Do You Know The Secrets of Successful Story-writing?

Yes, there are secrets to successful story-writing but don’t worry, the recipes aren’t hard. The ingredients are classic and simple. The directions aren’t difficult. The execution…well, that part’s up to you. Let’s start with the basic M-R unit.

Story equals change…equals cause and effect…

equals motivation and reaction.

—Dwight V. Swain

The Motivation-Reaction Unit

Remember the Because-But-Therefore statement I talked about in Because There are Lies, Secrets, and Scars? Now we’re digging deeper into that concept. 

The M-R Unit is the creation of Dwight V. Swain and discussed in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. The writer who understands the M-R unit will write a successful story. Success may not come in the first draft. But if you understand the M-R unit, you understand one of the secrets of successful story-writing. 

In his book, Swain says, “External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or how violent they may be….They aid in story development only as someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.”

Cause and Effect

That external event in a story causes the character to have a reaction. Swain calls the event, or cause, a motivating stimulus. The cause, or motivating stimulus,  is “anything outside of your viewpoint character to which he reacts.” Let me repeat that: a motivating stimulus is OUTSIDE of your viewpoint character (Swain uses the term “focal character”) to which he REACTS. (Emphasis mine.) That’s a crucial ingredient in successful story-writing.

So all those lovely events you wrote, where the character is an observer—delete them. Or make that event matter, make it trigger a specific reaction from your character. 

Character Reaction

Swain digs even deeper. There is a pattern we humans follow. When we receive new information there is a change. This change is our motivating stimulus. There is a hierarchy in our reactions to that change. First, we have a feeling. Damn. I’m disappointed. Then we act. I pound the table. Finally, we speak. “Damn it, Jim. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” In reality, these reactions occur very fast, often simultaneously. But in reading, you read words one at a time. (Yes, there are people who read phrases, but it’s still first phrase, second phrase, etc.). To convey simultaneity in writing is difficult and most often, confusing.

Swain calls this hierarchy the motivation-reaction unit. He writes it like this:

  1. Motivating Stimulus
  2. Character Reaction
    1. Feeling
    2. Action
    3. Speech

The words you choose to describe those things isn’t as important as the order in which they appear. If you mix up the order, it feels wrong or doesn’t flow or doesn’t make any sense at all. 

Quote from Mark Twain about the right word illustrates successful story-writing.


Here’s an example from my first draft of my current WIP.


“Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”

Oh, crap. Ian’s pulse rocketed. Pop was wrong. “I don’t understand.” He held Dale’s envelope against his chest, his arms folded over it, and tried to interpret Collins’ expression. 


I’ll break the pattern down into M-R Unit speak.

  • Stimulus: “Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”
  • Speech (remember, thought is internal speech): Oh, Crap.
  • Feeling: Ian’s pulse rocketed
  • Speech: Pop was wrong. “I don’t understand.” 
  • Action: He held Dale’s envelope against his chest, his arms folded over it, and tried to interpret Collins’ expression.

Now read it with the proper hierarchy of the M-R unit.


“Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”

Ian pulse rocketed. He folded his arms over Dale’s envelope. Held it snug against his chest. Oh, crap. “I don’t understand.” Did Collins rat me out?


Does this read smoother? Do you feel the increased tension? Do you understand more clearly what Ian’s reaction is? Look at the M-R unit breakdown below.

  • Stimulus: “Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”
  • Feeling: Ian pulse rocketed.
  • Action: He folded his arms over Dale’s envelope. Held it snug against his chest.
  • Speech: Oh, crap. “I don’t understand.” Did Collins rat me out?

In his book, Swain discusses the M-R unit in detail. He also discusses techniques for developing your book from conflict to scene and sequel and all the aspects of successful story-writing. Swain’s book is available on Amazon and Audible. I highly recommend it.


The secrets of successful story-writing aren’t really secrets. And they aren’t rules. Even Swain rejects “rules” for story writing.

“No writer in his right mind writes by a set of rules.”

Dwight V. Swain

But there are patterns to successful story-writing. 

“The first real rule of successful story-writing is…find a feeling.” 

Dwight V. Swain

Use the pattern of stimulus-reaction. Be certain reactions follow the hierarchy. It’s the recipe that will launch you on your way to successful story-writing.

