Posts Tagged antagonist

Structure Part 4–Testing Your Idea–Is it Strong Enough to Make an Interesting Novel?

For the past month, we have been discussing story structure. Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs. I bring the best teaching in the industy right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.

Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea. I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words. Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?

Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.

When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.

Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction. Bad juju. We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her.

Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with Roger Moore.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” charater, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shapeshifters….”

Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective–The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene. I am not making this up. And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster of a mother-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their…shenanigans.

This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it. She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the coming weeks, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Winner of 5-Page Critique–Barbara McDowell. Please send a 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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Structure Part 3–Introducing the Opposition

Welcome to Part III of my Structure Series. If you want to self-publish or indie publish, I would assume most of you want to be successfully published, regardless the format or distributor. To be considered “successfully published” we have to sell a lot of books. To sell a lot of books, we must connect with readers. That is what this series is about. Structure is how readers connect to stories. The stronger the structure, the better the story. I highly recommend that you read Part I and Part II of this series, if you haven’t already in that each lesson builds upon the previous lesson.

Let’s get started.

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Yes, we can break rules, but we must understand them first. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. I am not going to use that term in the traditional way because I think it can be confusing. Every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but I am getting ahead of myself. Today we are going to start with the Big Boss Troublemaker. No BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the hero’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the story problem that must be resolved by the end of your tale. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle. In Star Wars, the BBT was the Emperor. It is his agenda that causes the inciting incident and it is he who must be faced in the final battle or the movie ain’t over.

In the beginning of The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick is running from bounty hunters. Due to the nature of the story, it begins right in the action. Who is the antagonist? In that scene it is the bounty hunter.

Riddick’s goal—remain free

Bounty Hunter’s goal—capture wanted criminal Riddick

Their goals are in conflict (This technique, called the Conflict Lock–is taught by NYTBSA Bob Mayer). The bounty hunter is the antagonist in the scene, but he isn’t the Big Boss Troublemaker.

Lord Marshal actually was the party responsible for bounty on Riddick’s head (via the Elementals). The Lord Marshal was also responsible for the extinction of Riddick’s home world in an effort to kill the Furyan male who was prophesied to bring his end. Who is fighting in the Big Boss Battle?

Riddick and the BBT, Lord Marshal.

The stronger your BBT, the better. In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.

The Big Boss Troublemaker doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a storm, like in The Perfect Storm or disease, like in Steel Magnolias.

Remember high school literature?

Man against man.

Man against nature.

Man against himself.

The first one is pretty simple, but the next two? This is where things get tricky when the BBT is not corporeal. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism. Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle. What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself?

In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride, manifested in the ship’s captain who acts as the proxy. In the end, the men lose. They believe that their skill will be able to triumph over the storm, and they are wrong, which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.

In Steel Magnolias the BBT is disease/death, manifested in the proxy of the daughter Shelby. Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite having diabetes (Inciting Incident) is what changes the mother M’Lynn forever. What must change about M’Lynn? She is a control freak who must learn to embrace life for all its ugliness. She cannot beat death, or can she?

We see M’Lynn in the beginning of the movie fluttering over her daughter’s wedding, controlling everything and tending to the flowers and the broken glasses (symbol). When Shelby dies, M’Lynn is once again trying to control everything, tending the flowers and the broken things—her husband and sons. She falls apart after the funeral.

M’Lynn has let go of control and the arc is complete. In the Big Boss Battle, the BBT is defeated. How? Shelby is dead. The BBT is defeated in that there is resurrection. Diabetes and death have been defeated. Shelby lives on in the son she left behind, a grandson that M’Lynn would never have had if she’d gotten her way in the beginning and been permitted to control Shelby’s life. (Note that this entire movie is bookended by Easter).

In the movie Footloose the BBT is religious fundamentalism, which is represented by the town preacher and father of the protag’s love interest. Kevin Bacon wants to dance, BBT wants no dancing. The town preacher is responsible for the story problem. How can a dancing city boy hold a dance in a town ruled by religious fundamentalism?

