Scene 2 – Dramatic Question

The second scene clarifies the overall question the story will try to answer, or the premise of the story. I use the formula I picked up from Eric Witchey’s Fiction Fluency class: X leads to Y, which results in Z.

X is the character’s starting internal and external conflicts.

Y is the change the character and story world undergo.

Z is the end state of the character as a result of what they’ve encountered and done as well as the changes to their story world.

Let’s look at how this functions in a couple books.


  1. In The Poppy War Rin’s ambition, coupled with the rigid classism of the Sinegard academy, leads her to embrace shamanism, which results in unleashing a terrible god of wrath upon the land.
  2. In my book, Survivors’ Club, Marius’ naïveté and desire to help others lead to a viral outbreak, which results in a suicidal attempt to stave off a global pandemic.
  3. In Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz’s need for safety and belonging lead him to accept his role as an assassin, which results in him saving the Six Duchies (and emotional trauma to this reader that has lasted for decades. Highly recommended!)

In Scene 2 – the Dramatic Question is really two questions: 1) What does the Main Character (MC) want? 2) What does the MC need? A great way to add tension to your story is to make sure that these are not the same thing.

From our previous examples:

  1. Rin wants to avoid a forced marriage to an older man. Ultimately, what she needs is to study and understand how shamanism works. But she’s not interested in that. She wants to be a soldier so she can protect herself and exact revenge.
  2. Marius wants to research viruses and develop ways to treat and cure disease. Marius needs to survive and protect his friends and co-workers from the Infected. For extra fun, his attempts to do what he wants actually contribute to the pandemic that ultimately endangers everyone he cares about.
  3. Fitz wants be accepted as a Farseer. Fitz needs allies to survive at King Shrewd’s court. To gain allies and protectors, Fitz must make himself invaluable to the king. In agreeing to train to be an assassin, Fitz embarks on the road to a very lonely life and remember, he wanted friends and family.

Knowing what your MC wants and what they need helps you to craft a story where they are constantly struggling to get what they want, but you are pushing them towards what they need.

Scene 2 – the Dramatic Question is the scene where you must make it super-de-duper clear what your MC wants. You should at least hint at what they need, but this can remain unclear until much later in the story, especially if you’re writing a close first person point of view (POV).

What are some other examples of the Dramatic Question scene?

Once you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere!

Attendees at the 2011 Where’s Wally? World Record event in Dublin, Ireland

Scene 1 – Big Trouble

Whether your story starts en medias res or with a loving description of the how the universe began, it has to start somewhere.

Many Western stories follow the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. For the purposes of learning and practicing story structure, this is the model I’ll be using – at least in the beginning.

Elements of a beginning:

Introduces main conflict of the story. As my ever-zen writing workshop instructor Charlie used to say, “What’s the what of this story?”

External Conflict – something threatens the Main Character (MC)’s State of Perfection (SOP)

Internal Conflict – MC is emotionally stuck. They have a deep fear, limiting belief, or conflicting desires.

State of Perfection – Yes/No?

State of Perfection means the MC has a reasonably happy, comfortable life. They are not motivated to change things. They like what they like and they don’t want to have any adventures.

If the MC starts in the SOP, they will be fighting to stay there, resistant to change, reluctant to leave.

It’s a bit more tricky to start with an MC not in SOP because you have to weave in backstory and benchmarks to explain why the MC is not in SOP and what exactly MC thinks SOP is (at the beginning of the story). We know MC’s SOP may change as they grow through the story, but we need a start point to…well…start from.


Whether you’re writing spec-fic filled with nanotech, tentacle monsters, and swords and sorcery, or writing about a knitting circle in Blandsville, Nebraska (sorry, Nebraska, I still love you), you’ll need to establish where your MC is and what they’re doing.

Do NOT dump info. This is the part where you splash your reader with the world, not drown them in it. It’s more important that the reader connect with the characters and care about them than the reader understand how the hyper-drive 7000 works or the exact ritual elements needed to summon Yog Gogiryazhiji.

Instead, focus on the details the characters would care about. Unfold the world through their experience of it and trust that you’ll be able to work in all the cool tech, alien races, ancient elven feuds, and the finer points of the Double Moss Knit Stitch Pattern later.

