Author, Teacher, Psychologist and Speaker

On Writing

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 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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Posted by on Aug 20, 2014 in Featured, On Writing, Uncategorized | 2 comments


What’s a “Writers’ Conference”, anyway?

Writers Conference


A Writers’ Conference can be a mixture of break-out sessions and programs, insights and intensives, and social and networking opportunities.

The conference faculty will be replete with experts in the fields of writing and illustrating, editing and publishing, and author representation.

When researching and registering for a conference, keep in mind the elements that fit your current needs as a writer. Choose the conference that best addresses where you are, where you want to go, what you need to learn and how you can accomplish your goals.

WC #2

Among the many benefits of attending a Writers’ Conference are chances to:



How does the publishing industry work? Who decides what gets published, where and how books are placed, what makes it to the front of a bookstore? Who designs the covers? How do authors get blurbs and reviews? What are the latest trends? 


Intensive Programs – in-depth hands-on workshops of interest that explore, examine, and educate the participant in specific content areas. They concentrate on deepening the craft for the committed writer

Break-out Sessions – targeted sessionson craft and creative process, knowledge and/or insight into the publishing industry, social media, networking, marketing and promotion

Critique sessions – one on one with an agent, editor or author who reviews your work and offers insight, feedback and/or and recommendations for improvement  


Finding new writers are among the reasons thatagents and editors attend conferences. Attending a conference is a great chance to get a face to face moment with one of them. You should be prepared to tell them about your book. The best way to do this is to develop a perfect pitch – the“shortest summary of story that captures the core emotional conflict of a story”.  Have your pitch memorized for those convenient and appropriate times to deliver. Sign up for a Pitch Session if available. Your pitch is your job interview.

Business cards/Illustrator Postcards – a professional representation of who you are to exchange with authors, editors and agents

Synopsis – one page describing your narrative arc, introducing your main character(s), revealing your inciting incident, compelling core conflict and the major plot twists and turning points, divulging the stakes, describing the emotional upheaval, climax, resolution and the change that will take place (Have one in case someone asks for it.)

Manuscript – your work in progress, written in proper format, edited and revised (Have one in case someone asks for it.)


Connect with industry insiders and fellow authors at informal social gatherings, autograph parties, luncheons, open mics, and red-eyes to exchange ideas, numbers, emails and form writing partnerships.

WC #4



      1. Come prepared with an iPad, laptop, or note pad
      2. Practice good etiquette andobservesocial media rules
      3. Be Professional andmakea good first impression
      4. Respect Agents, Editors & Speakers and their privacy
      5. Follow-up with a “Thank You!”

And, most of all, have a great time!

I hope to see you at my next conference:




Click here to register.






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Hiding Carly, Holiday Promotion

Posted by on Dec 26, 2012 in Blog, Featured, On Writing, Writing Wednesday | 0 comments




Did you get a new ereader for Christmas? A Kindle, an iPad, a smartphone? Do you have the Free Kindle Reader App available for every major smartphone, tablet, and computer?




You can download my middle grade mystery, HIDING CARLY, for FREE at, from 12/26/12 through 12/30/12!






YOU do not have to even move off the couch! Just grab your Kindle, or any device with a FREE KINDLE reading app! BECAUSE my new book, HIDING CARLY is FREE for 5 days on AMAZON. And you can INSTANTLY begin to follow Sean’s adventures!




Thanks for your support! EnjoyReading!




I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas filled with love, peace joy and that you have a very Happy New Year!



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Posted by on Nov 19, 2012 in Blog, On Writing | 6 comments

I have exciting news! I have a new publisher!



PEAK CITY PUBLISHING is an independent publisher in Raleigh, NC. Their stated mission is to “engage, entertain and educate readers of all ages.”


They are members of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA)


and an approved publisher with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).


PEAK CITY books are available to consumers through online book selling sites, select independent book and retail stores, to large book chains via Ingram Content Group, and to schools and libraries through Follett Library Resources.


Shiloh Burnam, owner and publisher, picked up my entire SEAN GRAY, JUNIOR SPECIAL AGENT series. Hooray!



The first book in the series, HIDING CARLY,  has been re-edited and is being re-released in December



Book 2 will be released in 2013.

