September 28, 2010


There are lots of good posts about goals, motivation, and conflict, including an excellent one on today's Adventures in Children's Publishing blog.

As much as I enjoy discovering these ideas, my fallback is a strategy I used in the classroom during reading instruction:  Somebody-Wanted-But-So (SWBS)*.  In my version, the goal is present tense:
           1.  Somebody (a character)
           2.  Wants (has a goal)
           3.  But  (something stands in the way)
           4.  So (s/he tries to overcome it)

It's simple, succinct, and flexible; you can apply it to an entire book, or break it down by chapter and/or scene. When applied to each character, it helps summarize the overall conflicts within a story.

Take the Big Bad Wolf. He wants to eat the Little Pigs, but they won't let him in, so he blows down their houses and gobbles them up. When he can't level the brick house, he tries to sneak in via the chimney, only to fall into a vat of boiling water.

Why does he fail? Because the smartest of the pigs has his own SWBS: he wants to thrive in a hostile world, so he builds a secure house, but when the wolf finds another way in, the pig figures out a way to thwart him.

THE WIZARD OF OZ is a great example as well. The characters are memorable not just for their personalities, but because each one has a clearly defined SWBS.

For my own story, I used this approach from page one. My MC wants to meet the Mermaid Queen, but her parents refuse to bring her along on their monthly visits, so she devises a plan to sneak aboard their boat with the help of a dazzling jewel, a scheme that backfires in ways she never imagined.

So there you have it: goal, motivation, conflict, and resolution, all in an easy-to-use formula.

Sound good?

*This strategy is attributed to MacOn, Bewell & Vogt, 1991. For a template of SWBS, go to and click on the chart link.


  1. Sounds great! Simple but with all the elements in one short formula. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. Yes it does! A simple reminder is always the best!

  3. Thanks for the mention. When I read Martina's post, the elementary school teacher in me thought the exact same thing! How funny. Thanks for keeping it simple :)


  4. Somebody Want But So! That's awesome :) Thanks!

  5. This is so fantastically simple and yet profound. I wish I'd known about that when I was teaching middle school English.

    I was just the teensiest bit thrilled I could fit my own book I'm writing into it. Phew! Every now and then it's good to know I'm on the right track!

  6. SWBS - that's catchy! Maybe I'll apply that next time I have trouble reviewing a book.

  7. The first thing I do with each new character is write down where she starts out, what she wants, what stops her from getting it, how she handles the obstacle and where she ends up.

    I think I've been utilizing SWBS without realizing it!

  8. Kenda: You're welcome. Hope you'll find it helpful.

    Catherine: I'm a big fan of acronyms.

    Marissa: Happy to give a shout out. Yes, it's funny and wonderful how teachers have a ready-made array of classroom strategies they can apply to their own writing.

    Jemi: I'm a big fan of simple things.

    Heidi: SOME KIND OF NORMAL fits it as well. ;-)

    Stephanie: You're doing great without it, but it's a handy tool to keep in reserve.

    VR: I think all good writers follow SWBS, consciously or not. Great minds think alike!

  9. Thanks Kathryn. What a wonderful way of remembering the four elements in one formula. :)

  10. Rachna: I've been using it for so long it's almost second nature, which is probably why I haven't mentioned it before.

  11. Swing by my blog? There's something there for you! :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Hey, I won a first-page critique! Thanks, Angela!

  13. What a great and easy way to remind myself what I'm doing (during those periods when my writing begins to ramble).

  14. Andrea: Yes, it does help you to focus.
    Thanks for visiting!


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