to make a good first impression. Whether by e-mail or paper mail, use Standard English and follow a business letter format.

Set up pages with one-inch margins. The lines should be single space and paragraphs should be block style. Use Times New Roman and 12 font size. Center align your letter head. List your name in slightly larger font and your contact information—address, phone number, e-mail, web address—in slightly smaller font.

Align the inner address against the left margin. Always spell the agent/editor’s name correctly and use his proper title.

The first paragraph in the query’s body is a hook that is supposed to catch the agent/editor’s attention. It needs to contain the story’s title, genre, and word count. It can mention the name of a referral, part of the story line, or some fact within the story. To show that the query isn’t a form letter, mention something gleaned while researching the company.

The second paragraph resembles a book blurb such as seen on the back of book jackets. Summarize the first quarter of the book and name the protagonist, describe a bit of the setting, reveal his inner conflict, and explain the story problem. End the paragraph with a question.

The next paragraph is the writer's bio. Tell the agent/editor why this story is different from others of its kind and why the author is the one person who can tell it. Present credits, if any. Describe work or life experience that’s pertinent to the story and how the writer can promote the book. In the last paragraph, politely thank the agent/editor then ask whether they'd like to see a synopsis or proposal and sample chapters. When sending a paper letter, be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelop.

Then the writer waits for the listed response time. If nothing appears, send a polite e-mail with the submission’s name and date and ask whether they received the query or whether a decision had been made. Once I waited twice the allotted time before contacting an editor who had requested my manuscript. She told me her computer had died, and she lost all her data. She asked that I resubmit. I would have lost out on a publication had I not e-mailed her. So, unless requested otherwise, make contact.

The following is my idea of how L. Frank Baum might query the Acme Agency if he was looking for a home for The Wizard of Oz today:

 L. Frank Baum
1 Writers Lane
Kansas City, Kansas


C.C. Smith
Acquisitions Editor
Acme Agency
121212 Park Place #4
New York, New York

February 28, 2013

Dear Mr. Smith,  (Note: Double check the title and spelling)

Your client John Rabowski recommended that I query you about my 60,000-word fantasy novel The Wizard of Oz. It is the story of Dorothy Gale, an unhappy Kansas farm girl who learns there is no place like home.

Dorothy dreams of evading her problems by escaping to a land over the rainbow that is a much happier place. To her surprise, a cyclone picks up her house and carries her to a sparkling land filled with music and flowers and happy munchkins. Though she is welcome, she misses her family and wants to go home. The only one who can help her is the great and mighty Wizard of Oz. But he lives faraway at the end of a yellow-brick road that’s fraught with dangers from winged-monkeys, witches, fighting trees, and a deadly poppy field. Can a young girl survive such obstacles and return home?

Having grown-up in Kansas and having studied American Folklore, I believe I am uniquely qualified to tell this American fairy tale. My short stories have appeared in such publications as The Story Teller Magazine and Knights and Dragons. I am on Face Book, have 3,500 Twitter followers, and receive 5,000 hits per month on my blog.

Thank you for your consideration. May I send a synopsis and sample chapters?

Yours truly,

L. Frank Baum

So when should a writer query? For a novice, after he/she has completed and polished his/her manuscript. It is a good idea to have others read it before submitting. Moms will love it no matter what, so find objective readers who can give sound advice. Next, we'll look at the proposal.—Quinn

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Romance is one of the most popular plots. It is character driven, and the basic structure is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy either recovers girl or loses her forever. The best romances have sympathetic characters, great dialogue, and unique settings. Since they are short, usually around 200 pages, character development is stressed.
In this plot, there are two major characters, the man and the woman. Since the readers are predominantly women, the point of view (POV) character should be the woman. She must be real, appealing, and in familiar situations so the reader can identify and project herself into the character. The POV must grow over the course of the story and display weaknesses as well as strengths, flaws as well as abilities, interests, dislikes, and an occupation relevant to the story. Conflict increases if the man and woman have differing views that require one of them to change.