PEAK CITY also represents my screenplay adaptation of HIDING CARLY which is being considered for a television movie, with a potential series to follow.


Click to read the nationwide Press Release for HIDING CARLY.




Now this is a lot to be thankful for: a new publisher, and all of you! Have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving!

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Posted by on Oct 8, 2012 in Blog, Monday Musing, On Writing | 2 comments

One of the finest moments of the annual SCBWIC conference in Charlotte, NC last week-end was the keynote address by Molly O’Neil, Children’s & Young Adult book editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

During Molly’s inspirational speech, “We Are All Apprentices: Learning Publishing’s Past While Writing & Illustrating for the Future“, she read to us the following passage from Bobbie Pyron’s A Dog’s Way Home.


A Dog’s Way Home
“I got to follow my north star, Abby honey. Being a professional musician is my dream.”

“Just like the three wise men followed that other star to Bethlehem?” I said.

“Just like.” Daddy nodded like he was agreeing with himself. “Most folks got a north star in their life – something that gives their life extra meaning. Mine is music.”

Without even thinking, I said, “Mine is Tam.”

Tam is Abby’s Shetland sheepdog. An accident separates them and this story is about their efforts to reunite. Not only is Abby certain that Tam is her north star, she is confident that she is Tam’s. It is an excellent story, and a great example of what it means to have a “north star”. And how empty it feels to be without one.

Abby’s story stirred something in me. I realized I had lost my own north star. Certainly, I had had many connections, directions, and paths throughout my life. My star’s description had changed many times. But suddenly I felt a loss, a hole, an ache deep within me – and I knew – I didn’t have that connection, that direction, that beacon.


Ask people what a “north star” is and among the varied answers might be:

It’s Polaris, the brightest star in the sky (even though there are at least 50 stars brighter) and the star that’s most useful for navigating in a northern direction, either by land or by sea.
Or a mountain in Colorado,
North Star Mountain CO
Or a small town in Ohio,
North Star OH
Or a retreat center in California.
North Star Retreat
To others it is a connection,
A beacon,


A moral compass,

Moral Compass


If you find yourself way off course, lost and surprised where your life direction has taken you. If you wake up one day and realize that you aren’t where you want to be – where you thought you would be – where you were headed. If you have lost your way, strayed off your path, changed direction in midstream – you may have lost your north star.

Eye of the storm

If you feel as if your life is trapped in the eye of a hurricane, swirling in the center of a tornado, plummeting through the crevice of an earthquake. If you find that you are sometimes confused, dazed, unhappy, and lonely. If you wonder or question where is your center, your control, your balance – you may need a compass. A beacon. A navigational instrument.

navigational tools


For me, a north star is means of survival. It gives my life meaning, purpose, and direction.


Do you want to change direction and don’t know how to chart your course?

First of all, keep in mind that you can have more than one north star.

For example, some define the north star as anything that guides a person’s decisions based on morals or virtues. This is the moral compass. Certainly an examination of your conscience and spirit joined with your faith will lead you to this north star.

Others, like well-known author and life coach, Martha Beck, describe the north star as the “place where the relationship exists between you and your right life, the ultimate realization of your potential for happiness.” This is the connection. This discovery is made based on a multitude of personal choices, past experiences, desires, needs, fears, ambitions, and emotions.

Still others view the north star as a guiding force that gives their life purpose, meaning, and direction. This is the beacon. This is the “star(s)” that to me is the most vital. This is the zenith of my life. What is my primary goal, my defining reason, my ultimate climax? What do I want more than anything else? Like a character in a novel: What do I want more than anything and what will I do to get it?

Second, your north star may change over time, as you grow and change direction or path. We are constantly evolving and learning new things about ourselves. We might need to reevaluate, refocus, renew.

Once you discover your north star, set your internal compass and follow. Let nothing distract you. Just like Tam and Abby in A Dog’s Way Home.

“I reckon they were all following their north star, just like Daddy.

Thinking of Daddy and his north star made me think of Tam, my north star.  My heart got all heavy and sad.”

My north stars are out there in the universe waiting and shining on me guiding me home. Where is yours?

North Star

For more:

A Dog’s Way Home, Bobbie Pyron

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, Martha Beck

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson PhD

Nike, my North Star




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