Plot, Writing Craft

Give Your Character a Surprise!

I love surprises. I love being surprised. I love surprising other people. And this past weekend, I pulled off a good one- I threw a Sweet 16 Birthday Party for my little girl (who’s obviously not a little girl anymore) and it was a huge, fun surprise! It was fun for me to plan, and fun for my daughter and her sneaky friends who were in on the covert scheme!

The expression on her face as she walked through the front door was priceless- filled with shock and confusion upon hearing her friends shout, “Surprise!” Her face lit up at the sight of them all gathered together- just for her. It was a take your breath away moment. A moment I’m sure she won’t ever forget.

Everyone should feel that kind of moment at some point in their lives. And I think your characters should feel that way too.

So how exactly do you create that take your breath away moment? A moment that catches your character off guard? Something so surprising or shocking that not only is your character surprised, but your reader is too?

Well, if you know your character, it should be easy. Think about what she loves. Maybe for Anna it’s kittens and hot fudge sundaes. Or think about what she wants. Maybe she wants to get the lead in the school play or a new clarinet. Or think about what she really needs like warm winter boots that don’t leak through the soles. Maybe there’s something that she really wants and needs. For example, maybe she wishes that her dad who’s been stationed in another country for many months could finally come back home for good.

Now that you have some ideas, decide what you want to surprise your character with. And make it big. Even if the surprise is small, you can write about it in a big way. For example, if you’re going to give Anna a hot fudge sundae, turn it into a big deal. Set the scene. Write about Anna’s banged up knee that happened from a fall off her bike. Write about her tears and her broken handlebars. Then, just when your reader feels awful for Anna, write about the table that Anna’s mom has filled with every topping you can think of. Add all her favorite flavors of ice cream and all her favorite sauces. Write about Anna’s walk into the kitchen and the smile that slowly creeps over her face when she sees the ice cream display before her. Write about her dried up tears and the hug between her and her mom. It may be just a little surprise, but for Anna it’s a big deal. And for your readers it will be too.

So how can you make the surprise for your character an even bigger deal? Choose something you know about her that’s even bigger- like missing her dad. For example, your readers are already aware already that Anna’s dad has been gone for a very long time and they know also that Anna misses him very much. Imagine the surprise they will feel (right along with Anna), when her dad shows up at the school auditorium, right before her big stage debut as the lead in the school play! Picture that surprise. 🙂

Our daily lives are full of big surprises and little ones. So if you want to create a story that keeps the reader turning the page, be sure to include a few of both in your character’s life too!

And remember…

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths that we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  ~Hilary Cooper 

So good luck with the surprises you’re planning and the amazing story you’re writing too!

Odyssey of the Mind, Writing Craft

Throw Obstacles in the Path

Obstacles are no fun. They get in the way. They block the road or the path or your dreams.

Obstacles can be small like the time when little Patrick couldn’t finish building his tower because he used up all his wooden blocks. Or the time Jenna couldn’t color the grass green on her picture because she lost her green crayon. Those obstacles proved easy to fix. Patrick dumped out his Lego bin and used Lego blocks to finish his masterpiece. Jenna learned that when mixing yellow and blue, the color you get is green. She used both crayons to color the grass and the result was a shade of green just right for her picture! 

Obstacles can be very big too, like the time when Adam and his friends couldn’t make the curtain of their theater set open up just days before the big show. Or the time when the town of Candy Catropolis was about to lose its Candy Factory due to a shortage of sugar. These obstacles proved harder to fix but not impossible.

Adam and his friends connected the rings of the curtain to a string. They attached the string to a weight and then when it was time for the curtain to open, they dropped the weight to the ground. The curtain opened perfectly on cue! And as for Candy Catropolis, the townspeople built a conveyor belt that ran across town and into the town next to them. They made a deal with their neighbors to send extra chocolate their way, in exchange for sugar!

