Pt. 3 Using Personal Experience and Applying What You’ve Learned

This is part three of the “Gut Punch your Audience with Emotion” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2, June 23rd at Weber State University Davis.

Here are handy links to the first two parts:

In the first two parts of this presentation we discussed what components of storytelling are essential to create an “Ugly Cry” movie. Sound good to know? Go back and review if you haven’t read it yet – it’s awesome sauce.

In this part, we will discuss where to get those amazing raw and honest emotions to use when sucker punching your audience with the feels.

Digging Deep and Using Personal Experience


The best source material comes from you the creator. You’ve had experiences that have made you angry, made you cry, perhaps made you act irrational at times. You have regrets, soaring aspirations, and fears. Guess what? So do your characters. A good story will help the audience experience these emotions in safety, a great story will help them learn how to be stronger in the face of adversity.

This is why storytelling is amazing therapy. For example, as you study why your character is getting angry and what it feels like for him to experience rage, you have to break down the sensations for yourself through your own personal lens. This not only teaches you to recognize the first roots of anger in yourself, but it gives you the chance to calm down earlier.

Your characters will be facing their worst fears and learning how to overcome them. For you to be able to put this experience into words, you too must learn to face fears. The deeper you plunge yourself into your character and his motivations, the more likely you will take time to learn about the people around you in real life.

Not only is this a great way to learn greater self-awareness, but it is key to generating empathy for the people around you.



The holy grail of good stories is to make your audience feel deeply about what is happening to your main character. Throughout the course of this presentation we have discussed the key skills you will need to develop to be able to generate your own emotionally driven stories.

Here’s a quick sum up:

  • Build a relatable strong character
  • Give them a meaningful conflict
  • Inject intense emotion when appropriate
  • Use personal experience to guide you
  • Allow audience to recover between intense moments


Now it’s your turn! Pick a scene from a project you are currently working on, or one you’ve been thinking about writing. This should be a scene that has relatively high emotional tension.

decd1137522b6eb556299a946aee22f4First, consider your character and answer these questions, either in your head or written down:

  • What’s the one thing that would hurt your character the most?
  • Why should the audience love this character?
  • What heroic traits does this character possess to help him/her?

Next, identify the primary emotion that your character will be experiencing during this scene. Also consider what intensity of emotion he or she will be experiencing. Here’s a link to the post with the emotion spectrum color wheel, should you need it.

Now, identify an experience in your own life that matches the same emotion you just identified and spend a minute or two remembering those feelings.

You’re ready!

Set a timer for 15 minutes and free write your scene. Remember, free writing means to allow the words to flow without stopping to think or correct anything. Shove your inner editor in a drawer and BE FEARLESS.


I hope you enjoyed this presentation. I’d love to hear your experience with your free write and if you were able to tap into some deep emotion for your character. Tell me all about it in the comments below.

If you haven’t yet read the first two parts of this series, here again are the handy links:


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Pt. 2 Engineering the Perfect Storm and Finding Balance

This is part two of the “Gut Punch your Audience with Emotion” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2, June 23rd at Weber State University Davis.

Here’s a handy link to the other parts of the series:


In the first part of this presentation, we talked about the importance of finding emotional resonance with our audience by creating a character they cared about, waiting until the perfect moment to have the worst happen to them, and giving them a relatable problem. These three things, plus intensity, combine into a phenomenon that I’d like to call “The Perfect Storm.”

The Perfect Storm

Clearly, the “ugly cry” movie examples take this formula and pull it to its extremes, and do so successfully. They are masterful examples of what can happen when these elements are expertly used. The intensity in each of these movies keeps audiences engaged and emotionally invested.

We don’t read stories or watch movies to experience what we feel everyday. Annoyance, insecurity, disappointment are all average emotions. What we really want is to experience as a character gets dragged down to the depths and then learn from them as they overcome the conflict. We want to live through their rage, despair, and hysterics from the safety of our armchair and know there is going to be a happy ending, somehow.

If intensity is the key, then we should create a super intense story, right? Okay, challenge accepted.

Opening scene – a car is careening off a cliff, screaming children inside as a father watches from the roadway. He’s hysterical, desperately trying to call for help on his phone. There is the click of a gun being cocked. The father turns to find a mobster pointing a gun in his face. He’s thrown into the back of a car with his hands and feet duct taped. As they pull out, sirens sound. A police chase ensues while the father madly works to escape his bonds. He frees himself and at the ideal moment leaps free of the car. Both the cops and the mobsters slam on their brakes and they all proceed to run Assassin’s Creed style through the industrial district of LA. A building explodes and a giant robot smashes the mobsters and grabs hold of the father, hauling him away to a science facility…

Admit it, you stopped reading halfway through when you realized it wasn’t going anywhere. Man, writing that made me tired. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what some people refer to as:


Don’t get me wrong. There is a market for super action adventure thrillers, just look at any movie directed by Michael Bay. However, if you are seeking something a touch more fulfilling, you will need to master balance.