Spreadsheety Goodness:

I have a spreadsheet and I’m not afraid to use it. Your tools may vary: 3×5 cards, notebooks, whiteboards, various software, a trusted friend or random pelagic bird who happens to be a great listener. Whatever you need to help you organize your thoughts, use it.

Image by Mario Liebherr from Pixabay

If you’d like to use my spreadsheet layout, here’s an example of Act I, Scenes 1-9. I tend to ramble when I write, so I have broken down my word count targets based on an 80,000 word novel. That gives me 25% Act 1, 50% Act 2, and 25% Act 3. These are my rough goals to help me stay on track and should not be taken as carved in stone limits.

Additional Resources:

“The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler

Mythcreants has a beautiful post about the Heroine’s Journey that is well worth your time!

Fiction Fluency or really any class you can get from Eric Witchey, who is an absolute wizard when it comes to writing emotions.

The Pleasure and Pain of Editing

You’ve just finished a full draft. OMG! You are amazing! The last thing you want to do is acknowledge that you’ve only begun the true work of putting a story out into the world.

Interactive Brokers War Room

“Interactive Brokers War Room” By Ɱ

Editing can be daunting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the time investment, but I find that’s not the main thing writers shy away from. For most writers, it’s a lack of understanding of how to edit. Where to start? Spellcheck? A complicated wall maze of string, post-its, and 3×5 card madness? Continue reading

Words Matter: Quest for Equality in a World of “Girls”

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of editing of my and others’ work. As writers, we know that words are powerful. They are also delicate and easy to misuse.


During my time as a student of Linguistics, I ran across the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, which holds that language either determines or at least influences thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. What this means is that our language structures how we think, the ways we classify things, our worldview. For example, if your language is divided into “genders”, it is really hard for you not to see the world as also being divided. Similarly, languages that don’t separate the future from the present tense influence how people save for retirement.

But enough science. What’s this got to do with writing?

When gender inequality exists in our internal language it can influence our worldview and our writing. For example, I’ve noticed that many writers frequently use the word “girl” to refer to adult female characters, while they rarely use the word “boy” to refer to adult male characters. Similarly, a group of people of mixed gender is often referred to as “guys” or “men”. My own novel Survivors’ Club has several instances of this that I shamefully missed in my final editorial pass. As a born Minnesotan, “you guys” is the way to pluralize “you” and it’s a tough habit to break, especially when talking about military or paramilitary groups.

So, what? Why get so wrapped up about this?

Because language matters!Blue Wood (2).png

When we use diminishing terms for a character, treat an adult like a child, or make an entire gender invisible in a crowd, we are telling the world implicitly what we think of that character or group of people. Girls need to be protected and cared for because girls are children. Women are adults who are capable of making independent choices and dealing with the consequences.

How can you help make the world of words a better place?

What not to do:

Do not use the term “girl” unless the character is A) female and B) under 18.


Think about your characters. Would you call a male character of this age “boy”? If you answer no, well, “young woman” works fine or simply “woman”. Don’t let the laziness of typing an extra few letters hold you back from writing about your characters with the accuracy and respect they deserve.

The exception to this rule is character dialog. Some characters, especially those of a certain age or background, will call any female, regardless of age “girl” and if that’s what the character would say, have them say it. But you, dear writer, are not that antiquated character. You can do better.

What not to do:

Do not use “guys” or “men” to mean a mixed gendered group. For example, “The soldiers marched across the parade field. General Bushy Beard was pleased to see the men in their dress uniforms.” Or “Detective Eva Maxwell enjoyed the banter of the guys in the bullpen as they waited for Captian Dwayne to brief them.”


“Guards” “soldiers” “cops” “troops” and on and on. There are plenty of non-gendered ways to describe almost any group of people.

What are your writing pet peeves?  Continue reading

Exploration and You: Advice for Pantsters

If you’re a panster writer dealing with writer’s block, try exploring your characters’ motives and agendas

A Crack in the Pavement

While I’m on injured reserve Molly Martin has agreed to step up to the plate. My goal is to see you on Friday. Fingers Crossed.

