Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks: A Review by Lizzie Hermanson

Last week I talked about my difficulty in coming to grips with character arcs, so this time around decided to share my thoughts on the book Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks, one of the top script consultants in the film industry.


This book places the character arc at front and centre of the plot development process.It shows how to build the story from the inside out and how the inner emotional journey interrelates with both the external plot and theme. Continue reading

The Sticky Business of Character Arcs by Lizzie Hermanson

I have recently completed the first draft of a new WIP, and my fab crit partners (*waves* to The 22s) pointed out that my heroine’s character arc was off. This immediately got me racing to the cyber bookshelves in search of both information and inspiration.

Back to basics – a character arc is the journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story when he/she is forced to confront his/her emotional baggage to become a more rounded individual. As I’m writing romance, my characters have to overcome their fears in order to love. Continue reading

Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon: (Another) Review.


I know, I know, this is a concept that is discussed time and time again! But the more I learn about writing, the more I understand what this simple plan can bring to a novel.

Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) by Debra Dixon was the first writing craft book I bought, and now having read several other excellent books, this is still the one I repeatedly come back to. Why? Because for my easily confused, pantser brain, the message is simple.

The premise of the book is that a plot can be broken down into three parts:

A character wants a goal, because he/she is motivated but conflict stands in his/her way.

Typically, a character will have both an external and internal GMC, with the internal outlining a characters emotional arc. “If you can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it . . . that’s external,” the book explains and uses movies, such as The Wizard of Oz, to demonstrate the idea:

External: Dorothy wants to go home, because Aunt Em is sick, but the wicked witch stands in her way.

Internal: She wants to find a place where she’s happy (think Somewhere Over The Rainbow), because she’s miserable and always in trouble, but she doesn’t know what she really wants.

As a pantser with aspirations of becoming a plotter, I’ve tried The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, The Six Stage Story Structure by Michael Hague, but my disorganised, right-brained mind, always rebels. These two GMC sentences, however, I can manage and never start a story without having them in place. It provides the essential who, what, why and why not.

“If you can trace every action in your book to a unique character’s goal and motivation, then the character will create the plot right before your eyes.”

I have found this to be true. Not only for the story as a whole, but also at scene level. When I get stuck, it’s almost always because I’ve lost sight of what one or more characters want, and why.

“Every scene should illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal, or bring the character into conflict with opposing forces, or provide the character with an experience that strengthens or changes his motivation.”

But, although at the most basic level those sentences may appear easy, they are not. It’s easy to confuse internal with external, or to discover your character goal is actually her motivation. Or the GMC may be beautifully laid out in the first chapter, but then there is no follow-through, especially if you’re writing romance like me. It’s very tempting to get distracted by the developing relationship between your characters. The romance maybe the heart of the story, but it’s not, the book stipulates, a character goal:

“The heroine’s goal in a romance novel is not to fall in love and get married. Ditto for the hero. The last thing on their minds is meeting a soul mate. In fact, it’s darned inconvenient. Romance will be a conflict for your characters.”

The book additionally covers  black moments, scene development, query letters, turning points plus a breakdown of the movies Casablanca, The Client and Ladyhawke. Also included is an example of Miss Dixon’s own query letter for her book Mountain Mystic.

Every writer has to find their own way, and different things click with different people, but this is the book that works for me. Debra Dixon is known in her own writing for pushing the boundaries of category romance, in particular with her book about a hit woman, Bad to the Bone (1996), which I recommend it to anyone wanting to write in this field.

For help outlining GMC and additional character development, the Mid-Michigan chapter of the RWA has a great chart here:


Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson


Writing And Emotional Resonance


So you’ve mastered show not tell, motivational reaction units and kicked the passive voice to the kerb. You understand structure, have an interesting protagonist and strong conflict, but still it all feels – meh. With this in mind, I have recently been thinking about emotional resonance, what it is and how to accomplish it.

Editor, Jessica Morrell, says resonance takes place when a story evokes a ‘responsive chord’ in a reader and that writers must place ‘stimuli’ in the story to trigger this response. The key to achieving this is creating characters readers can identify with and care about.

The other week I watched Sleepless In Seattle, a film I have always enjoyed. But this time around I was watching as an aspiring writer with a more critical eye and a plot issue with the story immediately jumped out at me. When 8-year-old Jonah takes a flight to New York by himself, no-one contacts the airlines, police or Empire State Building staff to alert them that an unaccompanied minor child is headed their way. Instead, his father, Sam, hops on the next flight to NYC to search for Jonah by himself.

