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Monday, February 26, 2024

How to Write Stakes that Aren't Life vs. Death

Writing strong stakes is critical for any story. But a question that often comes up for newer writers is, "How do I create stakes other than life vs. death?" Or essentially, "How do I write stakes that aren't life or death, yet are still effective?"

"Stakes" refer to what your character has to lose, what is at risk in the story. And obviously, potentially losing one's life, is a pretty big risk.

To address the questions, let's first look at why life vs. death stakes are so effective. 

I know, it sounds obvious, like common sense even, and you may be rolling your eyes. 

But understanding why they almost always work, will help you see how to create other similar stakes.

The thing about death is, it has a finality to it that almost nothing else has. 

No one can come back from the dead.

That's it.

Death is the end of the road.



Game over.

. . . Except that unlike "Game over," you can't restart the game.

In storytelling, this is one of the main reasons many of us want to grab life vs. death stakes. Everyone reading the book innately understands this. Death is final, you can't come back from that. It's a "point of no return." It can't be undone.

Great stakes will create a similar effect. 

It's not literally life or death. But to some degree, there exists a figurative life-or-death situation.

For example, in The Office, after Michael accidentally hits Meredith with his car, he organizes a fun run on her behalf. Michael is driven by the desire to be liked by others. And after he hits Meredith, people don't like him. (I am simplifying the actual story just a bit.) With the fun run, he's hoping to redeem himself. He wants to be liked (or even admired) by others. To Michael, that hinges on his success with the fun run. If it's a success, people will like him again. If it's a failure, they won't (or they will dislike him even more).

There are seemingly only two outcomes: Success = liked. Failure = (forever) disliked.

From Michael's perspective, he can't have both.

Whichever path the fun run takes, the other path "dies." 

You can't go back in time and change the outcome of the fun run. 

It's final. 

End of the road. 



The situation also, to some degree, feels like figurative life or death to Michael. He's driven to be liked, and that makes him feel alive. If he's disliked, it feels like "death." It mars him psychologically, and he feels like he can't come back from that. It feels like the end of the road.

The Office is not a high-stakes story (which is one of the reasons I'm using it), but it still has effective stakes that convey why what's happening (the fun run) matters (liked vs. disliked), which is something all good stakes do.

This example also shows two components related to crafting effective stakes: plot and character.

Let's dig a bit deeper into each.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The "Bathtub Story": Why It's a Problem, How to Fix It, When to Use It

Writing a "bathtub story" is rarely a good idea. It often fits right up there with flashbacks; most of the time you shouldn't use them, but in certain circumstances, you can get away with them. Bathtub stories lack immediacy and as such, often bring the narrative to a grinding halt. 

Yet they are common for new writers to write. So let's go over them, why they're a problem, how to fix them, and when to use one (if you dare 😉) . . . I also have a little offer for my followers at the end, so don't miss that 😊

What is a "Bathtub Story"?

The term "bathtub story" originates from author Jerome Stern, who talks about them in his book, Making Shapely Fiction. He writes:

In a bathtub story, a character stays in a single, relatively confined space . . . While in that space the character thinks, remembers, worries, plans, whatever. Before long, readers realize that the character is not going to do anything. . . . The character is not interacting with other people, but just thinking about past interactions. Problems will not be faced, but thought about.

A bathtub story is essentially a story that takes place in introspection.

While most novels won't literally be an entire bathtub story, many new writers have bathtub scenes or chapters, where the character simply reflects and doesn't do anything meaningful. While Stern likens this to someone in a confined tub, I would argue these can happen even when the character is moving. The character may be taking a walk or washing the dishes, but the story elements only exist in her head.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Circling Conflicts vs. Zigzagging Conflicts

Nearly every writer understands that a story needs conflict. The protagonist sets off to fulfill a goal, runs into an antagonistic force, and their struggle creates conflict. This should happen in the story as a whole, this should happen in acts, and it should happen in almost every scene--the difference is that the smaller the structural unit, the smaller the antagonist and conflict (simplistically speaking).

