Weekly Writing Workout: Three Ring Circus Part Three – MUST

My post is a bit late this week, mostly because in British Columbia we were celebrating our new holiday: Family Day! Where the Family Day bunny comes down the chimney to hand out turkey wishbones to all the good kids, and we have a walnut cake eating contest. The first one done wins the golden carrot. (Okay, so we’re still working out the mythology around this one, give us a few years.)

In truth we just ate a lot of sweets, drank a lot of wine, and played games.

Onward… to MUST

A few years ago, I was working on a concept for a screenplay: a single hippie mom living out of her van for 15 years with her son decides to try to settle into the “normal” world.

It was really only half a concept, because I had no stakes for her yet. I needed to figure out what she MUST DO OR ELSE.

If you think about it, the entire Harry Potter series can be reduced to this: Harry Potter, a young wizard, must defeat Voldemort, an evil wizard, before he takes over the world. This must might not be so prevalent in the first book, but as it becomes exceedingly clear that if Harry doesn’t defeat him, he and all the people he loves will die. This is the basis for the entire series.

MUST is a great way to discover your story, whether it’s an epic fantasy or an indie dramedy screenplay. It’s HOW I found the basic plot for The Van Goes. I asked myself what was at stake for Shasta (the nomadic hippie mom). I started with – what’s the WORST thing that could happen to her?

Answer: She could lose her son. Not literally, but she could lose her relationship with him, and in this story, those were big enough stakes. 

So, I thought, what if she actually DOESN’T WANT to settle down? What if she wants to keep living nomadically from commune to commune, but HER SON wants to leave the road. He’s discovered computers and masturbation and wants access to technology and privacy. And what if they get in a big fight over this?

The result of this line of thinking: Shasta MUST figure out how to live a “normal and settled” life or else risk losing her relationship with her son.

by Gizem Vural

by Gizem Vural


1) SET YOUR TIMER for 7-10 minutes.

Start with the line: If my Character doesn’t act, she is in danger of losing the confidence/trust/loyalty of . . .

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

2) SET YOUR TIMER for 10-12 minutes.

Start with the line: My Character fears what she must do because . . .

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

3) SET YOUR TIMER for 15-20 minutes.

Start with the line: My Character must do this thing or else . . .

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

And have a great (rest of your) week!

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If you are a blogger who would like to post your own weekly workout exercise with me every Monday, please write to info (at) danikadinsmore.com


  1. Jack Remick
    Feb 13, 2014

    This is a good way to get to the center of an active character. I like the way you line up the writing exercises by going deeper into character so she has to stop thinking and has to do something. Convert passion into action.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Feb 17, 2014

      Thanks, Jack. I think about that phrase we were taught in the UW program: Active Hero in Conflict. I’ve read few books recently where the MC didn’t take the action, the action was taken on the MC’s behalf and I felt cheated.

  2. Deborah
    Feb 19, 2014

    Great post, Danika. I like the questions, your sequence of getting at what matters to the MC. Thanks.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Feb 20, 2014

      Thanks, Deborah! I actually used a version of this sequence to get at the core story for my screenplay. And everything else fell into place after that.

  3. 4amWriter
    Feb 26, 2014

    Must is fun to uncover. Sometimes it is difficult for me to hurt my characters, so I know I skirt this issue. I *think* I’m writing about the worst thing that could happen, but after the first draft I realize I haven’t even scratched the surface. Once I get warmed up, it’s easier to get my characters into disasters.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Mar 3, 2014

      I’ve heard this said by other writers, that they have a hard time “hurting” their characters. This is interesting to me as I don’t seem to have that same challenge. I think of it as a way for the character to prove what they are made of. Like the saying “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” And I enjoy figuring out how a character will get out of what seems like an impossible situation. Readers love clever characters. It makes us root for them even more.


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