In the beginning, where boy meets girl, often attraction exists, but there is dislike on one or both their parts. If love develops, don’t tell about it, show it. At the end of the first part, something separates them.

Boy loses girl in the story’s middle section. Usually three obstacles occur which have nothing to do with the relationship. Each attempt to resolve the situation results in more conflict and the stakes rise. Finally, an overwhelming crisis develops.

In the final section, the pair either overcomes the crisis resulting in a happy ending or the crisis pulls them apart forever. In commercial fiction, readers prefer happy endings.

Romance may appear in all genres, including adventure, mystery, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, historic, and all their sub genres. A related plot is forbidden love. Obstacles in this plot include social taboos, triangles, and differences in age, culture, or social standing. Next, we’ll look at the Rescue.—Quinn

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Next, we’ll consider the Chase. This is an action driven plot, high in tension and stimulating. Often, it’s unique and high concept, having larger than life situations, like alien invasions, pandemics, killer storms. The main character (MC) may be the pursuer or the pursued. There is always a strong reason for a chase, with duty or obsession motivating the chase itself. As always in story, there is a beginning, middle, and an end.

 In part one, the writer must establish a reason for the pursuit and determine the pursuer. The stakes must be high. Capture dangerous. If the MC is the pursued, he may be the victim of a bad situation, a mistake, or a misunderstanding. He may have done wrong for a good reason. A motivating incident presents itself by the end of this section.

 The middle contains the chase. It is filled with near captures, dangers, and physical action. Unrelenting tension builds as the pursuer repeatedly closes in on the victim, only to have him escape.

 Part three is the resolution. Here, the pursued is either caught or he escapes, relieving tension.

 The Fugitive is an example of a chase plot. In part one, Dr. Richard Kimble finds his wife murdered. The killer, a one-armed man, flees the scene. Instead of going after the real killer, the authorities arrest Kimble and try him for murder. On the way to Death Row, there’s an accident. Kimble escapes from the crash scene and decides to clear his name.

 Part two contains several narrow escapes as Deputy U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard tries to recapture Kimble. Kimble goes to a hospital to treat his wounds. Someone recognizes him, but he escapes. While Gerard has him cornered on a viaduct, Kimble leaps into raging water. He goes to a hospital to look for a list of people with prosthetic arms. Gerard is close behind. Kimble locates the one-armed man, Sykes, and discovers that his friend, Nichols, hired the murderer as a hit man.

 The resolution takes place in part three as Kimble confronts Nichols. They fight while Gerard and his men close in. Aware that the authorities now know the truth about the murder, Nichols tries to shoot Gerard. Kimble stops him, then surrenders to Gerard and is exonerated.

 Moby-Dick is an example of a Chase plot. Ahab hunts the whale. In Les Miserables, Javert tries to recapture Jean Valjean. Sherlock Holmes seeks Moriarity. And in Master and Commander, Aubrey pursues French merchant ships. Next time we will look at Romance—Quinn   

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Unlike the quest that is character driven, the adventure story is all about a journey. The character is action-driven and doesn’t have to grow in any way. The reader vicariously experiences exotic, strange, or dangerous places as the main character (MC) seeks something. As in all stories, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

 At the beginning of the adventure, the story world is ordinary. Then, a motivating factor comes along that encourages a change. It launches the MC into the middle. On the journey through a new story world, the MC encounters obstacles and conflicts that are almost impossible to overcome. In the end, he arrives at the goal and receives a reward.

Fairy tales are simple adventures. Let’s look at Tom Thumb. In the beginning, Tom is born into an ordinary home. Though he is only the size of a thumb, he finds ways of helping his father. Some men who would exploit him for monetary gain want to buy him. His father refuses the offer. But Tom recognizes an opportunity to see the world. He asks his father to sell him and promises to come home again.

The middle shows Tom during his journeys. Before the men reach the town where Tom will go on display, he escapes [adventure one] and hides in a mouse hole until they give up searching for him. He wakes from a night in a snail shell and overhears robbers that plot to burglarize the parson’s house. He offers to help them [adventure two], but when he is inside the house he raises a ruckus that scares the robbers away. While hiding in a hay pile, a cow eats him [adventure three]. He cries out. Thinking that the cow is possessed, the parson kills it and throws its stomach on a dung heap. A wolf comes along and gulps down the stomach in one piece [adventure four]. Tom directs the animal to a place where he can get all the food he wants.