Finding Balance

Let’s say you’ve created a wonderful character and have given them a compelling conflict – congratulations! Way to go. Your job now is to find balance between high and low emotional moments. As the creative behind the story, you have complete control over when and how you ratchet up or tone down the tension.


Like the lovely lady in this pic, you too might fall on your face a few times before finding the perfect balance for your story. Never fear, I have some tips.

If we are going to regulate emotional tension, we really need to understand the entire spectrum of human emotion, including all its highs and lows.

May I present, drumroll please, the happy rainbow wheel of the emotion spectrum –

Emotion spectrum.jpg

Tah-dah! This wheel has ten rings. The outermost rings show us lower tension and as we travel toward the center we reach more intense emotions. Most people living their daily lives will try really hard not to leave the outer three rings. Traveling inward any further is uncomfortable and even painful. No one likes to be uncomfortable.

This is why the inner rings are a creative person’s playground. Our audience depends on us to be able to experience the full rainbow of human emotion safely.

And here’s how –

Introducing the roller coaster of basic storytelling.


Here we have a plot/tension diagram of Star Wars, A New Hope. Don’t read into those labels too closely, whoever made this lovely graph (attribution will be posted at the end of the series, I promise) is clearly not a hardened nerd. I won’t hold it against them.

If you notice, the story starts with a bang. There is a heavy action sequence with a space battle and Leia’s plea for help. We have no context other than there’s lots of shooting and lots of people are dying. It’s okay to start off with an action scene as long as immediately after there is some character building and conflict building.

And check it out, the next few bumps on the graph are lower tension as we learn about Luke and Old Ben Kenobi and their connection to the rebel alliance. Yay for world and character building.

Something needs to happen to kick our main character out on their quest, and for Luke, it’s the murder of his aunt and uncle (for you writerly nerds, yes, this is the inciting incident).

As you study the graph, you’ll notice that these peaks and valleys continue to grow upwards and upwards until we reach the climax. Each peak is an action scene where the characters must either succeed or fail and each valley is them recouping their efforts and deciding what they should do next. For those in the know, this handy phenomenon is often called scene and sequel, and it’s an excellent topic for another post.

Nearing the climax, the action peaks grow closer together and the reaction valleys get shorter and shorter. Again – you are in complete control of the emotional tension. This is not the time for your character to wander off and get himself an ice cream cone. The reaction bits should still be a bit tense until the thrilling conclusion where your main character brilliantly and bravely saves the day.

After that, especially if you’ve made your audience cry, you need a scene or two to gently lower that tension back down again. In Star Wars, it’s the awards ceremony. This gives the ladies in the audience a chance to wipe off the mascara tracks before the lights in the theater come back on. It also lets you resolve any loose threads you might have left dangling. Trust me, no one likes a dangler.

Stay tuned for part three “Using Personal Experience and Applying What You’ve Learned” coming soon!


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Pt. 1 Visceral Experiences and Creating Award Winning Drama

This is part one of the “Gut Punch your Audience with Emotion” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2, June 23, 2018 at Weber State University Davis.

Parts two and three are now available:


Simply put, a visceral experience is one that literally “grabs you by the guts.” Adrenaline junkies are hooked to it and seek it out rock climbing, riding roller coasters, and even throwing themselves out of airplanes. A truly visceral experience makes you feel alive, makes your heart pump faster, and makes you sweat. It’s scary and exciting at the same time. This is what your audience is seeking, a memorable experience.

Maya Angelou is famous for saying –

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

As creatives, we have the rare privilege of making our audiences feel this same visceral experience by working to create strong emotional experiences for our characters.

“Ugly Cry” Movies

To better understand why strong emotional experiences are so compelling, let’s study some of my favorite “ugly cry” movies.

The Lion King


There are three elements at play during any super emotional moment. The first is the audience’s relationship with the characters. Mufasa is shown as a kind and caring king, and a wonderful father. He is patient, wise, and speaks in the soothing voice of James Earl Jones. Simba is a playful child who is learning his place in the world with his father’s guidance.

The second element is timing. Had Mufasa been killed in the opening scene, we would never have had the chance to see this wonderful relationship with his son grow.

The third element is how relatable the situation is for the audience. While death is a universal truth for everyone, it’s too abstract on its own to be compelling. Loss of a loved one, on the other hand, is something everyone understands. The Lion King ratchets this up another emotional notch by focusing on Simba’s reaction. He believes that he is responsible for his father’s death and is both terrified and heart-broken. I don’t know about you, but watching children cry gets me in the feels every time.



Titanic scores a double “ugly cry.” The first is when Rose realizes that Jack has died and must let him sink into the depths so that she can be rescued. Jack has proven himself to be a wonderful character. He is full of life and excitement and teaches Rose that she must live her life on her own terms if she is ever going to find happiness. In fact, it is at the peak of Rose finally letting go of her reservations and allowing herself to be happy when the boat hits the iceberg. Talk about timing. The situation strongly resonates with audiences as well because we all crave to find a soul mate who will bring us alive. The worst thing that could ever happen is to lose that person.