Your BBT is the entire reason for your story. No Emperor and there is no Star Wars. No Lord Marshal and Riddick would be off doing what Riddick likes to do when he isn’t killing things. If everyone agreed the storm was too big to mess with, then there would have been no Perfect Storm. If Shelby didn’t have diabetes, then there would be no challenge and, thus no story. In Footloose, if the town had been Catholic there wouldn’t be an issue.

So, once you have your Big Boss Troublemaker, you will have emissaries of the BBT. Depending on the type of story, usually the BBT will have a chain of command. Some will be actual characters. The Emperor had Darth and Darth had Storm Troopers that he could send out to cause massive inconvenience to others. They all trace back to the original BBT, though. The BBT is the core of the story and must be defeated by the end of the story. Everything leads to destroying the BBT.

So we have Big Boss Troublemaker.

We have the BBT’s emissaries.

Ah, but EVERY scene has an antagonist. What is the antagonist? The antagonist is whoever is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving her goal.

In Romancing the Stone who is the Big Boss Troublemaker? The BBT is the crooked inspector. Who are the emissaries of the inspector? The two thieving brothers who have kidnapped romance author Joan Wilder’s sister (the crooked inspector is using them as unwitting pawns to get the map and get the jewel). What is the goal? The jewel. What is the final battle? When the inspector and one of the thieves are fed to the alligators in an act of poetic justice, and the younger brother is taken to jail.

Who is the antagonist? That changes, but Jack (the love interest) often serves the antagonist’s role. Joan wants to just give the map to the thieves in exchange for her sister. Jack wants to use the map to find the jewel.

Some Pretty Hard and Fast BBT Rules—Break these Rules at Your Own Risk

Rule #1–BBT (or a proxy of the BBT)  MUST be introduced in Act I. No leading us on for 50 pages before we get an introduction. BBT is responsible for Inciting Incident.

Rule #2–The love interest CANNOT be the BBT. He or she can wear the antagonist’s hat, but he or she CANNOT be the BBT. Why? Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Also, in romance, even though guy and girl might not get along in the beginning, they do come together as a team for the final showdown against the BBT.

Pizza has rules and so does romance. I am sure there are exceptions, but it defies the code of great love stories and often leads to a very unsatisfactory ending.  Audiences have tastes that we are wise to appreciate. If we want to write romance, then there is a fairly strict code that guy and gal end up together in the end. It’s the whole point of reading romance, so we can believe love conquers all. If our romance mimics life too much, then there is no escape and that defeats the entire purpose of reading romance.

Yes there are exceptions. I am here to help you guys grasp the overall rules. Once we understand the rules, then we can break them.

Rule #3–BBT MUST be defeated in your book. Period.

There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. No. Sorry. Try again.

In a series, the protagonist in every book MUST DEFEAT the BBT responsible for the story problem. We must treat that book as a stand-alone. If we were hit by an ice cream truck and never wrote another, the problem of our last book would be resolved.

We will talk more about this on another blog, because series are a whole other ballgame. I will give you a nugget to hold you over, though. Think back to what we talked about earlier. BBTs have emissaries sent to do their evil deeds. Treat each emissary as your BBT in each book (only you don’t have to tell the reader unless you want to). Each BBT is a necessary step to complete in the overall defeat of the series’ MAIN BBT.

(Book I) BBT–> (Book II) BIGGER BBT–> (Book III) HOLY MOLY! AN EVEN BIGGER BBT!!!!

Lord of the Rings

Defeat Uruk-Hai–> Defeat Saurauman–> Defeat Sauron

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. Structure is tough, and hopefully this series is breaking it down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

I want to hear your comments. Who are your favorite BBTs of all time? Do you still have questions or other topics you would like me to explore? Do you have any books or techniques you would like to share?

Exercise I–Watch your favorite movies. Who was the BBT? Who were the emissaries? How was the BBT’s agenda introduced?

