Author, Teacher, Psychologist and Speaker

Pulling Your Character’s Emotional Trigger

Posted by on Apr 24, 2015 in Blog, On Writing | 0 comments




What’s your emotional trigger? The thing that stops you in your tracks, makes your heart pound or stop, and blurs the pages of the morning paper? A lost child? A hurt puppy? A dying grandmother?




Emotions are among the most researched of psychological conditions. The word “emotion” dates back to the 1500’s, deriving from the French émouvoir, which means “to stir up”. But a journey back through history, even before that time, demonstrates the prevalence of that human state.

You can’t invent new emotions to go along with your fictional world. Given that your emotional construct will reflect the real world, you’ll rely on two types of emotions: primary emotions and secondary emotions. Your primary emotion will develop from your inciting incident. This is the emotion that propels all of your main characters’ actions. How they display and deal with the primary emotion will be the backbone of your story. Your secondary emotions are those emotions your characters demonstrate as they strive to resolve the conflict brought on by the primary emotion. For example, they may experience an inciting incident that creates a fear response. Fear is your primary emotion. As a response to that fear, they become angry and driven to conquer their fear. Anger is your secondary emotion. As you structure your story, you typically have one primary emotion and several secondary emotions. This adds the depth to your characters and story that gives your readers an enriching and fulfilling reading experience.




All good fiction writing has at its heart the goal “to stir up”, whether it is an adventure, a fantasy, a mystery, or a romance.

Emotions – feelings, moods, behavior – are reactions and responses to stimuli. These stimuli may include certain events, stressors, behavior of others, or even our own inner thoughts and conflicts, attitudes, frustrations, etc. For example, the emotion of sadness may be caused by the loss of something or someone very important. Anger may be precipitated by someone taking something very important from you.




Rational-emotive psychologist Albert Ellis designed the following Model of Emotion:

A (Activating Event) + B (Belief) = C (Consequence)

Based on the human belief that our desires must and should be fulfilled, our emotional responses can be an irrational reaction to those stimuli.

For example, if your protagonist (Let’s call him Brad) wanted more than anything to ask the new girl out on a date and she declined, this might be his emotional response:

A (Dinner invitation declined) + B (Because I am unlikeable) =
C (Sadness, depression, feeling rejected)

Brad’s belief, whether rational or irrational, leads to his feelings of rejection and sadness. Of course, if she had accepted his invitation, the model would yield a different result.

Just as we react in our real world, we want our characters to react in our writing. And even though we all want and feel we deserve to get what we want – the job, the car, the girl – life often does not turn out that way. Enter the disturbance that will stir things up!




Take our rejected protagonist for example. When we first meet Brad in our story, he appears to be a pretty normal guy. Handsome, friendly, ambitious. Brad’s a rising attorney in a large law firm, who graduated from a major university, where he was a star quarterback on the football team. But when it comes to women, he strikes out. He’s shy and awkward. On that playing field, he lacks self-confidence. Why?

Maybe he had a girlfriend in high school that cheated on him, dumped him, and married his best friend. He never got over her. He subconsciously compares all other women to her. Now we have a character with some emotional baggage to go along with his promising career.

Enter the emotional trigger. As soon as Brad saw the attractive paralegal walk into the law library. He wanted to pursue her, take her out to dinner. But the subconscious response linked to his past experience and the subsequent arousal of his nervous system, set him on another course.

Brad felt heaviness in his chest. He was light-headed from the rush of adrenalin. A flush crept up from his neck to his cheeks. He clenched and unclenched his fists, his nails dug into his palms. Words crept out in uneven syllables, hanging…

When Brad’s attempt to get something he wanted was thwarted, it sent him spiraling into a deep depression. That moment and what he does next will become his emotional journey. And whether he responds in a positive or negative way to stimuli, his action and motivation will be propelled by emotion.

When your characters don’t get what they want, one of the first emotions they experience is frustration. It is in that moment that he or she must choose what to do in response to that setback. The choices are dependent upon what kind of person they are and where the plot will take us. The emotional response of your characters is deeply rooted in their personality.

What is Brad feeling? Anger? Sadness? Hurt? Pain? Will he lose control? Seek revenge? Will he give up and shrink back into the stacks of the library and lick his wounds? Will he take a deep breath and try again until he succeeds?

Initially, our character’s reactions to frustration are tied to learned behavior. In Brad’s case, how did he respond to the loss of his girlfriend in high school? Were there other significant emotional events in his childhood that might influence his present day reaction? Was he abandoned by someone else? Left alone? Did he feel unloved by a parent or another significant person?

Brad’s emotional journey began before we met him in our author’s mind. It has been a fusion of his external persona, i.e. successful attorney, and his internal identity, i.e. wounded child. His complete character is a combination of flaws, i.e., insecurity, depression, quick temper and strengths, i.e., intelligence, handsome appearance, integrity.




Character flaws are often learned coping mechanisms to compensate for our vulnerability. Often the direct result of not getting what we wanted or felt we deserved. Perception is reality. And when we view ourselves as insecure, unlovable, weak, our character is threatened. In Brad’s case, when he was rejected in the past, he was hurt and angry, prone to despair and depression. This is his emotional maturity level when we first meet him.

Now that we care about him, we want him to succeed. We know that there is potential for growth and transformation. As we travel with him on his journey, we see how he reacts to stimuli at each juncture. From the introduction in Act One, where we create empathy for him, with his vulnerability and flaws. We show his reactions and adjustments in the turning points when his desires and longings are thwarted thrusting him into new situations and pursuits.

Into Act Two, we show his fear and angst as he pursues his dream and his goal, facing the conflicts and failures, the progress and retreat. We describe his commitment at the point of no return when he realizes what his life would be like if he failed. And when we raise the stakes even higher for him, we paint the peak of his emotional journey as we glimpse the all or nothing moment when it seems he will not succeed. Then the emotional maturity level has grown and his reaction to stimuli has changed.

The emotional journey that your character(s) take serves to heighten the interaction between your reader and that character. The reader has been on that journey, become that persona, and experienced that growth. And that is one of the many reasons we write what we write. To fuse that emotional connection between the reader and the story.




A great resource:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression


This piece first appeared on the SCWW Blog Post 8/31/2014.

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Posted by on Oct 8, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Writing Wednesday | 8 comments


October is NATIONAL CYBER SECURITY AWARENESS MONTH (NCSAM). It is a good time to take a look at how safe we are online. I conduct a lot of presentations for educators, parents and kids about online safety, as well as write about it here, and in books and articles. Today I wanted to share 3 important tips for authors.

CYBER SAFETY, ONLINE SAFETY, INTERNET SAFETY – these terms are used interchangeably. In the simplest terms, they mean to use caution and common sense for online protection.

The Internet, often referred to as the World Wide Web, is a vast computer network linking smaller computer networks worldwide. And every time we access it we are traveling the same highways as millions of other information seekers, communicators and, yes, disreputable vagabonds.

As authors we spend countless hours on the net – researching, writing, and communicating – opening ourselves up to more than great reviews. Our data is up for grabs on our on blogs and websites, publisher web pages, Google, as well as various social media sites. Some of us are constantly wired via laptops, mobile phones, tablets and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. And while we want to be connected to our fan base, editors and agents, we can be potential targets of hackers, stalkers and viruses.





Therefore it is important for us to use caution and security measures while using digital media and information technology. Because the Internet is not regulated or controlled by any one entity, it is necessary for us to exercise caution when interacting with the public domain.

We all know not to give out personal information, open emails or attachments from people we don’t know, or send “crazy” pictures. And to back up our work using a service such as Dropbox or iCloud, and/or flash/jump drives and/or external hard drives.


dropbox - cloud


But 3 things that are equally (possibly more) important for our protection are the following:







As writers, we are constantly subject to computer viruses which can make their way onto computers, tablets, or smartphones simply by checking e-mail, surfing the web, or by putting jump drive into your laptop. A computer virus is a program or piece of code that is loaded without your knowledge and infects files, programs, and systems. It can spread throughout your world and, through files that you share, and/or email that you send, infect others.

For example, a Trojan is a computer virus that is designed as something that it is not. It may be sent through an email attachment or instant message. It is often something that appeals to you. Hackers troll the web – looking for you and trying to match up what might interest you and send you that very special email promising to rock your world. It seems legit – but is not. It is a non-self-replicating type of malware program which, like the Trojan horses of ancient Troy, is meant to trick you. It has a malicious code imbedded into a link which, when clicked, prompts you into giving out personal information, and/or giving a professional hacker entry into your computer, or Smartphone.

The best method of protection is to install ANTI-VIRUS SOFTWARE, which scans for viruses and malware by examining the files on your system for patterns of data identified as viruses. These programs have databases of known viruses throughout the world and will offer protection to you and your work. Most programs will update periodically (some automatically) as new viruses are revealed. (See Resources below)






While it is extremely important to install anti-virus programs, it is now also equally important to secure your own web site, and to ensure that sites you visit and/or make purchases from, are secure. For example, you don’t want to access financially sensitive information, such as your bank or PayPal account, on an unencrypted/unprotected network. Cyber criminals and hackers who are trolling the Internet looking for ways to steal from you, can easily intercept user names and passwords, with their own computers, Smartphones and tablets. They will install spyware on your system which will operate in your browser and allow the offender to track your movements online and record the very keys you press when you travel to sites and enter your passwords.

