Sunday, September 18, 2011

ACFW Workshop Slides and Q&A (9-22-11)

I presented a five-hour version of The Moral Premise workshop at the American Christian Fiction Writer's Conference Sept 22, 2011 from 8 AM to 1 PM. In the days following I met with a number of authors and hope-to-be authors helping them beat out their stories.

I was also privileged to sit in on several other workshops, have dinner with super-agent Natasha Kern, and talk with numerous multi-published authors, with 20, 30, and even 50 books to their credit. It was a great few days in St. Louis. Between the questions and answers below I'll post some pictures taken during the trip.

Looking East from our conference meeting rooms
All of the photos in this blog were taken with my iPhone. the conference was held at the Hyatt Regency at the Arch. Thus the pictures of the full arch (like the one at the right) are actually taken through windows in the hallway next to the meeting rooms.

Here are the questions I was handed, some of which I answered in the session, and my answers.

1. On the Emotion Plotting Slide, how do you decide numeric values on each action line, that are used for the graph. (Judy Christie)

Judy, the numbers assigned are subjective and objectively determined. Subjectively, they are based on my sense of how emotionally UP or DOWN the scene will come across to the reader/audience when I'm done editing it. In some scenes/lines the number is my INTENT. In others, it's what it is already. For instance when my protag's husband dies, it's a major DOWNER, when she is able to board the ship safely with her girls to go home, its a minor UPPER. Objectively, the "emotion" I hope my audience will feel is the degree to which they perceive my protag making progress toward the physical goal (positive numbers), or being set up from achieving the goal (negative numbers). I assign a number from -10 to +10 to each scene, and then accumulate a balance, like a checking account balance. It's the balance that is plotted, not the individual scene values.

2. As a preacher, the moral premise has been the centerpiece of all my writings and novels. “Entertainment is a trick to educate and persuade.” However, subtlety is frequently sacrificed in my storylines. How do I introduce subtlety without feeling like I have compromised my mission? (Patrick Johnston)

Patrick, I apologize if, during the session, I misinterpreted your question. In the session I responded that “entertainment” is a necessary component of all persuasive communication, and I referenced my blog post FIRST ENTERTAIN where I describe the necessity of activating and emotional response in order to train. Stories, by virtue of their God-like ability to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent ( provide entertainment value that allows us to remember truths.

L-R: Natasha Kern (agent), SW, Myra Johnson (author)*

But now, I see you were also asking about how to become less didactic and more engaging. I think that is what you mean when you say you want to be subtle. As a preacher you are probably called vocationally to be a bit didactic, if not a whole lot. But in story telling the way you get around didactic, and thus involve your reader/audience, is through the use of metaphor. In my presentation I described how Billie Letts used various metaphors in her novel Where the Heart Is to communicate truth. Remember how she uses the metaphor of the cameras and the darkroom to tell us that Novalee was learning to embrace self-determination vs. determinism? That technique resonates with readers on a deeper level because the reader has to work to figure out the meaning, and when they “get it” there’s a moment of catharsis that drives that truth deep. Now, adapting a truth for one’s life does not mean that person can explain it. To live an authentic life does not require that we’re able to describe what it is, or what we do to attain it. The behavior is what the person needs.

I think of story telling as that process by which, through the simulation of experience we are able to pass on values subliminally. I think of preaching as that process by which, through explanation, we are able to understand what the values are and why they’re important on a cognitive level.

3. Have you heard of the technique in screenwriting where there is a hint of the protag’s inner journey at around the 17 minute mark of the movie? Is this used in every movie? Does it translate to pg 17 in a book? (Kathy Kovach)

View from our room on the 9th floor overlooking 4th Street
You are probably thinking of the “Inciting Incident,” which is a beat in all successful films (and it should be in books, too) where the protag is first called to a journey. The call is both outward and inward. For to arrive at the outward goal of the journey the protag will need to solve some inward problems. Those inward problems are always hinted at, or evident to the astute observer, in the very first scenes involving the protag. when I say evident, I don’t mean necessarily explicitly explained. Again, I refer you back to the metaphors in Billie Lett’s Where the Heart Is.

Now, as to the 17 minute/page mark. That would relate to a movie that is 136 minutes in length. The number you might want to remember is 12.5%. I  did not make a big deal about the percentages into a story where turning points occur, but you can read about them in my book and in various posts on my website. Look under the topic “structure” of which Story Structure Basics is the main article

4. What are some mistakes that can hinder the successful implementation of the moral premise? (Dave Slade)

Good question, Dave. Here are the most common mistakes.
A. The moral premise statement is not universally true. It pushes an ideological or value agenda that is not imbedded naturally into the hearts of men and women.  Do not confuse, however, a story’s imbued values by looking at the external story.  The moral premise is always stated in terms of universal, not particular truths. Thus, at the moral premise level Harry Potter is not about wizards and magic, but about sacrificing one’s self for his friends.

