Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 4, 2015

Small Steps=Big Payoff

ws0LMdKEHave you ever started a project that other people thought was impossible? That you thought was impossible? How about something that wasn’t impossible, but would take a long time to finish, like going to college?

As an adult, I understand that my life is the sum of every decision I’ve made, even the small ones. Especially the small ones. It has taken me awhile (translation: years) to understand the cumulative nature of small actions.

As writers, bringing this truth to the forefront of our plotting (if you do that) can add layers of character development and plot richness to our work. An added bonus is the punches of emotional impact that keep your readers connected to your characters. If you want readers to keep turning your pages even when they should be doing other tasks, you have to make them feel for, and with, your characters.

What I’m talking about is the micro-concept of the scene-and-sequel plot strategy. (I’m a pantser, so don’t worry that you must have pages of outlines and plotting boards to do this.) For those of you not familiar with scene-sequel, the basic idea is action in the scene, then reflection in the sequel. This keeps your readers from burning out from nothing but action, action, action. The bonus? The sequel is a built-in space for you to show your character reflecting, adjusting beliefs, and making the next decision-which propels you into the next scene.

Warning: I’m going to use some author vocabulary next. Don’t worry if you don’t know the terms, you can click on the links for short definitions. Or you can ask me for clarification in the comments.

At the beginning of your book, the inciting incident propels your protagonist into action. Maybe your hero has a choice to stop and help a stranded motorist in a single-car accident. That choice is the initial propellant for your story. The inciting incident doesn’t have to include fireworks and a band. Touching back to the impact of a small choice can be a very powerful tool to move a story forward, all the way to the last page.

photo credit: Going up ! via photopin (license)

photo credit: Going up ! via photopin (license)

These small steps are what make a character real, not "cardboard." 

Maybe your inciting incident casts your hero into a situation without choice. In my book, Keeping Athena, the heroine crashes her fighter ship on an asteroid–in enemy space. She doesn’t have a lot of choice in her new situation. It’s pretty obvious she just wants to get home. But the small decisions she makes to get home reveal her character, her fears, her flaws, and her drive. The antagonist's small decisions reveal the same for him, forcing Athena to revisit her opinion of him throughout the book.

Here's Athena's last thought before her "certain" death on page two:

In seconds the atoms of her body would be dispersed to Agra-only-knew what quadrant.

Does it make you think about your last thought? Does it tell you anything about her?

Her next conscious thought, upon waking to a dark presence towering over her:

“I track this is life after death. I need a location beam, that’s all.” Athena did her best to sound indifferent, though her heart revved like an engine ready to blow. 'Which is it, heaven or hell?'"

Later, when she finds out she's alive, on a proto-farm asteroid in enemy territory, her response to her rescuer:

She’d died and ended at a farm on an asteroid? "Well, this is definitely hell."

Athena believes Drake is an ignorant itinerant space farmer. For a couple of chapters. Then we get a glimpse of a decision.

Why should a part-time space farmer intimidate her? If that’s all Drake was.

By seeing the small changes in her thinking, the reader can anticipate what havoc will happen next. That's where twists become fun...but that's a whole new blog.

Here are Drake's thoughts upon discovering her, near death, in her crashed craft:

What little hope he had of finding the pilot alive, disintegrated. With a bit more luck, he would have had an Agran prisoner to question.

He carries her inside the station, thinking she's a mere child because she's so small, then he removes her flight suit and discovers she's female.

The brainless farmers are sending little girls to fight us!

Later, at the suggestion he torture his prisoner for her knowledge:

His fist tightened at the thought of subjecting the girl to physical pain and mental anguish to gain scraps of military intel. Put her back in her ship, though, and he’d have no hesitation about frying her.

And later:

She looked so tiny and innocent curled on his bunk—incapable of the mayhem caused by Agran pilots of the class of ship she had crashed.

Later still, he starts comparing her to women he knows:

No female Crewmember would offer to clean after a meal. Yet, to this woman, the act appeared quite normal.

Drake's starting to fall for her:

How had he missed the radiance that surrounded her?

Small decisions, small changes in thoughts or perceptions make your story accessible, like breadcrumbs for the reader.

Ever want to throw a book across the room? If it was a romance, probably the author didn't share the small changes that led to a one-hundred-eighty degree turn in the hero's initial feelings for the antagonist. It takes us time to solidify our emotions, with a good amount of back-and-forthing, even if it's love at first sight. (I know this. After our first date, my husband told his best friend he was going to marry me. Believe me, it wasn't a rose-strewn path to the altar!)

In education, it's called scaffolding, a ladder to bring the learner to the point she needs to be to understand the new concept. No matter what we call it, showing small decisions, small changes in beliefs and small movements on the emotional scale makes a twenty-thousand, eighty-five thousand, or a hundred thousand word journey engaging, believable, and memorable.

