The Quest Begins with Questions

The Quest Begins with Questions

A Chapter by emilytamayomaher

People get stuck when they try to think of what to say rather than what to ask, even in narrative form. Your best work will start with questions because they open a door to more depth and exploration.


What Lies Ahead


Let’s start with some good news. As you sit down to write you don’t have to know all the answers. You only need to know the questions.

Isn’t that great? You don’t need to know everything. No writer ever has. One of the reasons that people get stuck is that they are trying to think of what to say rather than what to ask. Your best work will start with questions because they open a door to invite more information, more perspectives and more depth into the material that will eventually become your book.


1.1 Where do you start?


At this stage, you’re introducing yourself to your story and your story is introducing itself to you. If you really want to get to know each other better, faster, strike to the heart and ask the most honest question: What’s the problem? In literature this is known as the thematic question. At their core, stories are the dramatic unfolding of a problem. In this section we will dig into the essence or theme of what your story is about.


1.2 Why are you writing this?


“Why?” is one of the most essential questions you can ask early on. Completing a manuscript is a long journey, and the reason why you’re writing it is the single most important factor in motivating you to see it through. In this section we also talk about how becoming conscious of the “why” behind your project enhances originality and resonance. It’s another one of those magic words.


1.3 Who are your characters?


My tactics for creating characters are a little different from the usual fare because I believe that characters are born out of the theme or problem of the story. We don’t just make the up as we go along. Therefore this section shows you how to take the thematic question and mold it into the people who will populate the story. The point here is not to figure everything out, just to plant a seed that will blossom through scenes and action.


1.4 What’s going to happen?


This is the question that gets us turning pages in stories even if we hate going through it in life. Here we move are characters into action and test what they’re really made of. I call this “character karma” and in this section we’ll play around with the twists and turns that eventually form our destiny.


1.5 Be Your Own Coach: Nerd Clarity


If you’ve ever doubted the power of visualization and clarity, boy do I have some exercises for you. This section takes a practical approach on planning to anchor your project for completion. If you want to get your dreams done, read this.  



1.1 Where do you start?


I remember a time when my husband and I were recently married, and we were sitting at the kitchen table, covered with our monthly confetti of bills, lists, hopes and anxieties. We had crunched numbers for over an hour and the mathematical fact was that it simply didn’t balance out. Everything was up in the air. I was between jobs, recently immigrated to a new country, and wondering if there would ever be room in this apartment for a baby. If our bank account had anything to say about it, the answer was decidedly, no. It was painful. Then my husband said, “Perhaps this is a time with more questions than answers.” Suddenly I could breathe again.

Questions are like easy chairs for problems. They allow the problem a place to sit and think, so that it can go through the process of evolving into its natural resolution.

Now, you might be thinking, why would I allow a problem to get comfortable? Why would I offer it an easy chair? Isn’t that like welcoming it into my home?

My answer is yes. Throughout this book, problems will become our greatest ally. Problems are sacred because they are the seeds of the creative process. Most careers are built around a problems. Doctors, lawyers, firefighters, teachers, business people, journalists, architects, physicists, etc. find a problem that they can really dig into and get to work. And so it is for writers as well.

Stories turn problems into gold. They connect problems with their essential meaning by moving them through a creative process. The stories we will examine throughout this book begin with something off balance. There is a problem or a desire that propels the character through the plot.  The problem creates the question that then gets filled up with meaning.

You are probably familiar with the role of a theme in a story. For our purposes, it’s the essential meaning that lurks behind everything you want to write. The best definition I ever read came from a beloved seventh grade literature textbook, “A theme is a message about life or human nature that a writer wants readers to understand” (Olson 306). Pithy and straight to the point.

However, what I find really fascinating about the word theme is not the definition but the etymology. You can check this out in any dictionary. It starts out with Latin/Greek word thema which means “proposition.” That connection is obvious. However thema is derived from tithenai which is not a noun but a verb. In fact, it goes back to the verb of all verbs, it means “to make or to do.” So etymologically speaking, this theme isn’t a thing, it’s the creative process itself. That’s how I want us to think of our theme or meaning throughout this book. It’s a process, not a thing. Theme is not a fact, it’s more like a doorway to be opened into a long passage of further doors and tunnels and windows. A theme isn’t something to be explained, it’s something to be explored.

