Get My Free Guide to Crafting Your Premise Line (With Guest Expert Jeff Lyons!)

Earlier this year, my writing pal and colleague Jeff Lyons and I put together a two-part article series called “Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line.” It’s been such a popular post (we even did a Writer’s Chat session on it), that I decided to compile the article into a free guidebook for you, along with a workbook for helping you craft your own Premise Line.

For writers, whether you’re writing fiction, screenplays, or creative non-fiction, a premise line is an incredibly valuable tool that will help you both develop and test the basis of your story. 

A premise line is more than just a logline or synopsis. They’re related, but different animals.

Using a premise line has become an integral part of my story development work. Not only do I use a premise line to develop my story, I use it to track my work, test the concept, and more. In the guidebook (or in the two-part article here and here), you’ll find out how to develop a premise line yourself. Then you can use the workbook to craft your own. The workbook comes in two formats: A PDF format for printing and handwriting your answers into and an RTF format for easy importing into Scrivener or Word, where you can type into it directly (my favorite!).

Enjoy!

Download the Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

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Missed the Writer’s Chat with Jeff Lyons? Fear no more!

My Writer’s Chat last night with guest speaker Jeff Lyons about premise line development was quite illuminating! I’m already inspired to go revisit all my current concepts with the “bells and whistles” test he taught us.

It was a great chat and we had a fun conversation with terrific questions from our listeners, which stirred up all kinds of interesting topics, like:

  • The “bells and whistles” test ​to help you get crystal clear on your story, right now.
  • How a premise line can hold a whole project together.
  • How a premise line can work for creative non-fiction projects (like memoirs), and why it’s so important to have one to guide and structure your project.
  • Drilling down to specific, tangible, external goals that work with “softer” character goals.
  • Which comes first... premise line development or writing?
  • How antagonists work in romantic stories.
  • And more!

If you’d like to listen to the recording, you can register for the Chat Series here: http://programs.calledtowrite.com/join-my-free-writers-chat and you’ll get access to the Archives right away.

You’ll also be notified about upcoming Writer’s Chats in the future, with me and other guest experts, all on the topic of writing, of course. :)

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Work with Jeff on Your Premise Line

Jeff also has a special “Crash Course” in premise line work coming up later this month including getting one-on-one support for “hot seat” participants — I’ve included the details about it below, in case you’re interested. Note that there’s a special bonus when you sign up for the program by Wednesday, February 10th.

Jeff Lyons’ Online Premise Line “Crash Course”

“Anatomy of a Premise Line: 3 Week Crash Course”

Thursday, February 25, 2016 through Friday, March 18, 2016

Ready for the full-immersion premise experience? It’s one thing to read about writing a premise line and another one entirely to jump in and do it, with the help of an experienced professional at your side. If you’ve got a project you’re wanting to get off the ground or one that isn’t quite working yet, join Jeff for his three-week long “crash course” and develop your premise line with his step-by-step instruction and feedback. Given that your premise line can make or break your project, it’s time well spent. 

Jeff is teaching a three-week course on premise line development. It includes an online learning environment, twice-weekly video and chat sessions with Jeff where he’ll do live video-chat sessions with all hot-seat participants (Tier 1) for one-on-one work and review issues, premise lines, and answer questions, online feedback, email support, and class materials. Observer participants (Tier 2) get “fly on the wall” seats to observe all the one-to-one coaching Jeff provides.

The course work includes:

  • Step-by-step premise line development, implementing what you’ve learned here with the guidance of an experienced story consultant.
  • Jeff’s “Premise Testing Checklist”, which includes high concept testing. Just like any product your premise needs to be tested by consumers for feedback.
  • A review of the 7 Components of a High Concept, an instrumental tool in your sales and marketing of your writing project.
  • log line design and worksheet, a must-have when it comes to pitching entertainment industry gatekeepers.
  • An introduction to the synopsis writing process, which is a key deliverable for book agents, publishers, and production companies.
  • Unlimited access to all worksheets and templates for the program so you can use them over and over for all your writing projects.
  • Access to the powerpoint slides of all the lessons with examples, which includes more than 50 slides summarizing all the key concepts and examples in the class.

Bonuses: Participants will also receive a 50% off savings for your first session in my Called to Write Coaching Circle, so you’ll have all the support you need to take your project to the next level and to start writing! Current Coaching Circle members will receive a special, private “town hall” teleclass session with Jeff, just for us, instead of the 50% off coupon. Just let Jeff know you’re a Circle member when you sign up.

Early birds: Sign up by Wednesday, February 10th and you’ll receive a special bonus of Jeff’s “Visual Structure Workbook”, which will help you develop your premise line into a short synopsis, the next step to take after writing your premise line and log line.

Find out more and register here

Just to be clear — I’m not receiving any kickbacks or affiliate commissions or anything when you sign up for his program. Jeff and I just believe our programs have a natural fit together and believe in supporting each other. :) I have, however, included my Amazon affiliate link for his book, so if you buy it by clicking the link in this email, I’ll receive a small commission from Amazon.

Questions? Click here to ask my awesome team.

If the registration link above gives you any trouble, you can try http://calledtowrite.com/jeff.

Join me for a free Writer’s Chat on Monday with guest expert Jeff Lyons on Premise Line Development

Coming up on Monday, February 8th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, I’m hosting a free Writer’s Chat with my colleague and friend, story consultant Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line.*

Jeff recently shared a great two-part article series with us, called “Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line“, where he explained step-by-step how to craft a premise line, which then becomes the structural spine for your story (or creative non-fiction project!)

We thought it would be fun to hop on the phone with anyone who is interested and talk more about it. We’ll chat, you can ask questions, it’ll be a blast!

