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Goal-Conflict-Disaster. Reaction-Dilemma-Decision. Repeat-Repeat-Repeat.

By Ana Brazil
May 30, 2023

Wowza! During this merry month of May, my fellow Paper Lantern Writers C.V. Lee, Kathryn Pritchett, Jonathan Posner, and Edie Cay have shared their favorite writerly quotations.

And what great quotes they are:

  • “The first draft of anything is shit.” (Ernest Hemingway via C.V.)
  • Just. Show. Up.” (attributed to Woody Allen; shared by Kathryn)
  • “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Mark Twain by way of Jonathan.
  • I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.” (Johann Sebastian Bach; shared by Edie)

After all this wisdom, it comes down to me to round out the month, and here are some of my favorite writerly quotations:

“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough.” ~ George Washington Carver

I’ve treasured these words of wisdom from botanist George Washington Carver for years, and they continually broaden and deepen my understanding of anything that I need to understand but can’t yet understand.

Which means that when I took to writing fiction the best way to understand my characters—their ambitions, their wounds, how they made decisions—was to settle down and love them. The more time (that is, love) I gave to my characters the more they revealed their secrets, and the more alive, complex, and relatable the characters became in my writing.


Goal-Conflict-Disaster. Reaction-Dilemma-Decision. ~ Dwight Swain

Illustration via The Novel Factory.

These six words, adapted from screenwriter and writing instructor Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer, are EVERYTHING. TO. ME. I have them pasted up in multiple places in my writing room, consider them daily, and couldn’t write a chapter without them.


Goal-Conflict-Disaster. Reaction-Dilemma-Decision. is the surest way I know to keep the tension moving in my historical mysteries, and here’s how it works (simplest version):

    • My first scene focuses on my characters’ goals, their conflicts with other characters and their goals, and the disaster that results when the goals of two characters conflict.
      My second scene focuses on how characters react to that disaster, the dilemma that reaction creates, and the decisions the characters make that keep them moving forward.
      And then I repeat that scene/sequel sequence through to the story’s conclusion. Of course, this sequence is not just for mysteries; it’s for any type of fiction that needs to move forward. Which, in my opinion, is all types of fiction.
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I love this quote, except not all the time.

It sounds glorious, doesn’t it? That writers should be spending, shooting, playing, losing, it all, right away, every time.

Except that if you’re writing more than one book with the same characters in the same setting (like I do), you know you can’t let it all lose in Book One. You can’t give the game away so early. You’ve got to save something for Book Two, Three, Four, and beyond.

So, although I enjoy Annie’s authorial boldness and I’d like to spend it all, I always hold something back.


“We don’t HAVE to be just sheep!” ~ Cartoonist Gary Larson

Despite having just pledged my forever-fealty to Dwight Swain’s Goal-Conflict-Disaster. Reaction-Dilemma-Decision. sequence, I also believe it’s okay to break the rules.

Which means that no writer has to sheepishly follow trends, teachers, or even friendly writing advice from fellow writers.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Hopefully some of our PLW writerly quotations hit the mark with you. If not, here’s one last quote, this time from novelist and journalist Lev Grossman: “Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.”


Ana Brazil

Written by Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.

View Ana’s PLW Profile

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  1. Anne M Beggs

    Excellent quotes and writerly advice – TY for sharing – I will too.

  2. Kathryn

    Lovely post, Ana. Thanks for sharing new-to-me quotes to treasure.


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