Author. Word gatherer. Developmental editor. Speaker. Wayfinder. Encourager.

What’s at Stake? part 1

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 19•17

Storms whipped through the region last week, the weekend was mild,  and I woke up to a pearly sky and no rain in the forecast. Since we’ve already had temperatures in the 90s the respite from the heat suited me fine and suited my garden too although the weeds are now stampeding all over the place.

I wanted to get back to a topic I was discussing here last month about some of the underlying objectives in storytelling. So let’s start talking about the stakes in your story. Stakes are intrinsic to every story. No stakes, no story. Stakes create conflict and narrative drive. Stakes make readers care.

Recently I advised a client to read Timothy Eagan’s remarkable nonfiction book The Worst Hard Times. It’s about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the drought and monstrous wind storms that laid waste to vast, rich grasslands from Kansas to Texas. TGetty Imageshe choking dust created 50-foot sand dunes,  killed babies and old people and cattle, drove starving families from their homesteads, and forever changed the High Plains landscape. Eagan brings the catastrophe to life through accounts of survivors and clear-eyed facts. He describes the horrors of Black Sunday when a storm so dangerous swept precious soil all the way to Washington DC. The book is so thick with tension that you’re immersed in the happenings as if they’re unfolding now. The dust storms lasted a decade and ruined 100 million acres.

The book is  mostly about those who stayed in the wasteland, who rebuilt, who survived the nightmare when the sun was blocked out by black blizzards. And the cataclysm brought on a reckoning because humans had caused this disaster with sod-busting agricultural practices in the already arid High Plains with an already unforgiving sun. Imagine all those scarred acres and acres of grassland ruined, businesses and  banks and small towns wiped out. The emptiness of it all. The enormous stakes of it all. The greed behind it.

Play for Keeps

In the best stories the characters or people are playing for keeps. There’s a reason why The Hunger Game series sold millions. Children defending themselves against other murderous children? What could be more horrific and cruel? Ordinary citizens are the pawns of an evil and vindictive government. Because villains always play for keeps.

  • What is at stake in the story is the reason readers keep turning pages and audiences keep watching.
  • Stakes communicate what your characters has to lose–and this loss needs to matter.
  • Stakes reveal the risk and consequences involved.
  • Stakes imprison the characters within the story cauldron–in other words, he or she cannot simply walk away.
  • The reader or audience must always understand what’s at stake.
  • Stakes are why the protagonist wants to escape or change the situation he/she is in or win the game or obtain the goal. 
  • Underline the importance of goals & motivation.
  • Personal or internal stakes illustrate the why of what your protagonist wants to achieve.
  • Public/external stakes create bigger repercussions, consequences.
  • Stakes force characters to make difficult choices.
  • The larger the payoff, the bigger the stakes. The higher the threat, the bigger the stakes.
  • Often the best stakes require the protagonist to make a personal sacrifice.

Quick Take: Write from emotion and imagination

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 11•17

Below me the Pacific is roaring into shore in shades of silver and indigo and white, gulls are whining and whirling in a pale sky, the air cool and deep ocean perfumed. I’ve left the Portland area for a few days to escape the pollen zone and spend time with my family. My headaches are gone and my vision no longer bleary. This day:  Laughter, jigsaw puzzle, sand, potato chips, a seascape rich and dazzling and Barbies scattered across the living room floor. A pigeon is building a nest in the corner of the balcony and kites are aloft in the wind.

And speaking of potato chips: I cannot stop turning the pages of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. It’s the first in his series about Miriam Black, and it’s a dark, wild ride. The kind where every character is in danger and I’m deliciously nervous.

Years ago I came across this advice from Sandra Brown that I need to pass along because sometimes we need to smash down writing myths. I’ve been pummeling this tired chestnut for years.: “The worst piece of advice I was ever given was to write about what I know. I took stock of what I knew and, from a creative standpoint, none of it was very stimulating. Nor did it have much potential for being engaging and entertaining to a reading audience. I have no personal knowledge of, or experience with, paramilitary hate groups, or heart transplantation, or escapees from a maximum security prisons, or what it’s like to be profoundly deaf. But I’ve written about all these topics, and the books became bestsellers.
I figure that if something interests me, there’s a reasonably good chance that it’s going to interest the reader, too. As I approach the keyboard each day, I remind myself to have a good time—as good a time as one can have doing the hardest work there is.”


According to Ayelet Waldman

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 01•17

Most writers  spend their lives standing a little apart from the crowd, watching and listening and hoping to catch that tiny hint of despair, that sliver of malice, that makes them think, ‘Aha, here is the story.’


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 01•17

Join me on June 1, Hillsboro, Oregon for From Idea to Story

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 23•17

I’m thrilled to help kick off an exciting new lineup of speakers in Washington County.