Until then…..Molly, take it away!!!

Molly 4Congratulations! You are in your favorite writing spot, a fresh page ready, waiting, aching for your words to cast the magic spell that brings life to a whole new world.

In a breathless flurry of inspiration and caffeine, you write. And write. And write. Hours pass by in a bliss known to few but runners, writers, and junkies. Let’s be honest, there are few highs as good as a writer’s high.

But then…you crash. The words stop flowing. Your characters turn against you. They refuse to be interesting, spontaneous, or even interactive. The dialog stumbles along with banal banter.

“How’s the weather?”

“Oh, fine.”


“Well, so nice to see you.”

“You, too.”

You don’t want to write this. No…

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Thumbscrews: How and When to Ratchet up the Tension in Stories

Thrilled to have a chance to share some insights on writing and interrogation – keep reading. It’ll all make sense.

A Crack in the Pavement

A long time ago I was taught an excellent lesson: Surround yourself with smart people and listen.

My Wednesday guest blogger is such a person. We met a few years ago when I was a stumbling bumbling writer. In that time I have listened and I have learned.

I am really happy that she found the time to be a guest on my blog.

Molly, take it way…..

Thumbscrews: How and When to Ratchet up the Tension in Stories

by M. K. Martin

How many times have you gotten feedback along these lines: “I liked it, but it needed more tension.”?

Yeah, we all have.

So what do you do? Add some gunfights, maybe a car-chase or a natural disaster. When in doubt, call in the ninjas…

Molly 2….ah, not that one. She’s busy writing.

But here’s the thing – you don’t always need tension in every scene. At least, not…

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Life Insurance

Once upon a time, things had been different in a grand old sort of way. A life lived on the upper edge as if soaring ever onward on the silver tipped wings of a peregrine falcon. Life had unfurled, striped and bedazzled, beboggled as if agoge at some fantastic celebration. All it lacked were actual fireworks to burst across the sky in torrents of red, white, gold, and green. Fiery flowers dancing in the air, born in a single, shattering explosion to a life of ethereal beauty. All they knew was heaven. From their point of view, the world below was broad and flat and all its inhabitants only so many upturned faces, gaping in awe or cowering in terror.

What divinity, she thought, to live as fireworks did. What divinity and yet, when they were gone, no one noticed. No one remarked on the death of a sparkler, on the loss of a Roman candle. No one mourned that flashy green puff of light in the night sky, ringed by silver drops like angels’ tears. They gloried only in a firework’s life and forgot it ever existed the moment it expired.

So maybe the life of a firework wasn’t perfect, but at least people noticed. At least they cared, if only for a moment.

It was in this wistful and resentful mood that she snatched her red paper cup from the counter, strode out of the shop, and was struck by the number 95 uptown bus, the side of which advertised life insurance.


Author’s Note: Found a writing exercise from my time in the Kidd Tutorial program. Still trying to make sense of it. Your thoughts/feels?

Tales of an apocalypse – Part VIII “The Mall”

While writing my science fiction novel “Survivors’ Club” (coming 2018 from Not A Pipe Publishing), I created a playlist of music to put me in the mood for a post-apocalyptic world. My free short stories were inspired by these songs and by the world of “Survivors’ Club”. Please share, tweet, and talk about my work. I look forward to your feedback.

Today’s story, The Mall, goes along with the song “An Ending (Ascent)” by Brian Eno.


Officer Beatrice pulls her mount, Dunkin, up overlooking the Reflecting Pool. The sky captured in the water is a flat gray of unruffled clouds, still no blue in sight. The wind sighs through the grass. No one shouts. No one runs. No homeless sleep on benches or in shady patches. No kites fly, no tourists snap pictures. After the camps in Pennsylvania fell apart, Office Bee returned to her precinct, reclaimed her gear and found Dunkin, grazing near the station. Now she’s back on the job, patrolling the Nation’s Capitol.