Another book that’s been particularly helpful to me through my own writing quest is Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction. In Terry Bain’s chapter on theme he describes it as a cup or a vessel, kind of like the Tarot card suit for creativity. Bain says, “You shouldn’t think of theme as the ponderous sort of explanations given by critics and academics. That doesn’t have much to do with writing a story. And you’ll get into an equal amount of trouble if you think of theme as synonymous with message or moral. That kind of thing is best left to pundits and philosophers.” Bain’s concept of theme is exactly what I love about stories. They show life as it is, as truthfully as possible without trying to prove something. Then, when the reader comes to it with their own ideas and experiences, the story acts like a crystal, refracting whatever kind of light they bring to it. It’s magic, and starting with a question provides a container for all that magic to flow in.

Thus, for the purposes of this method of writing, you are going to turn the theme inside out and state it as a question: the thematic question. That’s the first step as we move into the exercises. It will orient the rest of your piece, and will give you a touchstone to go back to whenever you feel blocked or lost. It’s a simple shift, but believe me, it’s a big deal. It changes you from the preacher into the receiver.






1.      The Big Question

In my opinion, sitting down to write without first asking questions is kind of like shoving yourself in front of an audience and expecting to sing. Sure, there are moments when you might be inspired to sing (especially in the shower) but when it comes time to perform, you want to warm-up and use a little technique. Writing a good story is the same kind of thing. That’s why we’re taking a moment in the beginning to establish the thematic question.

The example I’ll use throughout this chapter is the well-known story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You’re probably familiar with the plot. A stingy old man is visited by ghosts representing his past, present and future, who force him to question the value of his life. Is it the money he so fiercely protects, or is it his connection to other human beings? That’s the thematic question: What is the real value of a man’s life? It might seem broad, but it cuts to the heart of the problem of the story and at the same time it encompasses all that the story has to say. So, without further ado, try your hand at the thematic question and trust that there’s some magic in it.


2.      The Little Questions

Whereas the “big question” is kind of like an inside-out mantra that welcomes in the story is a whole, the little questions are what actually get the job done. As I’m moving through the plot, whenever I get stuck, I throw down little questions. They’re simple and practical: “What happens next?” “What am I doing here?” “What needs to happen in this scene?” “Why are these people talking?” I actually take the time to ask the question and answer it on paper. It bumps me back into motion.

Try this technique to get started. You can come up with your own question, but I do have a suggestion: “What’s the first kind of trouble your characters get into?” Feel free to write the answer in summary, you don’t need to get into the actual scene, yet. We’ll be sketching that out by the end of this chapter.


3.      Magic Etymologies

Writers must fall in love with words, and one of many ways to do that is to fall in love with etymologies. Picking up a dictionary and following the trail of etymologies is like going back in time and looking at the roots of human thinking. A word’s etymology is its enchanting secret, it’s what the word really means, but nobody knows they’re saying it. When I begin a writing a story, I like to pick a few important words that capture the essence, then I look up the etymologies, and continually go back to them. They become my magic words, the abracadabra of the project.

For instance, the idea for this book emerged out of one word: meaning. When I read the etymology I was fascinated. It goes back to the Old English and Germanic words menen and meinen which mean, “to revolve in the mind, think.” Those two words have an Indo-European origin that goes all the way back to Sanskrit. Sanskit words are mystical. They are the seeds of mantras repeated by gurus from throughout history. The word meaning has is rooted in the Sanskrit word manas. So I Googled “manas” and hit literary pay dirt. The online dictionary “Spoken Sanskrit” translates manas as imagination, intention, mind, desire, opinion, reflection, thought, conscience, affection, spirit, intellect, mood and most interestingly “breath or living soul which escapes from the body after death.” The meaning of meaning is connected to the soul. Victor Frankl probably knew that.

