Make Music with Character Voices

On the Writers in the Storm Blog, I offer suggestions how you can create characters with voices so distinct that your readers can “hear” theme music for each one.

Bright jolly vector staves with musical notes on white background, decorative major wavy set of musical notation symbol.

Do your characters feel flat? Do they all sound like you and only you? Tune in to the music of character voices, make them sound more like the different instruments of a band or orchestra. Make music with your character voices and your readers won’t be able to get enough of the stories you write.

Great characters are the key to great fiction.Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

What or Who Your Character Is

There are many things to consider when creating your story characters. Many how-to-write articles suggest creating a detailed profile of your characters. Delving into a character’s birth place, likes and dislikes, job, hair color, and using tools like spreadsheets and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires can be helpful, but characters are more than the details on a spreadsheet or form. Character are more than their story role, more than the point of view you choose for them, and more than what they do in the story. Your characters each need a voice, a unique voice. But how do you create that?

The Key to Understanding Characters

When a writer is told they’re too young or haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand the basics of character or even life. A general understanding of psychological personality types will go a long way to helping you create varied and interesting characters. 

Learn about the fundamental personality types. Go deeper than Wikipedia, though it may give you an overview that is helpful. There are literally millions of sites on the internet that discuss variations on personality types. Choose one that’s reliable like psychcentral, psychology today, and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Psych Central has a helpful explanation of what is personality. Psychology Today discusses the basics of personality traits. NIMH has a great resource on personality disorders. Those three sites offer multiple articles on personality, personality traits, and personality disorders. 

Read about establishing your character’s musical pitch and more in the rest of my post at the Writers in the Storm blog.

Create a Compelling Plot with What-But-Therefore

Lynette M. Burrows

You can have interesting characters in a striking setting and have a boring book. Plot structure can create tension that keeps the reader engaged and eager to finish your book. But learning how to plot is confusing. Many writers have their own theory on how to create an interesting plot. Some argue the number of types of plot structure and they name anywhere between one (man against man) to seven. Others talk about the elements of or the stages of plot. Those folk teach five, six, seven, nine, or more elements they call stages, or doors, or plot points. They say to use a diagram or an outline or to write freely and figure it out as you go. What’s a writer to do? Learn as much as you can. A good place to start is 7 Plot Structures for Pantsers by John Peragine. If you’re looking for a simple and effective tool for creating a cause-effect, can’t-stop-reading plot use the WHAT-BUT-THEREFORE method.

Image is of an open book with an illustration on the two visible pages. The first page shows a grassy area with a small pond, a flowering tree, and mushrooms. A picnic basket and blanket are beneath the tree. On the second page is a dry and cracked section of dirt with flames leaping from the top of the page. How does the What-But-Therefore help you get from one page to the other?

What is Plot?

At its most basic level, plot is the chain of events that make up a story. But a basic chain of events does not make a story. Consider this pared-down version of Rumplestiltskin by the Brothers Grimm:

The miller says his daughter can spin straw into gold.

The king gave the girl a room of straw to spin into gold.

The girl made a bargain with a droll little man.

The girl spins the straw into gold.

The king marries the girl and she becomes queen.

The queen gives birth to a little girl.

The droll little man wants his end of the bargain.

The queen guesses his name, and he goes away empty-handed.

Illustration from Rumplestiltskin showing the imp dancing around a pot on a fire in a forested area with a charming cottage in the background.

As a plain chain of events, this classic story has no tension. It’s boring. 

A more complex definition of plot is the sequence of events which causes a character to react in a way that affects the next event through the principle of cause-and-effect. With this definition, you can still create an unexciting story. The tension must rise.

The way I make certain story tension grips the reader is to use a What-But-Therefore outline of each scene.


Read More

Read how the What-But-Therefore sentences work for Rumplestiltskin on the Writers in the Storm blog. (Sorry, I had the link wrong but it’s fixed now.)

A Note to My Readers

Thank you for your patience. I’m consumed with the packing up of nearly thirty years of furniture and life accumulations so my floors can be refinished. For readers of my newsletter, I am moved into the basement and a little less than halfway through the huge task of having my floors refinished. Next month you’ll get a glimpse of the before, life in the basement, and (I hope) a few of newly painted rooms and my beautifully refinished floors. I estimate the move back in will finish near the end of August. I plan to return to my usual blogging and writing schedule then. In the meantime, enjoy this post on WITS or stay here and search for similar how-to write posts.

Create Compelling Scenes with the MRU

I consider myself fortunate to have met Mr. Swain early in my writing career. His book helped me massively improve my writing. I hope this information helps you too. Writing Compelling Scenes with the MRU is introduced here and appears in full on the Writers in the Storm blog on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.


Structuring your novel’s big picture is important. The structure of your scenes all the way down to your character’s motivations and reactions are equally important. If you get the sequence out of order, you risk confusing or completely disengaging your reader. Don’t worry. You can create compelling scenes with the MRU. The motivation-reaction unit (MRU) is a tool introduced by Dwight V. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. This post is only an introduction to the MRU. In his book, Mr. Swain does a deep dive into the MRU and other tools writers can use to be a selling writer.

