Wisdom from the Story Masters - Reversing Stereotypes, Finding Theme & Breaking the Rules

Hello! How are y'all doing? Can you tell I just came back from Texas? 

Continuing with the Muses coverage of the Story Masters Workshop in Houston, here are a few of my own highlights from the weekend:

DONALD MAASS - Reversing Genre/Character Stereotypes

Don suggested making a list of stereotypes for your character type or genre, and then deliberately setting out to reverse or twist them. For me, it was an awakening of sorts into my protagonist, Peregrine. He is, I would say, a classic loner/outcast, as found in much speculative and genre fiction. He prefers being alone, and believes he's above the law, so to speak. He's self-sufficient and often aloof. Starting to sound familiar? I thought so. But the truth is that inside he's also incredibly selfless and socially motivated. He wants to fit it. He wants family and acceptance. Solitude, to him, can feel comfortable some of the time, but it's nowhere near enough.

In listing out his traits and opposite traits, Don's exercise put that duality in his character into clear focus for me. It's been something I've written unconsciously. By now, I'm on around my 600th page with Perry and writing him has largely become a sort of channeling. I just show up at the computer and he takes over. While that's a good place to be in, I'm very excited to have found this point of friction within his psyche. It was another thing Don said: give your protagonist dueling desires, and the push/pull of wanting freedom and wanting belonging will most definitely be percolating in my thoughts next time I'm channeling him.

I recommend this exercise for anyone beginning a book, or even to anyone searching to mine new dimensions from a well-known character.

JAMES SCOTT BELL - Discovering Theme in Your Story

Are you cringing? I think most writers do when we hear that word. Telling someone your theme is akin to revealing your moral code. For me, it's hard not to feel lofty when saying something like, "My story dispels the myth of the existence of free will." In my head, themes come out sounding like voiceover by Morgan Freeman. Weird, I know. Point is: talking theme makes me feel preachy and not a little bit lost. I wonder:

What is my point? What do I believe? Is it important enough? Is that really what my story is about?

Enter James Scott Bell to save the day. In Houston, he gave us the following exercise. Try it, if you're struggling with your story theme.

Imagine you're in a bar twenty years after the events in the story. Your protagonist walks in, sits down beside you. After you get over the shock of seeing a figment of your imagination incarnate, drinking a beer on the next barstool over, you ask the following questions about their journey in the story:

  • Why did you have to go through that?
  • What did that do to you?
  • What did you learn?

Go ahead a free-write for about ten minutes on that, and BOOM. It works. It worked for me. Try it. Set your inner Morgan Freeman free!


From Vogler, who is one of the great story analysts of the day, I took away something rather unexpected, but important. If you aren't familiar with Vogler's work, I'll say that it's a detailed, point by point analysis of the classic hero's journey. His model of story is incredibly effective, so I was surprised when he spoke, more than once, about the value of skipping a step in the process, or leaving out, for example, a mentor figure, or even an ally. Vogler argued that sometimes a story can get too cluttered. By removing one element, you give more power to those that remain. Wise advice from someone who has evaluated tens of thousands of stories.

For more tips from these great writing teachers, check out their books!


I'm so glad! Thanks for coming by, Jessica.

I'm about 50 pages into Vogler's book, and so far it's a description of the journey. I'm still waiting for the practical application part of the book, so it's good to get a Vogler tip here.

Also, the Maass and Bell exercises will be priceless, I can already tell. (Oh Morgan Freemannnn...where are yoooou?)

I hope you find it helpful, Beth! And don't you love Morgan Freeman's voice?

Nice write-up, Veronica! Yes, these guys *are* the story masters, all three of them.

I'm so happy to pick up the nuggets of wisdom you share with us - wish I could have been there!

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