Episode 24: How to Discover What Your Story is Really About (Using the SNBS)

Today we’re building off of an idea we explored in episode 14 called the Somebody-Wanted-But-So. We’ll modify that strategy today and learn to discover what your story is really about.


Before we jump into today’s topic, it’s worth going back for a quick review of a technique we talked about in Episode 14 called the Somebody-Wanted-But-So. If you have the time, I encourage you to go back and listen to that episode but, if not, we’ll recap it here.

THE SOMEBODY-WANTED-BUT-SO is, essentially, a way that students are taught to summarize the main plot of a story. It’s really a simple technique that, when reverse engineered, can benefit our writing in a lot of important ways.

Imagine a paper divided into four columns. The first column is labeled “Somebody,” the second, “Wanted,” the Third “But” and the last column “So.”

What goes in the SOMEBODY column is the main character along with a few key details.  An example: Harry Potter—a young boy living under the stairs who finds out that he is a wizard.

What goes in the WANTED column is the SOMEBODY’s desire:  An example: Harry Potter wants to live in a world where he can be with his friends, use his magic for good, and live a happy life.

What goes in the BUT column is what stops your SOMEBODY from getting what they WANT: The example—Voldemort is seeking to destroy everything good in the world… especially Harry Potter.

The SO column is for how the SOMEBODY overcomes—or doesn’t overcome—the BUT:  Harry Potter relies on his friends and his own abilities to destroy Voldemort.

This episode explores a related technique that reveals your story’s true meaning. It’s called the SOMEBODY – NEEDED – BUT – SO and is similar to the SWBS. Below you’ll find an example for a fictional storyline:

A middle-aged former mafia boss who is hiding out as a school teacher as part of the witness protection programTo kill the members of the crime family that he ratted on before they can kill himHe’s isolated from anyone who can help him and is surrounded by high schoolersHe plans a surreptitious field trip that is really an opportunity to assassinate the head of the crime family
A middle-aged former mafia boss who is hiding out as a school teacher as part of the witness protection programto realize that there is goodness and purity in the world and that not everyone is out for themselveshe keeps turning those around him into people like himself through his pessimistic outlookhe meets the one student that is incorruptible who shows him a better way to live and treat people

So what we’ve discovered about our character through creating these charts is the throughline of the story but, maybe most importantly, our character’s main flaw. He’s grown up in a world of violence and betrayal and can’t believe that anyone is really good or altruistic. The audience will understand that the only way this guy can ever truly be happy is by turning away from his old self and embracing a new view of the world and the human condition. But all he’ll see—at least until the change at the end of the story—is that he needs to kill the people who are out to get him and that he can’t trust anyone. What the story is really about is how the main character changes from an untrusting man of violence into a person who values and treats others they way they deserve.


Today’s Wise Word comes from French writer Gustav Flaubert and it likely stood out to me this week because I’m so deeply invested in revising my current work-in-progress. It’s a process that often leaves me frustrated because I can never quite seem to get the words and sentences to do exactly what I want them to. Flaubert must have had a similar experience, because he said…

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.” – Gustave Flaubert

Even though this quote seems like a bit of a downer–the admission that our writing will never quite live up to our expectation of it–it’s also full of hope. It helps to know that the great writers feel the same way as the rest of us, hammering away on keyboards hoping to create something good and great. It reminds me on another quote from my favorite writer, John Steinbeck. In East of Eden, he says “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” There is something freeing about knowing that you can’t attain perfection. Your best will be good enough.


Our weekly challenge this week is only tangentially related to today’s topic, but it’s a technique that I find really helpful in creating characters. This week, I’d like you to write two letters to yourself as if they were written by the main character of your work-in-progress. In the first letter, you are going to write a letter to yourself, from you character, telling you what kinds of things he or she hopes you will write about them in your book. You can start with the sentence, “I heard you were writing a book about me. I just wanted to make sure that you were going to include…” and see where it takes you. This will reveal a lot about their hopes, their desires, and how they want to appear to the world. Then, once you’ve written that letter, write another one imagining that the book has been released and your character has just finished reading it. Why are they furious with you now? What did you reveal about them that makes them angry or resentful or vengeful. This will help you uncover their secret insecurities and how they react to conflict. This is a really fun project and one that has always revealed surprising things to me about my characters. Have fun with this one!

Before we wrap up this week, I wanted to mention that I recently did a Real-Time Revision video for members of my Patreon team where I show you, in real time, how I use the SWUBBUS when revising a scene to make sure I have all the elements figured out. You can find out how to be a part of the Patreon team and get access to this video and a bunch of others like it by going to www.BradReedWrites.com and clicking the Patreon link.