Choose a handful of words that are integral to your story. You can snatch them right out of your thematic question if you like.  Then get out your dictionary. Skip over the contemporary definitions and go straight the etymologies. Some words will be diamonds while others might not be as interesting, but copy down anything that sparks you interest and pursue it further. Look up other words with the same root or Google that etymology for more insights. When you feel you’ve come to a better understanding of what the word really means, write a sentence about how it relates to your work.

1.2 Why are you writing this?


“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche


The next question you need to ask comes down to a single word: WHY?

If we don’t know why we’re writing this story, we probably won’t finish it. Sure we’ll scribble out the first few inspired paragraphs, the ones that hit we like lightning, give we visions of grandeur and fill all the cells of our body with the electricity of genius, but a few weeks in, when writing becomes work, we´ll brush it under the rug, unless we have a compelling reason to keep writing.  When we convert our why from a subconscious inkling into a conscious statement that we continually return to, it comes with an additional smorgasbord of benefits.

Simon Sinek is an author and speaker responsible for spreading the “Why Revolution.” His book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action shows how starting with why can absolutely transform a business or career. It’s a pretty exciting yet simple concept. There are three essential lessons I took away from that book and applied them to the writing process.

1.)    Motivation

A truly compelling why will motivate you through the obstacles in a way that money or material rewards never will. We’ve all heard the cautionary tale about the author that receives the big advance and then has no idea what to write. The fact is money doesn’t make books, meaning does. Therefore if you start with why you will always have somewhere to go from there.


2.)    Originality


If you skip straight to how you’re going to write your story, without asking why, you will be lead to formulaic plotlines. Now, these formulas are useful in order to provide structure and understand the craft, but in and of themselves they have no depth or originality. The why behind the project is what distinguishes it from any other story in its genre. It becomes the soul of the project that can inspire a totally unique path to move from the beginning to the end. With why as your compass you have more freedom of movement. You can take risks and do things differently because you’re grounded in the meaning behind the madness.



3.)    Resonance


Because the why is the soul of the project it’s essentially what resonates with the reader. The thing you really care about will ultimately be the thing your audience cares about as well. Therefore when you put your why in the forefront it will be better able to plant itself in the heart of the reader. That’s how you achieve resonance.


Let’s go to a famous example. It’s an utterly unique story that’s survived a pair of centuries and still resonates with a wide range of ages and audiences. However Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol actually has a story behind the story that demonstrates the power of why. He felt so passionately about the topic that the history books say he wrote it in six weeks. That’s some crazy motivation. Basically this story is the epitome of all three factors mentioned above.  

In his time Charles Dickens was a vehement social reformer who strove to educate the aristocracy about the horrible conditions of impoverished families in London. Sure, you might remember Dickens as a dead white guy you were forced to read in high school, but he was actually one of the first human rights activists to speak out against the grave economic injustice created in the early years of industrialization. Today, when people boycott corporations that use sweat shops or child labor are carrying on the legacy of Charles Dickens.

During the mid-1800s, families who could not afford to feed themselves were forced into factories where they were separated out by gender and age group to work for minimal room and board. Children as young as three years old were placed in dangerous conditions, working in coal mines, shipyards and construction sites. A child’s work day could last as long as 16 hours and without education they had no hope of escape. As a result many of these children fell victim to work related accidents before they reached their mid-twenties. This was the powerful why that drove Charles Dickens throughout his career.

In A Christmas Carol a pair of gentlemen ask Mr. Scrooge for a charitable donation and he responds, “And the Union workhouses… are they still in operation?” These are exactly the workhouses he was referring to. He also asks, “Are there no prisons?” For Dickens, that particular dialogue was inspired by personal experience. As a child, both of Dickens’ parents were put in a debtor’s prison after his father lost his job with the British Navy.

Dickens was taken out of elementary school and put to work in a boot blackening factory. After his parents’ release he continued his studies, but that experience of hopelessness and neglect changed his life forever. As an adult he organized marathon walks through slums and threw charity events to provide relief. Rumor has it that the impetus to write the story came from his wealthy friend Angela Bardett Coutts who asked him to write an article to help educate donors on the state of orphanages. He promised to deliver something a hundred times more valuable. Six weeks later A Christmas Carol went to press, just in time for the holidays.