Yet I found I was willing to overlook the issue because by then I cared about Sam and Jonah. We had witnessed Sam struggling as a single dad and grieving the loss of his wife. I was desperate for him to get together with Annie so Jonah could have a new mum.

Image result for sleepless seattle photo

The film generally received positive reviews. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said: “Not since Love Story has there been a movie that so shrewdly and predictably manipulated the emotions for such entertaining effect.”

How, then, do we go about creating these emotions in our audience? The answer lies in the protagonist’s struggle. Author, KM Weiland, says the struggle and the stakes have to be personal. “How much and why will he suffer if he loses the fight? And for the bonus round question, ask yourself: How much and why will he suffer even if he wins?”

In Sleepless in Seattle, Sam’s struggle couldn’t get more personal. He’s lost the wife he loved to cancer and has to bring up his adorable 8-year-old son by himself. He doesn’t believe true love happens more than once in a lifetime and plans never to remarry. In winning the chance to love again with Annie, Sam is forced to abandon the belief that his first wife was his one and only true love.

Emotional resonance is what gives a story the ‘X Factor’. In fact, writing teacher, Lindsey Barrett recommends looking to TV reality shows for inspiration. The contestants we root for, she tells us, are those who have overcome adversity to get there.

Nothing encapsulates the hero’s journey more than the struggles of an Olympic athlete. A stand-out moment for me at the 2016 Paralympic Games was when Will Bayley won gold in table tennis having overcome cancer, arthrogryposis and many reconstruction operations. Over-joyed, he jumped onto the table to celebrate. When a stern-faced official marched over to present him with a yellow card for a code violation, he ignored the card and, still beaming from ear to ear, hugged her.

“I have given everything,” he said afterwards, “training six hours a day. People don’t realise what I have achieved. I have done mission impossible.”

And it is these emotive moments we need to re-create in our writing; the longing, the need, the fear, the joy, the elation and sheer desperation.

No pressure then!


Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson

Tales From A Newbie In Twitterland by Lizzie Hermanson

This is not a ‘how to’ post, but more the sharing of experiences. AKA: Twitter for the Terrified.

I am not of the social media generation and, in common with many writers, a confirmed introvert. But these days aspiring writers are advised to develop a social media platform before they are even published. The idea of putting myself out there on Twitter or Facebook terrified me.

fear Continue reading

The Dos and Don’ts of Opening Lines and Paragraphs by Lizzie Hermanson

This week I began re-write #476 of my opening scene – at least that’s how it feels and we’ve all been there! So I began researching what makes a good first line. How do we grab the reader so that they want to read the next page and the one after that? Continue reading

Subtext Versus On The Nose Dialogue

I recently received some feedback on my story pointing out I have too much on the nose dialogue. It’s a problem I’m aware of, but struggle to put right, so decided on a little more research.

What is on-the-nose dialogue? It’s when a character says exactly what they mean and reveal his/her exact emotions. The result can be flat and lacking in depth. The reader is deprived of opportunity to interpret the underlying meaning and to be more actively engaged in the story.

As an example. My main character, Leo, finds a stray dog outside his office and his personal assistant says:

‘I bet you keep that dog.’

‘Definitely. She’s a great dog,’ Leo replies.

Here, both characters are laying their cards on the table and the dialogue feels stilted and boring, without emotion. The solution is to use subtext; the unspoken meaning beneath the words. In life people rarely say what they mean for many reasons. Maybe we don’t know how we feel, or believe it to be true at the time. Perhaps, admitting how we really feel will leave us open and vulnerable in some way.

Back to Leo and his dog, here’s take two. I have him asking the PA to try and find the dog a good home with a large garden.

‘Like yours,’ the PA asks, one eyebrow raised.

‘I’m not keeping her,’ Leo responds immediately.

At no point in the story does anyone tell Leo he’s going to keep the dog, and he continues to deny he wants to. But hopefully it’s clear that everyone, including the reader, know where the dog will end up.

In her book, Subtext: What Lies Beneath, Linda Sager likens on the nose dialogue to “the tip of the ice berg, but the subtext is everything underneath.”

Leo’s continual refusal to admit he wants to keep the dog, hints at other issues simmering beneath the surface. He lost his parents and sister in a car accident aged 16. He doesn’t want any more attachments in his life because he’s worried about losing them too.