The journey ends when Tom’s father finds the wolf in his house, kills him, and frees Tom. Tom’s reward is returning safely to his home and receiving his parent’s love.

The adventure is one of the most popular plots. Examples of this story form are: Mort d’Arthur, Around the World in Eighty Days, Robinson Crusoe, Grapes of Wrath, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Left Behind Series.—Quinn


Monday, February 17, 2014


While the quest may involve action, this plot form is character driven rather than action driven. The main character (MC) goes on a journey in which he seeks some object, person, or place. Along the way, he encounters new things and meets new people. By the end of his search, he has grown in some manner. As in all stories, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In the opening scenes, the writer identifies the MC along with a motivating incident in the form of an obstacle, a loss, or a challenge. He has the MC explain why he is going on the quest, what he thinks he is looking for, and how he will define success.

The Wizard of Oz presents Dorothy as an unhappy Kansas farm girl who feels unappreciated and needs to save her beloved dog from a neighbor who is trying to kill it. She runs away to a carnival where a worker convinces her to return home.

The middle is the journey in which the MC fights and loses a series of battles. He has at least one traveling companion with whom he interacts, a helpful character, and a nemesis. The companion has his own motivations for joining the MC, and the obstacles effect a change in him as well.

When Dorothy arrives home, she encounters her first major obstacle, a tornado that picks up her house and transports her over the rainbow. The helpful character, the good witch Glenda, tells her to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the City of Oz where a powerful wizard might help her find a way back to Kansas. Dorothy decides to go in quest of Oz. However, the Wicked Witch of the West has a grudge against her and places obstacle after obstacle in her path. Along the way, three companions join her. The Tin Man believes the wizard can give him a new heart, the Scarecrow wants a brain, and the Cowardly Lion needs to find courage.

At the end of the story, there is self-doubt followed by a final battle which determines whether the quest is successful or not. Afterwards, the MC reveals what he has discovered and how he has changed.

Dorothy finds Oz, and her companions discover what they desired was within them all the time. However, since the wizard turns out to be a fraud, Dorothy believes she will never see home again. She receives hope when the wizard decides to ride a balloon over the rainbow. But hope is dashed when she misses her ride. Glenda appears and tells Dorothy that her ruby slippers can take her home. Dorothy returns to Kansas with a new attitude. She now believes true happiness is found in one’s own backyard.

The Quest is a plot form used since ancient times. Gilgamesh sets out to find immortality. Jason seeks the Golden Fleece. While he tries to right wrongs, Don Quixote searches for Dulcinea. Lord Jim attempts to regain his honor. As they journey toward their goals, each changes in some manner.—Quinn

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


So, you may ask. What is the difference between plot and story? Story is what happens, related in chronological order. Plot is story plus why everything happens. The following are examples.

 Georgia punched in Jake’s number and waited while the phone buzzed.

“Yeah,” Jake said.

“You need to come home now.”

“I’m busy.”

“I’ve been waiting two hours.”


“Okay,” Jake said. “I’m leaving now.”

The phone clicked in Georgia’s ear. She waited in the parking lot. (Story)

Georgia’s hand shook as she punched in Jake’s number. Her queasiness grew with each buzz.

“Yeah,” Jake growled.

She gulped, pressed the phone harder to her ear, and listened to the giggles in the background. “You need to come home now.”

“I’m busy.”

I bet you are. “I’ve been waiting two hours.”


What are they doing?

“Okay,” Jake snapped. “I’m leaving now.”