Today I want to talk about a sneaky problem I sometimes see when editing manuscripts, one that relates to conflicts.

Sometimes the writer simply “circles” the conflict.

What I mean is that after a given conflict, nothing has actually changed in the story. We just completed a “circle.”

For example, say the protagonist is a favorite target of the schoolyard bully. They get into a verbal fight, but when it's over, nothing's different. The conflict didn't have any consequences.

It may not sound that bad.

And if it only happens once in a while, and there are enough other conflicts going on, it may not be.

But if this happens repeatedly or this is the main conflict, the plot isn't progressing. It just did a circle and the characters ended up in the same situation they were before the encounter. Essentially, no matter how exciting the scene may seem to be, you could still cut it and the story would be the same.

Let's look at an even less obvious example.

The protagonist needs to get Object X from Character B.

The protagonist finds a way to successfully steal it.

But then immediately afterward, Character B steals it back.

The scene ends, and the protagonist is back at square one.

It doesn't sound that bad, does it?

And if it only happens once in a while, and there are enough other conflicts going on, it may not be.

But if this sort of thing happens repeatedly--over and over and over--the plot isn't progressing. You're just going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And if we just arc that path a bit, guess what? It creates a circle.

Monday, January 8, 2024

How to Convert Exposition into Ammunition

Exposition is all the facts and information conveyed to the audience. It's facts about the setting, the worldbuilding, the characters, the current situation, the history, the magic or technology, or anything else that is straight-up information. Every story needs some exposition, but for all of us, it's been tricky to handle at one point or another.

One of the quickest ways to tell a beginning writer from an experienced writer, is how he or she handles exposition. Beginners often cram in too much too fast, leading to poor pacing, info-dumps, or maid-and-butler dialogue. Professional writers know how to expertly weave exposition into the story, so that the audience is fed information without hardly noticing it.

Last year, I did a post on how to use turning points to help you discern what info to put in and what info to leave out, when. I mentioned that in his famous book, Story, Robert McKee has a maxim: "Convert exposition into ammunition."

It sounds great, right?

But like some of the most meaningful writing advice, it can be difficult to wrap your head around. 

It sounds great, but like . . . how does one actually do that? And what does that actually mean?

Luckily, McKee does expound a bit on what he means, and today I'd like to expound on what he means by offering my own spin on it.

As McKee points out, "Show, don't tell" is key for exposition--we want to find ways to dramatize the information. Okay, great, chances are if you're reading my blog, you already know that. Still, it's often helpful to start with what you know.

McKee writes:

Dramatized exposition serves two ends: Its primary purpose is to further the immediate conflict. Its secondary purpose is to convey information. The anxious novice reverses that order, putting expositional duty ahead of dramatic necessity.

This is the part I want to emphasize: Its primary purpose is to further the immediate conflict.

Summed up into one simple line, this is what it means to turn exposition into ammunition.

But don't worry, I won't leave you with only that.

Cause if you know me, I like to go deep . . . 

Saturday, December 30, 2023

A Gift for You! + Tip

Hey writers! 

I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season! As some of you know, I serve as a resident writing coach on Writers Helping Writers, and Angela and Becca wanted to thank my sphere by offering a giveaway to my followers: A 6-month subscription to One Stop for Writers!

What is One Stop?

One Stop for Writers is your creativity portal to one-of-a-kind tools and resources that will make planning, writing, and revising a story much easier—especially if you follow the step-by-step Storyteller’s Roadmap!

Libraries are wonderful places—cozy vaults filled with book-sized treasures that smell of ink and make a delightful shoosh sound as their pages are turned. As kids, who among us didn’t run our fingers along the spines, choosing random books and sitting cross-legged to flip through them, hoping to find the perfect story that would whisk us away to an exciting place or set us on a heart-pounding adventure? Imagination, mystery, and possibility. For many, this is what the library embodies.

No one appreciates this more than authors. We’re intuitively aware that books are not only whimsical and fun; they also represent the transformative power of knowledge.