To sign up, go to this page here: http://programs.calledtowrite.com/join-my-free-writers-chat 

The big idea here is that we can do more of these in the future, with me and other guest experts, all on the topic of writing, of course. :)

If you’d like to check out Jeff’s articles first (so you can get your questions ready to ask him!), check them out here:

I hope you’ll join us!

Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line, Part II (Plus a Free Guidebook!)

Today we’re continuing with Part 2 of a two-part article from story consultant Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line.*

In the first article, Jeff reviewed the first two steps of the process:

  • Step 1: Identify the Core Structure of Your Story
  • Step 2: Assess Whether You Have a Story or a Situation

Now he’ll guide us through assembling the building blocks we’ve created into an actual premise line:

  • Step 3: Map the Core Structure to the Premise Line Template
  • Step 4: Finalize the Premise Line
  • Step 5: Test the Premise Line with Objective Readers

Note: Creative nonfiction writers can also benefit from learning these tools, because story is story and biographies, “true stories” and other creative nonfiction all adhere to the same storytelling principles as fiction.

Read the article below, or download our Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

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Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line, Part II

by Jeff Lyons

Now that you’ve identified the core structure of your story, and assessed whether you have a story or a situation (and made any necessary adjustments to your situation if so desired), you can continue on to Step 3, mapping the core structure to the premise line template. And if you’re still still unsure whether you have a story or a situation, you can use the premise line template as your key to unlock this mystery. 

Step 3: Map the Core Structure to the Premise Line Template

This template takes a very specific form of four clauses (this draws on basic grammar, we’re simply using the clauses that make up sentences). Mapping the core structure elements identified in step one to this template will quickly tell you if you have a workable story.

Let’s breakdown each clause into its constituent parts to see the true power it offers your writing process. 

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Clause #1:  Protagonist Clause

Take your sense of the first two components of the Core Structure (character and constriction) and combine them into a sentence clause (the structure components are in bold).

You have a sense of a character. Now is the time to give them some dimension. Who are they? What takes them from a state of just being and sparks them into action?  Some call this the inciting incident; maybe you don’t have that clearly in your head yet, that’s okay. What else might push them to move forward (or backward)?  What happens to this person that gets them to act and begin their adventure?  The protagonist clause is really saying, “When something happens…”—what’s the “something”?

We’ll use the novel/movie Jaws, by Peter Benchley, as an illustration how this might play out in execution:

Protagonist Clause: … a fearful, “outsider” Police Chief of a small, coastal vacation town is asked to investigate the possible shark death of a local swimmer …

Here the main character is clear, he is constricted with fear and doubt, and there is a sense of the spark that brakes his inertia, i.e., he is asked to investigate a death.

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Clause #2:  Team Goal Clause

Take the next two components of the Core Structure (desire and focal relationship) and combine them to give you the next clause in the premise line.

This clause captures the sense of a tangible want and defines the relationships involved, especially the core relationship (if any) that drives the middle of the story. Now is the time to give a clearer idea of what the main character wants and who is moving through the story with them. This should also give a sense of the motivation for the desire, not just the thing that is desired (i.e., “with purpose”).

Using Jaws, once again, we get the following:

Team Goal Clause: … his worst fears are realized when a marine biologist confirms the cause of death, prompting the Chief to hire a crusty local fisherman to hunt down and kill the beast—forcing the fisherman to take the Chief and biologist along on the hunt  …

The protagonist wants to catch the shark and he’s doing it with his team. There is deliberate purpose in this and a clear, tangible goal.

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Clause #3:  Opposition Clause

The next two components of the Core Structure (resistance and adventure) combine to give a clear statement about the opposing force acting to upset the story’s applecart.

This is where the writer tries to give a sense of the stakes, the big-picture jeopardy of the adventure, and the central opposing force acting against the character’s action.

For Jaws we have:

Opposition Clause: … only to find himself caught between the town’s greedy mayor demanding a quick kill so beaches can be reopened, and the controlling, resentful fisherman who thinks the Chief is a wuss, and who doesn’t need or want the Chief and biologist on his boat …

The opposition forces are Quint, the biologist, and the Mayor on the human side, and the shark on the non-human side. The opposition is not singular in this story, the way it is in many stories—but it is still unified dramatically. The writer has identified the nature of the “serious pushback” and the chaos that will ensue, including the final outcome if the pushback wins.  Here the “opposing force” is defined, as well as the tendency toward disorder, in a clear and dramatic statement that fits perfectly with the idea as a whole.

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Clause #4:  Dénouement Clause

The chaos component of the adventure crosses the third and fourth clauses due to the nature of crisis: it spreads and is messy and is often indistinguishable from the resistance it creates and the change it generates. So, in this final combination we see how adventure leads to resolution, the order implicit in all chaos. The last two components of the Core Structure (adventure and change) combine as follows:

Dénouement Clause: … leading to the three men bonding as a team as they battle the monster, where the Chief proves his value and courage, overcomes his fear of the water, and secures his place in the community when he saves the town by killing the beast.

The complexity of the adventure unfolds in the bonding of the men, who have been in conflict throughout, and with the escalating danger from the shark. The final disposition of the protagonist is that he finds his place in this new world he lives in and overcomes his fears. The writer expresses the change that is at the end of all disorder and chaos, as well as the change that is personal to the character from the Protagonist Clause. There is a coming full-circle in a sense; the beginning, middle and end all tie back to the first and most fundamental step of sensing a protagonist and a personal story.