Exercise II–Recall your favorite books. Again. Who was the BBT? Who were the emissaries of the BBT? How was the BBT’s agenda introduced?

Exercise III–For the literary folk. Who was the protagonist? What internal flaw was the protag forced to confront? How was it manifested (BBT)? Was the character flaw defeated? How was the BBT defeated?

In Steel Magnolias the character flaw (need to control) is defeated when Shelby dies. M’Lynn lets go of control. Diabetes/Death (the BBT), however, is defeated with life. Shelby will live on through her son.

Yeah, it’s a brain-bender but great exercise for our story-telling muscles.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 page Critique–Angela Quarles. Please send your 1250 word Word doc to my assistant. Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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Deadly Sin of Writing #6–Drifting in the Doldrums

Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.

Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.

This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?

Worry=Page-Turner

Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).

Back to conflict…

When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.

Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc.  Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.

Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.

The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.

First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.

Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.

All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”

If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.

Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.

So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:

1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.

As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.

“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.

One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.

If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.

2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.

After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.

Marlin><Dorie

Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.

-/+

(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)

Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.

There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.

3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.

Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.

Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.

At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.

What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 pages (1250 words) of critique:

Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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59 Comments

4 Writing Crutches that Insult the Reader’s Intelligence

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

Last Week’s Winner–Nina Badzin

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Until next time…

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97 Comments

Testing the Idea–Is It Strong Enough to Make a Novel?

Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible. Many writers don’t have the luxury of writing full-time. Thus, it becomes critical for us to use time effectively. We don’t have time to waste writing 30,000 words only to realize our “great idea” cannot support the bulk of a three-act structure. Thus, we need to get really good at testing our ideas.

I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. In my novel writers critique group, we have experienced first-hand that not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words.

Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough? Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly highly, highly recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.

Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction. Bad juju. We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her.

Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with William Moore.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” charater, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school.”

Huh?

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920′s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective–The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;) .

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember in March we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, rapes, car chases and dead bodies are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Darth (Annakin) had to face the Emperor. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster of a mother-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their…shenanigans.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using Bell’s LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. Bell makes plotting simple. I was a die-hard pantser (writer who writes by the seat of her pants) and Bell helped me learn to plot, yet still retain the pantser spontaneity.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 page critique is Stella Deleuze. Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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46 Comments

The Secret to Mastering Plot–Getting Primal

Today we are going to discuss gimmick and fundamentals of a good story.

First, gimmick. Here is the thing. There are only so many plots. DO NOT try to get creative with plot. Everything has been done. Seriously. There are only so many elements on the Periodic Table, yet everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements. Think of core plots like the elements on the Periodic Table. Many new writers make writing a novel way too hard in that they try to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works. Leave the wheel alone. You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.

I find a lot of new writers get really excited about gimmick. Gimmick is dangerous, and gimmicks can bite back. Don’t believe me? Okay…M. Night Shyamalan. He got us with The Sixth Sense, but after that? It was over. Why? Because the “magic” only worked with a naïve audience. After The Sixth Sense we were like CSI Vegas with every Shyamalan story. Short of using a swab kit and blacklight, we paid attention to every last little detail trying to figure out the twist ending.

This also limited Shyamalan in that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn’t. If he told a story with a twist ending, then the audience (no longer naïve) was looking for the clues, so no ending could possibly measure up to The Sixth Sense. But, if Shyamalan tried to do a movie with no twist and do something different, then the audience was ticked because there was no twist.

Shyamalan, in my opinion, is a victim of his own brilliance, and I can see how The Sixth Sense really put him in a bind….because it worked so well. Most of the time gimmicks suck, but even when they are really good…they still suck. So avoid gimmick and just focus on becoming a darn good storyteller.