Writing isn’t only about the time and effort we put into it. When we’re firmly grounded in meaning, the inspiration multiplies our time and effort tenfold. Usually where writing is concerned the emphasis goes on work rather than magic. On the one hand there’s good reason behind this because persistence is over half the battle, but there is also a way to maximize the magic. Life can be full of busy work a.k.a. meaningless action, and if we’re doing busy work while we’re writing, basically we’re doing nothing. It may seem tempting to go straight to the dialogue and descriptive paragraphs, but we can write pages and pages of that stuff we ultimately never use unless we’re firmly grounded in the meaning.

            Our brains are problem solving machines. If we correctly frame the problem and provide regular motivation, our brains will work its way steadily through the obstacles until the goal is achieved. One of the huge advantages of this stage of the writing process is that we are not dependent on many external forces in order to achieve our goals. It’s not expensive, we don’t need a team or equipment, and for the most part we don’t need anyone’s permission but our own. Really, only two factors that might get in the way of achieving our goals:

1) We didn’t ask the right question

2) We didn’t have sufficient motivation to see it through.

That’s why we spend the first two sections on getting those to factors exactly right. Therefore, go forth and enjoy this exercise. It might end up being one of the most important things you do. 




1.      Umbrella Why

This is the only exercise for this section and I call it “Umbrella Why” not only because it has this fabulous expandable and collapsible feature, but also because it should have the weather durable circumference to cover your entire project. The task itself is pretty straight forward. At the top of the page, write the working title of your project and then answer the question, Why are you writing this?

a.       In one word.

b.      In one sentence.

c.       In one paragraph.

d.      In one page.

When you finish, reflect upon which part of the exercise was easiest for you. The word and the sentence require you to be succinct and pithy, while the paragraphs and the page require you to explain with more depth and clarity. Both sides of the spectrum are essential for a writer so take a moment to reflect upon your personal strengths and weaknesses.



1.3 Who are your characters?

People are both makers and carriers of meaning. We’re wired that way. When a toddler sees the random scars and craters on the surface of the moon, he looks for human faces. When the ancient Romans looked at the stars in the sky, they connected the dots and made myths out of them. Stories are how we accumulate experience in a meaningful way. They make sense out of the random scars and craters of life. That’s why it’s time to talk about characters, because it’s through our humanity that we connect at the deepest level.

Characters aren’t just invented people, they are inspired by the meaning of what you’re writing. They are spawned by why. The exercises we do here are going to help ground your characters in the thematic question that we just developed. Believe me, this will have a huge pay-off later, because if we plant that seed of meaning right from the start, it will really blossom when the adventure takes off. Watch how Dickens does it with Scrooge. Even his physical description reflects his meaning:


The cold within him froze his old features nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.


I love this example because every detail Dickens gives in the description is significant to the personality of his character but he still has fun with it. In the vast majority of his books he’s taking on big issues, usually poverty, but he never loses his sense of humor. This has helped his stories resonate through the centuries. It allows the meaning space to breath. Literature that takes itself too seriously tends to suffocate.

In a lot of the craft books I’ve worked through, they have a page of questions to help you build characters. The character questionnaire asks about occupation, physical characteristics (it almost always asks for eye color) and if it’s any good it will ask about hopes and fears. But characters aren’t born out of individual characteristics, they’re rooted in a deeper seed of meaning that’s planted within the thematic question. Just like with the humorous description of Scrooge.

When I start a story, I’m really explicit about this process. I make a chart. At the top of the chart I put my thematic question, and then I make a short list of important characters in the left column, and fill out the rows by writing in how each of them would answer the thematic question. This is a great way to get an early feel for the character’s voice. This is the first glimpse of the story itself because it shows how the alchemy between the characters and the theme is going to work. Below I’ve provided The Chistmas Carol as an example and tried to have some fun with it, just as Dickens would.


What is the value of a man’s life?



If I can’t take it to the bank it’s pretty much worthless. People? The world’s got way too many people and every one of them wants something! Children? Children! They’re like fractions of people and even more needy. If I had my way I’d put them all in a circle, tie their elbows together so they stay put, and make them wait like that until they’re old enough to get jobs.


