Selling LOTS of Books and Why Bright Ideas Can Go BADLY

The Reliant Robin: Image via "Top Gear"

The Reliant Robin: Image via “Top Gear”

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. And the key to making money at this writing thing is we have to be able to write books…the more the better. If we can write GREAT books quickly? WINNING!

Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

Plotters tend to do better with structure, but even pantsers (those writers who write by the seat of their pants) NEED to understand structure or revisions will be HELL. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader.

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya.

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most new writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. We have to understand plot. That’s why I make learning this stuff simple, easy and best of all FUN.

And for those who’ve heard my clever stories before, just be polite and laugh and for the sake of the new kids.

Does Your Plot Have “Chemistry”?

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

Here's the Per--ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Here’s the Periodi–ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded badass. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents” and liked to wear hemp and put flowers in their hair.

And then you had the neutral gases—The “Noble” Gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it.

Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. Today we’re going to cover some basics. We must understand basics before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments, subtext, parallel timelines and where the heck we can buy a Flux Capacitor to go back in time and slap ourselves for spending five years on a seriously dumb plot idea (that seemed GENIUS at the time).

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 65-120,000 word novel.

When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry :D . Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be frogs, ferrets and fluffernutter.

And BABIES!

And BABY SPAWN!

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, that’s a lie. Boundaries, even loose ones, actually intensify creativity.

Don’t believe me? Watch any show about maximum security prisons. Those inmates are some of the most creative folks on the PLANET. Who knew a spoon could be so useful?

Anyway…

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or WTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author understands the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea.

Structure is important.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The Micro-Scale

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. If we wanted real LIFE, we wouldn’t read FICTION.

So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters.”

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients.

Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy and READ).

Statement of the goal
Introduction and development of conflict
Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster
Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative!

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

This is where “literary-artsy writers” often chime in and want to bring up examples of how “Thus-and-Such won a Pulitzer by writing an Epic-Fantasy-Self-Help told only by using combinations of haiku and emoticons.” Fine. Go for it. I’m here to teach how to write a commercial product, which is something consumers want to…consume. Code for “buy.” Just because we are creating something commercial doesn’t mean it is less-than or “not” art.

One word…Ferrari. Has four wheels, doors in logical places, the steering wheel isn’t in the trunk and people pay BIG BIG MONEY to own one.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

Cars come in all sizes shapes and variations. The engine can be in the front, in the back, powered by sunlight. Cars can be one color or all colors or have a COOL WIZARD airbrushed on the sides. But, there are fundamentals that the Scion and the Lambourghini should share or it can go badly—“rules.” For a good laugh: Ten Bad Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time .

When we start getting clever for the sake of being clever? Our story can do this:

***WARNING: Do not drink liquids while watching.

Granted, to a small group of collectors and aficionados, these products are valuable. Heck, even that lampshade hat made of prime rib jerky Lady Gaga wears to award ceremonies cost a pretty penny, but most of us will stick to wearing a regular ball cap ;).

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share?

I do want to hear from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

TOMORROW is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on June 27th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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  1. #1 by J. Sander on June 19, 2014 - 10:49 am

    Great post. Lots of things to take into consideration when working on my own novel. It is hard to remember everything when your writing though! So much to think about.
    Love the clip from Top Gear. Always kill myself laughing watching that.

  2. #2 by MonaKarel on June 19, 2014 - 10:49 am

    I flunked Chemistry because I couldn’t memorize the Periodic Table. Epic poems, yes. Complete plays, yes. John Galt’s speech…well, no. But the rest, no problem!
    Maybe if the Chem teacher had explained the RELATIONSHIP between element groupings it might have appealed to my mixed up teenage brain? Because for me stories are about the relationship between the characters. If that relationship comes across as mystical and murky…well, there are way too many other books to read

  3. #3 by netraptor001 on June 19, 2014 - 10:50 am

    The first place I ever read about scenes and sequels was from Jim Butcher’s livejournal. Jimbutcher.livejournal.com . Concise and hilarious. I hesitantly started using that structure, and my writing improved several levels overnight. :-)

  4. #4 by ugiridharaprasad on June 19, 2014 - 10:57 am

    Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  5. #5 by Elke Feuer on June 19, 2014 - 10:58 am

    I just started using a scene checklist to make sure I don’t forget anything. I write mystery/suspense and I find it helpful with making sure everything strings together nicely without having to go back and change scenes (more than usual) because something doesn’t work. I also use an outline to track main plot points.