Obstacles can be a pain. Many times they make it difficult for a character to get what they really want or need.  But they’re very necessary. In fact, the more obstacles you throw in their way, the better. Readers don’t want to read about people who always get what they want. That’s boring! They want to see people work for it a little bit…and maybe even a lot.

We, as readers tend to root for the underdog. If you can throw obstacle after obstacle in the path that your character is walking down, we’ll feel sympathy for him. We’ll begin to cheer him on-even when he falls or hits a roadblock.  And eventually when he does succeed, we’ll cheer louder that almost anybody! So don’t be afraid to throw some obstacles in the path of your characters. Remember, the bigger the obstacle, the bigger the celebration at the end.   

And if you find yourself hitting an obstacle some place- a problem that’s getting in the way of you reaching your dream, don’t give up. Not on your tower or your picture or your story.  Do like my Odyssey of the Mind kids do…  Work through it. Brainstorm it. Find a different way to solve it. And then watch what happens… 

If you can imagine it,

You can achieve it.

If you can dream it,

You can become it

So go on out there and make your dream come true.  And don’t let the obstacles stop you! 🙂

Creativity, Odyssey of the Mind

The Climb

Hello Again!

I’m back….and I have to tell you that I’ve really missed this blog! My Blog Break turned out to be a week longer than I had planned. To those of you that stopped by, I’m sorry you were left in the blog darkness. I didn’t mean to leave you there with an empty pit in your stomach waiting to read my writing words of wisdom…

Okay, so I know it really wasn’t like that. I’m sure no one’s day was left empty because I didn’t write my Wednesday post. In truth, I was sad that I didn’t post. After connecting with all of you every Wednesday for the last 8 months, it just felt weird. Very weird.

It’s always good to take a break though. Especially with a story you’ve written. I proved that to myself again this week because during my Blog Break, I was incredibly busy with other things. But now I feel refreshed and ready to dive back into blogging…and writing.

Before I do though, because I promised, I’ll tell you a little bit about my break over the last two weeks…

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my Odyssey of the Mind team had their first competition coming up. The kids on my team had been working incredibly hard since September on a problem they chose to solve. You can read more about that in my earlier post. (One day I’ll learn how to link up my earlier posts so that you can find them without scrolling back through each one. Not today though!) Anyway, the last two weeks have been crunch time—time spent putting finishing touches on costumes and sets, filling out required paperwork, rehearsing and practicing spontaneous problems.

I love this time of year because you can feel the energy practically oozing from the kids.  Besides, I love seeing their creative ideas come to life and I love seeing the pride in their faces when they see what they’ve accomplished.  I promised you an update on how the competition day went, so here it is…

Last Saturday, my sleepy team met at my house at 5:30am and off we went armed with a truck load of sets, props, costumes and very little sleep to a school district across town where the competition was held.  After arriving at the site before the doors were even unlocked, the kids unloaded it all, set everything up, changed into costumes, and practiced one time before they were set to compete at 8:00am in front of family, friends, teachers and judges.

And boy did they perform! They performed on that high school stage better than they ever had in practice. They were loud. They were clear. They were funny. Their set looked bright and big. Their costumes looked colorful and adorable. Their moving set piece worked on cue. They remembered every line. Their finale dance was a crowd pleaser. These 5 kids were amazing. And I was so very proud.

Most importantly though, my team was proud of themselves. They had worked months to create a solution to a problem and present it in the form of a play. And that’s what they did. But that was only the first part of the competition. The next part was still to come…

After posing for pictures, the kids changed into their school Odyssey of the Mind t-shirts with their signature long sleeve white shirts and jeans. We headed over to the elementary school for the spontaneous portion of the competition. The kids were led into a classroom with a team of judges and given a problem to solve on the spot. It may have been a verbal question or it may have been a hands- on (building type) problem, or even a combination of both.

I don’t know what their question was. They are sworn to secrecy until all the regional competitions are over at the end of the month. I do know this though. My team went into that room pumped and ready to solve that problem with more creativity than they ever had before. Fifteen minutes later, they exited that room with faces that revealed exactly the opposite. I knew they couldn’t tell me what the problem was. But as I’ve asked them in competition so many times over the last five years, “Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Somewhere in the middle?”   