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Step 4: Finalize the Premise Line

This is how the final premise line would look (note the clause identifiers):

Final Premise Line: A fearful, “outsider,” Police Chief [Clause #1] of a small, coastal vacation town is asked to investigate the possible shark death [Clause #1] of a local swimmer, and his worst fears are realized when a marine biologist confirms the cause of death, prompting the Chief to hire a crusty local fisherman [Clause #2] to hunt down and kill the beast [Clause #2]—forcing the fisherman to take the Chief and the biologist [Clause #2] along on the hunt; only to find himself caught between the town’s greedy mayor [Clause #3] demanding a quick kill so beaches can be reopened, and the controlling, resentful fisherman [Clause #3] who thinks the Chief is a wuss, and who doesn’t need or want the Chief or the biologist on his boat—leading to the three men bonding as a team as they battle the monster; where the Chief proves his value and courage, overcomes his fear of the water, and secures his place in the community when he saves the town by killing the beast [Clause #4].  

Here you can see the entire structure of the story in a single sentence. Granted, this is a bit convoluted and cumbersome grammatically, but this is a good example of what you end up with after a few initial passes of the process. You can refine as you need going forward. The point is, you have your story, its structure, and a roadmap for writing. It all fits, it all flows and it is a metaphor for a human experience resulting in evolutionary change; it is a story. Armed with this premise line you could confidently move forward to writing pages, knowing your story’s armature was strong. 

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Step 5: Test the Premise Line with Objective Readers

Once you think you have a solid premise line, then is it time to start writing? NO!  If you’re smart, you’ll “unit test” the premise line.

Find three or four trusted readers who have experience with storytelling, who you respect—maybe even hire a professional consultant—and get their feedback. Your mother is not in this category, unless she is a novelist. You need objective feedback, not hand holding.

Does the premise line work for them? Do they “see” the whole story and get a gestalt picture of the overall structure? Does the idea pull them in? Do they sense the beginning, middle, and end and would they write this themselves if they came up with the idea? 

These are just a few of the questions you want them to answer. If you get more passes than thumbs-up, then you have to reassess and decide if you want to move forward with a new idea, or fix this one.  If you get a lot of thumbs-up, then you’re probably good to go to begin pages.

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These five steps will help you develop a powerful story premise that can be your early warning system protecting you from story creep and months of lost writing time.

Once mastered, premise development can guide your entire writing process, while giving you an effective and professional pitch tool to use with publishers, agents and editors. 

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Thanks, Jeff!

Jeff LyonsAbout Jeff: Jeff Lyons is a published author with more than 25 year’s experience in the film, television, and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences.

Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine. His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success* is published through Focal Press and is the only book devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His second book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, is due in 2016. Visit him at www.JeffLyonsBooks.com and follow him on Twitter @storygeeks.

*  Amazon affiliate link 

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Want the Workbook Version? Download our Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line, Part I (Plus a Free Guidebook!)

Last week I shared an interview with my colleague Jeff Lyons, master storyteller, Enneagram expert, screenwriter, novelist, and author, about his new book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success.*

This week, I’m sharing a powerful two-part article from Jeff about HOW to craft a premise line that will guide all your story development.

Note: Creative nonfiction writers can also benefit from learning these tools, because biographies, “true stories” and other creative nonfiction adhere to the same storytelling principles as fiction.

Read the article below, or download our Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

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Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line, Part I

by Jeff Lyons

Before a novelist, screenwriter, or creative nonfiction author writes down a word, or thinks of scenes or characters, an idea sparks the imagination and a story is born. Or is it? When inspiration strikes, many writers think they have a story, when in fact they have something else. Untethered by the foundation of a real story, they risk becoming lost in the story woods, writing down creative blind alleys and painting themselves into literary corners.

How can you know if an idea that excites you one day, will have legs over the long course of developing a book, screenplay, or series of books? The only way to know for sure is to master the skill of story premise development. A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple statement defining the theme or hook of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.

A story premise, along with its tool the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one (preferable) or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of water boarding. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat, and tears is worth the agony.   

Fortunately, there is a process that can lessen the pain.

There are five essential steps you can learn now to facilitate mastery of the premise process. (For the full seven-step process refer to Jeff’s book Anatomy of a Premise Line.*)

These steps can give you a repeatable and proven methodology for developing any story. This is a critical skill for any writer, because the premise line is a key ally in writing effective agent or publisher query letters, or pitching film production companies. But, the premise line is more than a pitch tool. When you find a premise line that “works,” then you can know with confidence that you have a story that will stand the test of development.

These five steps will guide your writing process, acting as a roadmap to keep your narrative on track and focused, literally cutting development time in half.

After all, if your story is going to go off the rails, isn’t it better to discover that before you get to page four hundred in your novel, or page 150 in your screenplay?

Step 1: Identify the Core Structure of Your Story

A story is defined as: a metaphor for a human journey that leads to change, as played out by the dynamic interdependence of character and plot. A story is further defined by possessing a natural structure, a structure that is not invented by anyone, including the writer. At this basic level, story structure is a natural force like electricity or the wind. The job of the writer is not to impose structure on a story, but to discover what is already there.

This first step helps you identify the seven structure components present in any story—regardless of genre.    