B. The moral premise is not consistently applied to all the characters and scenes in the story. Successful stories are about one primary moral value, which must be consistently challenged, tested, and argued in every scene and in every character’s arc, and in every setting description and props (the latter being metaphors of the values). When the story tries to give multiple thematic elements equal weight, the story’s focus and purpose gets confused, and the reader doesn’t know what metaphor goes with what purpose.

C. The moral premise is communicated in an overt didactic fashion. Stories work because they force readers and viewers to work and thus psychologically internalize the values that motivate action and understand the physical consequences. When we tell people, rather than show them, this “work” is neglected and learning and connection with the story and characters is diluted. Show, Don’t tell. Again, see what Billie Lets does with the metaphors of the cameras and darkroom, and finding meaning in the shadows.

5. Any specific tips for making the physical story a metaphor for the moral story? (Voni Harris)

Theoretical physicist and author Randy Ingermanson*
Good question, Voni. I remember you asked one other question I was unable to answer. This one is sort of like that. I don’t have any formula for figuring out what metaphor would be good for the moral story. And indeed, it is often best to start with an intriguing physical hook (the outer journey) before trying to figure out what moral values are involved. Perhaps practice in looking for metaphors in everyday life would be good.

In trying to come up with an answer I think back to Where the Heart Is and the camera metaphor – no control (Polaroid) to control (Rollie and darkroom). I’m not sure how Billie Letts came up with this one, but it seems she may have started with the purpose of telling a story where bad things happen, but through perseverance the protag is able to access the good that comes out of it. This is the Biblical adage that grace is always stronger than tragedy. With that in mind, Ms. Letts needed to scour the everyday countryside of disciplines and practices until she found out that the black in B&W photo prints can be lightened with potassium ferrocyanide. Out of that I’m pretty confident that Willy Jack’s name got changed to Billy Shadow.

Pam on our way to dinner with ACFW Board
The process can work either direction: (a) moral value to physical metaphor; or (b) physical activity to moral value. Look for generic similarities. For instance if the value arc of a character is from slothful to hard work, then what physical events have more positive results when pursued with hard work vs. those that are pursued slothfully? Make a list of things that achieve through effort, and the risks of not putting forth effort— e.g. a hot engine room will accomplish more than an engine at rest.  Or, moving the other way, how is a character’s weakness of being late for work all the time v. getting to work early, represented in terms of moral values— e.g. slothfulness v. responsibility.

6. What is “final incident” vs. “climax”? (Voni Harris)

This is explained in this article: Story Structure Basics (

7. In your slide #22 (Core Values) you list a number of virtues and their opposite vices. Do they need to be paired always this way? Could brotherly love be paired with selfishness, or fear? (Kate Hinke)

Pam devours Tracie Peterson's "House of Secrets" on way home.
At its central core a story must be about naturally opposite values, like selfishness v selflessness; or courage vs. fear; or brotherly love vs. prejudicial hatred. The actual words uses are not as important, as their natural opposition. Why? Because characters must change from something to its opposite.  If they don’t change to the opposite value, then they leave the old value still in place.  Now, you might be able to explain how brotherly love is paired with selfishness, but that pairing is not as generic as what I paired above. the more universal your pairings, the more easily a variety of characters can be attached to the values as you explain the physical consequences of their motivations. Arrogance cannot be easily paired with tolerance, unless you also tie in humility and intolerance. Thus intolerant arrogance can be paired with tolerant humility.

8. Are you going to be in the Los Angeles area? (Margaret Brownley)

I am several times a year, but not always do I know it in advance. I am scheduled to be presenting a short version of this workshop at the Biola Media Conference at the Sony Lot May 5, 2012.

9. What computer program do you use for plotting your cards?(Vickie M.)

My H.S. English teacher Annette Schroeder*
I use KEYNOTE which is part of Apple’s iWork package. I work on a Mac, but iWork is available for the PC. I’m not sure how well it works on a PC, however. Because the Mac’s architecture is designed to work in a graphic environment, all graphic programs tend to work a bit more difficultly on a PC. That’s why I’m on a Mac. KEYNOTE by the way is Apple’s answer to Power Point.

10. Do you consult or coach on story development for a fee?  (Kellie Gilbert, Rosemarie Karlebach)

Yes, all the time. Making it affordable for a writer who doesn’t have a studio budget can make it difficult. I’ve taken a crack at some fees for ACFW-like writers. You might want to check out and give me some feedback.

