Monday, August 15, 2022

The Big Question, Part 10


Now that you have your cast of characters, you need to come up with more plot details and decide on what story arcs (major plots and subplots) you'll need to answer your Big Question.  

An arc or plot line is a simple statement of plot.  You can create one for the main plot, the secondary plot line, and for the subplots.

For STAR-CROSSED, the science fiction story arc is 

Mara must rescue Tristan from the harem, and they must escape to freedom.

Since this novel is a romance as well as science fiction adventure, there is also a romantic story arc:  

Mara and Tristan must put aside their cultural differences to find love.  Tristan must choose between Mara and Dorian by giving up his own insecurities about love and by discovering whom he loves. 

Here are story arcs you'll find in different types of romance novels.

In a romantic suspense

the romance story arc--

the hero and heroine's emotional story arc

the mystery/suspense arc--

the villain's story arc

In category romance (series lines like Harlequin American)

The romance is the major and usually the only story arc

    Sometimes, a minor subplot may cause conflict between the hero and heroine

Fantasy, science fiction, and straight mystery also have one major story arc. Fantasy and science fiction tend toward the quest or task story arc.  Romance and character relationships are more often a subplot arc or character development with no major plot importance.

Now you need to detail your own story arcs and plot elements.

Get a sheet of paper or a blank page on your computer.  First jot down the ideas you've already come up with thanks to creating your question and the characters you've created.

Now start writing down the obvious plot points.  

For STAR-CROSSED, the most obvious ones involved the story arc Mara must follow to fight the corrupt government, to save Tristan and Kellen, and to destroy the government. 

Each attempt she makes is thwarted in the early stages, and each time she's thwarted, the situation becomes more hopeless.

Since this is a romance, I also had the romance story arc.  

Here are some other notes I made on the novel.  

Mara & Tristan in unfeasible power positions, a struggle to regain equality between them.

Cadaran as embodiment of the evil government and the evils of the harem. Tristan's best friend Kellen must become Cadaran's bed slave and faces the true indignities of the harem which Mara spares Tristan from.

Kellen vs. Cadaran, Kellen's attempts at escape -- major subplot.

Another plot conflict/subplot: Tristan's female friend Dorian must discover that Tristan & Kellen aren't dead, and she figures out about the harem planet and must come to their rescue. 

Emotional conflict from this: Dorian believes herself in love with Tristan. Tristan uncertain of his feelings for her. Dorian's presence will tear apart the fragile bond between Tristan & Mara as his escape releases him from Mara's control. 

Tristan's emotional conflict-- anger at harem society with Mara as representative vs. love for Mara as individual. 

Theme: freedom through love, the importance of trust.

Kellen as foil to Tristan 

Kellen's emotional conflict-- hatred of society and struggle to retain emotional dignity. 

his inner freedom vs. the hopelessness at being victim of an inescapable system. 

Possible small conflicts: 

Mara's housekeeper Novia acts as spy for Cadaran. 

Mara's intelligent alien pet Floppy hates Tristan. 

Mara becomes laughingstock when she takes a bed slave because her beloved dead mother was opposed to sexual slavery.

Notice that I also gave suggestions for different themes within the novel that are a bit different from the original question, but reflect the original question.  Doing this will add even more depth to your novel.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Big Question, Worksheet 3



You don't have to go into great detail with minor characters right now.  Just do your most important characters.


Flesh the important characters from Worksheet 2 out:


Give background and motivation

Physical description if important



Mara d'Jorel's relationship with her mother has dominated her life.  Mara always sensed Jorel's bitterness and grief but incorrectly believed she was the cause, and she wasn't worthy enough.  To win her scientist mother's love, she focused all her energies on science and her career with little time for a social life.  Her strong loyalty, love, and maternal impulses were expressed in her relationship with her grandmotherly housekeeper Novia, the alien rab-cat Floppy, and her pets.