  1. Character: Stories are about us: human beings, even if it is an anthropomorphized version of a human being.  And this person (protagonist) is central to the telling of the tale, not tangential, even in ensemble stories. Who is your protagonist?  
  2. Constriction: The person at the focus of the story is constricted in some way.  Some “personal problem” haunts them, drives them and motivates them. Try to get a sense of what your protagonist’s problem is and sense how it triggers them into action. The constriction is usually activated by some initiating event that forces the protagonist to move from where they are at the start of the story, toward a new path of action (the adventure).
  3. Desire: The protagonist wants something tangible. They don’t want to be happy, they don’t want world peace and they don’t want to be one with the Universe. They want the money, the girl, or to find the radioactive dirty bomb. They want to get something by the end of the story; what is it?      
  4. Focal Relationship: Stories are conversations, not monologues. No protagonist exists in a dramatic vacuum. Who is the protagonist talking with throughout the middle of the story? What relationship is the focus of the protagonist’s attention? This relationship will be the engine that drives most of the drama in your story, even in multiple point of view stories.
  5. Resistance: More than a personal constriction, there is also the sense of serious, external pushback. Something opposes the goal-seeking of the protagonist, and this force creates dramatic friction. Ideally, this is a person and not some abstract force like Nature or the internal angst of the hero-heroine. This is the central opposition and is bent on stopping the protagonist from getting their desire fulfilled. Who is this opposing force? 
  6. Adventure: Entropy is defined as the tendency of all things to move toward disorder and chaos. This is what has to happen in the middle of every good story. Along with resistance/opposition, focal relationship, desire, and constriction try to sense the messiness that will become the middle of your storyi.e., the twists, turns, reversals, and general mayhem that will occur. This is the adventure. 
  7. Change: You may not see the exact endpoint of your story, but you can sense that your protagonist will not end up where he or she began. While the details of the middle may be a blur, there is a sense of a beginning, middle, and an end. If there is such a sense, then there must be something present that allows for these three points. That “something” is character change. Is this change for the better or worse? Does your protagonist evolve or de-evolve?

These are the seven components of the any story’s core structure. If they are present, then you have a story.  If they are missing, or vague, or so muddled it feels like pulling teeth to find them, then you don’t have a story.  You have something else, and that “else” is a situation. 

Step 2: Assess Whether You Have a Story or a Situation

What’s the difference between a situation and a story? The main difference is that the 7-core structure elements are missing.

But there is a quick way to identify a situation without worrying about a structure analysis.  Any situation has these five conditions:

  • A situation is a problem or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
  • A situation does not reveal character; it mainly tests problem-solving skills.
  • A situation has no (or few) subplots, twists, or complications.
  • A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space as it started.
  • A situation has a weak, underdeveloped, or nonexistent moral component.

A good example of a situation is the classic twenty-something kids caught in the cabin in the woods with the monster outside that’s going to eat them. The focus of these stories is all about who’s going to die, how bloody is it going to get, and who will get out alive. Protagonists don’t change; there is no deeper message in the material, other than figuring out how to not get eaten; and characters are tested for their ability to avoid danger, rather than having their characters tested. Situations are parts of stories; they are not stories themselves. These five conditions are not present in a story, so if you see them, then you know what you’ve got.

If you find that you have a situation and not a story, then you can reevaluate your idea to see if you can develop it into a story using Step 1, above, or decide to simply take the “situation” route, which would not require the development of a premise line. 

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Read on for Part 2 of this article series, where Jeff will guide us through Steps 3 through 5:

  • Step 3: Map the Core Structure to the Premise Line Template
  • Step 4: Finalize the Premise Line
  • Step 5: Test the Premise Line with Objective Readers

Thanks, Jeff!

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Jeff LyonsAbout Jeff: Jeff Lyons is a published author with more than 25 year’s experience in the film, television, and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences.

Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine. His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success* is published through Focal Press and is the only book devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His second book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, is due in 2016. Visit him at www.JeffLyonsBooks.com and follow him on Twitter @storygeeks.

*  Amazon affiliate link

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Want the Workbook Version? Download our Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

 

Solve Your Story Problems In Advance with Jeff Lyons’ Premise Line Development Method

Today I’m sharing an interview with my colleague Jeff Lyons, master storyteller, Enneagram expert, screenwriter, novelist, and author, about his new book, Anatomy of a Premise Line *.

Jeff and I ran a teleclass series and workshop in 2013 about using the Enneagram for story development. In fact, he has another book coming out later this year called Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, so stay tuned for that one, too!

The brilliance of Jeff’s premise line work is that it helps you solve your story problems in advance. Something I see often is writers struggling with massive rewrites of various types, novels, screenplays, what have you, and swearing on their mother’s graves NEVER AGAIN to write without plotting and developing their stories first. 

Jeff’s method is a powerful tool to help you get your story straight before you write your way into a corner and have to reverse engineer a proper story to find your way out again. Take a gander here and you’ll get a sense of how this whole thing works and why it’s so valuable. Then, get thee to Amazon (affiliate links provided) and dive in!

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Why did you write this book?  Does the world really need another book on how to write better?

No, the world doesn’t need another book on how to write. The world has more than enough books on writing, the world is glutted and drowning in how-to-this and how-to-that, when it comes to writing craft.  You are correct.  The world doesn’t need another book on writing.

Which is great for my book, because it’s not a book on writing, or how to write, or what to write, or on anything related to writing. It is a book about story: how to develop a story, how to structure a story, and how to know if you even have a story.

Anatomy of a Premise Line is a book about story development. Writing and storytelling are two different things and they have nothing to do with one another. They are different skills sets and require two different kinds of talents. You don’t have to have a pen or paper, word processor, or be anywhere near a written language of any kind to tell a story.  Stories can be danced, mimed, painted, sculpted, or written, but stories don’t need writers. They only need storytellers. The problem is—and this is why I wrote this book—storytelling (i.e., story development) is not taught in MFA writing programs, or in film schools, or anywhere else, really.

Writers are on their own, for the most part, in developing their story development skill sets. That’s the need this book fills: this book is the missing class you never got in that expensive MFA program, or film school.

What makes Anatomy of a Premise Line different than all the other story development books out there?

That’s just it, there aren’t a lot of story development books out there. In fact, there are almost no books on real story development in the marketplace. That’s one of the differentiators for sure between my book and other books, but the main differentiator is that Anatomy of a Premise Line teaches how to leverage something called a “premise line” to discover and uncover any story’s right, true and natural structure. Many writing books mention story premise in passing; some might even devote a whole chapter to the idea of “what is a premise,” but this is the only book devoted entirely to the subject of premise development and idea testing.