11. Where is the “evaluation sheet” that the slide package refers to? (Joy Avery Melville)

Ah, yes, the workshop evaluation sheet. There’s a picture in your slide packet, but not in my slide show. What’s up with that? After I submitted the slide package for duplication the ACFW Conference managers told me that they had their own evaluation sheet. So, I didn’t hand out one of my own. But here’s a link to mine, if you want to fill it out, or use it for your own purposes.

12. What are examples of Moments of Grace that are not spoken?  Are spoken moments of grace more powerful? (Tricia Goyer)

St. Louis Cathedral. We got to Sat. AM Mass
The one moment of grace we saw during the workshop that was wordless was from Ratatouille when Collette’s motorcycle stops at the stoplight, she sees Gustav’s book in the bookstore “Anyone Can Cook”, the light turns green, and she returns to Linguini and the kitchen.   Also, we pointed out the Moment of Grace in Where the Heart Is (the book) when Novalee sits up in bed and “begins to understand.”

I do not think words make the Moment of Grace powerful or less so. They can make it clear about what’s going on. But I prefer that the reader or audience work and invest some understanding in the meaning of the story.  The bottom line is use whatever technique whatever the story demands to get the deepest emotional response and connection to the story.

Thanks Anne Baxter for seeing the typo in slide 121. “Socked” is now “Stocked”

* Some notes on the pictures:

About a year ago, author Myra Johnson, of the Seekerville Blog, ask me to be a guest blogger. She said that her agent, Nastasha Kern, demanded Myra read The Moral Premise. While blogging comments for Seekerville, I was asked to speak at ACFW. As it turns out Nastasha is somewhat of a superagent for novelists, having sold over 1000 books in the last 20 years. Authors love her because she gets involved somewhat as an editor. I love her too, because she asks all her authors to read my book.

Illinois soy bean field sunset along I-57.
Randy Ingermanson and I hit it off. We both have degrees in Physics, although I was lucky to graduate with my Bachelors. Randy has a Ph.D. in the theoretical type from USC Berkley.  In addition to being an author of a number of science fiction novels, Randy is also known worldwide as the purveyor of

Annette Schroeder, my high school English teacher, lives in St. Louis. She never thought I'd amount to anything as a writer. At the time I couldn't put together a paragraph. So, I thought it was ironic that she should come hear me lecture to a bunch of authors on how to write a story. She loved it. I was glad she could come. She was also some of my first inspiration about movies. She is friends with Hollywood script writer D.C. Fontana, and her brother Donald is a well-known PBS documentary producer/director also living in L.A.


Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

Stan -

It was great to meet you at the conference! I'm sorry to have missed the Early Bird, as we had emailed about earlier, but I devoured it prior to coming to the conference, and have since recommended it frequently. Thanks for autographing it prior to shipping it. :)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT
the character therapist

Myra Johnson said...

LOL, Stan!!! Yes, but it isn't just ME Natasha told to read your book. Just ask any of her clients!

Thanks again for a SUPER, SUPER workshop at ACFW! It was truly a highlight of the conference for me!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Stan, so great to have dinner with you and Pam. An absolute treat for me. I haven't forgotten my promise to send you my book Getting Into Character. When I finally return to my California house, where copies are kept, I'll send one along.

Blessings and joy to you and Pam.

Stan Williams said...

Thanks, Brandilyn and Myra. It was great meeting all of you, AND reading your great books...although I felt bad I hadn't read Brandilyn's stuff before we had dinner with the ACFW advisory board. But with the advent of your book on its way, I promise to catch up. Blessings.

Rose McCauley said...

Hi Stan, thanks so much for sharing your vast insight into story structure during the early bird and in the conference we had by the windows about a new story idea I have. And I must say the picture on this site of the Arch framed in one of the hotel windows is my favorite shot of the Arch I have ever seen! You certainly have a cinematic eye! I do hope you will check out and perhaps plan a retreat for you and your wife in the peaceful setting of the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY.

Stan Williams said...

Thanks, Rose. I'm glad I could help on your new story. I hope it works out. You know what they say about photographs...location, location, location. The hotel was perfectly situated. Hard to take a bad picture of the arch. It's still beautiful. Yes, wouldn't it be lovely to do a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY.

Carla Olson Gade said...

I sure wish I could have been there. I'm enjoying your website and downloads and plan to order the book soon. Thank you!

Natasha Kern said...

Hi Stan, So wonderful to get to spend time with you and your lovely wife at the conference. It meant a lot to me as a connection of the heart. Thank you for giving so much to the writing community. Love to you both, Natasha

Alice said...

This was awesome. Thanks.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Stan, thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight at ACFW and on this blog.

It was great meeting you, your wife and your lovely teacher at ACFW. I enjoyed our talk and the fact that you remembered A Soldier's Promise made my day.

Cheryl Wyatt