I score this a double ugly cry because there is a second beautifully emotional moment right at the end of the film. If you remember, the film started with Rose as an old woman. She was invited to visit Titanic’s last resting place and tell her story.  At end of the movie we see her as an old woman again and are shown pictures from the wonderful life that she lived because of Jack’s influence. She releases the heart of the ocean diamond to the depths of the sea and when we see her next she’s young and beautiful again on the stairs of the Titanic, and Jack is waiting for her.

Crap. Where are my tissues…

Life is Beautiful


This is my all time “ugly cry” champion. Holocaust films already have tragedy sewn right in. Good people are going to have horrible things happen to them and they are going to suffer and die. The main character, Guido, is a goofy, caring, and wonderfully romantic fellow with a knack for making the best of any situation, no matter how much it costs him. When he gets taken to the concentration camp he has one goal, to protect his son. Time and time again we see the risks he takes to keep his son alive and happy.

The war is ending and there is panic in the camp. Guido is frantically trying to keep himself and his son out of sight of the German soldiers. When he knows he’s caught, he sticks his son into a box telling him it’s an exciting game of hide and seek and he’ll win the big prize – a tank – if he can stay quiet and in the box until morning. We see Guido do a silly march to make his son laugh as the soldier pushes him with the tip of his gun. Only when Guido is out of the frame do we finally hear the gunshot.

Please excuse me as I go ugly cry for a bit. Talk amongst yourselves.


And the Oscar goes to…


It’s no surprise that each of these films won hoards of awards. Stories that hit the emotional sweet spot tend to be winners because they made their audiences feel something deeply. Just for fun, here is the list of Oscars these films won:

The Lion King

  • Best music, original Song
  • Best music, original score
  • No “best animated feature” category at this time (or it would have totally got it)


  • Best Picture
  • Best Director
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best art direction – set decoration
  • Best costume design
  • Best sound
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Effects, sound effects editing
  • Best effects, Visual effects
  • Best music original song
  • Best music, original dramatic score

Life is Beautiful

  • Best actor in a leading role
  • Best music, original dramatic score
  • Best foreign language film
  • Nominated for Best picture


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Building a Rock Solid Foundation

This is the second part of the “Overcoming Ego for Better Head Space” presentation  given at Fyrecon 2 at Weber State University Davis.

Find the first part here.


Facing Your Truth

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in being able to recognize where we can improve is the willingness to see reality for what it is and not make any excuses for it. Some call this practice “facing your truth.” Those willing to acknowledge their truth can make needed changes to find greater confidence and happiness.


How do you face your truth? It’s easier than you think. You must be willing to spend time alone with your thoughts and paying attention to the inner dialogue that is running through your head. A tip that there is a problem is if you are mean to yourself and thinking negative things. Some find that guided meditation is helpful to be able to take note of these thoughts in a safe, controlled way.

If you have taken the time to face your truth, there will be parts of yourself that you will not be comfortable with. These demons can only be tamed if they are named and then you find a way to make peace with them.

Some of these uncomfortable thoughts will stem from failure. Know that failure is a part of life. It is better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all. If you fear failure, then it will be that much harder to do amazing things.

It goes without saying that through this process of growth and change that you’ve got to be your own best cheerleader. I tell this to my daughter and to people I meet at conferences – if you aren’t going to nice to you, then who will? Your healthy ego is made up of you being okay with yourself, including all the not perfect bits.

In addition to being your best cheerleader, you have to take care of yourself. Again, if you aren’t going to take care of you, who will? A person with a healthy ego draws strength from within because they know who they are.

The Empty Cup Philosophy


Ages ago I heard this story and it’s stuck with me. There once was an advanced karate student who was the top pupil in his class. His teachers still had plenty to teach him but he had become arrogant. He wasn’t interested in what they had to say because he already knew how to punch and kick.

One day his teacher called him over and set a pitcher of water and a glass on the table in front of him. He proceeded to slowly pour water into the glass. Once the glass was full he continued to pour and the water overflowed onto the table.

“Sensei, you’re spilling water everywhere. Why are you doing that?” he asked.

The teacher ignored him and kept pouring and soon water was dribbling over the edge of the table and onto the floor.

The student continued. “Sensei, you’re making a mess. You can’t fill a full cup.”

The teacher fixed his student in his gaze. “Exactly. When you come to class believing your cup is full, I can’t teach you and you will stop progressing. However if you come with your glass empty, you are ready to learn.”


I like this story because it is an excellent reminder that there is always room to grow. Willingness to learn shows humility and honesty with yourself and is a symptom that you have a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. There is always room to grow, and lessons can come from anyone regardless of their credentials.