Anyway, back to my original point.  There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.” Go ahead and try. I guarantee you that one of two things will happen. One is that you will think you have this new plot no one has ever seen. All excited, you will posit this new-and-shiny-never-before-imagined-idea to your fellow writing friends, and one of them (I promise) will go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like the movie Blah.” And then you are required to drink heavily and cry and wonder why you were doomed to be born a writer. The other end-scenario is that you get so weird that you barely understand your own story, and the poor the reader will need a Dungeon Master Guide and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Chemistry has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird or complicated or it falls apart. If you doubt this assertion, read the discussion about the Star Wars disaster um, prequels here.

Plots, at the very core, are usually simple. Why? The plot is the foundation. Now what you construct on top of that foundation can be super-complex. Note I wrote complex NOT complicated. Even the most complex stories can be boiled down to very simple goals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, James Clavell’s Shogun, and MacMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove all have very simple forces driving very complex and dynamic stories. Good versus evil. Struggle for power, for survival, for love. Very simple. As Blake Snyder says in his book Save the Cat: Is it primal? Would a caveman understand the core of your story?

Good storytellers connect with the audience on a basic level. So when you whittle down that idea or novel into a one-sentence log-line, step back and be honest. Does your story hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death? Does it have physical and or emotional stakes? Your story might seem complex, but at the core it should be very basic and connect at a visceral level. People in China LOVED Titanic. Why? Because it is a love story. Love is basic. It is primal.

There are all kinds of methods of plotting, but before you start any novel, there are some fundamental questions we can use as a litmus test for our idea. Ask yourself:

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

Notice I said sympathetic…not likable. Be careful here. If we are expecting readers to spend 10 hours (average time to read a novel) with our protagonist, it helps if they are rooting for him to win. If you have a rough protagonist, then you need to at least offer the reader a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed. If he can’t be redeemed, then you must offer the reader something about your protagonist that puts the reader on his side.

For instance, Quentin Tarantino knew he had a potential problem in Pulp Fiction. His protagonists (Travolta & Jackson) happen to be a two hit men and human beings of the lowest sort. Tarantino was brilliant in how he handled introducing Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. First, he makes them funny. They stop for a burger before the hit and get into this funny dialogue about the Big Mac vs. The Royale. So we find them funny and we relate. But then Tarantino takes it another step and makes the bad guy badder than these two hit men so that the audience will side with the lesser of two evils. When viewed “in relation” these guys are clear heroes. They are still deplorable, but they are sympathetic.

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

A lot of first-time novelists get fascinated writing novels about journals, letters and buried secrets. I have a theory about this. It is called, “We-Are-Squeaky-New-and-Don’t-Know-Jack-About-How-to-Plot Syndrome.” Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.

Novels that involve a journal or finding about a secret past usually involve the newbie author’s favorite tactic…the flashback. Since we have no big goal at the end, forward momentum is scary, so we roll back…and this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift. Journals and letters, in my opinion, are so attractive because they provide the unskilled author a contrived mechanism for stringing together unrelated vignettes. That is not a plot. Sorry. I was bummed too. That is okay, though. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m here to help :D.

Yes, you can use journals in your story, but seriously? How many best-selling novels have you seen that involve someone reading a journal? Things written in journals are in the past, which means they have already happened and the world didn’t end so who cares? It becomes a Watch out for that glacier! No rising stakes and no pressing danger. Watch out for the glacier! It’s moving at an inch a year, but watch out!

Conflict drives stories. My best advice? Journals are for self-actualization. Leave self-actualization for therapy. Want a gut-wrenching plot? Stick to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy ;).

Stories can have a journal/letters, but they MUST ALSO have a main conflict and the journal/letters are merely a tool that drives the present conflict…which is your plot. The journal isn’t the plot. Neither are the letters. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had conflict happening real-time. Yes, the novel contained each girl’s experience with the pants, but each girl’s story was a separate plot joined in one large plot and happening real-time. Each girl was facing a different challenge and had to mature in a different way, but the group of girls (the group is actually the protagonist) had to learn to mature while finding a way to hold on to childhood friendship.

Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood. The Ya-Ya Journal was critical for the daughter and mother (present-day) to repair the rift in their relationship. So there was a present-day problem that the journal solved, and basically you have a Fried Green Tomatoes. Two parallel plot lines and the present-day plot relies on past-time events to drive forward momentum in the present. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was the same thing. Two parallel love stories, but both had a plot arc. The love story told in the notebook drives the present-day love story in the nursing home.

Same with secrets. The secret must have something to do with the present-day story or it is just a contrivance. The secret can be a part of the story, but generally doesn’t work as the entire story. Linda Castillo executes this brilliantly in her novel Sworn to Silence. Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, grew up Amish, but made a choice to live in the world with the English. She is the Chief of Police in a small Ohio community of both Amish and English, and she acts as a cultural bridge. When a serial killer begins butchering women, Kate leads the investigation, but a secret from her past holds clues to catching the present-day killer. Kate’s secret drives the forward momentum of the present-day plot, and adds mind-bending tension.

Is my story primal?

Beneath the empires and spaceships and unicorns, is your main plot driven by a basic human desire/need? Here is a list of some best-selling novels I’ve read to illustrate my point.

Michael Crichton’s Prey—Survival. Save/protect loved ones.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic ParkDon’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Survive. Protect loved ones.

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

Linda Castillo Sworn to Silence—Fear of death. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Jennifer Chiaverini The Aloha Quilt—Love. Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Bob Mayer & Jennifer Crusie’s Wild Ride—Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island—Survival. Vengeance. Protect loved ones.

Stephenie Meyer’s TwilightSex. Protect loved ones. Don’t get eaten.

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Okay, so as you can see, I read a lot of genres. But most great books can be boiled down to a very simple driving force. New writers very frequently rush into the writing with no idea of the story they are trying to tell. I know. I’ve been there. And since deep-down we know we do not have a core goal that is simple and primal, we try to compensate by making things more and more complicated. That’s why so many writers have a panic attack about the agent pitch session. We are forced to boil down our plot to the primal core…and we can’t because there isn’t one. So we ramble and blather and try to fit 400 pages of world-building complications into our pitch while trying not to throw up in our shoes (Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt).

Being complicated is like trying to use Bond-O putty to fix your plot. Won’t work. Strip that baby down and look at the bare bones. Simple. Primal. This is why gimmicks are a sticky wicket. Gimmicks make stories complicated instead of complex. Stay away.

Remember that there are no new plots. So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own? NYTBSA Bob Mayer frequently points out in his workshops that the award-winning novel A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. In my pov, Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires (and I am not alone in this assessment).

Instead of trying to totally revinvent story and plot as we understand it, why not take a book you love so much the pages are falling out of it, and see if you can use the premise in a new and exciting way?

Utilizing another author’s plot is not plagiarism. It’s smart. Remember…the number of plots is finite. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. Heck, I did! We believe we have to come up with a story never told before or risk being accused of plagiarism.

Not so.

Plagiarism is when someone takes the execution of another author’s plot and tries to hide that by only changing surface elements. So if I wrote a book called Evening about girl who moves from Texas to Northern California to fall in love with a vampire who merely glimmers in sunlight…. See the point? Actually a great way to come up with story ideas is to go to the IMDB and look at log-lines, then ask yourself how could you tell that story differently?

A timid romance author must travel to South America and join forces with a handsome opportunist to rescue her sister who’s been kidnapped by treasure-hunting thieves. (Romancing the Stone).

A shy librarian must travel to South Texas and join forces with a handsome biker to rescue her brother who has been kidnapped by desperate drug-dealers. (Kristen’s Made-Up Story).

See how you can take a story that has already been done and make it something amazing and new?

So what are some problems you guys are facing when it comes to plot? Do you have any resources to share? Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration? Share.

I love hearing from you! And 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

June Week 3’s Winner is Anne Mhairi Simpson. Please send your 1250 word Word doc to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

I am teaching TWO workshops at Write It Forward. Sign up HERE. There is a Becoming a Brand class for $20, but if you want to blog and you need my dedicated help to helping you find your own unique brand and develop a plan for blogging, then the $40 Blogging to Build a Brand will fit that need. In this class I will run you through exercises to help find and create a brand as unique as you and then tailor it to connect with your future fans.

