Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rogenna Brewer on Character and Conflict

Character and Conflict: The 5 Stages of Resolution

Saying a story is plot driven is just another way of saying the characters are weak or underdeveloped. All stories are character driven, or should be. Without character there is no plot. Think of plot as the conflict that drives your character’s actions and in doing so the story. Plot exists only to challenge your character. Begin your story at the point of change, briefly demonstrating the status quo before the conflict begins.

I either wrote that paragraph in a stroke of genus sometime over the past decade as a published author or borrowed bits and pieces of it along the way. I've heard it all before...

Begin your story at the point of change. But what does that mean?

Beginnings are relatively easy. It’s why so many stories are started and never finished. But how do you keep the middle from sagging and resolve the ending?

With the 5 Stages of Resolution you don't have to reinvent the process. In fact you'll give your characters instant empathy by using this method. I'm talking about the grieving process as it applies to change.

Change involves loss and letting go. Grief as an emotion is easy to imagine. Someone close to us dies and we grieve the loss. Someone not so close dies--a school shooting, a tsunami--and we still feel a pang. That's empathy.

We all feel it. And you can use it to drive your story. The point is you character should be a different person at the end of the book than he or she was at the beginning. So how do you get there? In her book On Death And Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross defines the 5 stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, guilt and acceptance.


By moving the romance (external conflict) through all 5 stages you'll reach a resolution that feels natural, not forced. Adding threads for each character (internal conflict--ie motivation) will give your story that extra depth. I like to start my hero or heroine somewhere in the middle. For example the hero in The Marine's Baby is motivated by guilt and back tracks a bit by striking a bargain with the heroine.

I'd like to open it up to questions now because I'm not talking about cookie cutter stories. This method can be as unique as you are. Skip a step, take two forward and one back. But trust me this works for me and it may just work for you.


When an aptitude test labeled her suited for librarian or clergy, Rogenna joined the Navy. It was off to bootcamp, followed by her first duty station, NAS Midway Island. She started in the CO's office and gravitated toward the Chaplain's where duties included operating the base library.

Rogenna met and married her sailor while serving her country. "The best part was that brief period of time when I outranked him." After receiving an Honorable Discharge she continued to serve as a Navy Wife and admits to being jealous of her husband's travels. "There's a reason for the slogan; Navy Wife, the toughest job in the Navy. It's like being a single parent--at least part of the time. Jeff's been to seventeen countries and was there for the filming of two major motion pictures aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise CVN65 (TOP GUN and HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER). We have three boys, one for each deployment."

With their Navy days behind them, the family currently resides in Colorado where Rogenna grew up. Before settling in to writing, she was a bookseller and a reviewer for several years. "The one constant has been the need to surround myself with people and books. I always wanted to be a writer/adventurer, but that aptitude test had great insight into my personality. And now I go wherever I want, whenever I want, through my writing."


  1. I understand Denial, Anger, and Acceptance for dealing with grief. However, I know you mention the Marine making a bargain with the heroine, but I'm still a little fuzzy on Bargaining and Guilt in relation to grief. Could you provide a one line explanation for these two? Thanks.

  2. Good morning, Rogenna.

    Help yourself to a lovely batch of Lamar's donuts and fresh orange juice.Java is brewing.

    Hey there Walt.

    Yes. I am going thru this in my mind too. Intriguing. External conflict.

    I get most of the steps as they also parallel the heroes journey. Guilt I get because my heroines are Italian lol.

  3. Mmmm ... donuts ...

    It's taken me awhile to realize that I've been grieving over some changes -- so I can see how it would apply to writing.

    No wonder it is therapeutic ;-)

  4. Welcome to Seekerville, Rogenna -- so good to have you here!

    You said: "Saying a story is plot driven is just another way of saying the characters are weak or underdeveloped. All stories are character driven, or should be."

    I had never heard that before, but I so totally agree. For me, characters ARE the story. I write historicals, but when I first started, I told my agent that I didn't think my books were "historicals" because my emphasis/story was not so much about the time period as it was about the characters. I basically thought that I wasn't being true to the genre! I know better now, but gosh, I had to be one of the greenest newbies around.

  5. Good Morning, All! Ufortunately, I'm at the day job right now. But I'll be popping in on my breaks and at lunch. On first break I'll be defining all 5 stages for you and post a fun little dialogue exercise. Until then enjoy those doughnuts and keep the questions coming! Love it here!


  6. I agree. I'm all into the characters. If a character draws me in, I'm hooked, no matter how flawed the plot is. OK, well not "no matter" if it's really bad I'll set it aside, but I've only had that happen once or twice.