Dealing with Trolls and Haters


Those who find success, will find trolls and haters as well. It’s hard for many people to see their peers succeed when they haven’t. This discomfort can manifest in many ways including jealousy, distancing, and sometimes being plain ol’ nasty to you.

Remember, nothing they say or do can change your truth. You own it. Just because they feel threatened by it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. Part of being unflinchingly honest with yourself means you’ve already accepted your weaknesses as a part of who you are.

So, if what they say is true, then you can accept it as constructive feedback and nothing more. If it isn’t true, it’s garbage and you can ignore it. Whatever you do, don’t try to argue with them or make them change their mind. If you refuse to play the game and get all upset then they don’t get what they want, and they go away. Be insufferably nice regardless and the trolls won’t have anything to feed on.

Suggested Exercises

  1. Create an “artist vision statement” that captures why you love creating. Start by listing all the words that you associate with your creative dreams and hopes. From those ideas create a phrase that captures what you hope to accomplish as an artist.

My statement is “Finding Magic Everyday” because life is full of unexpected surprises for those who look carefully. My fiction tends to contain people with magic powers and are working toward a better world.

2. Create a list of strengths and weaknesses about yourself. Its a little scary, and freeing all at once. Be brave! You can do it!

Strengths include:

  • What you are good at
  • What you enjoy doing
  • What people compliment you for

Weaknesses include:

  • What scares you
  • What you avoid doing
  • What you receive criticism for


Character strengths test


Thanks for coming and learning about how to cultivate a healthy ego. I hoped you enjoyed these presentation notes as much as I enjoyed learning about it! Don’t forget, there are other presentation notes handy, feel free to check them out. I’m working to get my complete lecture series listed, so check back often.

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Overcoming Ego for Better Head Space

These are the first half of the notes from the “Overcoming Ego for Better Headspace” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2018 at Weber State University Davis. Don’t miss part two – Building a Rock Solid Foundation


The creative world is a competitive one. Success often means being in the right place at the right time with the right story to offer. Because everything is so subjective, it’s hard to not to acquire unhealthy ego practices along the way. This presentation will help you understand what a healthy ego looks like and how to build practices into your life to ensure you can weather the storms that will come your way.

What is Ego?


Put simply – ego is how we view ourselves in relation to the world around us. It includes our self-worth, self-esteem, and self-respect. Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy had a healthy ego. He was confident, strong, and determined to get what be wanted. It didn’t matter what others thought of him, he had decided what was best for him and wasn’t going to let anyone stop him. He was a nice guy, unless you got in his way. Don’t confuse ego with conscience, kids. This Ego clearly didn’t have one since his goal was to obliterate the known universe.

Signs of a healthy ego include:

  • Properly placed confidence
  • Healthy sense of self
  • Awareness and acceptance of strengths and weaknesses

On the other hand, signs of an unhealthy ego include:

  • False overconfidence to the point of boastfulness
  • Apologizing for things that don’t call for being sorry
  • Skewed perception of self
  • Terrified of weaknesses being discovered


The sad truth of an unhealthy ego is that those who suffer from it spend their lives living in fear. They tend to think negative thoughts about themselves and have low self-esteem. They are constantly searching for external validation and are crushed when they get bad feedback. Their reality is viewed through skewed lenses and they struggle to accept truths about themselves.

The 5 Unhealthy Egos You’ll Meet at Writing Conferences

Let’s be honest. We all have had our moments showing the following different personas. These are symptoms of when we feel uneasy, or when we need a cheerleader to help us remember our potential. Everyone is unique and will have a mix of the different traits listed.

The Wouda-Couda-Shouda


  • Has the next greatest idea ever
  • Comes to every conference
  • Struggles to actually finish anything
  • Makes excuses
  • Critical of other people’s work, including teachers (in a nice way)

The Wouda-couda-shouda tends to be insecure about what is the right next step for them. They worry that working on a project or starting the next phase might break what they already have, or make it worse instead of better. They don’t believe that they have the potential for greatness and are scared of failure, so they tend to procrastinate.

The Story Man



  • Shares lots of personal details
  • Dominates conversations
  • Doesn’t stray far from his favorite topics
  • “Well if you think that’s bad…”
  • Will talk to you for hours, if you let him

The story man wants to be viewed as an expert on his chosen subject and feel important when people acknowledge how much he knows. He won’t stray from his favorite topics for long because they feel safe. Often this is a tactic to help avoid feeling awkward in public and the talking is a defense mechanism.

The Leech


  • Attaches themselves to successful people
  • Tends to hover
  • King of awkward conversation
  • Doesn’t understand social cues
  • Also known as a “booth barnacle”

The Leech loves to be close to the spotlight but not in it because they don’t believe they are worthy of that type of recognition. They instead associate their self worth with the people they are with. They are often unhappy with their lives and wish they could be like the other person.