Mara is tall and slender. Long legs, ample breasts, very pretty. Her eyes are hazel, her hair chestnut and short at the beginning of the novel.  Her mischievous smile earns her the nickname “Pixie” from Tristan.  

Monday, August 8, 2022

Big Question, Part 9


If you aren't happy with the emotional content of your story, you may want to look at the central story idea. Do your character/characters have a real emotional reason to be doing what they are doing?

Their hunt for the lost treasure should be as much about their emotional reason for needing the treasure as it is about simple greed. That emotional reason should be important enough to make the reader want them to succeed as much as they do.

Maybe the main character is after a magical sword which is the only weapon that will kill the dragon currently ravaging his homeland, and he doesn't really care about other treasure and the life of drunken decadence and dancing girls it promises the other characters.

Maybe the other characters have laughed at him, but they've admired him and gradually they have been drawn into his quest for the sword, and in the end, they'll choose to get the sword with him and lose the other treasure.

Maybe the one who laughed the hardest and made the main character's life hell along the journey will be the one to sacrifice himself so that the hero can rescue a homeland the scoffer has never had, but now wishes to have with his whole heart.

Now that's a story that will grab your reader where a simple quest for gold will not.


I'm a great fan of Andre Norton, the incredible sf and fantasy author.

When I read Norton's MERLIN'S MIRROR, I was so disappointed by the book I reread it to figure out why.

The character of Merlin has a mirror which tells him the future, and he has to make it happen. Through the whole novel, he does all kinds of active things but doesn't make the first important decision about his own life or what he wants to do. Instead, he's led along by that dang mirror. 

He is as passive, in many ways, as a character who is always reacting to others rather than charting his own course, and a passive main character means a boring book.

Being active as a character is as much about choices as it is about running around doing stuff to achieve a goal, particularly someone else's goal.


From a writer's point of view of creating a character, I believe that we need to look inward. All the emotions that will drive the average, sane person to do something unexpected are all there inside us. Given the right impetus, a person will do the unexpected.

I don't believe a good person with a strong moral center will deliberately do something evil like cold-blooded murder, for example, but a good person will kill in the right circumstances. 

From my own experience, I know I'd kill in the right situation. I was sixteen, my dad was camping with the Scouts, and someone woke me by trying to come through my bedroom window in the middle of the night. I had a loaded pistol, and I'm an excellent shot. 

I knew I could shoot through the window, or I could get the gun and run to the phone on the other end of our big house. Either way, I'd be safe. But my mom and my kid sister were asleep in other bedrooms, and I'd be leaving them to the burglar's mercy if I ran.

In that moment of decision, and with cold, certain clarity, I realized I was perfectly capable of shooting the burglar to protect my family. I also realized that he'd have to come through the window before I shot so I would know he was down, or he could come through another window anywhere in the house. 

I knew if I told him to stop, he'd keep coming because I'm female and so small he'd probably think I was nine or ten, and I'd have less of a chance of killing a moving target with a small caliber gun. I knelt behind the bed with the gun in my hand and waited for him to come through the window. I planned to put three shots in his heart and save three shots for just in case.

Fortunately, the dogs scared him away before he made it through the window, but I'll never forget that moment of cold certainty, and I know that I would do the same now. 

As a writer, I've used that moment to help define my good characters who are driven to the edge with hard choices.

The trick as a writer is to make the reader believe that a character will do something outside of their experience. If I were writing that personal experience as part of a novel, I'd have already shown the reader that this character loves their family, and that they have a gun and the experience to use it. 

When that moment of decision comes, the reader wouldn't be completely surprised that the character chooses to stay rather than fleeing like a self-centered bunny. 

If a writer doesn't make you believe a character will react in a certain way, she has screwed up badly.

NOTE:  Worksheet 3 will be posted tomorrow.  

Monday, August 1, 2022

Big Question, Part 8


Once you have a general idea of the characters and the plot, you will need to start fleshing them out.  The major characters have to be more than just elements of the question.  You have to make them real people.