  6. #6 by Cindy Sample on June 19, 2014 - 10:58 am

    My first day of chemistry class involved an experiment where we turned up the heat and melted a solid. At the end of class we were told to clean up, so I dumped the liquid down the drain and turned on cold water. I spent my lunch hour cleaning up the solid mess that now jammed up the drain. An excellent lesson on paying attention! I keep Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure next to my laptop. Thanks for another great post.

  7. #7 by Gunn's Cabin Fever on June 19, 2014 - 11:00 am

    Superb in all ways. I am definitely interested in your classes and will go and have a glance – not sure what ideas I have to offer regarding plot, but I do like to toy with suspense vs surprise, where the character knows something the reader doesn’t, or has done something but hid it from the reader. I think that is a nice idea now and then

  8. #8 by Ron Estrada on June 19, 2014 - 11:04 am

    When I first read about story structure from Larry Brooks, it was like someone turned on the lights. Others like Mr. Bell and KM Weiland continued my education. Now, I can’t believe I ever tried writing a book without this knowledge. You can be a panster, but you still have to edit it back to proper structure. I compare the plotters and pansters this way: a plotter is like the painter who starts with penciled in lines, then fills in the colors. A panster is like the sculpter who starts with a massive block of stone and chips away everything that is not the story. If you hate cutting words out, better plot ahead.

  9. #9 by Liz Crowe on June 19, 2014 - 11:22 am

    intimidating, but highly useful post. Thanks again for somehow reading my mind and cutting right to the chase of what I’m struggling with. While i’m fairly notorious for NOT structuring I think my current slow sales is reflective of that. I gotta change the way I work I think.
    shared across my networks

  10. #10 by christawojo on June 19, 2014 - 11:30 am

    This post came at a perfect time for me, a newb at noveling. I made a complex outline for my first book, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t follow it very much. When it came time to for my second NaNoWrMo, I thought, ‘what’s the point of plotting?’

    So I pantsed the second novel. It was exhilarating. Pantsing offers those lightning strikes of insight and allows your characters the freedom to surprise you. However, I found I got stuck a lot and it definitely left me a revision nightmare.

    Pantsing is like stumbling around your house in the dark during a power outage. You have a vague idea where everything is supposed to be, but oftentimes you still can’t find the door.

    I don’t want to put my readers through that.

    Now I’m pantsing a third. Not by choice, really. I just didn’t have anytime to make a plan for this one. (Is that a lame excuse?)

    Now that I’ve read this post I feel that as an inexperienced writer I better keep my training wheels on. It’s not too late for me to start plotting. Even if I don’t follow the outline, it will give me a trellis to tack scenes onto.

    So hearken to my experience. I would advise newbs to sketch out a plot for at least the first few books. Then after a writer starts to memorize their periodic table (plot structure), they can scribble out chemical equations (pantsed books) wihtout leaving such a mess.

    Thanks, Kristen!

    • #11 by Stephanie Scott on June 19, 2014 - 12:07 pm

      I loosely plot ahead of time, but anything that’s chapter-by-chapter or really specific story beats beyond the general inciting incident and some ideas for turning points and an ending, I just cannot do ahead. I try and what I end up with is not helpful, or I stray so much in writing the book that the outline doesn’t help much.

      But a little guidance does help, as does knowing your characters. I’m learning to do more plotting on the second draft, when I have something to work with. That’s when it really comes together FOR ME. I also know my characters better by then and in tandem with editing can move around or craft new scenes that fit with more of a structure.

      • #12 by christawojo on June 19, 2014 - 9:00 pm

        I’m happy to know that this strategy works for you because it seems like my organic writing procedure (in my brief experience) is developing in the same way.

        I was just reading about the painstaking structure writers like John Irving establish before they even start their novel, and I can’t imagine foreseeing everything I want to portray so far in advance.

        Writing for me is finding the best way to let my unconscious flow unimpeded by my insecurities. If I think too much, the suck factor is always high. Thanks, for your reinforcing input, Stephanie :)

  11. #13 by Kassandra Andis on June 19, 2014 - 11:38 am

    The only thing I remember about my chemistry teacher is that he taught us how to make a still. It sat atop the lab desks and was filled with clear liquid for most of the year. He claimed it was only water, but now that I have a teenager to deal with I highly suspect it wasn’t just water since he was dealing with dozens of the moody, angst-ridden little humans that we once (and hopefully no longer!) were. I think I’ve blocked out all the rest for self-preservation purposes.