Join us on June 1 for the first Writers Forum at Insomnia Coffee, 317 Main Street, Hillsboro.

I’ll be speaking from 7-8 on From Idea to Story

Writers have long grappled with the problem of taking a flash of inspiration through the marathon process of completing a finished work. That flash is your premise. But a premise on its own is flimsy, must be build up and needs the perfect story people to bring it to life until it becomes a compelling, awe-inspiring tale of… whatever it is you long to tell. This talk, for writers of all levels, will address key issues that must be confronted if you are going to assemble a myriad of pieces into a seamless whole. These issues include finding a shape for your story; how to treat plot and character as interdependent; how to avoid typical pitfalls when working. We’ll discuss fears at play such as an inability to finish and how to achieve the habit of completion. We’ll cover the basics of plotting, or if you’re writing a memoir, choosing the right elements and order for it.

Get your hand limber for note taking since we have lots to cover!

Check out: for  more information.

Quick Take

It comes to you from nowhere, an idea for a story or novel floating into your imagination like a gift from the gods. Or perhaps you read an item in the newspaper or hear a captivating tale at a party that sets your heart afire. If you’re wise you’ll jot down the idea immediately—after all, the gods are fickle and just might wrest the idea from your memory if you don’t record it. And if you’re wiser still you’ll spend time musing over the storyline and the characters before you start writing. Now, you might be inclined to plunge right in, capturing the fire of your fresh story. But effective fiction taps into the reader’s emotions and longings, stirs his imagination, and embraces him in its spell. So as you begin try to keep the big picture or overall narrative in mind. Consider the many layered techniques needed and ponder the classic journalistic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why?


Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 4 goals

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 16•17

Goals push characters to act and strive because fiction characters are more goal-driven than triathletes. They can be:






A goal will always be some kind of a test.

Goals always mean everything to the protagonist.

Subplots also require goals and conflict.

  • Aim to make it as hard as possible for your protagonist to reach his goal. Subplots can be useful  as you play ‘keep away’  with your beleaguered protagonist because they add layers of complications. Don’t settle for a boring, wimpy subplot as filler. A great subplot can turn a good novel into a great one. Plot and subplots rendered in a string of scenes require careful attention to details and deliberation.

  • Structure your scenes correctly, creating capsules of time in which significant action takes place; goals are obtained or blocked. Those scenes will take your reader from the beginning to the end of your story in a riveting, cohesive manner.

Case study: Walter White of AMCs Breaking Bad

Walter White, a seemingly mild-manner high school chemistry teacher is given a fatal cancer diagnosis.

He decides he needs to make a lot of money to insure his family’s well-being after he’s gone.

He decides to brew  methamphetamine to accumulate this fund and recruits a former student to distribute the meth.

So far, so good although Walter has broken bad–or is operating illegally.

But then his goals shift as his special blue meth creates a big demand which means he has a new goal of making more. Then he starts meeting the bigtime players in the drug world, including drug lords. He also discovers he needs to launder all his um, earnings.

Then as descends deeper into the criminal world he needs to take out his rivals. Then he needs to struggle to survive and protect his family from his enemies and all along he’s just one step ahead of the DEA, a local agent who is his brother-in-law. Because one of his main goal is to avoid arrest. But now no one respects him and he longs for some form of redemption. And so it goes….

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Quick Take: Characters are all about Goals

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 12•17

I’m in the midst of renovating a house and yard.

This hadn’t been in my game plan, but there you have it. Life, truth demanding to be heard. Demanding a big change. The yard has been around for almost 30 years with almost no landscaping done during those years. The house is beat up. As in used up.  Fixer upper means someone kinda crazy lived here previously. And they painted walls dark brown so there’s a lot of crazy to erase.  There are rocks where there should be flowers beds and weeds have taken over and the whole yard needs to be fenced in. To create beauty and order I’ve been breaking this undertaking into a series of smaller goals. If I just stare at the backyard for example, my heart plummets and feelings of overwhelm take over. So I step back and tackle a small goal and it quiets my galloping worries and moves me ahead. And there is nothing like the feeling you get when you cross a goal off your to-do list.

Goals will define and test your characters. Goal by goal, scene by scene–because goals fuel scene–that’s how your protagonist proceeds through the story. Now, as I write this I realize it sounds kind of cold -blooded or formulaic. But wants, desires, plans, steps, contests, machinations, quests, searches, game plans, schemes, investigations, all propel a story forward. Make things happen. Invite  conflict. Shake up the order. Involve the reader.

Goals are footprints and maps at the same time. They drive your protagonist from the first act to the climax. Your character’s goals will help keep you on track as you write.