This storehouse of creative information is the inspiration behind One Stop For Writers®. Like a library, One Stop houses a vast collection of reference materials that are intended to help writers improve their craft. Our library is loaded with one-of-a-kind story and character planning resources unlike anything else available.

Our goal is simple: help writers like you find the information and inspiration necessary to elevate your storytelling, saving you time in the process. After all, isn’t your energy best spent doing what you do best—creating enthralling fiction your readers will love?


I have used One Stop for some of my own projects, and some of my clients use it too. It's a wonderful place to get ideas, brainstorm, and map out your story.

And if you love Angela and Becca's Emotion Thesaurus as much as I do, you can find it, and all of their thesauri at One Stop (and since they aren't limited by page count, there are extra entries). ❤️

To get a better idea of everything included, check out Becca's tour of One Stop below.

How to Enter

Entering the giveaway is easy. If you already follow me via email, simply click on the rafflecopter and provide your email address (so I can verify you're subscribed). 

If you don't follow via email, go here and enter your address (make sure to confirm it), then provide it through rafflecopter as well. (When you confirm your subscription, you'll also be directed to a free copy of my Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists booklet--make sure to "bookmark" it.)

The winner will be selected January 15th at 11:59 p.m.!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(Feel free to thank Angela and Becca by visiting Writers Helping Writers.)


With the holidays falling on my usual writing tip days, I haven't put up another tip yet, but I did write one last month for My Story Doctor that I forgot to share (in case you need something to hold ya over 😉). It's all about plot goals. . . .

While many point to conflict or even the antagonist as the first element of plot, the truth is, plot starts with a goal.

In fact, it's the goal that arguably creates the whole context for the plot. Until there is a goal, what happens doesn't matter much.

There are three basic types of plot goals, and knowing which type you are writing will influence how you set up your story; it will also give you insight into your protagonist. 

To learn more, check out "The 3 Types of Plot Goals."



Registration for my live, online writing course, the Triarchy Method of Story is open, and classes start Jan. 9th. Make 2024 your writing year; start it off with a bang by strengthening the "bones" of your book.

This 12-week course will give you over thirty hours of class time that is almost entirely focused on creating strong story content. I only take on 10 students to ensure that everyone gets proper feedback from me. It's first come, first serve, and as you can imagine by now, spots are filling up.

Learn more or register here

Want to take the course but can't afford to pay for it all at once? Not a problem. You can split your payment in half or in quarters.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Writing Negative Character Arcs: Types & Principles

What is a Negative Character Arc? 

In a negative character arc, the character grows into someone worse--or perhaps more accurately said, someone more misled. Stories that feature protagonists with negative arcs typically function as cautionary tales and often leave the audience feeling "sadder, but wiser." Some examples of negative arcs include Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, Coriolanus in A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and Light in Death Note. These also serve as good reminders that not all protagonists are "heroes."

Of course, though, negative arcs can be used for side characters or antagonists as well, such as Harry Osborn in Spider-Man, or Javert in Les Mis.

A common misconception is that negative arcs are always for "bad guys." While the majority of villains will embody a negative arc, not every negative-arcing character is a villain. For example, Winston has a negative arc in 1984, but no one would call him a "bad guy"; he was tortured until he lost his way.

Despite negative arcs being uncommon for main characters, chances are you'll need to write one for at least one important character at some point. This article will go over the two basic types of negative arcs, dig deeper into what a negative arc actually is, and offer four principles to help you craft one.

Buckle up, writers, because today we are on the "highway to hell!" 😈🔥😉

Monday, November 20, 2023

Why the Protagonist Must Be a Problem-solver

In some ways, this post's topic sounds obvious, in others . . . not so much. On the surface, the tip seems simple, and yet, it is easily and often overlooked.

Your protagonist must be a problem-solver.


A problem-solver.

I don't care if she's the laziest, most passive, most dimwitted person on the planet, within the context of the plot, she must be a problem-solver (even if a reluctant one).

Otherwise, she'll feel like a weak character.

Otherwise, the plot will feel weak.

Of course, I'm sure you can find rare exceptions to this.

But 99% of the time, your protagonist needs to be a problem-solver.