    I attended your wonderful class on Tension on Every Page at DFW Writer’s Conference and bought your book Rise of the Machines (which I took with me to the waterpark yesterday. One of the few places my three boys don’t fight). I remember you mentioned a lot of what’s in this blog post during that class and since then I’ve been dissecting my book and trying to redo all my chapter breaks to fit this formula. I find the hardest part to be separating what you’ve actually written as opposed to what information is simply in your head because the reader doesn’t need / want to know. Hopefully it becomes easier with practice!

  12. #14 by sharonhughson on June 19, 2014 - 11:43 am

    Sure, after I say I want you to talk about scene and sequel on the WANA Facebook page, I read your blog and you talk about scene and sequel. Although, I think I still need more.
    I know I need to spend more time analyzing my scenes during revision to make sure they meet all the criteria. *loud sigh* Does it ever get easier?

  13. #15 by Virginia Lori Jennings on June 19, 2014 - 11:44 am

    What the heck is wrong with those CARS lololololol~!

  14. #16 by Dianne Gardner on June 19, 2014 - 11:45 am

    I so agree with the importance of structure. One of my favorite how-to books for writing includes John Truby’s Anatomy of Story as well as Michael Hauge’s teachings. I’ve tried to encourage other authors about the necessity of certain story elements but often those instructions fall on deaf ears. Glad you spoke up.

  15. #17 by Tamara LeBlanc on June 19, 2014 - 11:48 am

    Your analogy with carbon chains was fantastic!
    I like Plonsting. I’m not a die hard plotter or punster, I’m a plonster :)
    Have a great afternoon!
    Tamara

  16. #18 by Daven Anderson on June 19, 2014 - 11:53 am

    The UK Reliant is the perfect demonstration of why 99.9% of cars have FOUR wheels. ;-)
    One does have to avoid your story structure becoming TOO predictable, though.
    You don’t want experienced readers being able to guess what hapoens next.
    This was my problem with Avatar, I could tell everything that was going to happen next, and I felt like I’d seen it dozens of times already.
    My first novel’s Act II may have been a bit long, but it beats being rote….

  17. #19 by jrosebooks on June 19, 2014 - 11:55 am

    Guess I didn’t have a very good chemistry class – we never had to memorize the periodic table. Okay, I know I didn’t have a good chemistry teacher – the OLD guy married a student and had a kid. (iew).

  18. #20 by A.J Sendall on June 19, 2014 - 11:58 am

    Reblogged this on A.J. Sendall and commented:
    Another great post from Kristen Lamb

  19. #21 by A Writer With Something To Say on June 19, 2014 - 12:00 pm

    Great post! I know that I need to work on my structure as a writer and get busy.

  20. #22 by Stephanie Scott on June 19, 2014 - 12:03 pm

    I learn something new every time I read about structure. The more I understand it, little light bulbs go off. Thank you!

  21. #23 by Aul on June 19, 2014 - 12:57 pm

    Your posts make me feel like I have a lot of work to do…a bittersweet feeling (but kind of leaning towards the “bitter”)

  22. #24 by srmeisinger on June 19, 2014 - 1:45 pm

    Wonderful insight– and more importantly, a really great reminder.

    Guidance for my plot is one of those things I find myself wishing I had a better grasp on. In my own little way, I’ve started combating the inherent struggle by laying out my own questions as I read; things I assume my readers would ask since they don’t live in my head like I do.

    What is her motivation in reacting that way?
    Where will this action lead us, ultimately?
    That character has been given a name, so what makes her so integral?
    Is this moving the plot or just filling the page?

    And it helps a lot. Rather painstaking and sometimes very time-consuming, but I feel as though it’s really allowed me to flesh out what needs fleshing while simultaneously trimming the fat.

    Structure is always the hardest for me because I’m really good at creating the basis of a plot and the basis of a conflict, but I can’t for the life of me bring about a reasonable resolution. I’ll be digging into this concept more, and reblogging this post for reference later.

    Thank you for the kick!

  23. #25 by srmeisinger on June 19, 2014 - 1:49 pm

    Reblogged this on S.RM and commented:
    A wonderful reminder for anyone who struggles with “Beginning, middle, and end” at all in the writing process. Simple, clean, and with an easy-to-follow structure, most readers would rather indulge in a book they know HOW to read than one they have to TRY to read. It’s something I need to pull into my own writing regimen, so I thought I’d share it with you all, too.