Part of this process of making them real people is adding to their emotional complexity.  First, look at the various givens in the characters' personalities you created so far. Why are they like this?  What in the past shaped them?

For example, Cadaran d'Hasta represents the evils of Arden's society, but as I considered her and why she is what she is, she became more of a person.  I decided that her own motivation stems from a need to dominate others, a refusal to be defeated, and a genuine contempt for women weak enough to love a man.  

She hates men, and she refuses to accept defeat by a man because she was raped when she was a young soldier, and she can't accept that a man ever defeated her.  Every man in her bed, since then, has been dominated and abused to prove this to herself, and she likes men who are sexually rough because it proves she can take it.  

I gave her good qualities to make her fully rounded.  She's loyal to her troops and fair, and she repays loyalty.  Her sarcastic wit in her scenes with Kellen makes her more than a snarling rapist, and in their verbal give and take, the reader can get a glimmer of the possibility that these two people could be friends under very different circumstances.  


One very important aspect of creating great characters is proper motivation for what they do in the novel.

If Mara decided to save Tristan from the harem because he's great in bed and she wants to keep him, the totally selfish motivation wouldn't be strong enough for the plot or for the reader.  

The motivation must be understandable, strong, and for the main viewpoint character or characters, the motive must be one the reader will approve of.  For Mara's original motive, I chose a desire to save a brilliant fellow scientist on the verge of a scientific discovery that will benefit all humans.  Later, her motivation includes her love for him.  

Even with Cadaran, I created a motive greater than a need for money or political power.  I gave her an obsessive need to dominate.

Don't try to be totally inclusive in this creation of characters.  Sketch out the major personality points, decide what the characters look like, and maybe decide on a mannerism or two that fits their personality. 

Mannerisms are especially useful for secondary characters.  Novia, for example, tends to grind, throttle, and maul things with her hands as if she's fighting her need to do that to Tristan whom she hates and fears. 

As you write the novel, characters will often surprise you with insights into them that will add even more depth.  Accept these gifts from your Muse as such and don't toss them out because they don't fit that original character sketch.

In STAR-CROSSED, Floppy, the alien version of a cat, was only supposed to be a cute, fuzzy reminder that Mara lives on a different planet, but in his first scene, he hopped onto Mara's lap and pointed at the data cube to let me know that he was human smart, not a pet, and he wasn't about to let me or any other character take care of Mara when he could do it himself.

He proved to be a great addition to the novel and a reader favorite so I'm glad I listened to my Muse and this opinionated cat.

My insight into Cadaran being raped as a young soldier came when I was writing an early scene between Cadaran and Kellen, and Kellen remarks, “Did some big bad man mangle you?”  My mouth flopped open as I realized that's exactly what happened to Cadaran.  My Muse through Kellen had given me the final piece of Cadaran's emotional puzzle.

In one of my first stories, I had the main character in a surly mood in the opening scene without telling the reader why he was acting the way he was. A friend who critiqued the story wrote in the margin, "Who pissed in his oatmeal this morning?" It's a comment I hear in my head every time I discover I need to rewrite an under-motivated character.

Characters should have very good reasons to act as they do. We must give them motivations that the reader can understand. The most common mistake most new writers make is having a character act in a certain way because the writer needs her to act in a certain way.

This is as true for the villain as it is for the main viewpoint character. If your bad guy doesn't act without proper motivation, the whole story falls apart.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Big Question, Worksheet 2


List the characters you will need to answer your big question and show each character's function as part of the big question.  Only give general answers.  The specifics will be the next exercise. 

You don't need to name each character.  Instead, you can list them as their function. 


Lt. Hallie is Mara's foil. She's good person who must find the moral courage to fight against what she doesn't believe in.  She is Cadaran's aide.  


Mara's best friend will show the standard social attitude toward men

Big Question, Part 7


As you've seen from the stories I've talked about, your main character must face the Big Question in their own life.  