    Anyway, great post. I'll check back later to see the fun stuff you have planned.

  7. Hi, Rogenna! Great post. I'm looking forward to what you have to say about the 5 stages. Sounds intriguing.

    I always start my books with a basic plot in my head and goals, motivation, and conflict for the characters. But to me, the beginning is always the hardest part to write. I have to drag it out one word at a time. After that, the middle and ending almost write themselves. I'm struggling with a beginning right now. Actually, no, I've put it aside for a while! Need a break from wrestling that elephant.

  8. Here is a breakdown of the 5 Stages as they apply to novel writing.

    Denying the hero/heroine attraction, at least to each other, if not to themselves, creates a sexual tension that carries through your story.

    Anger is not to be mistaken with being mean or petty, but simply means your hero and heroine should be on opposing sides to create conflict.

    Barganing is used to keep them together page after page once you've established their on oposing sides.

    Guilt comes in handy at the black moment because one or both of them does something to bring it about.

    And acceptance is the realization that they belong together despite their differences and rocky start.

  9. Here's a quickie exercise that can be done with dialogue to give you an example:

    If I had time I'd put this all in motivation reaction units (Swain). But I'm going to use 5 pieces of dialogue to creatone scene using denial, anger, bargaining, guilt and acceptance.

    Rember change/loss = 5 Stages.

    Lets say I'm in my bedroom rummaging through my jewelry box and I can't find something as simple as an earing.

    Deniel "Where is it?"
    Anger "I know it's here somewhere!"
    Bargaining "If only I could find that earing..."
    Guilt "They were my grandmothers..."
    Acceptance "it's hopeless, wait a minute, what's that on the night stand? The earing."

    Again, just a quickie. It works better if built into a scene and I want you to feel free to do that here... But try to do an entire scene short and sweet using the 5 stages.

    Thanks, way over break time -- headed back to work.


  10. Rogenna will be back at lunch to field any further questions :)

  11. I'm familiar with the stages of grief and I've seen them in many people, including myself. And I know they aren't always about death. I've had a friend's marriage break up and seen her go through these stages. I knew a man who went to prison and I went through the steps, too, as did many people.

    I like the idea of applying it to a book. Very interesting.

  12. I'll add here that, for me, a book ALWAYS starts with STORY. And I suppose I equate that with plot. but, for me, story is all-encompassing. Yes, it's the plot but the characters ...who they are, what about them creates a conflict...they're the essence of the plot.

    So I can go along with you on character.

    Now, if I could just find the right ingredients in my own work to play along. :)

  13. Denial - I did NOT feel that zing of attraction for that woman who just accused me of abducting children with evil intent.

    Anger - Too many people have treated my orphan children badly, I'm not putting up with it from her.

    Bargaining - I'll send them to school, until she proves to me she's not worthy of my trust, but the minute she mistreats my children, or allows anyone else to do it, I'm taking them home.

    Guilt - She's been so nice to my children and everyone else is helping with the pageant. I need to do my part.

    Acceptance - She's really as sweet and kind as she seems and I've got to take a chance and trust her, it's my chance for happiness.

    How's that?
    Wow, talk about skimming over major plot development points. :)

    And that's the hero.
    I could do the same thing with the heroine, too. This is the basic plot and character set-up for Gingham Mountain.

  14. Rogenna, being a nurse (and I'm sure Tina can also attest to this) they teach us those stages of grieving. And I do incorporate that into my characterization automatically. I didn't really realize how much until reading your posts and thinking of my stories.

    Love military books! Your marine baby cover is cute. Love it.

    Thanks for sharing with us in Seekerville.


  15. Welcome to Seekerville, Rogenna! Haven't seen you ages!!

    Loved your post. Yes, sometimes I do feel like I go through the stages of grief when finishing the mss, not the characters, LOL.

    You bring up an excellent point about denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, acceptance. Perfectly normal human responses. Give them to your characters and breathe life into them!

    I'll keep the resusitation sequence in mind when my characters begin to feel embalmed : )

    Thanks, Rogenna!!

  16. Welcome to Seekerville, Rogenna. I'm with you on the importance of characterization. I'm intrigued with your idea of using the stages of grief to write books. Thanks for the great post!


  17. Rogenna,

    I appreciate the information you've provided.

    Maybe I'll try this while channeling my character with money problems. I don't know if these are right.

    Denial: I'm not that far in debt, when I set my mind to it, I'll pay it all off.

    Anger: The economy and how much things cost is to blame that I'm in debt!

    Bargainig: If only that inheritance would come through

    Guilt: My spendthrift ways are ruining not only my future but my kids' future, too.

    Acceptance: I've written it down on paper and I really do owe $20,000 to credit card companies.

    Would you consider each stage growth? I guess I don't think of being angry or feeling guilty as growth.

  18. Hi Again.

    Oh, boy I just read all those spelling mistakes in my post--lol that's what I get for trying to sneak in posts at work.

    Anyway, I'm back for lunch bad spelling and all :)

    Walt have we answered your questions re: bargaining and guilt?

    Mary and Cathy, I loved how you applied the exercise to your own work--at least I'm assuming you used your WIP :) It's a great way to outline too.

    I think it was The SEAL's BABy, not to be confuse with The Marine's Baby that has so many subplots that I actually created 5 Stages grid for each thread.

    Like many of your I was (and still am)in a health care profession where I learned about the stages of grief and how it applies to loss and other stresses in our lives.

    It wasn't until after I'd written my first book that I realized I'd applied the concept to my writing.

    I want to plug a book here:
    Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. I heard about the book in an RWA workshop by Ann Eames The Last Techniques I Leared Before Selling (I'm going to date myself by saying this is a very old rwa cassette tape, but worth digging up) Ann's workshop really was the last piece of the puzzle for me.

  19. Hello Rogenna:

    Great idea! Using the five stages of grief is a wonderful writing aid. It not only provides direction but also adds credibility. I’ve read in the literature that sometimes these stages happen out of sequence causing sever problems. This discordance could also factor into a story’s conflict.

    I don’t view character and plot as being in competition. I believe that each forms a part of the other and each can enhance or detract from the other. I think a strong plot brings out the best in characters and strong characters demand a challenging plot. I see it more like this:

    Plot x Character = Dramatic Impact

    This equation may explain differences between genres. Those old Alfred Hitchcock stories, that didn’t make any sense until the last page, were classically plot driven. Many mysteries are plot driven with almost stock characters. Of course, the best mysteries have both: amazing plots and memorable characters (Sherlock Holmes).

    By the way, I love military stories and now can’t wait to read “The Marine’s Baby“ so I can see how you implemented the five stages while enjoying myself at the same time.

    Great post.



  20. I loved reading this. I've learned so much from this blog and the guest bloggers! I applied the 5 stages exercise to my own novel, and thought it was fun ;) I love quick writing exercises. <3

    For me, the characters are most important in my writing. The plot revolves around them, and where we would be without characters? But the plot is important, too.

    I generally have a plot idea and the main characters swimming around in my thoughts before I finally start the story. I never really follow a pattern when I write. Sometimes I think a long time about a scene, thinking up every detail and word, before finally writing it. Other times I just sit down, and write whatever pops into my head.

    Thanks for posting this, Rogenna! OK, heading to bed, since tomorrow will be a busy day filled with baking for Thanksgiving ;)

  21. Home at last! The first thing I'm going to do is sit back and reread all your comments to see what I missed :)

  22. Hey, Audra! It's been ages!! Cheryl, Melanie, Lynn, Julie and Ann thanks again for the warm welcome. I've been rereading your posts and loving them.

  23. Waving to Janet, Arianna who is probably in bed by now ;)

    Vince you bring up some great points about the differences between mysteries and romances.

    I hope no one thinks I'm slamming plot :0 I'm just trying to make the point that without good characters it's hard to have a good story.

  24. Tina, if you're not in bed already ;) Are we giving away a book? I'll provide the autographed copy if you want to pick the winner.

    I'll be checking back later if anyone else would care to try the exercise.

  25. Thanks for being with us today, Rogenna! Very interesting!

    I would try the exercise, but I was just hit with a migraine and can't think straight. It's time to sign off for the night. But I'll be sure try it later.

    Thanks again for the great idea!

  26. Rogenna, you sweet thing you.

    I just got home from Turkey Day shopping.

    A giveaway. YES, YES, YES.

    And the winner is VINCE!!!

    Vince email me at tina@tinarusso.com with your snail mail addy.

    Thanks so much for being with us, Ro.

  27. I'm late getting in here, but Rogenna, I just wanted to say how much I loved The Seal's Baby. If I had been doing reviews back when I read it, I would've added it to my annual Top 10 list. I have a horrific memory but there are still parts of that book that I remember.

    Thank you so much for sharing your techniques with us. It is so very much appreciated.

  28. What A Wonderful Thanksgiving Surprise!

    I won and I didn’t even know there was a contest.

    Have a joyous Thanksgiving All!