  24. #26 by Laurie on June 19, 2014 - 2:01 pm

    I pantsed my first novel. What a mess! Thinking of throwing it away and starting over. I followed Save the Cat story beats to plot my novella and short story. And guess what? Those went WAY better. All I did was write out the title of each beat, and ONE Paragraph. One. That was it. But it worked. Then I pantsed from there. ;-)

    • #27 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 19, 2014 - 2:23 pm

      I am a PONTSER, LOL. I create the log-line then basic story guideposts then GO. But it keeps me on track.

  25. #28 by burneplasmafire on June 19, 2014 - 3:36 pm

    My problem is that I figure out what I need to do to make the story work, which is good, but not the ins and outs of every single scene. And then I get hung up on those.

    So I think instead of just noting down ideas and trying to string together a chapter with them, I need to spend a bit more time storyboarding. That way I leave myself room to get creative, but I have a mini-map to refer to if I get lost or stalled.

    I’ll get cracking on it tonight. :)

  26. #29 by Rebekah on June 19, 2014 - 4:00 pm

    Hi, I actually figured out where to start and end the novel first, giving it a time frame that made sense. Then I made a numbered list of what I wanted to write, in the order I wanted to write it, fitting with in the time frame. Sort of the highlights and main point so that I wouldn’t get detracted on a side spin. Then I just started writing, let it flow. I find many grammer and spelling mistakes when proof reading, even after reading it 5 times, I still find mistakes.

    I read you post about log-line and want to get that written. It has been whorrling in the back of my brain all day. I’m going to need some time to play with that one.

    Thank you for the cause-effect, Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster, and Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action. As I read this I was scanning my book mentaly thinking yes, when I write like this it is fun to reread what I wrote. When I can’t seem to make that work, the text is flat and boring. I’m not even pulled into my own writting when that happens. It seems like a bunch of facts, even though I’m still telling a story, it just doesn’t pull me in.

    I’d love to learn more about making the story flow and at the same time catch the reader, leaving them wanting more. I don’t want to loose them. The more I write the more comfortable I feel writing. I can even see improvments from day one untill now. I’ve only been working on this book for a few weeks, It’s my first and I have no formal training. I just have this story to tell, good or not. I’m telling it anyways.

    This comment is getting a bit long… I think I’ll stop now and try to figure out how to reblog it and link it to my blog. I have no clue how it is done. Have a nice day and thanks for the post.

  27. #30 by Rebekah on June 19, 2014 - 4:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Ten Years in Germany and commented:
    For anyone wanting to write a novel, check this out.

  28. #31 by Ryder Islington on June 19, 2014 - 4:35 pm

    This is so true. I was never a real plotter–I’m a pantser by nature–but I’ve learned that plotting is not limiting and structure is required if you plan on actually having readers who enjoy your writing and might buy book two, because book one was worth the time and money.
    Great post!

  29. #32 by Dawn DeSousa on June 19, 2014 - 5:05 pm

    Hate Chem – love plotting….great new twist on an old idea. Does this stuff wake you up at night? Thanks again and working on my novel log line.

  30. #33 by pauljennynyc on June 19, 2014 - 5:43 pm

    Reblogged this on Stories are the Wildest Things and commented:
    Check out this post about Structure and let me know what you think! For more articles like this one, please subscribe to the Stories are the Wildest Things Insider newsletter.

  31. #34 by Garrett on June 19, 2014 - 6:00 pm

    I have a question about book deals. It seems like when an author signs a book deal they have very strict deadlines but then there are some who do not. George R.R. Martin, for example, who takes forever between books. How does he get away with it?

    • #35 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 19, 2014 - 6:32 pm

      He is George R.R. Martin.

    • #37 by burneplasmafire on June 19, 2014 - 7:37 pm

      Bear in mind, you don’t necessarily have to have a book deal to need to work to a deadline. The sooner you finish a book, the sooner it goes in the pipeline, and a deadline you set for yourself gives you a definite target.

      That being said, without a book deal you have no advance, which means you have to support yourself somehow while you write the book.

      So in other words, it can be a battle to be efficient in that situation without sacrificing quality.

  32. #38 by ernestortizwritesnow001 on June 19, 2014 - 6:20 pm

    I do a lot of pantsing in my writing and the editing and revisions really slows me down. I use a writing program that helps but I would like to try to outline at least once to see if if helps me to be a better writer.

    • #39 by burneplasmafire on June 19, 2014 - 7:53 pm

      The outline is basically as verbose or as terse as you need it to be. Bullet points packed in under headings will do just fine here.

      Make note of important dialogue and events which need to happen to drive the story forward, resolution, and so on.

      The length of a particular entry can give you a hint about how long it will need to be, or you can type an estimate in words at the end.

      Then you can look at bullet points and see whether your story is spread too thin in places.

      It’s only useful if you can quickly refer to it while you’re writing. Not that you necessarily have to, because it’s just a copy of what you know you’re trying to do, but it’s good to have. So, for example, I may do some writing using my browser and then my outline is just a tab away.

      When you’re editing, you can check to see whether what you’ve written agrees with the outline, or whether the outline needs updating to better reflect the story.

      An outline is really useful right before you do a marathon of writing. If you take breaks from writing, it can lose its freshness and meaning to you.

  33. #41 by Lisa on June 19, 2014 - 8:20 pm

    Even successful literary fiction has structure. You often see agents say they are interested in literary fiction with a plot. I laugh at how many contemporary literary books I’ve read that end with either someone killing themselves or a random accidental death. I like literary fiction but it has it’s cliches too.

  34. #42 by thehorrorinmyheart on June 19, 2014 - 10:00 pm

    Interesting Article. Thanks :) I’m going to check out those books you mentioned. When I wrote screenplays I used Syd Field’s very basic structure for plotting. It was very helpful. I have a feeling that novelists who don’t plot their novels but are extremely successful may have it intuitively imprinted from all the novels they have read. Thanks again :) Kym Darkly

    • #43 by Jim Snell on June 20, 2014 - 12:42 am

      Really good point. I’ve gone to book signings by both Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke – who’ve both done pretty well in the detective genre, where you’d think the plot has to be pretty well figured out. Both said, No – they have no idea when they start a story where it might go. But both also say the best thing a writer can do is read a LOT. And as Chris Vogler points out in The Writer’s Journey, we tend to tell stories in our society in a certain way. You read enough stories (and see enough movies) and you know how a story “should” go. Of course part of that “should” also includes twists and turns along the way. That’s why I think the term “pantser” is really a poor description of what an intuitive writer does. They don’t figure out obsessive outlines before writing their story – which works for some writers, such as James Ellroy, who can do a 200 page “outline” for a novel. It’s more like they follow an internal compass that is continually self-correcting their direction as they write out their story, taking them to the logical conclusion.

  35. #44 by jahmeikie on June 19, 2014 - 10:45 pm

    Reblogged this on Free Speak and commented:
    This was very informative…I am writing a mystery and after reading this I am inspired.

  36. #45 by Carol on June 19, 2014 - 11:20 pm

    Super helpful and thought provoking! Thanks so much!

  37. #46 by moxeyns on June 20, 2014 - 4:19 am

    Thanks for the reminder! For some reason, I’m good with the first half of this equation; it’s the reaction bit I need to work on!
    Talking periodic table – have you come across this? http://designthroughstorytelling.net/periodic/

  38. #47 by Ice Scream Mama on June 20, 2014 - 6:40 am

    I just stopped reading We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves. It was so well reviewed and the voice of the main character is really likable and strong, but I needed something to happen or just something. I was waiting and waiting and it just took too long.. I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it and it just didn’t work for me. Still, I totally get what you’re saying.

    • #48 by Gry Ranfelt on July 6, 2014 - 1:34 am

      Some books really drag on in the beginning. I’ve read a few of those that I loved anyway but DAMn the writing, characters and initial story idea has to be AWESOME for that to work. Golem and the Djinni is a good example. Very slow beginning but it’s such a good story.

  39. #49 by H.S. Stone on June 20, 2014 - 7:23 am

    Thanks for explaining plot and structure in a way that’s much more interesting than learning high school chemistry! Now for the hard part: applying what I learned to real life.

  40. #50 by Andrea J. Wenger on June 20, 2014 - 8:07 am

    One thing about the Goal > Conflict > Disaster structure confuses me. If the scene is in the antagonist’s POV, the disaster should be for the protagonist, not the antagonist, right?

    • #51 by Gry Ranfelt on July 6, 2014 - 1:33 am

      Probably, yes, but not necessarily if your goal with the scene is to show a more humane side of your antagonist, meaning how they react when things don’t go their way.