This is the main distinction between Anatomy of a Premise Line and all other books on story development (the few that are out there) in the marketplace. If a story is going to fail, it will first do so at the level of the idea itself, i.e., at the premise level. This book teaches writers how to master this invaluable tool and how to use it to uncover the perfect structure for any story. Every story has a structure; every story must have a structure. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a story, it’s something else.

Anatomy of a Premise Line teaches any writer how to use that structure to build a map that can guide their entire writing process from inception to writing pages. By leveraging the power of the premise line, a storyteller can learn how to harness the natural structure of their story in one or two sentences. The book has many examples from the worlds of film and literature demonstrating how this works.

I liken it to the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a night; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Anatomy of a Premise Line teaches you how to fish so you can create stories for your whole life, not just muddle through one night of writing with some flavor-of-the-month story technique. 

What is the biggest problem your book addresses for writers and storytellers?

Anatomy of a Premise Line addresses the problem of, what I call, “premature writing.” Think about it, what happens when a writer gets a new idea for a story? They get excited, they chew on the idea a little while (very little), they get filled with anxiety because of the pressure to write something—anything—and they just start to write.

This is, in fact, the consensus advice to writer, “Just write, don’t edit, don’t hold back, just do it—just write. The story will write itself—trust the process.”

Well, for a few lucky souls this approach can work, the “just do it” strategy can produce some useful writing, but for the vast majority of writes this is horrible advice. Writers think that writing will get them where they want to go, but this is not what happens.

Instead, after a few weeks, or months, and hundreds of pages they find themselves lost in the story woods wondering, “Where did the wheels go off the wagon?” The story isn’t working and they invariably have to backtrack to find their way again.  I call this “backing into the story.” Everybody does it—everybody, without exception. That’s the main problem this book addresses, because when you are forced to back into your story you lose writing time, money, and creative energy struggling to get back on track and find your path again. This can be avoided completely!

I’m on a mission to train writers to hold back from the urge to relieve their creative anxiety by starting pages before they know their story’s structure. Develop your story’s premise first, figure out the basic architecture, and develop your premise line; only then can you know if your story is going to work or fall flat. You can know right at the inception of your idea whether or not that idea will support a serious commitment by you as a writer. It can be done. You can avoid “premature writing” and getting lost in the story woods, if you let the premise development process guide you to the right, true, and natural structure of your story—BEFORE you start writing pages.

The premise development process can literally cut your writing time in half by saving you from getting lost in the story woods, and providing a solid story map that can guide you thorough the entire writing process. This is not exaggeration, this is what I’ve seen happen with literally thousands of writers.

Is this book for screenwriters or novelists? How about creative nonfiction?

Story is story; writing is writing. They are not the same thing. Remember, storytelling has nothing to do with writing. Writing is just one form a story can take, and whether that form is a haiku poem, or a screenplay, or a thousand-page novel is irrelevant. Certainly screenwriting  and novel writing are very different activities, and each has its own peculiarities.

But, Anatomy of a Premise Line is about story, not writing, so I don’t care (nor does the book) what kind of writer you are, in terms of your preferred format. All I care about is what kind of story you are telling, and have you discovered your story’s right, true, and natural structure.  Consequently, the book makes no preference as to screenwriting, playwriting, novel writing  or creative nonfiction; it’s for anyone who tells stories.

I really want to ask you about how you write. What sparks a story for you? Do you have rituals?

The way I write is something I would not recommend to anyone. In fact, avoid my writing process at all cost. I do EVERYTHING you advise your readers NOT to do.

Here is my ritual: Get up, have coffee, feed the cat (so far so good), get on Facebook and spend an hour kibitzing, get on Twitter and check statistics and notifications and respond, get on LinkedIn and track all the mail/posts/messages, get on Stage 32 (Stage32.com) and respond to new contacts and review posts, write for a little while, check email, check Facebook again, check Twitter again, repeat. This is my day. I spend as much time on social media distracting myself as I do writing. I find this is necessary for me. I need distractions to write. It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s what works for me. My day is from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. pretty much every day, seven days a week. I’m writing and distracting myself all day long—literally. Run away from this as fast as you can and do not do this if you want a life. You have been warned.

As to what sparks a story, who knows? I think it’s different for everyone. For me it’s a mix of my personal neurotic fears and dreams and wishes and obsessive desires. Right now I’m obsessed about the 11th century because I want to write a novel about that period, and I’m all wrapped up in the corruption of the Catholic Church and Popes, and kinky Cardinals and God only knows where that’s coming from inside my subconscious mind. But, it is, so I have to listen. What makes us write the things we write are all very much about us working out our own personal peccadilloes. So, somehow, right now, medieval Catholic perverts are my path to emotional self-healing. Go figure.

What question should I have asked that I didn’t?

“Chocolate or vanilla?” I still can’t decide.

Thanks, Jeff!

Pick up your copy of Anatomy of a Premise Line on Amazon here.*

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Jeff LyonsAbout Jeff: Jeff Lyons is a published author with more than 25 year’s experience in the film, television, and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences.

Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine. His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success* is published through Focal Press and is the only book devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His second book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, is due in 2016. Visit him at www.JeffLyonsBooks.com and follow him on Twitter @storygeeks.

*  Amazon affiliate link

 

 

Find your character’s moral problem with the Enneagram

Lyons Fin 018Today’s article is a guest post by story and Enneagram expert Jeff Lyons of StoryGeeks.com. His article touches on a often overlooked aspect of story development that many writers miss and their story structure suffers as a result: their main character’s “moral problem”.

Jeff will be teaching us more about how to identify a character’s moral problem in his upcoming workshop here in Berkeley, California (I’m co-hosting) on October 26 and 27 on his method of Rapid Story Development. We’d love to have you join us if you’d like to learn more.

