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Friday, August 5, 2011


By Lynn Romaine

Have you joined The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo bandwagon? Well, I have. And like 48 million other readers around the world, I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy books like Godiva chocolates, savoring each one.
In the process of this frenzy, I found myself obsessed with the question: What does it take to write on that level and sell that many books? A great story? Luck? Or is it craft?

Since I don’t believe in luck and unlocking the mystery of a great story is an enormous undertaking, I settled on looking into craft. For my money, the best book on the subject is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.* I turned to his book to find out how to use craft to become the next Stieg Larsson.

On the opening page, Swain lists four things he believes are necessary to write a solid story:

-grouping of words into motivation-reaction units
-grouping motivation-reaction units into scenes and sequels
-grouping scenes and sequels into story patterns, and
-creating the kind of characters that give a story life.

I’m only going to cover the first two elements here. Let’s start with an overview of Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Swain is an emotions geek and his motivation-reaction unit is all about writing that evokes an emotional reaction in the character. It’s having the elements of cause and effect in the right order that drives a book forward and keeps the reader engaged.

First comes the motivating stimulus (anything outside your focal character that causes her to react):

The phone rang once and fell silent.

Following this is the reaction, how the character responds to the motivating stimulus. It can be feeling, action or speech:

Sonny paused, her heart pounding.

Swain’s point is that when we read, we need events to occur one following the other, not at the same time as they often do in life. It’s a linear process.

Motivation always has to come before response. The author needs to keep it simple and make sure the events happen in order. By doing this, the author can direct the reader’s attention by choosing the effect that creates the desired reaction, selecting the external event that creates the response.

Simple, right?

Swain’s next rather complicated theory, Sequel and Scene, could be described simply as the search for a goal and the struggle to attain it.

Scene is obvious. If you’ve a writer, you’re writing scenes. In this case, think of it as a struggle—a unit of conflict, a fight between characters. Ideally, this is created with the interlocking M-R units I talked about above. These units move the pace along and if done well, your reader is hooked.

Swain offers us pointers and pitfalls when writing scenes:


1) Do establish time, place, circumstance, and viewpoint at the very start of each and every scene – it’s winter, the skies are threatening snow, she’s driving home from work, worrying about running into her lover.

2) Do demonstrate quickly that your character has a scene goal – the heroine wants to avoid her lover confronting her about their future.

3) Do build to a curtain line – give the reader an end to the scene, whether high drama or low – your heroine sees the hero strolling up to her apartment. She turns around and heads across town to escape.


1) Don’t write too small (this is pointing to the number of pages, probably four or more).

2) Don’t go into flashback – it brings your story to a halt.

3) Don’t accidentally summarize – you know, those phrases we romance writers are hypnotized by, like “He told her that…”

Now we turn to Sequel. This is the post-disaster phase of a story. The sequel is the bridge from one scene to the next. Think of it as a happy moment after the battle. In the scene, our character’s lover has dumped her, or the bad guy has taken a shot at her, or the law is in hot pursuit of her.

In the sequel phase, it is about the decisions your character makes as she adjusts to new circumstances. She sets out to show the lover what he lost. she grabs up a gun and gets ready to fight off the bad guy, she jumps in her car and speeds out of town to avoid the sheriff. The function of the sequel is to turn disaster into a goal, to zoom in on reality, and to control the tempo.

The sequel involves three elements:

1) Reaction
2) Dilemma
3) Decision

Your heroine’s in trouble, someone just took a shot at her. The first thing she does is duck (reaction). Next, she pauses to consider she’s in danger and needs to protect herself (dilemma). Finally, she decides she needs to get a gun (decision). Every story has its highs and lows, big moments of tension followed by small moments of relief.

So there you have it: Swain’s key elements of the craft of writing—the Motivation/Reaction unit inside of Sequel and Scene.

Right now you’re probably wondering “What’s all this discussion of craft got to do with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?"

I have a sense, call it intuition if you like, that the Dragon’s author, Stieg Larsson, was a master of craft, pulling us along with the elements Dwight Swain outlines in his book.

Swain has two more things I want to include here. You may already know these, but here they are:

Don’t get caught in the trap of writing by rules


You learn to write by writing. Get busy!

*Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain, Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma Pr (Trd) (May 1, 1982), 342 pages.

Lynn Romaine has published five books* including Night Noise (published by Turquoise Morning Press) which was released in epress format June 20, 2011 and trade paperback July 6, 2011.

*Long Run Home, and the re-release of Leave No Trace – The Wild Rose Press
*Leave No Trace and Blind Spot – Wings EPress

She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, has a master’s degree in Information Science and is committed to her nonprofit organization, Red Pants For the World.
Contact her at and


Debby said...

Very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it and need time to think about it.
debby236 at gmail dot com

Lynn Romaine said...

Writing is such a mystery - thanks for dropping by - lynn

Verna LaBounty said...

Swain's book is a favorite on my writing shelf. He has wonderful, straightforward advice. Now if I could only put it into practice! (sigh).
Informative post - I loved Steig's series.

linda_rettstatt said...

I haven't yet read Swain's book, but I will now. You should get a commission. I struggle against writing within the rules, and I so agree with you that writing--good writing--is learned by writing. I daresay there is a huge difference between my first book and my ninth. Great post.


Margaret said...

Fabulous post, Lynn. Thanks for sharing what you've learned.


Lynn Romaine said...

Thanks, everyone for visiting - lynn

Theresa Grant said...

What really hit me was the comment about don't write too small--I love brevity--the shorter the better. Guess what my editor said when he worked on my ms? Slow it down, relax, let the reader get into it. Point taken!

Loved your final line...learn by doing. Guess I'll go practice.

Lynn Romaine said...

Thanks for dropping by and happy you liked the post - lynn

J K Maze said...

Loved the post. Very interesting and with some good points.

Joan K. Maze

shadow_kohler said...

Interesting post. Its nice to know what the author is thinking. Thanks for sharing!