  41. #52 by Lori Straus on June 20, 2014 - 9:19 am

    I used to teach comedy improv, and depending on how you approach it, there are definitely clear structures there. Helps hugely with writing. But when it came to open scenes (i.e., scenes that didn’t have a game structure imposed on them), I’d often remind the participants that they already know when a scene needs to move on, because they’ve watched so much on TV and in theatres. And yet, they didn’t really know what I was talking about :)

  42. #53 by mommalisaof2 on June 20, 2014 - 11:06 am

    Chemistry is the only class I ever dropped. I almost quit reading when you went “there”. I’m new to writing and need all the help I can get! Thank you so much for your blogs.

  43. #54 by naomibellina on June 20, 2014 - 11:17 am

    Oh come on, no In-car mini bar? I read a fiction story set in the future where a woman sued a car maker because cars would not start unless you had the seat belt fastened. She ended up getting raped or something horrible. Yeah, not everything needs to be automated. Great post and excellent info, as always!

  44. #55 by saralitchfield on June 22, 2014 - 9:50 pm

    Aaaah love the car analogy!!

  45. #56 by Holly on June 25, 2014 - 5:41 am

    I pantsed the first book of my series, mostly, with really just the last couple of scenes in my head as a target that I was aiming at. Rather like jumping out of a plane and aiming for a specific field. I had a few helpful things, like a premise (parachute) and trigger (pull cord and knowing when to pull it) but from scene to scene it was a freefall. Revisions of that book were brutal! I already had the rest of the series roughly sketched so when it came time to start book two I took the time to plot really carefully. I now have detailed, scene-by-scene plans for the rest of the series (four books total). I’ve looked at overall structure too, three acts for each book AND the overall series, but in all honesty, I only looked carefully at these and wrote them down after plotting out the books and found that I had intuitively plotted them to fit that basic structure anyway! But all this said, the story goes where it needs to go, when it needs to go there. This usually coincides with traditional structure guidelines, because ultimately they make sense, but sometimes there are variations and that’s good, that’s what keeps it fresh and keeps the reader guessing.

    The suggestions in this article are really spot on, we want our readers to stay hooked and these things should help to do that. They are simple, obvious guidelines that shouldn’t restrict writing or make it formulaic, just sensible, guiding principles. :)

    • #57 by Gry Ranfelt on July 6, 2014 - 1:32 am

      Also, we need to be brave enough to break structure when a scene calls for it. Y’know, you can get in a situation where the story demands it. I don’t have an example in mind, but hey, it happens :P
      Very interesting how Frozen got so popular despite the fact that it sweeps structure off the table.

  46. #58 by sherryhoward on June 26, 2014 - 10:31 pm

    Great information! I loved your explanations and hope to use what I learned here!

  47. #59 by Gry Ranfelt on July 6, 2014 - 12:45 am

    Trey parker suggests making a list of everything that happens and every “and this happens and this happens” should be changed so it says “this happens but then this happens which leads to this but then this happens”. Very simple and helpful little rule :3
    The thing is; cause and effect are not just structure. They’re a part of that thing we call, mmmh, LIFE! I do something, there’s a reaction, I react to that and decide what to do next.
    Yesterday:
    We were four friends playing Game of Thrones the board game when my mother comes in.
    “Hey, you didn’t open that wine?”
    me: “Eh, nobody felt like it.”
    Boy 1 shrugs and shakes his head.
    I wink at my girl friend. “Hey, we’ll drink it later.”
    She grins. Suddenly the thought grew in both our minds and we could see it in each others’ eyes.
    “And we could go dancing. Might as well go use our buzz. Let’s go get cocktails!”
    “Yes!” she exclaimed.
    Boy 1 looked skeptic. It was obvious he didn’t feel up to this. I assured him we’d finish the game and he could still get home as planned.
    Boy 2 left to get ready and would meet us in the city and we girls started looking at clothes. Boy 1 started talking about how we’d never gone drinking together and I knew what I said would have an impact on his decision – he obviously would rather be at home watching soccer. So I THOUGHT ABOUT IT, DECIDED AND ACTED: I told him to do what he felt like and that it wasn’t going to be fun for anyone if he didn’t enjoy it.

    A little example of how some small actions and reactions led to leaving a board game to go dancing in a club with one less member in the group and possible awkward tensions for the next time we see each other.

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