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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Don't Start Your Story Unless You Know These 5 Things

What? Five things?

"Rachel, I'm a pantser, I don't like to plan."

I hear you! I'm not asking you to plan. I'm asking you to know 5 things

Even for the plotters, these 5 Things will make a difference in your story. 

So let's get to it.

A story has to be about someone ordinary doing something extraordinary. 

I can't design scenes, develop characters or even answer, "What's the story about?" without knowing WHO I'm dealing with -- internally.

I design my character with these 5 critical elements:

Dark wound of the past.
The Lie he believes.
The greatest fear.
The secret desire.
What can they do in the end they couldn't do in the beginning?

Once I know the answer to these five elements, I can answer, "What's the story about?"

Granted, these elements are fluid. They should adjust and deepen as you write BUT putting these stepping stones in place before you write the first line will aid help your journey.

Think of it like this: You're going to at least look at the road map before pulling out of the drive.

There's still plenty of time to take a side road and veer off the beaten path to keep things interesting.

But knowing the wound --> lie --> fear will keep you focused. 

We use this structure over on My Book Therapy to help struggling authors get to the next level.

Let's break it down a bit:

The Dark Wound. Something from the past that will be dealt with and healed during the story. The epiphany derives from this dark wound. Be specific. If your protagonist grew up in a rough household, design an event that told him, "Life is hard and love is not worth it." 

The dark wound forms a Lie. This is the lie the protagonist believes about himself, God, others. The more detailed the better. And the more personal, the better. If the protagonist dark wound is his parents harrowing divorce, then the lie he believes is that marriage doesn't work, love is painful and not worth the effort. Even more specific, our hero might have been told that when he was born the family fell apart. He was one kid too many. So he believes he's not wanted. 

See how it works?

On to the fear. 

Growing up our hero's lie becomes a Fear. He fears he'll never be wanted. That whatever he touches is destroyed. The more specific you are about the wound, the more specific you can be about the lie and fear. But remember almost all fears come from the lies we believe. 

Your story is about overcoming the fear, replacing the lie with truth and healing the dark wound. 

What makes the protagonist face these issues? What gives him the courage. 

The Secret Desire. This desire contrast the fear.  It tells the hero, "I am worth something. I'm really good at teaching. I'd be a great teacher. I can help kids." Or, "Love is worth pursuing." 

The secret desire is always about overcoming the fear. The desire cannot be separate from the wound --> lie --> fear equation. 

Once I have this sketched out, I asked, "So, what will he be able to do in the end he couldn't do int he beginning?"

Perhaps forgive his parents. Maybe quit his job and go back to school. Fall in love. Whatever the case, it must come from healing the wound, embracing truth and conquering fear! 

This becomes my story spine to which the plot and all other aspects will connect. If the plot or story lines are not ultimately about healing the protagonist and getting them to a grand epiphany, I realign where I'm going.

The scenes in the middle of the book are about confronting the lie, facing the fear, and eventually winning. ;) 

Stories are about a slice of life where the protagonist is launched on a specific journey by external events that reach the internal fears and dreams. 

Make sense? 

From the movie, The Patriot:

Benjamin Martin's dark wound is his past war crimes. His fear is going to war again. When war comes to his front yard, and takes his sons, must decide if he’s going to fight. But the lie he believes is that he's barbaric  not honorable. If he goes to war, will it be Ft. Wilderness all over again? 

But when Gabriel is taken, Benjamin must fight. He must retrieve his son. Protecting his family is his desire... I think how intently he feels about them is somewhat of a secret desire. I also think he wants to redeem himself in his own mind about the kind of man he is.

He's launched on the journey of healing -- the inciting incident -- when he goes after his son. 

What can he do in the end he couldn't do in the beginning? Fight with honor. Believe in himself. 

Now, go write something brilliant! 


  1. This is practically the mantra over at My Book Therapy ( And for good reason. A starting point doesn't have to begin with the protagonist, but without this basic understanding of your protagonist, you'll wander aimlessly for hundreds of pages. I generally plot in more detail before I start, but my current wip had me a bit befuddled, so I started without much more than this list. I'm happy to say that my character is leading me through the story without me constantly stopping to think about what comes next. Thanks for sharing this again, Rachel. It's such an essential part of writing that it bears repeating as often as possible.

    1. Ron, it IS our mantra at MBT and you're so right... it's key! Thanks for being one of our MBT faithful and stating here what we're all finding out... this equations works! And keeps the freedom to write "in the moment" but know where you're going!

  2. min My new WIP my MC discovers a secret on her 60th birthday that has been perpetuated her entire life. lie, check; fear, check; wound, definitely; desire to know the truth -> conflict, check; and in the end, answers, check. yeah, that works!

  3. You're singing my song here! Knowing those things makes for real characters - ones readers can relate to! In the Online Course I'm teaching in ACFW, I open with how you asked me what my secondary character's problem was. That was game changing for me and began my passion for Lies and Motivation. I'll be forever thankful, Rachel!!

  4. Amen, Ane. I always ask, "What's your problem?" Even of secondary characters! Good job!

  5. Rachael, I was praying and pondering this morning and trying to make sense about some things in “real life” when I read your article. Thank you, so very much, as some of your words were key to what I am dealing with in a relationship and I will really study what you have written. It was like manna to my heart or the Lord just being kind to me to send this wisdom along at just the right time. I have felt this but was not able to express it so simply.
    This is always really, really true and is apparent in so many lives: “The dark wound forms a Lie. This is the lie the protagonist believes about himself, God, others.”
    I see as long as someone still believes the lie, they will never believe or receive the love that people so want to pour out upon them. Bringing me back to the point of knowing I can’t fix my family but thank God, He can. One day. Thanks and Blessings, Donna Collins Tinsley

  6. Great tips—thanks for sharing!
    Katie Ganshert recently taught a little session for our ACFW chapter and she went over two different versions of a Character Flow Chart that were along these same lines... such a simple concept, yet figuring all this stuff out first is so critical to writing success!

  7. Wonderful, post, Rachel. I was lurking on Ane Mulligan teaching on "Motivation & Lies." She mentioned your article Thanks, Ane. It really makes it plain. Love the example.

  8. Thanks for a wonderful post!
    I accidentally stumbled onto this concept in writing my first book—it took a long time and many meanderings—so good to see a planned route to writing a novel. :-)

  9. This is why I joined MBT. Everything is explained so seemlessly that even I am getting it. The examples from The Patriot really brings it home. Thank you Rachel and Ane!


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