Murphy sits next to the elephant in the Museum of Natural History. Someone tried to break off one of its tusks. Murphy shakes his head. He did a lot of things, things he doesn’t want to remember, all for the sake of the monkey on his back. He did those things, sure, hurt those people, killed that guy, but still, the elephant? He feels rage bubbling up in his guts, the way everyone felt when those camel-jockeys attacked New York. It’s one thing to hurt someone on a personal level, especially if you needed the money or drugs. Nowadays food, water, and shelter are the must haves. But still, why the elephant? What were they going to do, sell its tusk to the Chinese? Murphy laughs and shakes his head. He pushes himself up, heads back to make his rounds of the Mall.

Tiffany hates the kids. She squats in the shade of the Metro station’s overhang, watching them as they watch her. Their dark skin and hair provide camouflage. Only their large eyes stand out against the grim and dirt of their clothes. The little one is sucking her thumb again. Tiffany rolls her eyes. How many times has she snatched that digit from the child’s mouth? She’s so tired of them. Back in the camps, it was worth it. Having the brats meant extra food, a place in the family housing, which was a lot safer than taking her chances in the supposedly women’s only housing. Tiffany shakes her head, tries to push away the memory of hands fumbling at her in the dark. She has to get out of here, out of the dark. She stands up, grabs her bag and heads out. She honestly doesn’t care if the kids follow or not.

Officer Bee’s footsteps echo down the halls of the Castle. All those beautiful works of art and history, memories of a people who may never return. She checks each door and window, ensuring the building is sealed from the elements, protecting her charges. There was a rumor in the camps that someone had found a cure, a miracle in the West. Officer Bee doesn’t believe it, but she’d like to. She turns back to the front door and stops. Dunkin’s shadow isn’t alone.

Murphy watches the white soccer mom stride across the grass, whacking at the knee high weeds, her Coach bag bouncing against her bony hip with each step. The two black kids trailing behind her are clearly not hers. She doesn’t look back or call to them. They scurry after her like orphan ducklings. None of them notice the man skulking in the museum’s shadow. Murphy has a lifetime of experience in being unseen.

Tiffany stares at the horse. Its tack identifies it as a member of the National Police. The gear is clean and well cared for. Tiffany reaches up to touch the horse’s neck, watches the shiver of skin as it rolls its liquid brown eye to study her, stomps its hind foot in judgment. “We’re going to be such good friends, Thunder Bolt.” She lifts the flap of one of the saddle bags and finds the gun, a shiny Sig Sauer, like the one Dad had.

“Is that yours?” The older kid wipes snot on his sleeve. Tiffany glares at him, pulls out the Sig. God, she loves the heavy weight of it in her hand. Never again will someone touch her in the dark. She’ll blow their freaking head off. Both maybe. She grins. The kid frowns. She tests the sight, aligning the notch with the kid’s sternum, like Dad showed her.

“Lady! Hey, what are you doing?” A man jogs toward her across the wide stripe of grass. He’s dirty and skinny. Tiffany knows his hands would feel like claws on her. She swings the pistol toward him.

“Ma’am, put the gun down.” The voice is calm, commanding, female. They have her surrounded. Tears sting Tiffany’s eyes. It’s a trap. She’s seen men use women to lure in other women. It won’t happen to her. She turns and squeezes the trigger as soon as the notch shows her the blue blouse and white buttons of the woman’s chest.

Officer Bee stumbles back and sits heavily on the stairs. She feels like someone punched her in the chest. She regrets not donning her body armor, not securing her backup weapon, but she hadn’t seen a living person in weeks. She’d believed she was safe.

The man stands in front of the kids, the woman waving the Sig at them, tears running down her face. Officer Bee wants to intervene, to calm things down, but she just can’t catch her breath. The woman grabs Dunkin’s lead and yanks, but he won’t budge. She’s no cop and the horse knows it. The woman tries again then turns and runs, heading east towards the river and Anacostia.

Above Officer Bee the clouds part. For just a moment there is blue sky. Maybe there is a cure out West. Officer Bee sighs a soft gurgle. At least she got to see the real sky again.

Murphy and the kids bury the cop at the base of the Washington Monument. “Don’t know who you were, Lady, but you seem like one of the good ones,” Murphy eulogies. “You get the biggest damn gravestone ever.”

The kids take turns riding the horse. The woman with the gun ran off east, so Murphy and the kids head west. After everything else he’s done, taking care of them is the least he can do.