The Insider


  • Name drops constantly
  • Gossips
  • Won’t talk about themselves
  • “Knows” everyone
  • Likes to make “special arrangements” even when he can’t deliver on his promises

The Insider is very similar to the leech in that they piggy back their sense of self worth on to the people they know. They are often insecure about their own accomplishments but still want to feel important among the people they do talk to.

The Diva


  • It’s all about them
  • Expects to be treated differently
  • Easily upset
  • Doesn’t listen to anyone
  • Unreasonable demands

The Diva is often a created persona that an insecure person will wear to fend off those who might force them to face the truths about themselves. They tend to be fragile and let small things get to them. If they are loud enough, they can’t hear anything else.

Everyone has a bit of each of these characters, and that’s okay. However, if you spot that you tend to lean too much into one of them, it might be a good time to dig into the whys behind what you are doing.


Because you’re awesome, here’s a handy link to part two:

Building a Rock Solid Foundation

Like what you see? Be sure to check out the other presentation notes from my other classes. Don’t want to miss a future post? Click the subscribe button on the sidebar or “like” my author page on Facebook. Prefer Twitter? @JodiLMilner







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Pt 3 Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals

The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.

This is the third part in the three-part series “Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals.”

Here are handy links to the other two parts:

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In the second part of this series we discussed what the different elements of ritual were as well as different levels of importance ranging from the mundane to critical. In this part, we will walk through the different elements and talk more about how to apply them to your own writing.

Quick Review – the five elements of ritual are:

  • Central focus
  • Unique venue
  • Ceremonial dress and/or items
  • Prescribed actions
  • Music/sound


Central Focus – What’s the Goal?

  • Mundane, significant, or critical?
    • How important is it to your character to succeed?
  • Emotional impact to character
    • What does he feel about the situation?
  • Higher emotional stakes translates to a more dramatic scene, long set up
  • Low stakes mean not as much time spent setting up, less description.

Example: For this post we will be using the proposal scene that appears in my book being released in November. Katira and Elan have been sweethearts for years and Elan decides that at that year’s Harvest Festival he will propose. He’s excited, scared, and has been planning this day for weeks. Everyone in the town knows of his intentions.

wramplingham church

Unique Venue – Where (and when) does it take place?

  • Most rituals must be performed in a specific place and time of day.
    • There will be a place that feels right. Religious rituals tend to be in Churches, etc.
    • Some rituals work best at very specific times, like high noon, early morn, or  late at night.
  • As with all settings – describe only the parts relevant to the character
    • His focus will guide your reader through the scene, what does he see, feel, and smell?
  • Another chance to worldbuild
    • Buildings and public spaces often have historical note, if it feels right, sneak in a few descriptions that flesh out the world or culture.

For my proposal it is customary for the boy to ask the girl during the harvest festival so that the whole community can be involved and show support for the happy couple. It’s evening, the lanterns have been lit, bonfires dot the outer rim of the square.

22-evergreen-boho-flower-crown-is-a-great-ideaCeremonial Dress or Items – What items are needed?

  • Each item mentioned must have meaning
    • While it’s very easy to list off many unusual items, it’s more interesting to focus on a special few.
  • These items can include specially prepared foods
    • Wedding cake, seasonal specific foods, Japanese Tea Ceremony
  • Possibility of revealing backstory
    • Just like setting, items can talk about a characters past.
  • Worldbuilding tool
    • Items can also be used to mention cultural practices.
  • Resist the temptation to info dump
    • Vivid action is amazing. Exposition is boring.

In this proposal ritual there is no special dress, although those attending the Harvest Festival tend to wear their best. Elan must present a proposal crown for Katira to wear on her head, showing the community that she accepted his offer. Each of the flowers and seedpods woven into the wreath has symbolic meaning. Evergreen pine symbolized the long and happy life they would have together. Red fall roses were for strength in adversity. Feathery white woodsmoke seedpods were for the hopes of future children.

Note: these three things represent the things Katira wishes for.


Prescribed actions – What must the participants do?

  • All actions must have significance.
    • Again, it’s easy to list the different steps your character takes. It’s also boring. Make it engaging by giving those steps significance to your character.
  • The more important the ritual, the more precise and demanding the actions are that must be performed.
    • This can cause anxiety in your character, make sure we see him sweat.
  • This will include the different steps of the ritual the character must perform, as well as observers, officials, etc.
    • Don’t forget to add other important people to the scene.
  • How does your character feel about the ceremony? Jubilant? Reluctant?
    • The effectiveness of a ritual scene rests in the emotional journey of the character. The reader needs to see how important it is, or isn’t.

To show his humility, Elan must kneel to present Katira her crown and ask her to marry him. Beforehand, he must seek permission from Katira’s father. She has the choice to accept or refuse, and if she accepts, she wears the crown.


Is there music or sound?

  • Doesn’t have to be music. Can be clapping, drums, chants, shouts of agreement.
    • Set the soundscape of the event
  • Some ritual observes respectful silence
  • Adds another tactile sense to the scene.