“A story is a series of motivation-reaction units. The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”

Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain.

What is the MRU?

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Mr. Swain uses his understanding of the pattern of emotion (how people’s brains work) to create a guideline for writing fiction. He calls it the motivation-reaction unit (MRU) and breaks it down into parts. 

At its simplest, the MRU is—

a.) Motivation.

b.) Reaction.

In the book, Mr. Swain talks about each part of the MRU in great detail. Read it to get a deeper understanding of the MRU. He also discusses what story is, story structure, character, conflict, and ways to be a successful professional writer. 

How Your Brain Reacts to Stimuli 

People react to a stimulus predictably. There are simple responses, more detailed responses and complex responses. What we think varies. What we feel varies. What we do and say varies. But each of our brains reacts to a stimulus in the same pattern. 

A stimulus is something that directly rouses a reaction or activity. We pick up stimuli with one of our senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste. Neurons in your brain process the stimulus and cause a sequence of responses. The blink of an eye is one reflex that happens instantly. Some responses we learned at an early age— don’t touch the hot stove. We gain some after repeated experiences, and some responses need to be processed on a higher level of thought that might take hours to months.

Simplest Stimulus and Response

A reflex is your body’s simplest response. A dangerous stimulus causes an immediate motor response. 

Stimulus: Something flies toward your eye.

Response: You blink without a conscious thought. 

More Complicated Stimulus and Response

The more complicated the stimuli, the more complicated your response. Your brain processes this in nanoseconds and your body responds in seconds or minutes. 

Stimulus: 

You feel the pain of a bee stinging you.

Reaction: 

You want to stop the pain, slap at the bee, and yell. 

Complex Stimuli and Response

Some stimuli, particularly social ones, are far more complex and trigger a complex response.

Stimulus:

Your ex-husband confronts you at a public event and loudly demands that you admit your much loved, recently departed, second husband abused you. 

Reaction:

Confused and hurt, you play the words in your head again,. You knot your hands into fists. You politely deny the accusation and you excuse yourself from the uncomfortable situation. Later, you replay the scene in your head; you remember similar conversations with your ex, and your suppressed anger boils. You curse loudly and deface your ex’s expensive car. 

How to Create an Effective Motivation

Motivation always comes before reaction. But what motivation is Mr. Swain talking about?

Read More

Where did you first hear about the MRU? What have you written, read, or watched that has a great example of the MRU?

If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the Story Sentence or my posts on Re-Visioning Your Story.

The Frame of a Story: The Forces of Antagonism

This is the beginning of my contribution to The Writers in the Storm blog this month. I share my understanding of Robert McKee’s Forces of Antagonism and how I use those forces as the frame of a story.

This photo is a shot of the grass and blue sky visible between the backs of a man and a woman standing side-by-side. Each has an arm extended in front of them with their thumb and index finger framing the ghostly outline of a house illustrating the frame of a story.
Dreaming Couple Framing Hands Around Ghosted House Figure in Grass Field.

In constructing a story, I am both a pantser and a planner. I plan the frame of a story, then place the characters in that frame and discover what they will do in that situation. It’s taken years for me to figure out a method that works for me. I share it here, not so you have a blueprint to borrow, but to illustrate one way to build your own frame. As I explained last month, the first step in building a story’s framework is the story sentence. The next step I take is to decide on the Forces of Antagonism that will best express my story.

I first came across the idea of forces of antagonism in Robert McKee’s book, Story. No disrespect to Mr. McKee, but I didn’t get it at all. I had a more narrow definition of antagonist that I conflated with the word antagonism. Plus, his terminology didn’t resonate with me. In fact, I barely understood what he was saying. Then a friend reintroduced me to the concept. 

Forces of Antagonism 

… the principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design.” Story, by Robert McKee

The first part of the principle is easy. It’s about people. Humans conserve energy, all kinds of energy. It’s part of our DNA. If we see two choices ahead of us and one seems easier than the other, most of us will do the easier thing. We avoid taking risks, if we can. 

Mr. McKee explains “the principle of antagonism is that a protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotional compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” He says the more powerful and complex these forces are, the more completely realized the character and story must become. 

If you’re like me, you read antagonism and think antagonist. Most likely you are thinking of a single person or group who will oppose your protagonist. But that’s not quite right. 


The Frame of a Story

Read the rest of this post and learn about the principle of Antagonism, how I interpret the four forces, and how I use them as the frame of a story so I can be both a planner and a pantser on The Writers in the Storm.

One Plotting Tool for All

I’m on Writer’s in the Storm Blog today, talking about my favorite plotting tool. Link is at the end of this excerpt.

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help writers regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

Image of the top several pieces of paper wadded up into balls near a notebook of blank lined paper, you need one plotting tool to get started.

Where Do You Start?

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

What is Plot?

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. SwainDonald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk—the story sentence.

What is The Story Sentence?

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now…

Find this familiar? I wrote about it back in 2018. I’ve learned more about The Sentence that I share in this post. Visit WritersintheStormBlog to read all about it.

Image Credits

Top image by by Markus Winkler from Pixabay