I’m so excited that this year, at the Oregon Christian Writers’ conference I’m teaming up with Jim Rubart to teach you this amazing brainstorming and plotting technique that will revolutionize and simplify the plotting process!
And it all starts with one epic question.
Over the past 12 years and 55 novels, I’ve discovered a “ Story Equation” that helps me discover and build into a story all the essential pieces. But, the center of the equation starts by asking:
Who are you?
From that question, the equation pulls out two key elements: Identity and the Dark Moment Story. From that Dark Moment Story we’re then going to pull all our essential ingredients to create our compelling character and riveting plot: The characters greatest fear, his lie, his flaw, his competing values, his wants, his wounds, and the big why that drives the entire story.
In the advanced layer, we’ll also find our character’s secret desire, his greatest dream, and the other elements that help us build our plot.
WHO are you?
Often, we bring to the story what we call the story seed. This is the naked story idea that has sparked—probably from something we’ve heard or read about—a big question, a situation, a historical figure or event, even a great what-if.
One of my favorite characters to develop was the final character in my Christiansen Family series. I’d already explored all his other siblings, but I had no idea who Owen, the family troublemaker, was until I got to his story.
I needed an SEQ—a Story Equation.
My conversation with Owen went something like this:
Who are you? “ I’m a prodigal fisherman.”
Why are you a prodigal fisherman? “ I’m a fisherman because this is the job that I could get. I’m working on a crabbing boat. It’s a short-term job, temporary. I don’t have to commit to it. I can just work hard for a season, get money, and go on because I’m a vagabond. I’m on the run, hence, why I’m called a prodigal.”
Why are you a prodigal? “ Well, because I don’t want to live the life my parents don’t really want me to live, but I can’t go home.”
Why can’t you go home? “ I sort of made a mess of things at my sister’s wedding when I was visiting.”
Really, what happened? “ I don’t know, really, what happened, but my brother, Casper, got freaked out on me, got really upset, attacked me in the middle of the wedding and we got in a huge fist fight. I don’t know what his problem was. Or . . . actually, I do. Apparently, he fell in love with this girl that—okay, yes, I had a one-night stand with. I realized it was probably a bad thing, but I did. He fell in love with her, and when he found out we’d slept together he took it personally and got angry. I got mad too, and we got into a huge fist fight. I realize now that probably I handled it badly.”
Why did you handle it badly? “ I’ve had a rough go of it because I—you might not know this about me but I used to be a professional hockey player, and I had the whole world, and then—well, my brother-in-law actually hit me with a hockey stick and he made me blind in my eye. My whole career is destroyed. What do you expect from me? I had this life, and now I don’t anymore. So, thank you very much. This is my life now.”
Perfect. Now, as an author, I have a little picture of Owen. I also have a hint of the Dark Moment Story—which is probably losing his eyesight.
Now that I’ve drilled down the adjective, I’ll move over to the noun. Fisherman. This gives me a hint of what Owen looks like on the outside. He’s got an eye patch because he lost his eye. And he’s working the high seas, so we can attach a pirate vibe to him. He’s probably a hard worker because he needs to earn money. Probably also a bit unkempt, with a scruffy beard from being at sea for a month. He doesn’t really care what he wears, old T-shirt, old sweatshirt, this sort of thing.
We can go even deeper and ask: What’s his attitude? Who is this guy who’s now working on a fishing boat? He’s named himself a prodigal. A person that’s named himself a prodigal probably has a little bit of regret. When the story opens, Owen knows he’s not doing the right thing but he feels like there’s no way back. He probably wears a small chip on his shoulder, and most likely feels very alone. Perhaps he feels that he can’t get close to people because he feels guilty about hurting his brother—which means he might even regret his womanizing ways. Perhaps he’s even tried to amend his actions, but still feels like he can’t go home.
(By the way, get Owen’s story, You’re the One that I Want here!)
Give us a Dark Moment Story
The goal is to get to the heart of your character by asking why, until you land on a Dark Moment Story.
The Dark Moment Story is the core of your SEQ; it’s the secret sauce behind what all the stuff your character does. The Dark Moment Story gives your character motivation. It combines with the greatest dream to find out what he wants, which then gives him a goal, establishes his lie, and helps develop his flaw. All the pieces of your equation come from this Dark Moment Story.
We can find a Dark Moment Story in almost every great movie.
In Braveheart, William Wallace’s Dark Moment Story is played in out in the first 20 minutes of the film. First, his family dies, and then the woman he loves, his wife, dies.
In one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping, the Dark Moment Story is told by the heroine, Lucy, to Jack during their walk home through Chicago. (Hint: it’s the story of her father, always wishing to go somewhere, and her never taking a trip because he got sick and she had to take care of him.)
But, that’s just the start of the plotting process. During our class, you’ll learn:
Three essential elements to a Dark Moment Story
The Magic of how you’ll use this story in your novel to help your readers love your character (even if he’s a rascal!) And,
How to PLOT your entire story using the Story Equation. (SEQ)
This is just one part of our class, Book Quest: One Idea’s Epic Adventure to Becoming a Novel. Find out more here! Students in this class get their first 3,500 words and a 500-word synopsis critiqued by one of the instructors. Can’t wait to see you!
Go write something brilliant!
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Susan May Warren is the Christy, RITA, and Carol Award-winning author of more than 45 novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, and Summerside Press. Two-time Christy winner, RITA winner, she’s also a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice Award, and the ACFW Carol Award. She is the author of Conversations with a Writing Coach and also the founder of MyBookTherapy.com, a story-crafting service that helps authors get published . . . and stay published!