Now here’s Jeff’s article:

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The problem is moral

Hands down, the most important and most overlooked story structure element all writers either miss altogether or bungle is the moral problem. This pesky problem is not just a nice perk — it is a make-it-or-break-it story structure component of any good story.

The moral problem is the hole in the heart of your protagonist. He or she starts off the story in some pickle, some predicament of their own making, ideally brought about by the very moral problem to which they are oblivious. This problem is making them act badly in the world. They are hurting people emotionally, mentally, and maybe even physically due to this lack. It’s the hurting of others that make it a moral issue, and not just a psychological one (the distinction is about hurting others versus hurting oneself). The character needs to learn some lesson about how to live in the world so that they no longer hurt others; some lesson that elevates them (hopefully, but not always) to be a better person. They learn that life lesson that makes them moral again.

Good stories have protagonists with this hole in their heart. And the best stories rip out the protagonist’s heart and then somehow heal it again, before the heart gets put back inside (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course — unless this is a Clive Barker horror story).

How to find the moral problem

So, the question becomes: how does a writer figure out how to find one of these heart-holes? How do you assure that your protagonist has a meaningful moral problem and an equally meaningful growth-moment at the end of the story where they see the error of their evil ways? Some writers have a natural gift for this and flawed and tortured protagonists come to them as gracefully as flight to an eagle. For others (i.e., most of us) the process of finding a good moral problem is more like trying to find a taxi on a rainy night.

The good news, however, is that there is a tool that any writer can use to help them crack this problem, regardless of their natural gifts. That tool is called the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a powerful archetypal system that describes the nine core personality drives underlying all human behavior. Each of the nine drives is rooted in thoughts, feelings and actions that largely determine how we interact with the world, for good or ill. Everyone has an Enneagram type — including fictional characters and stories themselves. Writers have used this tool for many decades to develop multi-dimensional characters, but it can also be used as a story development too, when coupled with story structure principles. It is this relationship between the Enneagram and story structure that gives writers a doorway to finding the most dramatically powerful moral problem for their protagonist.

What’s your character’s poison?

Let’s take an example and walk through the problem as a point of illustration:

You just wrote the movie The Verdict. Frank, the protagonist, is a ambulance-chasing, alcoholic lawyer who is constantly looking for the next sucker to scam into hiring him. You know he’s a drunk. You know he’s in pain. But what’s his moral problem? Is his alcoholism the moral problem? Alcohol hurts lots of people. Is his pain the moral problem? If so, what’s the pain? How do you figure out which it is? Writers spend lots of time caught up in this maze of questions and confusion.

Enneagram to the rescue. Each of the nine Enneagram personality styles has something called a “poison”. This poison is the hole in the heart. It is the thing that poisons everything they do, everything they feel, everything they think. So, what’s poisoning Frank? Certainly alcohol is, but that’s mostly just hurting him. It’s not hurting other people. What he’s doing that’s hurting others is that he is using them. He sees people as targets, not people. So, we have the answer, right? He’s using people. That’s the moral problem, right? No, not quite. That’s what he’s doing; that’s not why he’s doing it. The moral problem is the motivation, the thing causing the using.

The Enneagram poison can help you quickly answer this question and find the real moral problem. Of the nine personality styles, the 3rd style (“The Achiever”) is the one who has the poison of secretly feeling that they have no personal worth or value. This fits Frank’s actions to a tee. For him, people have no value; they’re things to be used. He ultimately feels this because deep down he believes he has no value or worth himself and therefore no one else has value either. Over the course of the movie he learns that, indeed, not only do people matter, but that he himself matters and he can make a difference in the world.

And so not only does the Enneagram technique of looking for the poison explain the motivation behind the protagonist’s immoral behavior, it also points to the final self-revelation at the end of the story, where the hero or heroine realizes how to heal the hole in their heart. In this case, Frank realizes he has value and so do other people. He is able to make a new choice as a result.

Moral problem and story structure

As a writer, having this key piece of information — a clear moral problem — is critical for you to not only address your main character’s development and arc, but also to guide you on how best to structure your story so that key story beats, like the inciting incident, low point, and final climax, are all driven by the engine of the protagonist’s moral problem.

This is a deep subject, but a critical one for any writer. The moral problem can make or break your story, and the Enneagram can help you rapidly navigate the difficult questions that might otherwise hang you up and drag out the development process.

If you’d like to learn more, join us in Berkeley on October 26 & 27. Early registration ends TOMORROW, Thursday, October 10. Find more and register here: http://RapidStoryDevelopment.com

Your turn

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

You may also be interested in:

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Using the Enneagram to move from character to story

Lyons Fin 018In the third and final session of my interview series with Enneagram and story development expert Jeff Lyons (recordings no longer available), we talked about “Bridging the Gap from Motivation to Structure With the Enneagram.” Today’s post is a recap of what we discussed.

His process for “bridging the gap” from premise line to character to story is quite fascinating, and he illustrated it using a breakdown of The Great Gatsby according to the Enneagram.

Bridging the gap

Here’s an overview of the process:

  • Step 1. Write out your premise line and log line.
    (See the last post for more on premise line development.)
  • Step 2. Define the moral problem that best illustrates the story’s premise line.
    (In Gatsby, Nick focuses on trying to fit in and be liked, he isn’t being his truest self, which is a form of lying.)
  • Step 3. Look for the Enneagram type that best represents the motivations (not behaviors) of someone with that moral shortfall.
    (Nick most aligns with the Enneagram type 9.)
  • Step 4. Study the integration and disintegration points for that type to identify what the character is capable of and what they’re greatest opponent might be.
    (Points 3 and 6, respectively.)
  • Step 5. Explore the entertaining moral argument possibilities between those two types.
    (Can you succeed and achieve without giving up your soul?)
  • Step 6. Brainstorm about the communication styles, “pinches”, and blind spots of each of those two types.
    (Nick has various challenges that Gatsby can poke at and wreak havoc with.)
  • Step 7. Map your story using these Enneagram components and correlate them with the visible structure components we discussed last time.
    (This includes the protagonist, moral problem, chain of desire, focal relationship, opposition, plot & momentum (midpoint complication, low point, and final conflict), and evolution/de-evolution and is the more complex step where the story is broken down into a greater level of detail).