The phone clicked in Georgia’s ear. Only a moment until they slither out the back way. She opened the car door and pulled the gun from her purse. (Plot)

 Plot is composed of a series of cause and effect relationships that reveal what happened and why. There are a number of basic plots from which a writer may derive a story. We shall explore a few.—Quinn

Sunday, January 19, 2014


People read fiction for a vicarious emotional experience. Therefore, it is the author’s job to “hook” the reader and sustain his interest by building an emotional arc which promotes empathy for the character while driving the story forward. This is accomplished through the use of visceral reactions, thoughts, and body language. The character’s feelings draw the reader into the story and allow him to share the character’s emotional experience. Let’s look at Mac’s encounter with a thug.

Mac looked into the store’s barred windows. After the police car passed him and rounded the corner, he walked past the rats and overflowing garbage cans that lined the street.

A man bumped into him.

Big Spike Malone, the Bull Dog’s errand boy. They know I have the merchandise.

Mac prepared to fight.

 The snippet tells us that Mac is going to fight an unsavory character that has bumped into him. It’s interesting but about as exciting as a newspaper account. We don’t know who Mac is or why he is walking up the street. He could be a store owner, a courier, a customer that just left a store. He could be nonchalant or scared half to death. Let’s add some body language.

Mac’s throat constricted. He flipped up his trench coat’s collar and stared through the barred windows into the dilapidated store until the crawling patrol car passed him. As soon as it turned the street corner, he let out his breath and patted the packet of diamonds in his breast pocket. Lowering his head, he passed rats and the overflowing garbage cans lining the street and hurried in the opposite direction from the cops.

A man bumped his shoulder. Hard. Then stopped.

 Mac cocked one eyebrow, spun around, and, looking up at the man’s Adam’s Apple, gulped. Big Spike Malone. The Bull Dog’s errand boy. They know I have the merchandise.

 As he stood rooted to the gum splotched sidewalk, his pulse ratcheted to overdrive. Then a flush wafted over his face. He drew his eyebrows together and darted a sideways glance toward the street corner. A crooked smile screwed up his lips. He lowered his chin and raised his fists.

Now we know a lot more about Mac. The constricted throat, the raised collar, and the attempt to hide his face show he has some reason to be afraid of the police. Patting the diamonds and quickly putting distance between the police and himself further betrays nervousness. Could he be a thief? He identifies Spike, gulps, and freezes, presumably fearful of what the huge thug could do to him. Max is not a cop, so why does he know Spike is a gangster? Is Max part of the mob too? The glance toward the corner shows he is still cautious of the police, but the crooked smile, the tucked chin, and the fists show he has courage and confidence and is ready to fight the much larger man over the diamonds, which are probably stolen.

To help draw your reader into the story world, show the character’s actions and body language. Let the reader see what he sees, hear what he hears, and feel what he feels both physically and emotionally.--Quinn.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


In previous discussions, we learned emotion is a reaction to a motivator. When writing about emotional reaction, we break it into its components. First, there is an involuntary visceral reaction to the stimulant (fight or flight mechanism), followed by thought, then dialogue and/or action. These steps must come in chronological order or the reader feels unsettled. We’ll look at methods for portraying thoughts.

The point of view character (POV) can express his thoughts through the use of Inner Dialogue. With his own voice, he can emote, reflect, and make observations. He can fantasize, reveal hurts, desires. He can discuss things he’d never say aloud or act upon.

In third person, there are two ways of doing this. The first is by expressing the thought in first person. This sets it off from the narration. Used sparingly, it is always placed in italics. The second way is by leaving the words in third person and allowing the context to show they are thought. Italics are never used and tags (he thought, she pondered) are rarely used. It is intimate and when done correctly the line between inner dialogue and description is blurred. This promotes smooth transitions back and forth between description and the POV’s thoughts.

The following is an excerpt from my novel Echoes. The POV character is former linguistics professor Dr. Alejandro de Cordoba de la Rosa, now a foreign agent who is tracking an arms shipment that was sent from his country in South America to California. Working incognito, he has presented himself to a semi-rural community as an immigrant day laborer who has limited English. I’ve underlined his inner dialogue.

A purring engine approached. Tires skidded on the gravel, and a dusty GMC truck crunched to a stop by the barn.

“Hey, Alejandro.” Dr. Crossman jumped from the cab, agile as a man half his eighty-five years.