The Harvest Festival has live music playing throughout as well as the shouts of children racing through the crowd, lovers giggling as they find shadows to hide in, and people clapping to the beat.

Think back on any religious ceremony and the first memory will probably be of the music. Midnight Mass, Christmas programs, Weddings. All have music involved, either performed or as a congregational. Music serves as a unifying element, it literally brings people together as they unite their voices in song, which is why it can be a powerful part of a ceremony. In LOTR when the elves believe Gandalf has died, the elves of Lothlorien sing him a lament, Skyrim’s theme song is a chant, military units have call and response cadences to keep them in unison as they march or run.

Writing Exercise: Create a ritual for your current project, don’t forget to address each of the five elements of ritual as well as discuss the emotional impact on your character.

Want to tell me all about the ritual you created? Share it in the comments below!


I hoped you enjoyed this series of lecture as much as I enjoyed learning about rites and rituals. Don’t forget, there are other presentation notes handy, feel free to check them out. I’m working to get my complete lecture series listed, so check back often.

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Pt 2 Elements and Levels of Ritual

The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.

This is the second part in the three-part series “Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals.” If you’ve missed the other parts, here are some handy links:


Rituals can be categorized by how much they impact the person participating. Rituals can be simple, but loaded with consequence. The opposite it also true, a ritual can be elaborate and highly public, but hold little meaning. A ritual’s weight rests in the significance to the person participating.

Levels of Ritual

Mundane Ritual – Regular tasks that aren’t thought about much, but when aren’t done the person feels off balance for the rest of the day.

  • Morning Ritual
  • Making the first cup of coffee
  • Opening of meetings
  • Serving of food

Significant Ritual – An important event that if not completed properly will change the person’s life. Most observed rituals tend to fall in this category.

  • Wedding vows
  • Baptisms
  • Driver’s License
  • Asking to Prom

Critical Ritual – Part of an initiation where failure to complete the ritual results in rejection and possibly death. Tends to end up in speculative fiction a lot.

  • Indiana Jones Grail Test
  • Monty Python Bridge of Death
  • Brisingr Trial of the Long Knives
  • Wheel of Time Aes Sedai Final Initiation


Elements of Ritual

A ritual contains five distinct elements. Generally, the more elaborate and important the ritual, the more elaborate each of these elements become.

Central focus – The goal of the ritual

Unique venue  – The place where the ritual fits best

Ceremonial dress and/or items – What is required to complete the ceremony, including foods.

Prescribed actions – What those participating in the ceremony must do

Music/sound – What the ceremony sounds like, if there is music, chanting, or drums. Silence is a sound and many rituals take place in respectful silence.


Matador Dressing Ceremony

Matador.jpgMatadors are famous for their distinctive dress, called the Traje de Luces (suit of lights). In order to be prepared to face death in the ring, a Matador will take his dressing ceremony very seriously. He always dresses in the same order, with the same people helping him. He faces a large mirror and watches as he transforms from ordinary citizen to a celebrity. The pants are extremely tight, like a corset, which not only protects the Matador from bleeding to death if gored, but also mentally gives him additional focus, all of his distractions are pressed away and he is ready for the ring. As he dons each piece he grows more confident and gathers the courage he will need to face his bull.

This is one of the few real life rituals I would rate as crucial. If the Matador doesn’t feel prepared, his lack of focus could kill him. The focus of the dressing ritual revolves around transforming the Matador into a fearless fighter. It happens in a dressing room, which in itself isn’t all that special, but the fighting ring he will enter is a highly specialized venue. The act of dressing in the suit and donning the other items unique to bullfighting are what create the ritual. I imagine many fighters have a specific playlist they listen to help mentally prepare themselves, if not, they most likely observe a respectful quiet.

Fictional Rites and Rituals

Let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it to a fictional rituals – the same is true, although in fiction we are allowed to stretch our imagination more, and make the stakes higher.

Star Wars Victory Celebration

Victory_Celebration_ANH.pngThe Rebel Alliance has won a great victory over the Empire by destroying the Death Star. While they could have just given Luke and Han their medals, they needed to make it a significant event. The troops are organized and wearing their military dress uniforms, they are in what looks to be a special place, a fanfare is playing, every one knows just how important the victory was.

This is an example where there’s a lot of fanfare and fuss over a fairly mundane task. However, not being blown up by the death star is a big reason to celebrate and is highly significant to everyone involved. I would rate this as a significant ritual for this reason. The focus is to applaud the bravery of Luke and Han, who risked their lives for the Alliance. This also encourages a greater sense of devotion in all present.

This space they are using is beautiful and carries with it the somber feeling of a huge church. The different troops are outfitted in dress uniforms and those on the platform are wearing formal clothes. Chewbacca gives the call for the troops to stand at attention while a triumphant fanfare plays.

Writing Exercise: Research a fictional ritual and identify the level of ritual and each of the five elements.