The Ghost of  Christmas Past


Memories are golden, more than golden, because your experiences become your character. That’s the real value of life. Look at Scrooge, a lonely child becomes a lonely old man, but think of all he’s forgotten: the parties as a young apprentice, his first love. He’s lost years from his life simply because he can’t remember.



The Ghost of Christmas Present



Merry Christmas! Happy New Year, Hanukah, Ramadan, Diwali, Qingming, Halloween and Easter! A man’s years are fleeting therefore the only value one can find in life is what you give to others. Every moment contains all the generosity of heaven and earth.





The Ghost of Christmas Future



I’m a man of few words so let me to be brief. All you have is the legacy you leave behind long after you are gone. Those who leave nothing have nothing both in life and death.






When you play around with this exercise it will fizzle into content, dialogues and actions. A Christmas Carol is so direct in the way the characters represent the values behind the meaning, it’s almost like a fable. When we understand the relationship between Scrooge and these three ghosts, we understand how the thematic question has transformed itself into an experience. Scrooge isn’t going to simply be lectured about his lesson, he has to learn it the hard way by interacting with each of the other characters.

If you boiled your story down to a fable, what would it look like? What would the various characters represent? What’s the soul of meaning behind each character?

Eventually your characters will have far more breadth and depth than can be contained by words on the page because the meaning you give them will resonate in the mind of the reader. However don’t feel that you have to know everything all at once. You will get to know them through the process of writing your story (especially in the next chapter). At this point all we need is to plant the seed and give it a little faith, so we have fun with the games below.



1.      Theme and Character Chart

There you have it folks. Go back to your question and create your chart. It’s a great chance to start listening to your characters, getting a feel for their voice and perspective, and the role they will play in the adventure that’s about to unfold.


2.      Character Coffee Date

Now it’s time for you and your characters to get to know each other a little better, but keep your pants on friend, because the first step is a day date. Rather than do a classic Character Question sheet, I like to do a more free flowing conversation, where I ask the questions and the character responds. And I do it at an actual coffee house. However, I should mention that this whole conversation takes place inside a notebook so as not to freak out the other patrons.

Just listen and let them talk about whatever they want to talk about. Their family, their job, their hopes and dreams and nightmares. Don’t worry about how it’s going to fit in the story, just let ink flow with abundance, and you will be surprised at how seemingly random ideas become useful in your plot.


3.      Description: Meaningful Characteristics.

Once you’re reasonably well acquainted with your character’s voice, it’s necessary to give your characters a physical body. What’s most important here is to make them memorable. Whatever details you include should form a coherent whole. This is actually easier if you stick to a few salient traits. If you describe everything from their eyebrows to their toe nails, the load gets cumbersome and the whole thing falls apart. So do it like Dickens did with Scrooge. Choose a few confident strokes and make them relevant.


1.4 What’s going to happen?

            We all ask ourselves that question at one point or another. What’s going to happen? Sometimes it’s with excitement, and sometimes with desperation or fear. What’s going to happen? What am I going to do? or even What have I done? Eventually those are the moments that our most important stories come from, the stories that connect us to one another.

When we move our story out of life and onto the page it becomes the way a character is beautified through trials by fire. Not because all stories have happy endings, but because no matter what the character does: beautiful, ugly, brave, selfish, insane, etc. as long as it cuts to the depth who they are and resonates with the reader, it becomes meaningful. That’s beauty. Anna Karenina had an affair and threw herself under a train. Is that beautiful? Yes, not because infidelity and suicide are pretty, because her actions still resonate with readers after more than a century.

Now that we’ve introduced ourselves to our characters, we’ve got to put them in scenes and build them through action. This is what I call “character karma,” when all the characters are shoved in a room together and pitted up against difficult situations until they find out who they really are. Karma is the Sanskrit word for action, and the law of karma is basically the same as Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

In a scene the formula for character karma is actually very simple: action, reaction, reaction, reaction, (etc.) change. Now that it’s been pointed out, you’ll see it everywhere in movies and books. This is the skeleton of a narrative, not only that a character exists, but that they’re constantly moving and changing. That’s how they’re brought to life.

There’s a saying in literature from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Character is destiny.” I’ve always had an intellectual grievance with Heraclitus. To me, character and destiny are two separate poles, who the character was, and who she will become. A character’s actions in a story  can be influenced by either of these forces: character or destiny. What is most important about a character isn’t just who they are, but how they react to situations, surprise us and ultimately change. 

If ever there was a straight forward example of character karma  it would be Ebeniezer Scrooge. Take a look at the “Second Stave” where he meets Marley’s ghost. At this point Dickens has already established that Scrooge is a greedy curmudgeon, but watch how that simple formula of action, reaction, reaction, reaction, change unfolds. When Marley’s ghost enters Scrooge’s room, at first Scrooge is stubborn, claiming Marley is merely the result of poorly digested meat. Perhaps his transformation seems like a cliché because it’s so familiar, but when you look at the artistry of how Dickens builds and moves one of his most dynamic characters there is so much we can learn about for own writing.


 “You see this toothpick?” said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.

“I do,” replied the Ghost.

“You are not looking at it,” said Scrooge.

“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”

“Well!” returned Scrooge, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you! Humbug!”

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world"oh, woe is me!"and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned into happiness!”


This is one of the first chances we get to see Scrooge steamrolled by fear. The ghost acts by appearing in the room, Scrooge reacts with obstinate disbelief, the ghost reacts with a cold stare, Scrooge persists, then the ghost drops his jaw in a startling image of death that forces Scrooge out of his old habits and terrifies him to change. For the first time we see Scrooge as vulnerable, begging for mercy and his mind opens.

What’s especially important here is that the character is both grounded his original clay and yet capable of change. His destiny is coming into play. If Scrooge were any other selfish sob, not only would we lose interest in him, we would not believe him when he acquiesced to follow those other ghosts. But because he’s pulled by these two opposite poles, who he was and who he will become, that makes a story. As the author you are the grand puppet master in command of the complex process of actions and reactions between multiple characters and situations. You have to simultaneously understand the immediate and inevitable consequences of all your characters’ karma. You’re at the helm of their destiny.

All of the scenes end up working together in a chain of change, lots of little turns advancing toward the climax. A Christmas Carol has a very linear plot, each visit with each ghost brings Scrooge directly toward the realization that his wealth is meaningless without loving relationships. Your plot may have more twists and complications, but the essential factor in creating scenes is that characters keep acting, reacting and changing.

Buddha said, “Nothing is forever except change.” In other words the only thing that doesn’t change is that everything always changes. We may sometimes forget this in life, but in our stories it’s essential to remember. I have to remind myself all the time. We are constantly creating karma that moves and changes our characters which ultimately moves and changes our readers. In fact, that’s the best writing can do to imitate life, create a moving, transformative experience.



1.      Diagram Movie Scenes

Before we dive into doing this ourselves, let’s watch how a professional does it. Pick your favorite movie and make a list of five or six major scenes in the order which they happen. Then break them down by creating a short outline based on this formula:


A.     Scene Title (Make one up.)

B.     What’s the situation/status quo at the beginning of the scene? Use the 5 Ws. Who? What? When? Where? Why?

C.     What’s the first major action that sets the scene in motion?

D.     How do the characters react?

E.      How do the characters react to that reaction?

F.      How do the characters react to that reaction? (etc.)

G.     What’s the situation at the end of the scene? How has the status quo changed?


For this particular exercise movies are an efficient way to learn because Hollywood tends to follow this formula religiously. Actors often say their craft is all about action and reaction. It’s fun to really focus on the skeleton of how they do what they do.


2.      Chain of Change

Once you’ve practiced with a movie, try sketching out your own “chain of change” in the form of an outline. First list all the major scenes up to the climax. Remember the climax is just the major change in the arc of the story as a whole, built upon all the minor changes that happen throughout the story. We’ll go into it in more depth in the chapter “Bring on the Epiphanies.” For now, just make a list of scenes and fill them out with the same outline you used for the movie.


A.     Scene Title (Make one up.)

B.     What’s the situation/status quo at the beginning of the scene? Use the 5 Ws. Who? What? When? Where? Why?

C.     What’s the first major action that sets the scene in motion?

D.     How do the characters react?

E.      How do the characters react to that reaction?

F.      How do the characters react to that reaction? (etc.)

G.     What’s the situation at the end of the scene? How has the status quo changed?


Some people resist outlining because it’s perceived as too practical for a creative project. I find that it actually spurs creativity, but getting clear on all the ideas in your head and spilling them onto the page. It forms a lattice on which the story can grow and flourish, perhaps because when we map out the story, our subconscious starts to fill in the blanks, even when we’re working on other things. No matter where you fall on the outlining debate, experiment with this exercise. Only then can you know if it works for you or not. 


3.      Sketch out a Scene

The best learning happens through experience so let’s put these people in a room together and see what happens. You don’t have to write the first scene first. You just need to write the one that you have the clearest picture of. From this point on, every section will end with a doodling exercise which prepares you to write a scene and then an exercise to write that actual scene. If you ever get stuck and have no idea what your characters should do or say, ask some more Little Questions (seriously, keep that tool close at hand throughout your journey) or apply a different warm up doodle that you liked from before.

Here are a few pointers based on what we talked about to spur you on:

·         Get Grounded: Provide details so that the reader has a good feel for where they are. It also makes it exciting if they’re someplace interesting. Not every scene should take place at home or at a bar. And don’t forget the stuff we usually take for granted, what time of day is it? What month? What hemisphere?

·         Stay Active: Characters need to be moving and reacting to one other.

·         Be Dynamic: A good scene has a reason for being, and that means something changes. What is different about your characters between the time they walk in and they walk out?

At this stage you must be brave enough to write badly. Maybe not all the elements of the scene are apparent yet, or the style might not sound quite right, you may not have done your research yet. Who cares?! It’s an early draft.




"What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality."

Plutarch (46 - 120 AD)


Little known fact: there are two kinds of clarity. There’s regular clarity, which I refer to simply as “clarity,” and it consists of writing down your goal and hanging it up somewhere you can see it. Done. Nice work. But that’s only the beginning.

The other kind of clarity is called “nerd clarity” and it’s exclusively people who aren’t satisfied with daydreaming and actually want to make things happen. Nerd clarity is essential not only for harnessing energy and commitment, but also for mobilizing fortuitous coincidences. The coincidences I’m referring to have both a spiritual and rational component.

Pretty much all spiritual traditions acknowledge signs or happy coincidences that seem a little like winks from God in order to acknowledge that we’re headed in the right direction. In my own experience, I’ve been especially thankful for those helpful winks in the tough times, like when I’m out walking around and a street musician is singing the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always get What You Want,” right when I’ve just made rent, or lost a job, or got a job again. That song follows me around everywhere, right when I need to hear it. And although no one will ever convince me that those coincidences aren’t personalized Hallmark cards signed by God, there’s a perfectly rational reason why they happen and it has everything to do with clarity.

You may already be familiar with the part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) because it’s not just for neurologists anymore. Lately I’ve read about it in marketing books, health blogs, and the personal development circuit is obsessed. The RAS is located at the top of the brainstem and it’s kind of like your subconscious search engine for the world around you. It takes the glut of information the world spews forth and organizes it into two categories, relevant and irrelevant. Then it automatically tunes anything irrelevant. For instance, a bus may pass by your house every day, but you never bothered to notice it until it came reaming straight for you. Thank you Reticular Activating System.

Here is where clarity comes in: you have to be aware of what you want in order for the subconscious search engine to kick in and help you out. As soon as you get clear about what you want, your RAS reaches out into the chaos of the world and selects all the information you need to move ahead. A snippet of conversation at the table next to yours fits perfectly into the dialogue you’re writing. A friend you’ve known for years has a writing group, and this time when he talks about it, you ask to join. Coincidence? Well, yes and no.

The key is that you’re beginning the process of getting your subconscious on your side. The more you do these clarity exercises the more you’re getting the subconscious to lift some of your weight for you. Therefore this coaching strategy is separated in two phases:

First you do your conscious planning. This part is logical. When you’ve got your goals planned out you’re less likely to miss opportunities that come your way. Furthermore, when those goals are time bound you’re far more likely to hold yourself accountable. In fact, sometimes we blur in order to protect ourselves from accountability, and as a result we protect ourselves from getting what we really want. Even if you’re not a planner, dig in and do it anyway, because those who show the most resistance end up reaping the most benefits.

On the other hand, those of you who love planning, may have some resistance toward the second strategy: visualization. This is essential too. Visualization has really been mapped out and studied in sports psychology and it’s become a standard practice for Olympic athletes. One of many reasons it’s so effective is that it helps you sort out fear and anxiety in order to build confidence on a mental level. Like Plutarch said, "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality."

I chose that quote from Plutarch because although these ideas are trendy, they are not new. In fact they’re tried and true. Let's take something simple like a bridge. Would you like to cross walk a bridge where someone grabbed a log and flung it across a river, or would you rather walk on a bridge that someone imagined, sketched out, did the math, studied the tools, and finally constructed. Don’t expect yourself to get up and just fling words onto the page. Nurture yourself with the support of these coaching practices, and you will find the whole process runs more smoothly.




1.      Backwards Goal Setting

This is a great tool to give you clarity about what you want, when you want it, and what you need to do in order to get it. The concept is simple but powerful: start with the end point in mind and work backwards. First print out a fresh calendar page, because it’s best to sketch this out where you can see several months at a time. If you’re not a traditional planner, grab a warm beverage and find a cozy ambiance. Then start circling dates by asking the obvious questions:


·         When do you want to have your final draft finished?

·         In order to meet that deadline, by what date will you need a rough draft?

·         What are the steps to getting the draft done by that date?


If you’re a word counter, write down word numbers. If you’re an outliner, plug in your outline. Everything goes into the calendar.

A final bit of advice is, keep it fun. This is your passion project, and you are not creating a calendar to beat yourself up with, you’re creating a calendar to take a tangible step toward making your dream a reality. This should be a living breathing document that you are always in conversation with. If a deadline becomes unrealistic don’t fall off the wagon, just reset the deadline.


2.      Visualization

You’ve got to feel it to seal it. Visualization teaches your brain how to reach your goal in a way that planning can’t do on its own. This is a nice wind down activity before you go to bed.

Sit with a straight spine, relax your shoulders, let your tongue float in your mouth, and take some slow cleansing breaths. You want to signal to your body that you’re not running around anymore and you’re ready to go deep. Below are a series of questions working from the big picture, down to the objectives you need to accomplish this week. Don’t answer them verbally, answer them by closing your eyes and allowing your brain to bring up images and emotions. Open your eyes only to read each question and try to stay relaxed.  

·         How will you feel when you finish this project and put it out into the world?

·         How will you celebrate?

·         What do you enjoy most about the process of reaching that goal?

·         What needs to happen this week to meet that goal?

·         How and when are you going to do it?

·         What will be the obstacles to getting it done and how will you overcome them?

·         What will be the rewards of taking those actions?


3.      Coincidence Inventory

Coincidences are like leprechauns, they baffle expectations. If you actively look for them, they disappear. However, unlike leprechauns, coincidences respond to gratitude. Start with the simplest coincidences: the fact that you found this book, or that you bought the perfect journal for this project. You may not consider these coincidences, but they are, they are disparate things coinciding right when you needed them. It’s early evidence that your RAS is colluding with the world around you in order to help you write your story. Sooner or later, believe me, some extraordinary leprechauns will come your way. 

© 2016 emilytamayomaher

Author's Note

This is the first chapter of a book I'm working on. I would love to hear what you think is helpful or what you think is confusing. Any and all feedback is much appreciated. Also, if you try any of the exercises, I'd love to hear what worked or didn't work for you. THANKS!

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Added on September 18, 2016
Last Updated on September 18, 2016
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Bogota, Cundinamarca, Colombia

I live in Bogotá, Colombia with my husband, Mauricio, and son, Martín. I'm working on a nonfiction craft book called "The Meaning Method" that helps people incorporate life experience in.. more..