And that's why your next book gets purchased.

Do you have a character who makes a small decision that is life-changing? If you were to write your life story, what decision would tell us the most about you at that time?


Fae RowenFae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present.  As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.

When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com  or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen.


21 comments on “Small Steps=Big Payoff”

  1. My whole life has been a series of small steps - interspersed by huge leaps! I'm one who tends to jump off cliffs if I perceive the payoff to be big enough. I highly recommend it - I'm still standing!

    1. The beauty is that you see those small steps. And you're brave enough to take those huge leaps. You rock, Laura!

  2. I'm a huge fan of taking at least one small step every day. Pursuing a writing career while working full time, raising a family, caring for the ill (or maybe all three) can only be done in baby steps. It's taken me a long time to embrace them...but they work! Just ask our Laura. 🙂

    1. Ancient Chinese proverb: The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. All true, Jenny.

  3. Thanks for your post. I am currently rewriting my last novel and this is very helpful. I am trying to make sure I include those subtle shifts in attitude so the reader can see the changes my characters goes through.

  4. I'm glad this popped up at the right moment for you, Marie. It's certainly what's cooking on the front burner for me these days as I start a new book.

  5. I've been rewriting scene cards, detailing a six step scene/sequel.I'm was half way through the first rewrite and got stuck. Some days I wonder why I'm doing it but after each timed session I feel I'm understanding better why each scene rolls into the next, and which scenes I can scratch. It's slow going but I think it will pay off. Thank you for posting this.

  6. One of my first critique partners used your method (she wrote her scene cards on big posts and put them on two pasteboards that were taped together), and her books were amazing. Trust me, your method will pay off, even though it sometimes feels laborious. If that process works for you, that's all that matters. Good luck!

  7. I'm a bit confused about what scene and sequel is. Is it like, something happens to the character and then you show what the character thinks about it?

    1. Exactly, littlemissw. The action happens in the scene. The reflection happens next in the sequel leading to a decision which propels the character into the next action and scene. If you were in a gunfight, you'd be in survival mode. You wouldn't be thinking about how you'll feel later if you kill someone. All your actions would be based on surviving. After the fight is over, and the adrenaline fades, you'd start thinking, feeling conflicting emotions (probably), maybe asking questions, and planning your next move. Scene then sequel.

  8. Thanks, Debbie. Laura Drake can tell you, I'm all about the action and the plot. Being more aware of the small thoughts and subtle changes of my characters in my new WIP has made it easier for me to get the emotion into the story in the first draft. BIG change for me!

  9. Well, Fae ... I've been missing in action around the old WITS bunkhouse for a while. Some damn devil told me I had to work to pay bills. For the life of me I can't understand why charm isn't enough. I always enjoy your posts. Yes, they teach. Yes, they are insightful and all that jazz ... but they are what I have come to know and love about mathematicians ... fun.

    Did you know that math-geeks are funny and musical and talented in the arts? Not me since I still count the nine-times table on my fingers ... but I grew up with one and you always remind me of him. Rules? I suppose. But the best part is the other world you live in your head :

    1. Oh, Ramblings, I believe you have delivered the back cover blurb for my life! Indeed, I played piano competitively in my youth. My dad said If I wore all my medals at the same time I'd look like a Russian general!)And I love that you view mathematics as fun, because I sure do. I have never said I'm "going to work"--how lucky is that?

      Glad to have you back. I hope your "money pump" is interesting and enjoyable.

  10. Hi Fae, I started on an associate degree at 40, got my first real job at 41, got my 2 kids out of school at at 44, got my BA at 50 and my MS at 54. Oh yeah lost Mother at 51 and did breast cancer 52. Little steps do get you there and over bumps in the road. I do every thing thinking just a few more steps. Hope this works with writing. As always good article, Thanks for your time and care.

    1. Oh Jo, what a survivor you are! Perfect example of how you only have to focus on the next step, and the next, and look where you can end up! Hang in, Sweetie.

    2. Wow, Jo, you had "all that stuff" packed together. I'm so sorry you had to deal with everything at once. But you know how much strength you have. You know you can do anything. Those small steps will definitely work with writing. And you're doing all the right stuff--reading and learning you craft. You have so much experience to put into your stories. I can't wait to read them!

      1. Still climbing a mountain but writing when opportunity happens. You guys are a great support system. Thunder Storms moving through right now too. Keep the post coming all of you I do need them so much. When I give up one of you sends something that picks me up. Sure there are more out there that are the same way.

  11. We're here al the time. Feel free to reach out any time, Jo. Our writing community supports each other. We all need that support from time to time. Much love coming to you.

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