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Your turn

Have you considered using the Enneagram in your story development? Will you consider using it in the future? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

You may also be interested in:

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Constructing a powerful premise line as a framework for story structure

Lyons Fin 018In the second class of my interview series with Enneagram and story development expert Jeff Lyons (recordings no longer available), we talked about “The Critical Importance of Premise Line Development.” Today’s post is a recap of what we learned.

Jeff started off by talking about the importance of being clear about what you’re writing is about a situation or a story:

  • A story is about a person on a journey of change, where they are trying to achieve a goal or attain a desire and have a revelation about themselves at the end. Stories include relationships, because, as Jeff says, “Stories are conversations, not monologues.”
  • A situation, on the other hand, is usually some kind of problem or predicament with a solution that tests a protagonist’s problem-solving skills but doesn’t reveal character. Few, if any, subplots, twists, or complications are required to solve the problem, and it ends in the same emotional emotional space it began in. Standard genre beats may still evident but not the deeper underpinnings of story structure.

While Jeff doesn’t suggest that story is better than situation or vice versa, he says that they require different building blocks to successfully deliver them. A story will rely on deeper story structure components, while a situation will rely on entertainment value, great set pieces, and good dialogue, but won’t reveal character or be driven by a moral problem or theme.

And what is story structure?

Jeff defines story structure differently than the way most of us have learned to think of it. Most of us think of things like inciting incidents, turning points, mid-points, climaxes, and resolutions as story structure. Jeff describes these as “story beats” and says that most writing systems that purport to be about structure are actually focused on these typical beats and are missing the deeper, natural structure implied by both premise development and character motivation.

Getting from idea to premise line

When a story idea first arrives, it often comes as an “undifferentiated mass”. It’s a collection of swirling notions and intuitive instincts that don’t translate yet into a clear organized story structure.

Jeff uses premise line development as a tool to begin to decipher the fuzzy, abstract ideas into a more concrete, contained story — the nascent beginnings of story structure. He compares it to stepping down electricity from the power plant into a useable form in a residential setting. It has to go through transformers to make it available at a functional level. The premise line is the first step in translating from that vague mass of ideas into something resembling a story.

The way that he does this is by using seven core elements to begin to tease out the components of the story and shape them, including:

  • Character — do you have a sense of a character who will be central to the story?
  • Constriction — what happens that pushes the character off the line they’re on at the beginning of the story?
  • Desire — what does this character want? At this point, we’re not talking about something specific or tangible, that comes later, but rather a sense of a core desire or motivating force.
  • Relationship — who is this character in relationship with? (Again, stories are conversations.)
  • Resistance — what is the push back or opposition that stops the main character from getting what they want?
  • Adventure and/or Chaos — what is the adventure or chaotic experience the character has that leads them to the epiphany at the end?
  • Change — this is the dramatic epiphany the end — how the character changes as a result of their experiences.

Moving from premise line to visible structure

Once you’ve identified your premise line, you can then move to a more “visible structure” for the story. This is a process of taking what you’ve started with and beginning to develop and flesh out the pieces of the story more deliberately. At this stage of the process, you’ll make the following shifts:

  • The character becomes the protagonist.
  • The constriction becomes the moral problem of the protagonist. (This informs the inciting incident.)
  • The character’s desire becomes a chain of desire (a sequence of goals or desires all related back to the character’s core desire).
  • The relationship becomes the focal relationship for the story, the person the protagonist experiences the journey with.
  • The resistance becomes the central opposition. At the outset and premise level, you may just have a sense of an opposing force. At this stage it would become personal, dramatic, and/or personified.
  • The adventure/chaos becomes the plot and momentum of the story through the second act. (This is the part of the story that includes the typical story beats, like midpoint, low point, and climax).
  • The change is the evolution or de-evolution of the protagonist.

Bridging the gap using the Enneagram

In order to make the transition from that undifferentiated mass of the original idea to the more visible structure of the premise line all the way into a visible, clear structure, Jeff uses the Enneagram to help identify the specifics for each one of these elements, such as:

  • The best protagonist for the story, based on the personal change the story is designed to illustrate.
  • The best opposition or antagonist for the story, designed to help provoke the protagonist into that change.
  • Brainstorming and understanding the protagonist’s core desire based on their Enneagram type, to design a chain of desires that the character seeks that drives the story forward.
  • The best allies or focal relationships for the protagonist.
  • The best likely inciting incidents, turning points, midpoints, low points, and battles/climaxes that will stimulate your specific character and/or be driven by him/her to the final outcome of the story.

The Enneagram doesn’t tell us the ONLY options for each of these, but rather suggests the best form for each of these elements. Then as the writer, it’s up to you to begin to craft the specific story details to deliver that. (Form follow function, after all.)

For instance, at the broadest level, an Enneagram Three seeks approval from the outside as a way of validating themselves, but what they really need is to have their own sense of value and sense of self. So a story about a Three would be designed to play out that journey in a visual, visible metaphor organized around the ideas of approval-seeking as the constriction, taking an action that would cause a loss or challenge based on that approval-seeking as an inciting incident, to a low point where the Three finally realizes they are sacrificing themselves on the altar of approval and giving up everything to do so, all the way to a climactic moment where the Three stops looking outside themselves for approval and decides to find it within.