Coming up: Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 4

Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 3

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 10•17

Motivations create full-blooded characters.

The Portland area is dressed in a hundred shades of green. Dogwoods are now flowering, graceful blooms umbrellaing amid the spring greens.  Rhododendrons are splashed gaudy amid yards and parks. Nursery centers are burgeoning with plants spilling over, lined in rows, artfully arranged. The garden center parking lot full, patrons pulling wagons of starts and saplings and compost. I’m nursing seedlings in the house next to windows and the names of flowers slip around in my head as I try to visualize flowers beds in the warmer months coming: calendula, hollyhocks, foxglove, delphinium, salvia, cosmo, dahlia….But let’s bring this all back to why characters do what they do.

Smart fiction writers use varying levels of motivations and goals.

Consider how and how much the characters are driven: Primary (dominant) * Secondary *External * Internal* Personal* Public. Then consider who will know about the protagonist’s motivations. Will they be spoken or declared out loud?

Smart writers keep various motivations and goals percolating throughout the story. Here are just a few:

  • desperation
  • duty
  • fame
  • greed
  • guilt
  • jealousy
  • power
  • revenge
  • self preservation/survival

Motivations are deeply felt. Motivations sometimes stem from emotional needs. Dominant motivations are fixed and sometimes not fulfilled until the story climax. Motivations and goals will require the character’s main personality traits to fulfill.

Desperation: Jerry McGuire

Jerry McGuire is a soulless sports agent who gets fired after he writes a memo that gets circulated company-wide. He reaches out to one upcoming football player to rebuild his career. But that player doesn’t trust him, so Jerry needs to prove his worth and redeem himself while a new relationship also gives him a chance at redemption.

Duty and loyalty: Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones

She’s a highborn lady who became a knight sworn to defend and protect the Stark family. Every act she does reflects on her prime motivations and traits:  loyalty, courage, decency.


Protection: Oskar Schindler, Schindler’s List

Based on Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Arc. In German-occupied Poland during World War II, a Nazi factory owner realizes that it’s up to him to save the lives of Jews in Krakow by hiring them to work in his factory. It was a terrible risk, but as time went on Schindler became horrified by the Nazi’s agenda and believed he had to do something in the midst of madness.


Tip: Try to show some motivations in small or quiet moments.

Remember: A protagonist’s goals are tied to his or her motivations.

Motivations and goals are tied to character arc. Goals can be humble, but

Motivations and goals are always specific and mostly shown in action.


Be a good steward of your gifts.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 07•17


divine secrets of the writing sisterhoodBe a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular  hours. ~ Jane Kenyon

Motivation: Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 05•17


Motivations are the reason characters attempt any action in a story.

Think about it. It’s morning here and I’m drinking my first cup of tea with the windows open. Been waiting months for a mild, sunny morning because I like to listen to the birds. They’re chirping and tweeting and making a ruckus. One lonely guy has been at it nonstop. Mating calls. We all know what mating calls lead to.

And fiction is full of primal acts and drives.

Later I’m going to work on a client’s manuscript and before it rains I’m going to plant tomatoes and other plants. Because I love eating fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes. It will be a few months before they’re ripe, but prepping the soil and sweating over the raised bed will be worth it. As a writer you’re prepping the soil when you figure out what your character wants and why. When you plan a logical chain of actions and reactions–cause and effect.

Here are the basics of creating credible motivations :

  • Easy to understand, but not easy to achieve.
  • Strong motivations force characters to act, make choices. Will especially reveal why characters make moral choices.
  • Can be shown via action in scenes & will move the story forward.
  • Drawn from protagonist’s backstory and morality.
  • Will become more complex and personal as the story progresses.
  • Will showcase the character’s main traits.
  • Will somehow reveal his/her fears.
  • Will exact a cost as the story progresses.
  • Will create catharsis at the climax.

Motivations are part of the plot:

  • Create goals to be achieved or thwarted. Goals propel the story forward and create opposition.
  • Distinguish the character from the writer because you want distance between you and your imaginary friend. The more you can give characters individual motives and reasons for being, the easier they are to write.
  • Reveal backstory and a character’s inner world and possibly his or her secrets. The why of fiction will always lie in a character’s past. Never forget that readers want to know how characters came to be who they are.
  • Creates outer and inner conflict because deep-seated motivations provoke all sorts of problems to achieve.
  • Prove your character is proactive, not simply reactive.
  • Creates reader/audience involvement/empathy.


Tip: Think of your character at war, with himself or others or a circumstance. And then chronicle the war until there is peace. Or a loss. Or an uneasy new world. While motivations are sometimes hidden, by the end of the story many are staged in scenes.

Stay tuned for part 3 and more examples of motivations.

meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart