Monday, October 19, 2009

The Story Within Guidebook by Alicia Rasley

Missy Tippens, here. I wanted to share a little about one of my favorite writing how-to books. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in previous posts. For those of you who get the heebie-jeebies at the mention of the word plotting (Ruthy, just go ahead and take a sedative now), never fear. I’m going to call this pre-work or planning instead. Don’t even think of it as plotting! And if I should need to use the word…plot…I’ll be sure to whisper it for Ruthy’s sake. :)

Okay, the book I’m talking about is actually a workbook called The Story Within Guidebook by Alicia Rasley. Alicia likens a story to growing a plant and talks about how a story should be “guided to grow into what it should naturally become…” She says to consider this fact "the next time you look at your small-town coming-of-age story and decide what it really needs to be exciting is a troop of terrorists setting up shop in the town square. Aren’t you just grafting a Venus fly-trap onto your sweetpea plant? Isn’t the stem going to collapse under that weight? Why not look at the story you have and find the excitement that exists within?”

After a great beginning to the book talking about the prime principles of plot, she begins exercises to help you on your way to growing your own story. The first time I worked through this book (and I didn’t finish the whole thing), it took me a month. Sounds like a lot of pre-work. But that’s the first book I sold .Pre-work and planning can pay off!

One of my favorite exercises in the workbook is starting a list/chart where I list every important action my protagonist takes, and then list an effect after every action. So you have action, effect, next action, effect, next action… This listing of action-reaction (cause-effect) helps make sure your hero/heroine is proactive! Since that’s a weakness for me, I always make sure to do this. It’s also a great way to help brainstorm my plot.

Another exercise I always do is look at the skills my protagonist has to survive the plot and also to find my character’s central heroic strength. Alicia has a great list of strengths included in her book that always helps me with my characterization. Then of course, the flipside is finding the character’s heroic flaw (the opposite of the strength).

Next, I always work on the section she calls “Onward to Conflict.” She says, “Conflict is what will get your hero or heroine to push past the inertia of everyday life and start acting and reacting.” Alicia includes a really helpful list of some heroic conflicts/issues. I usually start out with two or three that might fit my story and narrow down as I begin to write and discover more what the story is really about. Once I narrow it down, I can really focus on the basic conflict of my protagonist.

One quote of Alicia’s that I have highlighted and starred multiple times is this amazing statement: “Conflict isn’t an obstacle on the plot journey. It’s the fuel for that journey.” I love that statement! So she says you have to figure out what purpose your conflict has in your story.

Actually, I’ve starred and highlighted a whole wonderful section on conflict. And if that’s weakness for you like it is for me, then I highly recommend this book!

I dragged out my original planning notebook from my upcoming release, A Forever Christmas, and thought I’d share a few of the exercises in the hope that it’ll be helpful.

In A Forever Christmas, Sarah’s heroic goal is power. To regain power over her life after the death of her favorite student. Gregory’s heroic goal is family security. To provide well for his two young boys since their mom deserted them and his sister—who’s been a mother figure—has married and moved away.

Then Alicia asks one of my favorite questions: why shouldn’t the character get this goal? For Sarah, it’s because she still won’t be happy. She can’t rein in her heart and keep from caring. For Gregory, it’s because love should come first.

Sarah’s heroic strength: Compassion. And on the flip side, her flaw is she always tries to rescue people.

Gregory’s heroic strength: Loyalty to family. But it can lead to him being single minded and missing the needs of others.

And the last examples I’ll share are the heroic conflicts for each. For Sarah, it is betrayal versus trust (Gregory had betrayed her in their past and she has to learn to trust him again). For Gregory, it is guilt vs. expiation (he needs forgiveness for past mistakes to be able to move on and love again).

I hope these examples have been helpful. It’s just a little slice of the plotti— I mean pre-planning that I do for each story. :) If you’re interested in checking out The Story Within Guidebook, click here. (I have no association with the sales of this book and get nothing for recommending it!). And if you’re interested in seeing how Gregory and Sarah’s story plays out, A Forever Christmas, a November Steeple Hill Love Inspired release, is available at e-harlequin now (where you can read an excerpt), and is also apparently available at


  1. Oooh, I'm first? Wow! Good morning, Seekers. Missy, thanks for the post. I make a list of protagonist actions, but I hadn't thought of putting the effect to the action. That's a GREAT idea.

    Before I started making that list, I didn't realize how much it would increase the speed of writing my novel. I didn't always stick to the list, but I had a fluid outline of where to go next and could 'set up' situations for later on in the story (foreshadowing and stuff liket that ;-)

    Bringing coffee and breakfast vegetable omelets (especially after all the donuts this weekend) ;-)

    Can't wait to find out what happens to Greg & Sara.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting book!

    I'll put the kettle on.

  3. Missy,

    I'll definately check the book out. Thanks for including a link.
    Sounds like the exercises in the book can help a panster get through the rough spots of their draft.


  4. Missy, thanks for sharing this. This book sounds like a definite must-read for me. I need a good writing book.

  5. I've read many of Alicia Rasley's articles on her website, but I haven't used her workbook. Sounds like a great resource for those of us who ~whisper~ plot.

    Thanks for sharing your examples. I'm a visual learner so they help me to apply lessons to my own WIPs. :-)

    I'm looking forward to reading A Forever Christmas. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Great post, Missy. I can't wait to read A Forever Christmas!

    You introduced me to Alicia Rasley's "The Story Within Guidebook" and I'm using it to plan my wip. It's practical and easy to use.

    Thanks for the vegetable omelet, Pepper. Delicious! I brought salsa for those who like to add a little kick to their eggs.


  7. Alicia likens a story to growing a plant and talks about how a story should be “guided to grow into what it should naturally become…”

    I so agree with this, Missy! That's what I try to do when I'm brainstorming a new story. I like to take my time and let the story come to me gradually. Maybe that's why I don't like outlines.

    This book sounds really good. I might even have to buy this one. And it's a good thing you put in that disclaimer, Missy. Those FTC people might come and get you otherwise! 'Cause everybody knows we bloggers make tons of money off everything we recommend.

    Ah-hem. Sorry. Couldn't resist. :-)
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Missy!

    I have to go get ready for ... work ... Can you hear me crying all the way from Alabama?

  8. Thanks for sharing. I'm going to look at the book.

  9. Missy!

    I'm so glad you talked about Alicia's book! I'm a firm SOTP writer, but I'm seeing a need to change my ways -- especially since just meandering down the path of story world makes revisions that much harder!!

    Thanks for the link.

    I'm going to check it out.

    BTW, Missy, I love your books and can't wait for A Forever Christmas to hit the stands!!!

    I've brought an apple crisp for later. Take a scoop and microwave - ice cream is in the cooler beneath the buffet.

    Or, you can have apple crisp and ice cream for breakfast. Whatever suits : )

    Don't you just love fall???

  10. This is a weird ??? I went to look at the book and it is $5.50 so I thought instead of just finding other books I want to read at random to get the free shipping is there a list somewhere on here of all your published books? There's probably too many to purchase at one time but it would be fun to read some of the various ones. I list would be fabulous if anyone can share! Thanks a bunch.

  11. Good morning! I've been running since 7 am. Well, not running literally! Just running my kids to school. And me to get a pork tenderloin and scrambled egg biscuit at Dairy Queen. :) I'll share!

    Pepper, thanks for offering omlets and coffee while I was out and about!

    You're right about that list. It really does help move the writing along. And what's nice about adding in the effect is that you get a nice flow. Action 1 leads to effect 1, which causes action 2... So everything that happens makes sense. :)

  12. Thanks, Ann! A cup of hot tea sounds good this morning. It's only 38 degrees out there right now! I think we had our first frost last night. Brr...

  13. Rose, I think it would be helpful for using as you write--especially if you get stuck.

    Thanks for stopping by this morning!

  14. Suzie, you're welcome! I've bragged on this book for a while, and Tina suggested I do a post about it.

  15. Lisa, I'm glad it was helpful. What's good about this stuff is that you can pick and choose things that help you PLAN. See, I didn't even have to whisper that little four letter word! :)

  16. Janet, I'm glad you're giving the book a try! I've got how-to books all over the house. But when I start a new book (or get stuck in a story) I always grab this one as well as Carolyn Greene's Prescription for Plotting notebook. They both stay right beside my computer.

  17. LOL, Melanie! I thought I better include that little disclaimer! :)

    So you've started your new job? I know you didn't want to do it, but I hope it's going well.

  18. Jenny, thanks for asking about our books! There's a slide show on the right side of the blog that shows them all. And maybe each Seeker can throw out a book list in the comments (except Mary, who's list would take up too much space). ;)

    In addition to A Forever Christmas, my other two books are His Forever Love and Her Unlikely Family.

  19. Audra, I'm glad you're changing your ways. :)

    Actually, until you get "big" enough where you can sell books on just an idea, you'll most likely have to write that dreaded synopsis before writing the story. And this book (and Carolyn Greene's) are great for helping plan a proposal.

    I'm so excited about the apple crisp! And of course, ice cream. Even for breakfast. :)

  20. The labels alone on this post scare the bejeebies out of me.

    The "P" words.

    Planning. Plotting.

    I need a drink. Did anyone bring coffee? Really strong coffee???

    I'll be back, I've got to lay down a moment...

  21. Sounds like a great writing how-to book :) Thanks for sharing your examples... I've never even thought of some of those things. Like giving my character a strength, and then a flaw opposite the strength. I'm definitely going to work on some of the things you mentioned :)


  22. Lisa..

    thank you for whispering.

    I'm so grateful. My head, you know...


  23. Oh, my.

    I can't wait to get my hands on A Forever Christmas too. I love those stories, I love the gentle Southernisms Missy does so well. Her humor. And I love Christmas. Such a sap!!!

    May I have a vegetable omelet AND apple crisp with ice cream? Please?

  24. Oh No.

    I just got to where Missy is grabbing yet another "P" book.

    The headache's back. Cancel the food. Anyone have a cool, dark room???

  25. But---you mean I CAN'T have terrorists in my small town coming of age story?


  26. This plotting thing you're talking about, Missy.

    It's like a...a...a garden? A vegetable plot?

    I need to get to the bottom of this plot thing-y.

    Ruthy can nap. Me, I'm gonna research this and try to find translation software so I can get the word in English and maybe it'll make sense.

    A plot...that's like when I shoot people to continue progressing the story, right?

    Okay, I know how to do that. Phew!

  27. Arianna, I'm glad it was helpful!

    What works well about the strength/flaw, is that often the thing that is our strength, if taken to the extreme, can become a flaw. Someone who's decisive can tend to be overbearing. Someone who's compassionate can tend to let others run over her.

    I used this intentionally with Lindsay in His Forever Love. Her strenght was that she was giving and took care of others. But she ended up getting so heavily involved (with her nephews and even in church volunteering) that it wasn't good for anyone involved--she wasn't living her own life and wasn't allowing others to use their own strengths.

    So play with this idea and have fun with it! :)

  28. Mary, I thought of you when I read the thing about terrorists in the coming of age story!! LOL I thought, oh, no, if Mary heeds this, she won't be able to drop dead bodies in stories anymore!

    So Mary, honey, just ignore this post. It might ruin your humorous voice. :)

  29. Tsk, tsk, Ruthy. You did NOT read the directions. You were supposed to take a sedative in the first paragraph! Go back and start over again.

  30. Morning Missy, What a perfect post for me as plotting my current wip has been on my "To Do" list ever since the biaw. That experience showed me how much it would help to have that figured out. LOL. I have Myra's workbook I'm going to use, but this book sounds interesting, especially the word easy.

    I love your books and how you get us involved in Southern small town life. I can hardly wait to read A Forever Christmas.

    Thanks for the omelet Pepper and the coffee. Janet the salsa made it perfect. Audra the ice cream and apple crisp will be a perfect mid-morning snack.

    Ruthy, as you always say, get up and put your big girl panties on. However you do seem to do a great plot without the outline. smile

  31. Pepper, I want you to know I was here first and walked away. It's lonely being the only one here at 5:30am.

    I have a copy of A Forever Christmas and I'm saving it for a snowy day in late November. Hopefully the same weekend I watch White Christmas!

    I have promised myself that I'm going to use this workbook for the next WIP. The link is bookmarked.

    Am I in the minority here? (look away Ruthy) I love to plot.

    LOVE IT. Love the plot and to torment, I mean add more twists than a cruller. OOps. still on the donut thing.

    Thanks Missy!

  32. Debra,

    You're only recognized as first if you appear onscreen ;-) It was a rare morning for me. Fall Break. Lovely.

    Ruthy hasn't returned in a while. Do you think the "P" word totally left her crippled for the rest of the day.

    Mary, LOL...yeah, that's probably what it is. A Vegetable Plot. For us SOTP-ters, the other word is really frightening. My husband would love for me to learn the definition of...em...plan.

    Quick question for 'plotters'. Do you ever get so lost in the planning that it becomes difficult to write the story? I'm just curious, since I usually have to sit down and start writing, then come back around to the planning part.

  33. Thanks, Sandra! And thanks for giving Ruthy a lecture. She had one coming after all the lectures she gives me! :)

  34. Good morning, Debra! 5:30 sounds horrific! I can't believe I used to have to be at work at 6 am. I don't think I could do it now. :)

    And I doubt you're in the minority. I'm a reformed pantster. I used to just take off and write. But when I discovered how much I didn't like the major re-writing, I decided to plan before I leap. :)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  35. Pepper, I sometimes find I have to give myself orders to move ahead with the writing. But often, I get to the point in the planning that I NEED to start writing to figure out the rest of the story. Somehow getting the first couple of chapters written can help me figure out the rest of the story. I guess it's because I'm getting to know the characters better.

  36. Missy ... Like Ruthy, "plotting/planning" makes me nervous since I tend to launch into overload fast, but I have to admit, you do a great job of explaining The Story Within Guidebook in a way that even I (and Ruthy) can absorb it without a tic in my eye.

    I agree with you on the line "“Conflict isn’t an obstacle on the plot journey. It’s the fuel for that journey.” Amen to that!

    Great post, Missy!


  37. Thanks Missy,

    I do make a list of things that I plan for the story, the high points so to speak. With the list or (outline) another scary word. I can at least remember some of my points as I go.

    I don't break it down much further with effects and such, but who knows, there's always a first time.

    Not quite sure when that first time will be, but it could happen.

  38. Missy, I bought "The Story Within" guidebook solely becuase you recommended it last year this time-ish. I. LOVE. THE. BOOK.

    In fact, it's one of the top books I recommend to entrants when I judge for contests.


  39. RUTHY!! LOL!!

    Do you take the same approach as Mary? Instead of "Just Do It"
    She says, "Just Write It." ;-)

  40. Julie's fairly nice response (Sure, Lessman, make me look like the only BAD GUY!!!) made me realize I'm being boorish because I loved that line about conflict and the book is SO WORTH the price if only for that one line.

    "Conflict isn't the obstacle on the plot journey. It's the fuel for that journey."

    Right there is a perfect summation of why we must antagonize these poor people (organically, not a goofy he-said, she-said set up, gag me now...) Oops sorry, I'm out of control. Let me take a breath.




    And I'm with Deb, I can't wait to do my Christmas reading and movies.

    With puppies, but that's another story.

    And Missy Tippens, I took TWO sedatives and still got the shakes and shivers but I have a "P" word I use and love.


    I ponder a plot. Mentally and emotionally. So that makes me a kind of plotter, right?


  41. Did anyone get Ruthie some coffee yet?

    Debra and Pepper, you gals get up way too early. I'm up then but I'm certainly not functioning enough to be in front of a computer.

    Missy, sounds like a good book to check out. Plotting is something I've been working on, so this would fit nicely with my craft lessons for this year.

  42. Ok, after I leave this comment I'm clicking on the link to check out the book. It sounds like just what I need.

    Thank you for sharing about it, Missy! And I can't wait to read your latest. Sounds intriguing!

  43. Patricia, I take that to mean I NEED coffee???

    Didja bring some, girlfriend, because I could go for a cuppa.


    And yes, Pepster, Mary and I are of the same mind...

    Just write it.

    Just do it.

    Very Nike.


    BUT.... we do all work differently, and some people are more linear.

    Or just plain flat, LOL!!! Sorry, couldn't resist.

    So I know that while my style works for Mary and me, it's not the be all, end all. And the fact that we're close to being certifiably insane and having a movie starring Russell Crowe depict our schizophrenic lives, at least we'll know we have beautiful minds.

    Makes up for the big butt.

  44. Ah Ruthy,
    We have more in common than I realized.

    'Nough said ;-)

  45. Hey, Julie! I should have offered you a sedative as well. LOL

    By the way, the quote about conflict is Alicia's! Wish I could take credit.

  46. Tina, a list sounds good. No need to use those "P" words, as Ruthy says. :)

  47. Gina, I'm so glad!! Now if only Ruthy, and Mary and Julie would believe me. ;)

  48. Okay, Ms. Logan-Herne. You need to give me a spew alert next time before you lay one of the hilarious one-liners on me. :)

    I am with you on the Pondering though. I've been doing that for the last hour. Trying to make sure I know what my main heroic character conflicts are for my proposal. I realized that part was lacking after watching the movie Tristan and Isolde the other night. Man, what conflict there: loyalty vs loyalty. Loyalty to the man who saved him and took him in as a son (and also to country) vs loyalty to his true love (and thus self).

    Painful to watch. And it made me realize my story doesn't have that kind of tension.

  49. I'm glad, Patricia. So do you pick one topic a year to study?

  50. Susanne,

    I'm glad it was a help! If you get the book, I hope you love it.

  51. Ruthy. I told you to give me a spew alert!! Big butts??

    Okay, no more caffeine for Ruthy.

  52. But (with one "t")... Ruthy did make a good point. Everyone works differently. And even though I'm teasing and cajoling, if these kind of exercises don't work for you (or if contemplating them makes you itchy), then just ignore me! :)

  53. Missy,

    I figure we all can grow as people, let alone writers. If we think we're too 'big for our britches' (no reference to Ruthy's comment, btw) - to learn new things then we're in deep trouble.

    I, for one, can always learn more and maybe different ways to make my writing better.

    Like Ruthy said, we all learn and write differently and take different paths to get to the same 'pot of gold' at the end. Isn't that cool? So...our minds are all beautiful in different ways.

  54. Definitely helpful examples. Thank you.

  55. Missy

    I like big buts( with one T) and I cannot lie.
    (The other I can do without)

    Ideas and information are a good thing, but we all have to streamline them to our own tastes for them to become effective.


    I love to ponder and ponder, perhaps for myself the operative word is daydream.

    I close my eyes and plug up my mind's day dream module, stick myself in the story and dream on.

  56. A plot? A plot?
    I Like it Not

    Why plan your work?
    Why work your plan?
    You still might find
    The Promised Land.

    A Panster husband
    Won’t ask directions
    On Christmas morning
    Won’t read instructions.

    Be like a man!
    Why have a plan?
    You still might find
    The Promised Land.

    ****** ******

    Un-plotted quotes:

    “A plot is nature’s way of making you think.”

    “A pantster dances around the plot like Michelangelo chipped away at the stone to free the statue within.’

    “The Gunpowder Plot was foiled by a pantster.”

    "The best laid plots of mice and men often go astray in Pantster Bay.”

    “A plot. A plot. My Kingdom for a plot.”
    Samuel Beckett

    ****** ******

    Enough levity. Back to BIAW. I had a 100 page plot and it won’t let me go! I can't stop!


    BTW, I’m on page 76 of “A Forever Christmas” and that Sawah is the pushiest heroine I’ve ever encountered. I sure hope she has an epiphany. She only has eleven days to do it. ; ).

    I can’t wait to see how this works out.

    Bless you.


  57. Vince, thanks for bringing some calm to the discussion. What would we do without you? The Suess style poem was great!

    Pepper - I don't know that my plotting slows things down and even at all that, things still come along that force changes to plot and characters all the time so I don't feel hemmed in.

    Is there any apple crisp left?

  58. I see more comments but I have to run to my son's tennis match! I'll be back soon...

  59. Ah, Vince.

    You stinkin' cutie.

    Welcome aboard, big guy. Okay, I'm almost off caffeine and the sedatives made me hungry so I downed a 3 lb. bag of M&M's and that's only since lunch...

    You guys are a hoot. And poor Missy. Hey, she's at a tennis match. Let's talk about her while she's gone, 'kay??? No one will tell. Promise.


  60. Wow, Missy, what a great and informative post. I'm ordering that book right now! And your Christmas book looks fab. Thanks!

  61. So true, Pepper.

    And Sheila, thanks for stopping by! I'm glad it helped.

  62. LOL, Tina P. I'm thinking of the movie Shrek now. :)

  63. Missy,
    Thanks for sharing info about Alicia's book. Sounds great and something I need to read! Amazing how many tips we pick up from every "how to" book. They all fit into the mix and help up become better writers. Thanks for letting us know about the Guidebook!

  64. Vince, you missed your calling. You're a poet! :)

    Thanks for reading my book! But be patient with Sarah. ;) And I hate to admit that she's a much toned-down version! Thank goodness for my editor. :)

    Thanks for stopping by and entertaining us this evening.

  65. Jill, you'll have to let me know what you think about it. Thanks for stopping by!

  66. Debby, I've got bits of several other books that I used when I write. I should compile my own plotting notebook so I don't have to go searching each time. :)

  67. Missy,
    Nice infomative post. I think that even though most people dread talking about this's important to know your style. It's just like teachers telling us that we need to know our process. THis could be for studying, writing, drafting...almost anything! They like to link that back to things : )
    THanks and I can't wait to read the new book!

  68. Great post, Missy. Thanks for sharing. You guys had fun today!

    Ruthy, did you eat ALL the M&M's???


    Oh, and for us late comers, and those on the West Coast, I've got a big pot of homemade chili in the warmer on the sideboard.

    Dig in!

  69. Hannah, that sounds like a great new post topic: Know your style! Very good point. : )

    thanks for stopping by last night!

  70. Pam,

    Chili was my response to this cold weather! I made a pot Saturday and we ate it all weekend. Yum! And since my chili is gone, I'll have some of yours. :)

  71. Lol Missy. Well if anyone needs to use it...feel free!