So let's talk about why.

Monday, November 6, 2023

What Exactly is Conflict? Conflict's True Form

When we think of the word "conflict," we often think of battles, arguments, or big chase scenes. But just as we would often do well to broaden our view of what an antagonist truly is, we will often benefit from broadening our understanding of what conflict truly is.

As I've talked about previously, your protagonist should have a goal (to obtain something, or to avoid something, or to maintain something), and the antagonistic force is what is opposing that goal. It will block, push away, or create problems as the protagonist pursues the goal.

This is what creates conflict.

And it doesn't have to be a shouting match or fistfight.

Monday, October 23, 2023

The True Purpose of Antagonists

Hear the word "antagonist," and it will likely conjure up images of "bad guys," like Darth Vader, the Joker, or Mother Gothel; and even a simple search online will reveal that "antagonist" is often defined as a person, group, or even specifically, a character.

None of these things are completely accurate, though. An antagonist is not always a "bad guy." In Death Note, the antagonist is actually the true hero. The antagonist also doesn't have to be a person or a group. In The Martian, the antagonist is the Martian landscape.

Truthfully, any well-written story will be loaded with antagonists. Sure, there may be what we think of as the "main" antagonist. But in order to be a good story, there will be lots and lots and lots of antagonists.

The problem is, so many of us have a narrow view of what an antagonist is.

Yeah, it can be a "bad guy," or another character, or a group.

But it can also be a storm, a computer, a rock, a substance, or even one's own sleepiness.

When we broaden our understanding of the antagonist and comprehend its true purpose, we can write better stories.

Because we can write better plots.

And if you've been with me for a while, you may know I consider "antagonist" to be the second element of plot, with "goal" being the first.

At the most basic level, there are just three types of goals (this will be a review for some of you, but it's better to have a review than leave newcomers in the dark).

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Registration Now Open for The Triarchy Method

Hi friends!

Registration for my live online writing course is now open. Make 2024 your writing year; start it off with a bang by strengthening the "bones" of your book with the Triarchy Method. You will learn approaches that will not only help you with your work-in-progress, but with every story you write after--all while receiving personalized feedback on your assignments straight from me. 

This 12-week course begins January 9th and is held every Tuesday and Thursday at 5pm Mountain Time, with our last class happening March 28th. (But if you can't make it live, every lesson will be recorded for you to watch later--or however many times you want in the decades to come.) Keep in mind I only take on 10 students, and registration is first come, first serve.

Here are what two of my most recent students said about the course:

I have done many courses . . . and I found this course going well beyond most of the others. September has a clear teaching style, and she gave a huge amount of time and effort helping us to work through any issues, and the weekly assignments are fantastic. I appreciated this so much as often writing courses are simply ‘set and forget’ videos with little or no feedback. The Triarchy Method was nothing like that.”

- Sharon M.

"I was hesitant with the cost, but it was worth every cent. Every class brought new epiphanies for me. September is a brilliant teacher and the Triarchy Method is an essential course for anyone wanting a better understanding of story. She will take you on a journey through character, plot and theme that will deepen your understanding of the bones of your story, the three-act structure, and the trajectory of different plotlines across different arcs. I cannot recommend this course enough."

- Kelly W.

This course is offered in partnership with MyStoryDoctor.com, and is $1,597 to take. (If you want to split that up into multiple payments, email service@mystorydoctor.com.) You can register here! For more details, see below, or go to this page.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Breaking Writing Rules: "Never Start with a Character Waking Up"

There are so many wrong ways to start a story, or even just a scene, and one of the common "wrong" ways is to open with a character waking up. It's even more "wrong" if the character then goes about his or her ordinary routine--shower, clothes, breakfast, commute. And yet, we've all seen and read stories, or scenes, that start, more or less, this way. So what gives? Why is it a "don't"? And when and how can we make it a "do"? In today's post, I want to go through just that.

What's the Rule?

Don't open a story or scene with a character waking up. Furthermore, don't then have the character go about her ordinary day.

Why it's a Rule

There are several reasons why this is a rule: