Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Martha Emgber's Story Template

While I was writing Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for the Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction (Central Avenue Press, 2007), I realized the book is not so much about a method of character development as it is a guide for living.

I found myself applying every lesson to the world around me: How to observe other people and appreciate every difference, from appearance to language to gestures. How to use one small, telling detail to figure out what makes them tick. Why people’s greatest weaknesses are often also their greatest strengths. What could I figure out about myself by applying the same powers of observation?

So that when you all — Joylene’s faithful readers — asked me on Monday to divulge the template I use to create and test each scene I write, I decided to do so, though with this recommendation:

Step outside the role of a writer who might only see the following as a writer’s tool. Instead, view the list as a “seeing” checklist, one that will help you better observe the world around you.

Again, this template is very particular to my needs and a work in progress devised from the advice of writers far greater than myself. As you read, think about how you look at the world. What do you notice and why? If you, right now, look around you, what does this template help you see and understand?

Better yet, take the list to a coffee house, courtroom, therapy group or some other peopled place of drama. Now what do you see?

 Martha’s Scene (Seeing) Template

—   What’s happening?


—   Date
—   Time
—   Location
—   Weather
—   People present

Two questions

—   Why is this happening?
—   Why is it happening at this point in time?

Structure of scene

—   Who’s the focus (main character)?
—   From who’s point-of-view is the scene occurring?
—   What’s the goal of the main character in the scene?
—   What action (emotional exchange) takes place?
—   What’s the concrete problem or conflict?
—   How does that problem change the character? Does he/she meet his goal?
—   What’s the underlying problem that led to this moment?
—   What new problem has been created? (What makes you want to keep watching/reading)?


—   What does each character want?
—   Do those desires conflict? They should.
—   Who has the power?


—   What’s the obstacle?
—   In what position does the obstacle place characters?
—   Do you sense neither will give up?
—   Does the obstacle increase in size?
—   Does the obstacle create suspense long-term?
—   Does the obstacle create tension short-term)?
—   What resolution will readers long for?
—   Will readers have to wait?

Sources of tension (use at least one)

—   a chilling fact
—   dangerous work
—   imminent deadline
—   unfortunate meeting
—   good guy trapped


—   weather
—   physical landscape
—   all five senses
—   placement of characters
—   appearance/dress of each character

If anybody is willing to test this checklist by Friday, either in his/her writing or in a real life moment, I’d love to hear the outcome!

Lastly, I’m looking for book clubs willing to test market my novel, THE WIND THIEF. I’m even willing to provide a free book to each group. If you’re interested, let me know ( and I’ll send a list of simple instructions.

* If you have any questions for Martha, post them under comments, and I'm sure Martha will have an answer for you soon.


  1. Wow, I've never seen a writing template before. It certain seems to cover the basics! Am printing this out to see if it will work for me to one degree or another.

  2. Katie, anything that makes our lives as writers easier has got to be a good thing. Hope it works well for you.

  3. Great idea to also use this as a "seeing" guide, Martha. I've always felt the best writing comes as a result of being super-aware of one's surroundings and your template prompts me to look beyond the obvious. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for sharing your template, Martha. So, using it stops your voice from slipping into POV?

  5. On another blog, they're discussing whether a protagonist can have too many flaws. What's your opinion on that, Martha.

    Nice post btw.

    Heather L.

  6. Are you working on anything new?

    Do you have only the one publisher? Or would you consider querying one of the larger houses?

  7. You look organized. Why does the process take 10 years? Does your publisher take the full responsibility of marketing your book? What about book reviewers; do they arrange those for you?

  8. I especially like the desires section:

    What does each character want?
    Do those desires conflict? They should.
    Who has the power?

    The last point is particularly important, because power changes everything. If the powerless gets what they want at the expense of the powerful, we cheer. If the powerful get what they want at the expense of the powerless, we boo.

  9. I like powerless gaining the advantage. It renews my sense of joy and optimism. Thanks for stopping by, Pat.

  10. Good morning!

    You guys have a wonderful sense of discussion and community. Let's see what else I can add to the mix:

    JacktheMac: "So, using it stops your voice from slipping into POV?" What I think you're asking is whether using the template helps deter what's known as "author insertion," where the author accidentally inserts his/her thoughts into what's supposed to be the character's POV.

    Yes! If we truly sink ourselves into that scene, and in particular, the character's shifting emotional state, we'll be too mesmerized — too gripped by drama — to revert to our own thoughts, which will seem boring an irrelevant by comparison.

    Heather: "They're discussing whether a protagonist can have too many flaws."

    I agree.

    In reality, people have more than one flaw. Yet to keep a story focused, I think the protagonist should have one major flaw that drives him/her toward her greatest fear and that pivotal climax in which she's forced to face that fear.

    When searching for a flaw, don't search that far! A character's greatest failing is almost always his/her greatest strength. Not convinced? Check out real life. Your greatest strength is probably also your greatest flaw.

    LongJohn: "Are you working on anything new? Do you have only the one publisher? Or would you consider querying one of the larger houses?"

    Technically I have two publishers, one for my nonfiction book and one for my novel. I'll be moving into a last rewrite of my second novel about two Native American women warriors from opposing tribes in pre-colonial New England, which is about 8 years down the pike. Then I'm still digging deeper with a novel about a troubled 15-year-old girl in the Chicago blizzard winter of 1979, a story in which Joylene's help has been instrumental.

    I'll absolutely look for a larger publisher for both books. Though I have to say, getting published by a smaller publisher is making me a scrappy promoter, a skill I could not have developed had a larger publisher taken over in that respect.

    The publisher does submit to some contests and reviewers, while I submit to the contests I want and the reviewers with whom I have a personal connection.

    For as much of a hassle as book promotion is, I like knowing I'm in charge of how well my book sells, which means I don't have to sit back and wring my hands, wondering if someone else — who has less interest in selling my book — is doing his/her job.

    In terms of the 10 years, I think that's the minimum it takes to become proficient at writing. How long it takes to write a book is very individual. Once proficient, a writer might take only 2 years.

    What I've noted, however, is that if a new writer has a bestseller, that's the best book he/she ever writes, while the ones that follow are disappointing. I think that's because a first novel has got to be exceptional, while after that, publishers are just interested in capitalizing off the initial success and so encourage the author to get the book out the door as fast as possible.

    That's why I want to make sure my subsequent books get the same, painstaking attention.

    Lastly, stay connected! Let me know what's going on with you. And please, please, please as fellow writers, consider reviewing my book on amazon! I am happy to return the favor.

    It's been a pleasure being with you, and I'd like to give a huge thanks to Joylene for inviting me into the community she's created. You guys are lucky to have her.

    (If you have any other questions, I'll be checking later today.)

    Happy writing!

  11. You're very welcome, Martha. It's been fun, and I learned something! I remember Mary from your Winter Light ms very well. It was a tender, painful story. She was an incredible character. It reminds me of a Canadian movie called Turning Paige. It was a wonderful little film about a dysfunctional family. Every time I think of White Light, I want to recommend you sending your ms to the produce.


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