Alejandro leaned on the axe handle and nodded.

The old man whistled at the woodpile. “A job well done, my friend.” He pulled out his wallet and handed his worker three crisp twenties. His gaze rested on Alejandro’s arm. “That’s quite a scar you got there, son. Looks fairly recent. I got a couple just like it at Normandy.”

Alejandro buried the axe blade in the chopping block and stuffed the bills in a pocket of his baggies. Reaching for the shirt that hung on a fence post, he chided himself. He’d have to be more careful. Keep quiet. Never do anything memorable. Never attract attention in any way. [he’s impatient with himself and reveals he’s hiding who he is]

“I’m heading down for a load of hay,” Crossman said. “If you’re interested in helping out, hop in.”

Alejandro stepped to the passenger door and glanced over his shoulder. A delivery truck had turned into the nursery’s driveway. It could be hauling anything. Plants. Guns. Fertilizer for manufacturing explosives. [shows he’s curious]

He swung onto the passenger seat, and the GMC lurched forward. His head jerked back as the door slammed shut. Heart pumping like a piston, he hunted for the seatbelt. The truck zoomed down the long driveway toward the bridge, turning the light shining through the trees into a high-speed strobe. On the narrow canyon road, the vehicle flew through twists and turns. He gulped. The old man was insane. [shows fear]

“You a praying man, son?” Crossman made eye contact, whizzed past a sign that said speed limit 30 mph, and barreled directly toward a knot of bicyclists.

Alejandro flinched and grabbed his armrest. “No, señor.” But he might become one soon. [fear for his safety is mounting]

“Where ya from?”

“Here, now.”

“Hmm…” Crossman chewed his toothpick. “Most immigrants I know are either running from something or searching for something. My guess is you’re a searcher.”

Alejandro shrugged.

“Or maybe you’re both. Running from something to find something.” Crossman stomped on the brakes, slamming Alejandro against his shoulder restraint. “Gotta watch it along this stretch. Sheriff hides on those rabbit trails, and he’s just plain unreasonable.” He craned his neck and waved at a half-hidden patrol car. Around the bend, he floored the accelerator. “Yep, too bad you’re not a prayer. Makes it a lot easier for a man to determine God’s plans for him.”

Alejandro kept his eyes straight ahead. He didn’t need help—except for surviving this trip. He knew his destiny. It involved putting a bullet in Esteban’s greasy face. [he is determined, fantasizes, and reveals more of his dark mission]

“Ya got a Green Card?”


“How about a driver’s license?”

.” Both courtesy of Vito’s counterfeiters. [He’s thankful to his handlers and reveals more of who he is]

“Haven’t kept the ranch up like I did before the missus took ill. Our daughter’s helping out, but she has a boy at home that’s a handful. I’m impressed by your work. Would you be interested in $500 a week, the use of the cabin, credit at the grocers, Sundays, half Saturdays and holidays off?”

Alejandro grinned. “Sí, señor.” What could be better? A twenty-four-hour-a-day view of the nursery. [he’s delighted at his mission’s progress]

Unlike Dr. Crossman who thinks he has hired an immigrant day laborer, a common occurrence in his community, the reader sees that Alejandro is quite educated and has a dark mission he is keeping secret. Inner dialogue adds depth and intimacy with the POV character.—Quinn


Friday, January 17, 2014


In my blog on emotion (1/16/14), we looked at ways of demonstrating the point of view (POV) character’s feelings. Why are we interested? Because story is conflict or tension fueled by emotion. In response to a motivator (see The MRU 8/26/13), an internal reaction provides the reason for the POV’s response, which moves the story along.

The portrayal of an emotional reaction within a story is broken down and shown chronologically as it happens. Immediately after the motivation, there is a visceral response followed by thought then dialogue and/or action. If taken out of order, the reader feels unsettled.

So what is a visceral response? It is the fight or flight mechanism. Triggered by a threat, the body shuts down organs not necessary for survival and concentrates on those that do. Eyesight may narrow. Attention may concentrate on a particular sound. Adrenal glands may spurt adrenaline. There may be physical reactions like goose bumps or flushing. The contraction of the muscles in the stomach wall may cause nausea or butterflies.