Want to talk about your favorite ritual with me? Tell me about what you learned in the comments below and I’ll respond!


Missed part one? Here’s a link.

Part three, where we discuss how to create our own fictional rituals, is now available.

Want to see other presentation notes, look no further.

Don’t want to miss a post? Click the subscribe button on the sidebar or “like” my author page on Facebook. Prefer Twitter? @JodiLMilner

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Pt 1 The Difference Between Rite and Ritual

The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.

This is the first part in a three-part series. If you missed the first two parts, go back and check them out.


Every culture, every family, every person on earth participates in some sort form of ritualistic behavior. This behavior might be as simple as the specific way one prepares his coffee in the morning to formally greet the day, or as complicated as initiation rites of the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest.

The purpose of ritual is to elevate the ordinary. Anyone can get dressed, but when a Geisha dresses, it transforms the activity into an art form, creating wonder and fascination.

Yōshū_Chikanobu_Cha_no_yu.jpgTake for instance the ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, or “The Way of Tea.” The goal of the ceremony is to create a relaxed communication between a host and his guests. This communication consists of more than words, it is displayed through exact choreographed action, impeccable appearance, delicate tastes, and suitable sounds. It includes the disciplines of flower arranging, calligraphy, selection of an appropriate kimono and ceramics as determined by who is being served and for what occasion, and ritualistic meal preparation. The tea philosophy incorporates the ideals of “Harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility” and every action taken serves to bring focus to these ideals.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a ritual because it elevates the act of serving a guest tea into a performance worthy of special attention. It is not considered a rite because the participants are not passing a milestone or entering into a different phase of life.

Satere Mawe.jpgIn the Satere-Mawe tribe young men who wish to be known as Mawé warriors must pass through a grueling initiation. This is a Rite of Passage ceremony. The gloves on their hands have bullet ants woven into the grasses. When worn, these ants bite the hands of the wearer over and over, injecting a toxin. The bullet ant earned its name because the pain is said to rival that of being shot. The effects of a single bite can last for days. These boys must wear the gloves for 5 minutes at a time and to be truly considered a Mawé warrior, must complete the ritual 20 times. They must prove their worth by remaining calm and expressionless while experiencing excruciating pain.

To review –

A ritual is the performing of a task in such a way that elevates it for the participants involved.

A rite consists of a ritual, or several rituals, that mark an important milestone in a participants life.


Loving this discussion? Stay tuned for the next installment where we discuss the specific elements of ritual.

Want to see other presentation notes, look no further!

Don’t want to miss a post? Click the subscribe button on the sidebar or “like” my author page on Facebook. Prefer Twitter? @JodiLMilner

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The Idea Notebook

IMG_5882Fellow writer friends of mine have talked about how ideas seem to attack them at random. It’s as if this happens constantly and if they don’t stop what they’re doing immediately, they will forget their bolt of inspiration and it will be gone forever.

I’d like to say that I was the same. Having an unending stream of ideas, useful or not, would be a welcome change. Personally, I get an oddball or unique idea maybe two or three times a week, sometimes as many as six. Nothing like the torrent of ideas that my fellow creatives seem to be getting.

Since my ideas don’t come all that often, I have yet to swerve to the side of the road and madly race through the contents of my car to find a suitable piece of paper to jot the idea down before it deserts me for a more worthy creative person. I think the worst I’ve done is wait for a red light and then use speech-to-text to make a note of whatever crazy my brain has cooked up.

Every once in a while something good will float to the surface as I’m trying to fall asleep. These are the hardest ideas to snatch because, frankly,  I really want to sleep. As much as I am convinced I will remember in the morning. I never do. Bizarro dream notes I leave myself are even worse. I have one that reads, “Space wet ware, Matt Damon.” The only memory attached is that the idea was a brilliant piece of sci-fi. There may or may not have been a potato involved. If any of you can figure that one out, let me know.

The problem I’ve had for years is how to organize these ideas. Some people have dedicated binders and index cards and computer files that hold the fluff of their brilliance. Others are happy with a box of torn napkins and old receipts covered in scribbles.

I’ve tried all sorts of books, binders, card files, computer files, and never found a good system that worked for me. Either I can’t find what I written or I don’t want to take the time to transcribe things back and forth to different places.

So, when Todd Henry, author and host of the Accidental Creative podcast, talked about how he organizes his ideas –  it sounded perfect. The specific episode, I think…, was “The Power of Little Ideas (with David Robertson).”

Here’s how it works –

The first part if obvious. Always carry something to write your ideas down on. He uses index cards, that didn’t work for me.  I use the notepad feature on my phone because heaven knows I won’t lose it. When I get an idea, I jot down the basic gist. All the ideas go into the same note so they are all in the same place. These ideas can also include books I need to read or shows someone has recommended I watch.