A secure website ensures that your information is traveling on a secure connection and is not accessible by anyone else. To know that you have entered a secure website, look for the “https://” at the beginning of the URL. This is not the standard “http://” found with most URLs. Also look for the “locked” icon on the bottom of your browser.

A secure site will offer Web Browsing Protection, Protection against Phishing Scams, Parental Control (if you need it), and Increased Security When Shopping Online

You can also install ANTI-SPYWARE programs, which will monitor your system as you use it for spyware-related activity. These programs have FIREWALLS to prevent malware from reaching devices through your network, averting attempts of intruders to connect and/or infiltrate your system without your knowledge.







What author doesn’t appreciate a secret identity? Or two? Or three? We even have, in  some cases, pseudonyms to protect our innocence. That is exactly what passwords are designed to do – protect us! How do you choose your passwords? Birthdates? Children’s names? High school? Address? Or a combination of the above? Back in the early days of the Information Superhighway, simple, easy to recall passwords might have been passable. But in today’s dangerous hacker-hijacking-highway, the more complex your password is, the stronger it stands and the less likely even a determined bot (web robot) will be able to crack it.

The strongest passwords have little to do with your birthday, pets, kids, college mascots and day you met your mate. In today’s “Google It” world, hackers can learn too many things about you to hook up various combinations (using numerous programs) to find that special word. In fact, many experts now recommend using not just a single word, but a phrase – unique to only you (not easily discerned in your bio). Whether you use a word or phrase, mix it up. Numbers, upper and lower case letters and special symbols. For example:


And yes, WRITE IT DOWN somewhere!!! I have several combos I use for different things. And I keep them in a safe (very) place. It is also advisable in today’s heavily hacked world to change them frequently – especially the ones that are connected to your money, your family, your work. Many hackers cull passwords (just read the news) in large quantities, sell them, and keep them for use at a later date – when the heat is off!

You can even use a PASSWORD MANAGER to keep track of all of your passwords. These software programs encrypt your data and store them on their server, or on your computer or Smartphone. You then have to memorize just one “super password” for access to all of the rest of your passwords.


I hope you all have a safe and secure Cyber Month and Year!



The Top 10 Antivirus Software of 2014

The Best Password Managers

National Cyber Security Alliance – Stay Safe Online

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (ICE3)



Secure Web Site

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Posted by on Sep 10, 2014 in Blog, On Writing, Writing Wednesday | 10 comments




First PAge


It is your one chance to make a great first impression. From the crucial first sentence to the critical end of the first page, you must be all about hooking your reader and reeling them in.




Do you like to window shop? Walk up to the big window in your favorite department store and peek inside? Survey the layout? The new designs and fashions? What can you see? Not very much of the whole store. Just a taste, a tease. But if the designer has done their job right, it’s enough to make you walk inside and check things out.




What about the windows of one of the houses on your street? Close your eyes and imagine it for a moment. What could we see if we took that voyeuristic leap and peered inside one of the windows? The table settings in the dining room? The clothes scattered across the bed in the bedroom? The flickering TV in the den? Would that tell us much about the lives of the people living there? Let’s take that dining room table – let’s add the dinner – Thanksgiving turkey & the trimmings. A woven horn of plenty filled with fruit. Autumn decorated placemats with the red, yellow and orange leaves and flowers. We would begin to get a sense of CONTEXT. Maybe even a hint of CONCEPT. We continue to watch as mother and father walk into the room and sit down at the table. Are they the most important characters in your picture? Children begin to trickle in, laughing, shoving, one with a smartphone in hand, texting. Then the grandparents amble in. When everyone is finally seated, the mother reaches over to remove the phone from the hand of the teen, who scowls in opposition. The family bows their head in prayer and then father stands up to carve the turkey. We may begin to get a sense of a main CHARACTER as we observe their interactions. Suddenly the teen and a younger child begin to exchange glances, then words and a fight breaks out. The teen jumps up, overturning the table and we have CONFLICT.

Your first page is like the window dressing for your story. It tells the reader that something significant is going to happen. The characters are intriguing. The stakes are high – the events are crucial, the tension is elevated. There’s about to be a change in the status quo.  You are making a promise to deliver the goods on that premise. Premise = Promise


Your “First Page” is one of the most important elements of your story. Not just for your fans – but for agents and editors. They FOCUS on your FIRST PAGE. 


One reason is because agents & editors are overwhelmed and swamped with submissions. The have piles & piles of slush. Rushed and anxious to make deadlines, they are also hard pressed to stake their claims on the next best seller. They are reading on the subway. In the supermarket line. In the john. On their smartphones, kindles, & tablets. Their eyes are burning. They are tired. Hungry. Irritated. Bored. Disinterested. Distracted. They have heard it before. Rhymes that don’t rhyme. Vampires & wolves. Mass destruction and zombies. Once upon a time fractures.