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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70 Comments

What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Great Writing

Happy Monday! Last week, we picked on the poor Star Wars prequels. What went wrong? Better yet, what lessons can we, as writers, take away from some serious storytelling blunders? If you missed this discussion, go here, and check out the comments. Some people way smarter than me stopped by, that’s for certain. So, this week, I decided that this piece I wrote about STAR TREK last year might be a nice follow-up to the Star Wars piece from last week.

I love the new J.J. Abrams rendition of Star Trek. As a writer, stories are my business, so I study them in all forms. Film is a favorite in that it takes far less time and allows me to study the written form in a visual way (tactic I learned from great writing teacher and NY Times BSA Bob Mayer).

Anyway, I don’t watch movies like most people, much to my husband’s chagrin (he would put tape over my mouth if he could get away with it). This most recent version of Star Trek did very well at the box office and resonated with audiences in a way that other high-budget fast-paced sci-fi movies had failed. Why? I believe Star Trek was a wild success because Abrams adhered to some very fundamental storytelling basics too often forgotten in Hollywood and even in writing.

Yes, movies and novels have more in common than you might think. Today’s blog especially applies to sci-fi and fantasy, but I believe all genres can benefit from these lessons I’ve plucked from the silver screen. Today I will address some of my favorite points, because this movie is such a fantastic tool for understanding great storytelling that I couldn’t possibly address all the lessons in one sitting.

Star Trek proved that imperfect characters resonate with audiences.

Audiences LOVE flawed characters. James T. Kirk was deliciously flawed at the beginning. He was on a road to self-destruction believing he could never stand in the shadow of his father’s greatness. He demonstrated how character strengths of a great leader, when not harnessed properly, are tools of great mischief and mayhem. Did the plot really serve to change Kirk? Not really. His attributes were very similar, just refocused in a productive way. The inciting incident really just put Kirk on a path that would make better use of his buccaneer ways.

Time and time again I see new writers become far too fascinated with the too-perfect protagonist (been there and got the T-shirt, myself). The problem with the too-perfect protagonist is that audiences find it difficult to relate. While it might seem counterintuitive, flawed is often better. Want an illustration from the fiction world? I believe that Twilight is a great example. Bella was deeply flawed and thus readers could easily slip into her shoes. They, too, could look at Edward and long to know what it would be like to be one of the beautiful people.

I think that is why a lot of movies flop. Who can relate to Angelina Jolie? In Tomb Raider she was fun to watch, but we have absolutely no way of connecting with Lara Croft. She is beautiful, insanely rich and lives a life of adventure. The movies would have done better had the writers/directors done something to make Lara Croft real. The first movie did well simply because fans of the video game. Yet, audiences couldn’t connect to this super perfect (and not really likable) character, so the second movie bombed big time. And I am not alone in this assessment. Read Save the Cat by the late screenwriting genius Blake Snyder, which is a great book for all writers to read anyway.

Writers. Can we cast über perfect characters? Sure. But we do so at a risk. Perfect characters easily become one-dimensional and boring. As in movies, we need to connect with a reader, and most of us didn’t sit at that table in high school.

Star Trek perfected showing, not telling. Star Trek did an unsurpassed job of showing, not telling. Yes, they can info-dump in movies. I gutted through Deadline with the late Brittany Murphy and there were convenient camcorder tapes along the way to info dump back story. There were all kinds of scenes dedicated for the sole purpose of characters discussing a third-party. No, no, no, no, no! Bad writer! Had the screenwriter been in my workshop, he would have gotten zinged.

Virtually everything in Star Trek happened real time. The director didn’t dedicate entire scenes to Spock and Uhura explaining how Kirk was a reckless pain in the tush. Abrams employed scenes that showed Kirk crashing through their lives like a bull in a china shop. There was ONE flashback and it was information critical to understanding the plot.