Once a week, or when the list gets too long, I sit down at my desk and copy out the ideas into a composition book. Yes, I know I said I don’t like transcription, but this feels different. Why not a computer file, you ask? Brilliant question. The act of writing it out by hand and having it all organized in a permanent, undeletable,  low tech place, brings a tremendous amount of reassurance that the idea is safe.

It was at this point Todd Henry’s podcast pushed me in the right direction. He suggests creating a series of indexes in the front of the notebook to organize all the ideas into useful groups. As I copy my ideas into the book, I sort them into categories and place a heading or brief blurb in the index. If the idea has lots of elements I would like to explore, I write the page number where I have done so in the index.

Most of my ideas fit into the blurb space so I don’t usually have to turn pages to find what I am looking for. The categories I use include: blog post ideas, short story concepts, agents to contact, problems that need addressing in my current work in progress, and media to watch/read.

I find when I pay attention to ideas and take care of them, more ideas will come my way. When I ignore them, I tend to notice them less and less. Now when I’m considering what I should write next, I have a book with at least a dozen interesting things to explore.

How do you organize your ideas? Share in the comments below!


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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 5 Create Your Own Magic System

This is the fifth and final part to the Magic Systems 101 presentation notes. The original presentation was given at the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

Want to read the rest of the series? Here are some handy links:

More presentation notes are coming soon! Make sure you like and subscribe either here at WordPress or on Facebook so you don’t miss out.


If you’ve been following along for the first four installments of the Magic Systems 101 series, then you have learned lots about the different types of magic systems and seen examples of how magic has been used. Now for the fun part! Creating a magic system.

original-7101-1486053612-3Who Gets to Use Magic?

The first task of creating any great magic system is deciding on who gets to wield it. There are several ways to approach this. In many books only a specific race or species can use magic. In others, humans can use magic if they are lucky – or unlucky – enough to be born special.  A third consideration is that any human/sentient being can do the magic if they have the special object or book.

Once it is decided who gets to use magic, then the big question is why? Why are certain beings granted this gift, and others not? The answer to this question can be simple. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. Or it can be extensive, like the genealogies of different magic characters in Lord of the Rings. Either way, choose carefully how you share this info with your readers. Unless it’s a crucial part to the problem your main character is trying to solve, you might not need to go into detail.

Other things to consider is how having this magic affects your character. How are magic users seen by the rest of society? Are they cast out as devil-worshipers or idolized as gods? Does having a greater power bring a better standing among magic users, or do they have to prove themselves by doing great deeds?

Often, the true price of having magic isn’t realized until it is no longer an option. What would happen to your main character should the magic be taken away? Would they fall into a depression? Would they be happy?

the-last-airbender-aang-the-avatarWhat is the Cost of Using Magic?

There are two things to consider when discussing the cost of  using magic. The first is where does the energy come from to perform magic. Many systems drain the life force of the magic user, while others need the presence of certain elements to draw from. Elemental systems, such as the Last Airbender, draw on air, water, fire, and earth. In this type of system the magic user will have an affinity to one element over the others and might only be able to use the magic associated with that element.

The second cost is much more personal. How does using magic affect the user? Do they risk insanity should they use too much? Do they live longer? Shorter? In the Wheel of Time, men who used the power went insane, but the women didn’t. A large portion of the plot revolved around cleaning the power so it would be safe for men to use.

aladdin-genie-prequelWhat can the Magic do?

It is very tempting to have magic that can do anything. However, like the genie’s wishes, limitations must be set. Why? Because if magic can do anything, then it doesn’t allow your characters to struggle to solve their problems. The one exception is when the magic requires certain items and the characters must quest to find them. (By the way, the quest for magical items story has been done enough times that I caution writers to stay away from it or find a really unique twist.)

When we discussed the magic system of Harry Potter we talked about how the characters were limited by their knowledge of spells and their proficiency at performing the right gesture with their wands. In other stories where the magic comes from books, the magic user would be limited by his access to different spell books.

Those with internal magic, where power is drawn from the life force itself, the first obvious limit is if the magic user uses too much, it kills them. In addition to this, they may be limited to only specific uses depending on what kind of world building has been established in the story.

1868944What does the Magic Look like?

This is where fantasy has the chance to shine. Magic is unusual and therefore very interesting. People read fantasy to escape into a world where the impossible is only a breath and a wish away.

You, dear writer, are charged with making your magic look cool. You owe it to yourself and your readers to come up with a unique way for your story’s magic to looks and feel. Does your character need to learn spells or create symbols to make the magic work? Is the magic visible in the air as it performs its function?

Depending on the story, the magic can be beautiful or terrifying to behold as well it should be. What it shouldn’t be is boring.

Good Luck!


Enjoy this series? Like and share below. Stay tuned for more in-depth discussions from my other presentations to come.

Want to discuss magic systems? Leave a comment here or come over to my Facebook page and shoot me a question. I’ll answer all magic system related questions.  🙂

Thanks for stopping by!


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