The visceral response is the strongest indicator of an emotion that will activate a change in the POV’s mind. If powerfully written, the story world becomes real and vivid as the reader imagines the same emotion in his own body.

Ways to portray visceral reactions are with involuntary internal and physical reactions. Here are a few:

 Emotion                         Visceral Response

 Anger            Internal: body tense, heart pounding, face flushing
                       Physical: noisy breathing, protruding eyes, veins that pulse

 Fear               Internal: speechless, weak leg joints, rapid heartb
                       Physical: frozen to a spot, shaking, hair standing on end

 Love              Internal: flutters in stomach, tongue-tied, heart hammering
                       Physical: brightening, euphoria, nervousness

 Sympathy      Internal: ache in throat, emotionally strained
                       Physical: sad countenance, deep sighs, crying

 Never label an emotion. Show it. This allows the reader to experience it. And always depict the emotion as it progresses. When a sad person finds joy, show his sadness. Have the sadness go to wonder, then to belief, then to joy.

The second phase of an emotional response is thought. Next time we’ll investigate internal dialogue.—Quinn

Thursday, January 16, 2014


We’ve been talking about some of the elements of story, but what is story? Conflict. What fuels conflict? Emotion. Let’s see how emotion works by using a few examples.

            1.  She felt happy that Tim had returned.
            2.  He was annoyed since Tim was late.
            3.  He was angry that Tim showed up.
            4.  She was frightened that Tim found her.

 These are examples of telling rather than showing. They relate information about the characters reaction to Tim, but it is dry as a laundry list and doesn’t engage the reader. It’s the writer’s job to allow the reader to feel the character’s emotions. This holds the reader’s interest and pulls him into the story. First, let’s let the characters show how they feel about Tim by using dialogue.

            1. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.”     (happy)
            2.  “It’s about time, Tim.”                     (annoyed)
            3.  “Tim, how did you get in here?”      (angry)
            4.  “It’s Tim. Hide.”                               (frightened)

 Now we’ve stepped into the characters’ world. Through their voices, we hear what they feel about Tim’s appearance. Let’s get closer to the characters and add their visceral reactions.

            1. Warmth washed over her face. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.”
            2.  His jaw tightened. “It’s about time, Tim.”
            3.  He ground his teeth. “Tim, how did you get in here?”
            4.  Time seemed to stop. “It’s Tim. Hide.”

 Now we’re getting their primitive reactions to Tim. Let’s add their thoughts.

            1. Warmth washed over her face. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.” My goodness. How handsome he’s grown. And no ring.                 
            2.  His jaw tightened. “It’s about time, Tim.” Moron. The clients have been twiddling their thumbs half the morning.
            3.  He ground his teeth. “Tim, how did you get in here?” Did he plant any bugs on his way in? I’m going to fire that airhead receptionist.
            4.  Time seemed to stop. “It’s Tim. Hide.” He said he’d find us. He said he’d kill us.

 We know exactly how the characters feel about Tim and why. Now we understand their motives and participate vicariously in their actions.

           1. Warmth washed over her face. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.” My goodness. How handsome he’s grown. And no ring. She tore her gaze from his soft eyes and patted the open stool next to her. “Join me for coffee?”               
            2.  His jaw tightened. “It’s about time, Tim.” Moron. The clients have been twiddling their thumbs half the morning. He grabbed Tim’s arm and dragged him toward the boardroom
            3.  He ground his teeth. “Tim, how did you get in here?” Did he plant any bugs on his way in? I’m going to fire that airhead receptionist. He punched the button that alerted security.
            4.  Time seemed to stop. “It’s Tim. Hide.” He said he’d find us. He said he’d kill us. She shoved the children behind the couch, grabbed the gun, and aimed at the door.

Using dialogue, visceral reaction, thoughts, and action, the writer draws his readers into the story world by allowing them to feel the characters’ emotions and participate in their actions. As the emotions meet obstacles, conflict heightens and the plot progresses.—Quinn