The Big Question often requires a certain strength or weakness in personality for the main character.  

In TIME AFTER TIME, Justin is a "see the big picture" guy so obsessed with his past that he can't see what's right in front of him.

Rick in CASABLANCA protects himself from a broken heart by pretending cynicism and belief in nothing.  He must first discover the truth of the past and reaffirm his love for Ilsa, then must choose between her love and doing the right thing for her and the fight against the Nazis.  

In AVATAR, Jake Sully is a Marine who believes in what they do and is part of something bigger, and he's lost that because he's lost the use of his legs.  To regain his legs and his life as a Marine, he is willing to spy on and betray the scientists and the Na'vi.  He makes the selfish choice but changes because of his experiences in the movie.

Each has a weakness he must face and correct to achieve happiness and to answer his own BQ.


Once you have your main character/characters, you need to decide on other characters who will reflect elements of your Big Question.

In STAR-CROSSED with its “what do you do when your morality conflicts with an immoral government?” Big Question, I had to create characters to reflect the elements of my question.

One of the characters would represent the power and brutality of the immoral government.  She would be an unstoppable and relentless enemy throughout the novel.  Cadaran, the head of the planet's internal security, was born.

Since Tristan was paired with Mara who would protect him from the harem's evils, I needed an outsider trapped in this horrific system so the reader would see what Tristan is escaping.  

I gave Tristan a best friend, Kellen, who would be Tristan's foil as well as the victim in his stead.  Because Cadaran is the true villain of the piece, poor Kellen becomes her bed slave to be raped and brutalized.

[A foil is a character whose differences highlight a central character.  For example, in HAMLET, rash, impulsive Laertes is deliberate Hamlet's foil.]

Around these central characters, I added important minor characters who would move the plot forward and also reflect my theme as well as being representative of Arden's society.  

Lt. Hallie, Cadaran's aide, is a decent person who admires and loves Cadaran as a great leader, and she sees nothing wrong with the lottery or the harem although she's not blind to the minor power abuses of men as bribes.  

Then Hallie meets Cadaran's bed slave, Kellen, and instead of disliking him as she usually dislikes men, she develops a friendship with him.  Gradually, her eyes are opened to the brutality and evil, but she clings to her duty as an officer with the possibility that she may switch sides if she can find the courage to do so.  

Hallie is Mara's foil because she faces the same moral dilemma that Mara faces, but she keeps failing because she lacks the moral courage that Mara has.

Mara's housekeeper and unofficial grandmother, Novia, hates men as many in this society do and wants to protect Mara against dangerous Tristan.  She will be a spy in their midst unless she can change her views.

Patta, Mara's best friend, is there to represent the standard social opinions about men.  

For an outsider coming in to change the dynamics of the novel and give Tristan a means to escape, I created Dorian, Tristan's close friend and possible lover, who discovers the truth about Arden's slavery, but is unable to accept that anyone from this evil place is on their side. She views Mara as an enemy and will do anything to destroy her.

Notice all the characters, possible conflicts, and plot possibilities I have here just from playing with different aspects of my central question.  

Working with your premise and the three levels of the story is play time for your novel.  Jot things down as you think of them.  Figure out character relationships.  Play with elements of the question.

You also have to keep in mind the audience you are writing for, and the kind of story you are writing.  

Remember that none of this is written in stone at this point.

Now you must decide on your own main characters' strengths and weaknesses.  

Do Worksheet Two

Big Question, Worksheet 1

SCHEDULE NOTICE:  I had intended to send this Worksheet last Tuesday, then Covid happened.  A very mild form, thankfully.  Anyway, today, I'm sending this worksheet, today's lesson, and Worksheet 2.



What genre (science fiction, for example) or book line (Harlequin Intrigue, for example) are you aiming toward? If it is single title (not part of a line), what length?


What is your big question?

What are its two sides?