So this was my attempt at using subtext, and I didn’t make a conscious effort, it just happened. In writing, some things seem to happen instinctively. The problem comes when it isn’t instinctive. Further on in the story, nearly all my emotional moments feature on the nose dialogue which I don’t seem able to put right. I kept hoping there might be a place for it at the end of a romance story, as surely to be together, the hero and heroine must both express how they really feel.

But then I remember the movie Jerry Maguire. When Tom Cruise returns to get the girl, instead of ‘I love you, I’ll take you back,’ Renee Zellwegger responds with ‘You had me at hello,’ now one of the top 100 movie quotes.

In his blog post,  9 Steps To Writing Dialogue With Rich Subtext, writer/director, Charles Harris, suggests creating two random characters “and give them something they mustn’t mention. Say, two prisoners are waiting to be hanged. They talk of anything but that – the weather, their last meal, a mouse in the cell. See how every word, every pause, can be filled with unspoken meaning.”

He also says to practise.”Subtext is a muscle, like any other writing skill. You develop it by working it.”

So, for me, it’s back to the drawing board….



On Writing, Communication and Understanding by Lizzie Hermanson

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
Continue reading

Character Likeability: Welcome To Leo Land by Lizzie Hermanson

I am currently engaged in a beta read swap, and it occurred to me that many of us in the group have main characters with unlikeable traits. But, whereas my fellow writers succeed in keep their heroes and heroines likeable, my character has come in for some flack.

Meet Leo Brannigan; an eccentric software design genius. His parents and sister died in a car crash when he was 16, and he blames himself for the accident. Continue reading

Motivation-Reaction Units: The ‘Gunshot Moment’.

A few months ago, I discovered Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) and they have now become one of my favourite tools for editing. They are helpful in analysing a scene at sentence level; perhaps something feels missing, jars, or just doesn’t flow.

For those of you who come out in a cold sweat when faced with writing terminology, yur eyes are probably glazing over by now, but I urge you to stick with it. The term was coined by Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Not the catchiest of names, in my opinion, as it doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin.

Motivation, in this instance, refers to an external event, which can include dialogue, and the reaction is how the character responds to it. Essentially, it’s cause and effect, ensuring that action is followed by reaction, and the character responses occur in an order the reader can identify with.

As an example, I’ll attempt a scene with a gunshot as the external event. The character may respond by diving for cover, shouting instructions and drawing his gun.

‘Stay down,’ he shouted, after a shot rang out across the street.

Here, the response is given before the event has happened, and for a micro second, the reader will pause as the brain sub-consciously reverses the order. Thus, the forward movement of the story has been lost.

A shot rang out across the street. ‘Stay down,’ he shouted.

For me, this flows better as it mirrors the natural order of events. But at a moment of high tension, your body will be processing other feelings and reactions before you can even begin to formulate words.

Dwight Swain breaks down these responses into three separate components that, he says, must be written in order. They are: Feelings, action and speech.

Some commentators on writing techniques, however, suggest a variation on the above to include:

Visceral – an instinctive feeling or emotion you have no control over that happens almost instantly.

Reflex Action – an action that happens without conscious thought.

Thought – the character’s rational thought after the event.

Action – the rational action he takes.

Speech – what he says.

So, here’s the gun shot scene again, incorporating all five reactions, but out of sequence.

A gunshot rang out across the street. ‘Stay down,’ he shouted. He pulled out his gun, and pushed his wife to the ground, his heart thumping. He scanned the rooftops. Where were the shots coming from?

Okay, so now we are more grounded in the moment. It’s better, but something still feels off. This is because humans respond to events in a certain order. Our bodies react instinctively before the rational brain has a chance to fully engage, and readers sub-consciously relate to this order.

So, consider the example one more time in correct, chronological order.

A gunshot rang out across street. His heart thumped and he pushed his wife to the ground. Where were the shots coming from? He scanned the rooftops and pulled out his gun. ‘Stay down,’ he said.

To my mind, this flows better. The uncontrolled visceral response comes first,followed by the reflex action of pushing his wife, then thought. Scanning the rooftops and pulling out his gun are actions that take place once his rational mind is back in control, and finally he talks.

As with any rule, there are always exceptions, and often, writers don’t use all five responses. The important thing is to write them in the correct order. The tricky part for me, is deciding when and how many of the responses to use. So when I edit, I look for what I now call ‘gunshot moments’; events or dialogue that are unexpected or cause a sudden change in emotion, and that’s the point where I aim for a full motivation-reaction unit.

For anyone interested in learning more, Randy Ingermanson (AKA The Snowflake Guy), has a great article about MRUs here.