And often they are quickly turned off by first pages flooded with fancy, contrived, forced metaphors and smiles. Clichés. Idioms. Too much action. Too little action. Too quick. Too slow.

They want to know if you are writing about toilet paper rolls, jungles, or flying saucers. Love. Hate. Death. Romance. They are skimming through your words faster than a hypersonic warplane to see if you have a style, a voice, and a plot. They can’t figure out what your story is about. They are searching for a conflict, a main character, a concept, a context – all on the first page. Yep, its true – they are.

By the end of the first line they are sizing you up. They don’t know who you are. And they want to know if you are at all competent to call yourself a writer.

And by the end of the first page – your baby may have already been thrown onto the “Rejected-not-right-for-our-list pile.”


pplot whisperer



You must start strong and grab readers from the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page.

Your first page will begin to establish your narrative voice as reliable, believable, talented, and authoritative as you weave the essential elements of your story.

Therefore, you must create an overwhelming curiosity about what is going to happen in the story & pose a question that has to be answered. Know what your character wants, and set that quest into motion.


Remember: A story is about a character wanting something intensely but there is an impediment to his or her goal.


Your story is the character and the conflict.


Since the essential idea is to entice your reader, your most important element is your narrative hook. So you should start your book with the best, carefully chosen words to hook your reader and reel them in immediately. Don’t bury your hook. A novel should go “inside-out”. Shock/awe/seduce/trick/ your reader with your first few paragraphs – your first lines – and then build the story around that, going back through flashback, dialogue, some exposition to finish the painting when necessary. Too many writers want to build the set, paint the walls, and place the furniture before they ever introduce the character, conflict, circumstance, or concept.

A good narrative hook uses the old familiar 5 W’s:

          1-Who is the character?

          2-What is the conflict?

          3-Where and

         4-When is the context?

          5-Why this concept?

          6-How did it happen (context – what is the background)?





Character = care (about) Reveal the “Core of Your Character” in an intriguing way that reflects a vital aspect of his or her identity. Show the reader why it’s worth rooting for that character by establishing a goal or desire in the opening scene that highlights their personality and motivation.

Conflict = central crisis (create dramatic tension) Set up question your novel is answering (that will be answered by the last page). Remember that without tension, there is no story. You must have sufficient action and momentum with a catalyst or incident. Your opening scene should start off with a bang, with your protagonist in the middle of something that we sense has been going on for a while. Insinuate a conflict, a problem, some tense situation. Let you reader know what’s at stake 

Context = circumstance (time & place) Orient and ground your reader with a sense of where we are. Create a unique, unexpected, extraordinary setting. Describe an especially interesting and fascinating setting. It can also be a familiar setting with a unique &/or surprising circumstance. Integrate your setting into the action

Concept = core (of your story) Focus in on an intense and important moment. Include the gravity and significance of something that is about to happen. There should be an undeniable force compelling the reader to want more.


Raise your story questions on the first page with a hook that makes your reader curious. (Story questions need not be in question form, but can be statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, etc.) The question must not only get the reader involved in the story, it should be justified by the story that follows.

Some examples of types of hooks are:

1-Hook (compressed) of compelling events – primary ingredient is action

2-Hook of unusual characters – involve the reader with an interesting personality

3-Hook of setting or atmosphere – opening image sets scene & mood

4-Hook of striking language – juxtaposition of words – a poetic interest in words & says something in a new, fresh & original way

5-Hook of ideas – writer involves reader through philosophical concepts – “true memory”, the reader is caught by the philosophic observations that the writer poses – give specific example – caution: the novel of ideas is still fiction & not philosophy – the protagonist is a searcher for a particular truth & he moves through certain events to reveal this truth

6-Hook of striking technical devices – an unconventional approach to writing – experimentation in literary technique – form & theme 

Readers want a first paragraph that draws them into a world that already exists, not one that will be created as they go along. They want to find themselves in the midst of people who are involved in the life of that world, people they immediately want to know more about. So your first page should also give the reader an idea of:




POV narrator

Content of text



It’s not an easy task –saying all of the above in approximately 250 words. But it is a great first page that makes a great first impression!




Who is the character we care most about (will root for)?

Have you introduced your protagonist (are they POV character)?

What does s/he want and/or desire intensely (plot goal)?


What is the conflict (situation/problem)?

Have you included (mentioned/hinted at) your inciting incident?      

CONTEXT – Where and When?

Where does your story take place (locale)?

When does your story take place (time period)?

CONCEPT Why and How?

What’s your hook?

Will it grab your reader?

Why did this happen?

How did this happen (background)?


Have you presented a unique twist or fresh spin?


Have you generated a crushing curiosity about what is going to happen in your story?

Have you posed a question that has to be answered?

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