Star Trek employed parsimony. One element of showing and not telling is to make the most of your story. Employ setting, symbol and action economy. If a scene can do more than one thing…let it. In the beginning (prologue) Kirk’s mother is pregnant (with him). Bad guys appear, and Dad is left on board as acting captain of the ship. He must sacrifice to save them all.

It is no accident that the director did two things. First, all the battle noises fade away and symphony music rises. Then, the scenes cut from Mom giving birth to Dad giving his life. Birth and death, hope and sacrifice are suddenly in perfect harmony. That was done for a reason. In your novel, do all things on purpose.

Look at your scenes. Can they do more than one task? For some ideas, read my blog Setting—More than Just a Backdrop. Setting can be used for more reasons than to give readers a weather report. Lehane proves my point in Shutter Island (discussed in blog), which is a tremendous example of narrative parsimony.

Star Trek showed character via relativity. In the beginning we see Kirk as this crazy guy power drinking and zooming around on a crotch rocket. Yet, the director knew he could have a problem. He needed Kirk to be a maverick risk-taker…but he also needed to prove to the audience that his protagonist wasn’t a foolhardy idiot. No one wants to follow a raging moron with a death wish into battle. The director needed to show us someone who cared deeply about others and who was willing to risk everything for his men.

How did he do this?

There is an early scene where they have to do a space jump (think HALO jump). Kirk and Sulu go with a Red Shirt—which means Red Shirt dude is going to die for those who are not Trekkies. Red Shirt guys always bite it. The interesting thing is that the Red Shirt guy is hooping and hollering all the way down like some idiot out of a Mountain Dew commercial. Kirk pulls his chute and begs the guy to open his. Red Shirt is too busy being a thrill-seeking idiot and ends up vaporized. Now we the audience can see Kirk takes huge risks, but we also understand that he cares about others and is not stupid.

Star Trek relied on character and story. This is the single most important lesson for those writing sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal or horror. Tell us a story about people first. Relying on gadgets and gimmicks is not storytelling (if you ever need a reminder, just go check out last week’s post about the Star Wars prequels). There are all kinds of space movies that had far better special effects than the original Star Wars (the GOOD ones), yet Star Wars endures and will endure to future generations. Why? Because it told a story about people first. I believe this Star Trek did the same and that is why it is a movie that will endure for generations.

I never could get through the newest Star Wars prequels. Why? Because there was so much CGI (computer generated imagery) that I felt like I was trapped at Chuck E. Cheeses and having a bad LSD trip. I felt the computer images were far too distracting. From the comments on last week’s post, I finally realize I am not alone.

Star Trek, on the other hand, used CGI, but not at the expense of the real focus . . . the stories about the people.

I edit a lot of writers who want to write YA, fantasy, paranormal, etc. and too often they allow world-building to take over. The reader is so bogged down in gimmick that she cannot see the characters or the story. Frequently there isn’t a story.

World-building is something a writer must employ to assist or accentuate the core conflict. Our goal as writers must be to get a reader to relate and connect. People connect with people, not worlds. Conflict drives stories, not gizmos. Thus, all the magic and myth must be ancillary to the root story. If you have done a good job of plotting, that root story will be very simple and timeless and could take place in Kansas or on Planet Doom.

For those of you who haven’t watched the new Star Trek, I highly recommend it (duh :D) even if you aren’t a fan of sci-fi.

What are some of your favorite movies and why? How did the story capture you? Why does it resonate? What are your thoughts on the new Star Trek? What did you like? What fell short?

I love hearing from you! And 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

Join us for the BIGGEST PARTY EVER!!!! Tomorrow is the launch party for NY Times mega-author James Rollins’ new book The Devil Colony and you are invited to hang out with some of the biggest names in publishing as well as the coolest people  on Twitter. Read this for more details.

Winner for June Week Three is Virginia Ripple

Please send 1250 words in a Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org :D

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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64 Comments

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