A workshop by Alicia Rasley

The Virginia Romance Writers started up with a bang on September 10th. After a quiet summer, they hosted a daylong workshop by Alicia Rasley. As is always the case with their workshops, it was well worth the time.

Alicia Rasley’s topics included character motivation and sentence structuring. I can’t give away all her secrets, but I’ll share ten of the juiciest tidbits.

On character motivation:

1) Make sure it’s your character’s motivation and not yours. Do you want your character to travel to NYC so that he can run into a long lost friend? That’s your motivation, not his. Why would he have wanted to take the trip?

2) Differentiate between goals and motivations. Goals are measurable and concrete. For instance, someone can have a goal of getting straight As in school, or finishing a writing project by a deadline. Motivations are more slippery: maybe a student wants the As because they get money for each A, or maybe it’s because they want to impress a teacher who will write a recommendation for college. Maybe a writer wants to finish a book by a certain date in order to pitch it to agents at a conference, or maybe they want to finish it before their grandmother, who is in hospice, dies. Motivation is the past. Goal is the future is one way to keep it straight.

3) There’s also a difference between internal and external motivations. A character might be saying he wants a gold medal to better the USA’s ranking, but deep down he might really be motivated by an old girlfriend—someone who broke up with him because she didn’t believe the goal was attainable and it was taking up too much of her boyfriend’s time. Give your characters an internal life to add depth to any story. Get to the root of their internal motivations.

4) Motivations and goals can change throughout the story. The mix-up keeps things interesting. You don’t want to write a story where there is a straight line between the statement of the goal and the attainment of it.

5) Distinguish between proactive, which motivates movement toward something, and reactive, which motivates movement away from something. Success is an example of a proactive motivation. Guilt is an example of a reactive motivation. If you create a proactive situation, make sure conflict interferes with the forward movement. If you create a reactive situation, make sure your character has to face whatever they are running away from in the end. Follow through and keep it interesting.

On sentence structure:

1) Avoid the generic, bland and passive. Use “shortstop” instead of “infielder,” for example.

2) Don’t use obscure language unless it has true purpose for the story. Don’t say “traversed the room” when “crossed the room” would work just as well or better.

3) Beware of starting a sentence with a participle, particularly “being” or “having.” When possible, end sentences with the most dramatic term in the sentence.

4) Know your purpose when writing. Is your purpose to inspire? To frighten? Use strong verbs for forceful situations, startling ones for spooky situations, etc.

5) Don’t get bogged down with trying to start each sentence differently. As long as the main clause is clear, and as long as each sentence in the paragraph means something different, you’re sentence structure is probably good.

Bonus thing learned:

The magic rule of three. According to Alicia, the Western mind is trained to respond to groups of three. Things in groups of three (3 tries to help, 3 appearances of a person, etc.) can add resonance and connectivity. Use the magic rule of three during turning points and important scenes.

Hearing that made me want to rework one scene of my WIP…..

Lucy Balch

Love Trumps Logic


Filed under writing

4 responses to “A workshop by Alicia Rasley

  1. Just a reminder from me that these are guidelines and not rules set in stone.

    I met with my writers group this past Saturday and we had some spirited discussion about some of these guidelines. I can always tell a novice writer from those who’ve been at it a while. They tend to quote writers who’ve written a book about writing—“Stephen King said in On Writing … (fill in the blank),” and take anything such a celebrity writer says about the craft of writing as gospel.

    Yes, there are rules one should endeavor to follow—especially when first starting out. But where would the novel be today if it weren’t for writers bending and, at times, breaking the rules? Jack Kerouac broke a lot of rules with his stream of consciousness style of writing. On the Road is not something I much cared for; but it rightfully holds its place in literature as a work that pushed the boundary of contemporary literature.

    That said, one must first know and understand the rules before they can bend or break them. I’ve met far too many wannabes who blamed me for their shortcomings, claiming, “My work is abstract … you either get it or you don’t.”

    Never say never. Someone may have nine good reasons why I should use “shortstop” instead of “infielder;” but all I need is one reason to ignore that guideline—“He was a utility infielder by trade, able to play second, third or short; but as a boy he had idolized Alan Trammell and always dreamed of being the starting shortstop for the Detroit Tigers.”

  2. Lucy

    Good point, J.C. It’s fun to go through the pages of well-known authors’ books and find the exceptions.

  3. Jan

    I love suggestion #3–too many of the sentences I read (I’m a small-potatoes editor) end with a fizzle. I’m glad I found this blog!

  4. Some great pointers. It’s always fun to see what other writers have to say.

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