Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 17, 2018

How to Focus on Your Story's DNA

Though we are a very cohesive group here at Writers in the Storm, we are split down the middle in writing style. Laura and Fae write their stories in a linear fashion while Julie and I quilt ours together scene by scene. The linear approach kills my stories, but story quilting lets me focus on my story's DNA. I firmly believe, whether you are a plotter or a pantser, it's your story's DNA that gets you through to "The End."

DNA is probably the most famous molecule on earth, but what is it really? There are tons of dense biological explanations, but I like this one when it comes to story DNA:

The fundamental and distinctive characteristics of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable.

What about your story doesn't change?

Physical details

Readers are smart and changing your main character's eye or hair color will pull them out of the story. Many writers find a picture that is close to their character, others keep a binder.

Does one or more of your characters have a physical disability? What does this change about their story line? Keep your research on this disability close for when you get stuck and you need ideas.

What about setting? You can't switch the setting part way through your story without alerting anybody. Readers get pissy about that. A photo or a setting summary sheet will go a long way in keep you focused.

Main characters' misbelief

Lisa Cron posits that a story's entire point is to correct your main character's misbelief. She describes it like this:

Every protagonist enters a story already wanting something. This is what sets her story long agenda – the agenda she steps into the novel with already fully formed. To be super clear: this is something she’s wanted for a long time, since way before page one. 

The key thing is: in all that time your protagonist hasn’t gotten what she wants. Hey, if she could easily get it, sure, you’d have a happy protagonist, but then you’d have no story. In other words, something has long stood in the way of your protagonist achieving her goal. And that is her misbelief.

Lisa recommends posting a sticky with your story’s point, your protagonist’s overarching agenda, and her misbelief near where you write, and always look at it before you start writing. Use it as a yardstick for what your protagonist does, and why. Refer to it when you work — and keep referring to it. 

This misbelief is a key part of your story's DNA and it's vital you focus on it as you write your story, especially if you're a pantser.

Internal and external conflict

Internal conflict typically revolves around the misbelief we discussed above. In other words, how is your main character getting in his or her own way? 

NowNovel offers a great post on Internal and External Conflict with definitions and tips. Here is an excerpt:

In fiction, ‘internal conflict’ refers to a character’s internal struggle. A character might struggle with an emotional problem such as fear of intimacy or abandonment, for example. Internal conflict is important for characterization, since flaws and internal struggles make characters more lifelike and sympathetic.

External conflict, on the other hand, refers to the conflicts between a character and external forces. This type of conflict can be between one character and another or a group (or between groups of characters). It can also be between a character and more abstract forces. For example, a bleak and hostile environment in a post-apocalyptic novel.

Both types of conflict, internal and external, are useful because they create: tension, stakes and character development.

Bob Mayer teaches a wonderful tool called the Conflict Lock. The live video is here. and it explains  the conflict lock and gives examples of the conflict lock table. If you prefer the short version, here are some quick steps shared from Shannon Curtis' post on the subject.

  1. Draw four squares
  2. Label one row for Protagonist (Hero and/or Heroine), and one row Antagonist (Hero or Villain)
  3. Label first column ‘Goal’ and second column ‘Conflict’.
  4. Write in your characters’ objective in the GOAL column, and what is preventing your character from achieving that goal in the CONFLICT column.

If your protagonist’s conflict is born from your antagonist’s pursuit of his/her goal, and vice versa, then you have a Conflict Lock. Here is a photo of a solid Conflict Lock.


Your story's theme is why you're writing your story, whether you know it right away or not. Your theme might be about overcoming shame or the damaging nature of secrets, it might speak to gratitude or how family is all. Whatever your theme is (and you might not discover it until you're done with your first draft), it is a vital constant to your story.

Theme is a key part of your story's DNA.

Linear writers like Laura write straight through to help themselves discover theme. I usually start with theme and then write to it. John August, the screenwriter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, says it much better than I do in this post.


Genre is a promise you keep to the reader. If you're writing a romance, there will be a "happily ever after." Mystery novel protagonists will solve the crime. Anything less will make your reader want to throw the book across the room because they read your book trusting you will keep your genre's promise. Keep this in mind as you write.


If these five areas fail to keep you focused on your story's DNA, take a break. Go work out, bake something, pray to the creativity gods. This noveling business is hard, y'all. Do whatever works to get you through the rough patches.


Are there other aspects of story that should be included as "DNA?" What is your writing style: linear, quilter, plotter, pantser or all of the above? What helps you stay focused on your story?

Further reading:

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or here at Writers In The Storm.

26 comments on “How to Focus on Your Story's DNA”

  1. […] Though we are a very cohesive group here at Writers in the Storm, we are split down the middle in writing style. Laura and Fae write their stories in a linear fashion while Julie and I quilt ours together scene by scene. The linear approach kills my stories, but story quilting lets me focus on my […] Source link […]

    1. LOL. I just saw the BEST quote on first drafts:

      “Writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” --Shannon Hale

      Put DNA at the forefront and (at least for me), it will help that sucky first draft get a solid road to walk on to The End.

    1. You are welcome, Liv. The end of the first draft is such a mysterious place for me. I have to do these kinds of tricks so I can stumble into it. Which is a stitch, because I'm a wickedly linear editor.

      1. Yesterday I tweeted that I'm almost halfway through my intended word count for a novella, but starting to be nervous I really have a novel on my hands. I think drilling down to the story's DNA (using your handy tricks!) will help get me back on track. 🙂

  2. Being a pantser it can be hard to keep focus. I really need to print this out and wallpaper my office with it!

    1. Hahahahaha! I make flash cards of each of the five items and just make my notes to those. Keeps it simple. I'm thinking of a white board though. 🙂

  3. You know I'm twitching after reading that, right, Jenny? I agree with all of it - I've even tried most of it . . . and my brain gives me the finger. The only saving grace is that, on some level, it absorbs the lesson, because it usually comes out in my fingers.

    That sounds wonderful, right? The problem is, I don't TRUST that it's going to. If I was more zen, I could write without the angst.

    It's a goal.

  4. Great tips here! I sometimes call what I do "reverse plotting" because I have a whiteboard and AFTER each chapter I summarize it on the board. Somehow, it helps me keep organized and knowing where I'm headed.

    1. That whiteboard is a very cool idea, Debbie. How big is it? I keep thinking I need one myself.

      By the way, when I was at RWA, I heard the best bit of advice that your process would embrace. This one speaker said that after she finishes a chapter, she copies her favorite sentence from her chapter and finds a graphic to go with it. It keeps the story fresh in her mind and she has a bunch of branded marketing graphics to use later when the book launches. How cool is that, right?

  5. You bring up so many good points! As writers, I think it's easy to lose track of the DNA of our story. I have a whole journal of "necessary parts" to my story...or parts I'll most likely forget! Great post!

    1. Nathalie, it is so easy! I get really buried under the minutia that shows up in the noveling process if I don't keep a focus on these things. It about kills me.

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