Because There Are Lies, Secrets, and Scars

The plot is what happens to your character. The story is about how your character reacts to the things that happen. It’s simple cause and effect, right? Hold on there. It’s not quite that simple. For the most effective story your forces of antagonism (see this post) and your character’s lies, secrets, and scars (see this post) are interwoven. Easy for me to say. Difficult to do. Until you have the golden ticket. What’s that golden ticket? Because there are lies, secrets, and scars and opposition, there is a unique plot.

Because There are Lies, Secrets, and Scars you can create a unique plot. Learn how.

Writers often worry about a story being “done to death.” It’s easy to believe there are no new stories in the world. One look at all the titles in Amazon can overwhelm you. Let’s rephrase.

There are no new story concepts in the world. A story concept is reducing the story to the basics. Concepts include: the revenge plot, the detective story, the space marine story, and so on. There are hundreds if not millions of stories about revenge. That’s the test. If it’s a concept, there are lots of other stories like it.

So how is a writer to make his story stand out?

You make choices. Your choices create a plot.

Choose Your Adventure

You choose what your story concept and theme are. Those are often generic. Your choice of which forces of antagonism you’ll use to structure your story makes your story yours. Which lies, secrets, and scars you choose for your protagonist and antagonist won’t be the same as anyone else’s. This combination of choices sets you up to create a unique plot.

Episodic vs. Cause and Effect

An episodic story lacks plot. Sam sends Mary a dozen rose and then Sam visits her and then Sam proposes to her and then they lived happily (or unhappily) ever after. Not very compelling, is it?

Remember how I said the lies, secrets, and scars of your character are your story’s third rail? And that third rail is what keeps the story train moving. (See the post Lies, Secrets, and Scars Make Better Characters)

If the lies, secrets, and scars are the third rail, “because” is the train’s engine.

Because is a conjunction meaning “for the reason that or due to the fact that.” (

Watch what happens to the “and then sentence” when you replace the “ands” and the “thens.”


BECAUSE Sam’s doesn’t trust himself to tell Mary he loves her, he asks his best friend, Jack, to give her a dozen roses and say they’re from Sam.

BUT Jack, determined to have the Mary first, gives the roses to Mary saying they are from him.

THEREFORE Sam decides he can’t trust anyone, ever and won’t talk to Mary or Jack.

BECAUSE Sam doesn’t trust anyone, he moves out of town and vanishes.

BUT years later, Sam returns to town after his father dies and discovers that the love of his life, Mary, married Jack.

THEREFORE when Sam receives a message from Mary stating she still loves him, he must decide if he can trust the message, Mary, and himself.

As an off-the-top-of-my-head example, this scenario isn’t as strong as I wish it were. But I hope you can see how the tension builds and the conflict gets deeper and deeper using this technique.

The Past

Because links the character to his past decisions, actions or beliefs. His past is always influenced by his lies, secrets, and scars. He makes decisions BECAUSE of his belief in his lies, secrets, and scars.

The Opposition

But is the opposition, the thing that prevents your character from achieving his goal in the scene and the story. This is where unintended consequences can come to play. It can be a case of collateral damage, something the protagonist didn’t foresee. These actions originate from the character’s state of mind OR from the antagonist.

The Consequences

Therefore is the consequences. It can be an internal or external event or a reaction. It always includes a decision (or refusal to make a decision). This is the “how the story events” go forward. Until the next bit of opposition.

Choose Your Tools

Because, But, Therefore are tools you can use to construct a solid plot. There are many other tools that you can use. This is the one I prefer. Will you try this one?

The “because, but, therefore” construction keeps me focused. Because there are lies, secrets, and scars the plotting process is more focused. And because their past influences the choices I make for the characters, a unique plot is born.

The ABCs of How to Write a Good Story

A story is more than a beginning a middle and an end. Seasoned writers know that each part has a bunch of specific functions to perform. If any of them fail the story will be less than satisfying for the reader. This series is about more than the ABCs of how to write a good story. I’ll deep dive into how the right beginning, middle, and end can make a good story. But before we start, we need to find common definitions of terms writers throw around.

There are hundreds of decisions to make before you start writing a story. The writer makes some of these decisions subconsciously and often makes them in a willy-nilly sort of order. Each writer’s process is different and that is okay. So, today we’re going start making decisions by defining the word story.

The ABCs of How to Write a Good Story by Lynette M. BurrowsWhat Is Story?

There are hundreds of variations on the definition so I’m going to be arbitrary. I find Lisa Cron’s definition most accurate and useful.

A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes as a result. Story Genius by Lisa Cron

There are stories where the person pursuing the goal does not change. We’ll delve into that later. For now, let’s go with Lisa’s definition.

Why should we define the word story? How do you know if you’ve written a successful story if you can’t define what a story is? So there you are. The first decision a writer makes is what definition of story am I going to use.

What is the Story Kernel?

Often what sets a writer on the path to write a story is a story kernel. The story kernel is the main idea of the story. It can be one idea—a story title, a lyric from a song, a stanza of a poem, a part of a conversation overheard, etc. Or it can be several ideas together.

Ideas are everywhere when you train yourself to look for them. I recommend an idea file or journal. Write down every idea that comes to you.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea. Often the first kernel isn’t a “good” idea. Often it takes two or three or more ideas together to make a story.

Write down your initial idea and why it appeals to you. You’ll use this later.

The ABCs of How to Write a Good Story by Lynette M. Burrows

What Kind of Story?

By what kind I mean something more general than genre. Here are a few of the questions you need to ask yourself.

Drama, tragedy, comedy or satire? Someone who has studied Greek plays would say that drama and tragedy are the same thing. I make a distinction because a tragedy is always tragic. A drama can explore big themes but have a non-tragic ending.

Will your story be primarily an inner journey story or an external journey story? An inner journey is an emotional one. It usually begins with a fault or wound to the protagonist’s psyche. An external journey is the physical actions she must take to get the object of her desire.

Will the protagonist succeed or fail on her internal journey?

Will the protagonist succeed or fail on her external journey

Is your story of grand scale or is it a small, intimate story?

A story of grandeur will need a story kernel that encompasses changes that affect a whole community, or country, or the universe. A more intimate story will affect one individual or a family or a small community.

Does your story have a strong theme or moral or is it a story meant to entertain? (Please note, all stories entertain. Some are lighter on theme and moral than others. That is not a judgment, it’s a choice the writer makes.)

How to Write a Good Story

Our discussion of story structure has a long way to go but this is as good of a place to pause as any. One of the things I’ve discovered is that every story I write has its own rhythm. The order in which I tackle structure is different every time. And that is okay.

If you would like to study structure on your own, you can find a list of my favorite how-to-write books on my Writing Resources page.

I appreciate contributions to this discussion. So if you have questions or comments—feel free to express yourself in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

Many writers completely pants the first draft and apply structure in the second draft. And there are many writers who draft a fifty-page outline before they begin. Experiment with what works for you. You may find you work one way very well. Or, you may find that your path varies with each story. This is only the beginning of the ABCs of how to write a good story—YOUR story is more than its parts. So keep writing and I’ll see you here next week.

Stories Need Structure

Reading is fundamentally part of being a writer. Many writers start off as a reader. And over time they decide to try to write their own stories. At least that’s how I started. Unfortunately, reading stories does not teach you how to write stories. Stories need structure even if it’s applied at a subconscious level.

A Pantser at Heart

A pantser is a writer who starts writing without a plan. Years ago, that was me. I’d start with a voice and an idea. Yup, my characters talked to me, or through me. But my stories were unsatisfying. There was no pace, very little conflict, and too often, very little story. They weren’t the stories I’d dreamed of writing.

More than Beginning-Middle-End

I’m sure you’ve all heard that stories need a beginning a middle and an end. But that’s not enough. Many stories have beginnings and middles and ends. What they don’t have is pace or structure or, sadly, compelling conflict. Indie authors suffer from this most ONLY because self-publishing makes it easy to put it out there before their writing has matured. There are plenty of traditionally published authors whose stories suffer from a lack of understanding story structure.

As Many Methods as Writers

Every writer is different. Each of us must find our own way to create but there are basics that you ignore at the cost of writing a meh story.

I’ve learned via books and correspondence courses and webinars and online courses. My teachers include well-known authors: Dwight V Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer, Larry Brooks and his Story Engineering, Holly Lisle and her Writing Sideways, and writing gurus Lisa Cron, Shawn Coyne, Blake Snyder, and Robert McKee. (For a complete list of resources I’ve used see this page.) My critique groups have been quite instructive. (Yes, I’ve participated in more than one.) And I’ve had wonderful mentors. William F. Wu and Margie Lawson are two of my most influential mentors.

It’s taken years for me to learn about story structure. And years to develop my own tools to create satisfying stories in a reliable and repeatable way. A way to use story structure that allows my pantser heart freedom.

My Process Took Years

How did I come up with my way of outlining? I started with Jami Gold’s beat sheet. Over the years I’ve added to and massaged that document over time. In a mind-meld kind of way, I’ve mushed together the how-to-write-a-story tools that help me. Perhaps it’ll help you, too.

I use Scrivener to write because of the great flexibility of that program. But I’ve handwritten outlines. I’ve used spreadsheets and I’ve written an English-class-style outline. By far, this has been the best.

Stories Need Structure. This is a flexible outlining tool.

As you can see I’ve divided this poster board into four parts. I’ve identified the parts of the story and I have used 4×6 index cards (cut in half ‘cause I’m weird that way). I attach the cards with removable tape. That way it’s all moveable. This is the least rigid outline I’ve ever used. And that appeals to my pantser heart.

The board sits at eye level on my left so if I get lost when I’m writing I look at it. And, if while I’m writing, I have a new idea I write it on a card and put it up on the board, moving other cards as needed.

I love this new board method for its flexibility and it’s being always in sight. Always in sight means that it is working my subconscious ALL. The. Time. It works when I’m writing emails or cleaning or goofing off and playing games online.

Stories Need Structure

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting what I’ve learned. Because all writers need the reminder. And I want indie writers to deliver better stories to their readers. Most of all, because stories need structure. But I don’t want this to be a one-sided conversation. Please share your thoughts about structure and tools that you use. We can learn from one another.

If She Loves a Rag Doll, Is She Still Evil?

In My Soul to Keep, there is a character who is a murderous psychopath. She’s been purposely programmed to be that kind of person.  So how do you go about creating a story villain who’s truly evil but has some redeeming qualities? If she loves a rag doll, is she still evil?


Fortunately I had a mentor who knew how. How did he know? First, he’s smart. Second, he’s studied successful fiction and movies for a long time. What did he say to me that gave me a clue? He reminded me that a great story villain isn’t all villain all the time.. He also reminded me to look at the villains in books I’ve loved. For example, in Dean Koontz’s The Watchers there is a creature who had been created to be a destroyer, a murderer. He’s loathsome in appearance in and in deed. However, there’s a scene where the investigator-character discovers the monster’s lair. In the lair, the monstrous villain has treasured objects that include a collection of Disney branded toys and movies. It made this reader’s heart soften a touch toward the monster. And it made the monster more real, less one dimensional.


I took that lesson to heart when I developed the psychopathic villain for My Soul to Keep. Rather than refer directly to Disney characters or movies, I used a character name from J. M. Barrie and twisted it so it was an oblique reference. If you’ve read my novel, can you figure out which character name I used and how?

But I didn’t stop there. I wanted something that would throw back to her childhood that hinted at the idea that she once had the potential to be a kind and caring person. When I’m stuck for ideas like this, I do an image search on Google and Pinterest. And this is what I found.

If she loves a rag doll, is she still evil. The answer is yes, read why
Many thanks to Titia Geertman for sharing the story and pictures.

Read this post about that rag doll. It struck me that in the alternate world of My Soul to Keep, this would be the type of doll created for this character by her mother. And while there is a strong link between the doll and the character, the assassin is never seen with the doll. This was also done on purpose. Often the strongest emotional resonance is when we see something about a character through another character. Thus Beryl thinks about her daughter and we learn about Azrael.


For each of my characters, even the walk-ons, I created at least one detail that demonstrated the character’s past history or personality. One character lives in a shabby cabin but reads Shakespeare. Another character has a tight perm that made her bangs wobble and bounce.

In My Soul to Keep, the rag doll gives the villain a past readers can relate to, but it doesn’t change her. So in answer to my question, if she loves a rag doll, is she still evil? The answer is yes. In which books that you’ve read have the villains had a touch of humanity or love or charity that made them more dimensional?