At a more specific level of story detail, those ideas could play out with a businessman who will never say no to a contract, trying to please everyone and perform by juggling and obfuscation, but he finally says yes to too many projects and the house of cards he’s built around himself comes crashing down. He would then realize he needs to choose projects and work that HE values, and by so doing, recognize his OWN inherent value. It’s HIM that makes the projects successful, not the game he’s playing.

And of course, we can get even more specific from there, as well as fleshing out the details of his supporting relationships and opposition.

Your turn

Do you develop a premise line for your work? Tell us about it! We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Graphic courtesy of http://www.fitzel.ca/enneagram/graphics.html

Using the Enneagram for Story Development

Lyons Fin 018In the first class of my interview series with Enneagram and story development expert Jeff Lyons (recordings no longer available), we talked about “The Secrets of the Enneagram Most Writers Are Overlooking.” We had a mix of participants on the line, it seemed to be about 50-50 on who had prior experience or knowledge of the Enneagram and who did not, and Jeff did a great job of making the material accessible to everyone. Today’s post is a recap of what we learned.

Jeff talked about how powerful the Enneagram can be for writers because of its archetypal patterning of human drives and behaviors that transcend cultural boundaries.

He walked us through a quick overview of each of the nine Enneagram types, or styles, as he calls them. He describes the styles as being nine basic strategies for living, including showing us how we behave when we feel successful, weak, vulnerable, and strong. His descriptions of the types quickly demonstrated how powerfully the Enneagram types can be used for character development and why so many writers have used the Enneagram that way for so long. He also described several ways writers can use the Enneagram beyond simple character development, which I’ll give you the highlights of in a moment.

The Nine Core Enneagram Styles

To start, though, let’s take a look at the nine core Enneagram styles:

  • The One is the “do the right thing” person who derives their sense of safety, security, and love in the world by following the rules and doing things perfectly.
  • The Two is the “to be loved” style, sometimes called “the caretaker”. Twos look for the person with the most power in their environment and make themselves indispensable to that person in order to feel loved. They manipulate in order to get the love they want. Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction is an example of an extremely unhealthy or “disintegrated” Two.
  • The Three is the “performer or achiever” and focuses on getting EVERYONE’s approval (not just one person in power, like the Two). Jeff described the Three as a “therapist’s nightmare”, because they tend to perform emotion rather than feel it (though they do have and feel emotions deeper down).
  • The Four is the “to be special” style. This type has a negative side, feeling that something is missing. They can be melancholy, depressed, and always looking for someone to help them solve the problem of “what’s missing”. They “long to long” and are often overly self-oriented.
  • The Five is the “thinker” type who controls their environment by controlling information. They don’t like intense emotions and control the people around them by controlling (sometimes withholding) information. Keanu Reeve’s character “Neo” in The Matrix is a great example of a Five who controls his world through data, at the beginning of the story in particular.
  • The Six is the “safety-security” style. Sixes always have a plan, they know where the pot holes and the landmines are. They tend to have a problem with trust, but if you win their loyalty, they’ll be a friend forever. If their lives are working, they tend to be happy, but they will also dismantle their entire lives in order to have a problem to solve. There are also “counter-phobic” sixes who tend to strike first if they think you might be a threat to them.
  • The Seven is the “to have fun” style. “Why have one friend when you can have 100 friends?”, as Jeff said. Sevens are great at having fun and enjoying life, but they also have a tendency to be addictive types and their fast-paced, highly-active lifestyles are designed to help them avoid their inner pain.
  • The Eight is the “self-reliant / leader” style. They control people by making the rules. They are the most projected on than any other Enneagram type, because they have such a strong presence that can feel confronting. They can be very protective of the downtrodden and provide leadership or can become dictators at an extreme. They avoid relying on other people.
  • The Nine is the “peacemaker”, the one who finds safety by finding common ground. Nines make sure that everyone is heard except themselves — they are self-abandoning. They don’t get in trouble, but they are also not seen.

Character Development & Beyond

Here are some story development applications Jeff described for the Enneagram:

  • Determining your characters’ core personality types — this has been done by writers for years.
  • Determining your protagonist’s growth arc — Each of the nine types has a specific drive toward “disintegration” and a higher place within them for “integration”. Studying those paths of disintegration and integration can help writers get clearer about their characters’ growth arcs in their stories. This has also been done for years by writers.
  • Choosing the best protagonist for your story, depending on the moral problem you want your character to solve in the story and the type of story you are telling. For example, love stories are often Two-driven stories, and pure sci-fi stories are often Five-driven stories.
  • Selecting the best opponent for your protagonist, based on your protagonist’s Enneagram type and growth arc, so they are designed for maximum conflict that will provoke the protagonist’s growth.
  • Choosing the best allies for your protagonist, so your characters interplay with each other for best effect.
  • Designing and structuring your story to naturally take your protagonist through exactly the right crucible that forces them to move from their moral problem into their point of integration, or revelation, by the end of the story.
  • Understanding the types of stories we will be innately drawn to tell, based on our own Enneagram styles, which can make us more conscious writers.

All of these help us “pre-structure” our stories BEFORE we go into story beat development, which is what so many of us are familiar with already and tend to think of as story structure (like Blake Synder’s Save The Cat method, for instance).

Next week, in the second class of our series, Jeff will be talking to us about:

  1. Premise line development and its critical importance in story development.
  2. Story structure components.
  3. How to tell the difference between whether or not you have a story or a situation.

Your turn

Are you familiar with the Enneagram? What has it helped you shift or change in your own life? If you’re a writer, do you use it in your writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

You may also be interested in:

 

Graphic courtesy of http://www.fitzel.ca/enneagram/graphics.html