They barely gave a thumb in the middle. They didn’t smile. Their faces were white and blank. My heart sunk to my feet. I’m certain theirs had sunk there too.

I’m not sure why they thought they had done so poorly. All they could manage to tell me was, “It was really hard.”

As I said before, my team is not new to this competition. After five years at the regional competition, three trips to the state competition and one unforgettable trip to the World Finals, they’ve been given countless spontaneous problems in competition. They have a good feel for when they do well, and a good feel for when they don’t.

With hours to go until the award ceremony, we did what any great team does. We reflected about how much fun it was to work on their solution throughout the year, and how awesome it was to perform on that beautiful, brand new stage. We talked about how proud I was of them for all their creative ideas, hard work, teamwork, and I thanked them for letting me be a part of it.

And then came the most fun of all…We watched teams who were still competing. We watched performances by high school teams that were inspiring. Maybe some of them might someday be on Broadway! We watched little kids drive hand-made cars through team- created obstacles. We watched judges place weights on structures that teams had spent months building.

It was a great reminder to me that when kids are allowed to be creative, they can create amazing things!

Finally, it was time for the awards ceremony. The focus of this competition is not on winning, yet ribbons and trophies for 1st– 5th place are given. Only teams that place first will advance to the next level: the State Competition.The kids were nervous. I knew why. For the last three years in a row, they had advanced to the NY State Competition. They were worried about their spontaneous score.  I was too. But maybe, just maybe it wasn’t as bad as they thought.

I realized at that awards ceremony, that I’m a competitive person. So are the kids on my team.  They wanted to win. They wanted to compete at the next level –to have another shot at the World Finals. After all their hard work, I wanted them to have another chance to perform for their families and the judges.  I wanted to see them in their adorable costumes and watch their finale dance.

But this year, that wasn’t meant to be. They came in second place.

Second. So close. An incredible accomplishment. I knew that. They knew that. Yet it wasn’t what they wanted.  And it was heartbreaking to watch. Disappointment is a hard thing to hide, especially in front of a lot of people. Yet they managed to do that with style. They ran down the bleacher steps to accept their ribbons and trophy. My son Adam even did a cartwheel across the gym floor on the way back-to the applause of hundreds of kids and parents and judges. They displayed tremendous sportsmanship, congratulating other teams who were moving on to States.

It turns out that Spontaneous is not entirely what caused my team to come in second place. Their scores showed they did a great job in that section. But another team did better. And another team did better in the long term solution performance. That left us in second place overall and even though it’s not first, it’s still a fantastic place to be!

And so during my Blog Break, I was reminded of one of my favorite songs by vintage Miley Cyrus….The Climb.  I guess if you write your story solely to get it published, you may be disappointed if you can’t reach that point. But if you write because you love to write, because you love the process–the whole journey of the thing, then you’ll never be disappointed.     

I hope all my Odyssey team members and all my writer friends can remember that too. If you create something just to win, you may be disappointed, but if you create something because you love to create- whether it’s songs or stories or sets or costumes, you’ll never be disappointed to see your amazing results.

And so that’s our Odyssey story, and here’s a bit of The Climb….

For Adam, Kara, Jake, Julia and Ryan~ the creative kids who inspire me 🙂

There’s always gonna be another mountain,

I’m always gonna want to make it move.

It’s always gonna be an uphill battle,

Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose.


Ain’t about how fast I get there.

Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side…

It’s the Climb.  


The struggles I’m facing,

The chances I’m taking,

Sometimes might knock me down but,

No, I’m not breaking.


I may not know it

But these are the moments

That I’m gonna remember most,

Just got to keep going

And I got to be strong

Just keep pushing on,


There’s always gonna be another mountain,

I’m always gonna want to make it move.

It’s always gonna be an uphill battle,

Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose.


Ain’t about how fast I get there.

Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side…

It’s the Climb.