Posts Tagged antagonist

Antagonists–The Alpha and the Omega of the Story

Law Abiding Citizen 2009

For the past month or so, we have been discussing the antagonist, and how vital he/she/it is to the story. I’ve run critique groups for seven years. I also have edited literally hundreds of manuscripts, and one thing that most new writers do not accurately understand is the antagonist.

I have to admit that I didn’t understand the antag the way I needed to until a couple years ago, and this pivot-point in my education would not have happened without the fabulous Bob Mayer. Not only is he a NY Times and USA Today Best-Selling mega-author, but he is a great writing teacher as well. A couple years ago, Bob actually taught me a technique that changed everything about the way I wrote. Bob advised that I start thinking of the antagonist FIRST. Initially, I was resistant. I mean, I wanted to construct my heroine. She was far more fun. But, as I would soon learn…that was backwards thinking.

Construct your antagonist first. Trust me. You will thank me (and Bob ) later.

As I have said in previous lessons, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda.  No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.

Antagonists are the Alpha AND the Omega—the beginning AND the end.

Once we understand the antagonist, narrative structure falls into place with far less effort. The antagonist is responsible for the inciting incident (beginning) and the Big Boss Battle (the end).

When we know our antagonist, it is easier to find a beginning point.

Too  many authors have awkward prologues that serve no real purpose. They are just stuck on the front because the new writer wants to “hook” the reader because she intends on spending 50 pages to get going (normally with a lot of back story about the protag’s childhood). Hey, I made the same mistakes when I was new, too. We are here to learn ;).

So there is this awkward prologue slapped on the front to hook the reader. Yeah, um no. Prologues are bad juju. Read why here.

Back to antagonists and structure…

When we understand what the antagonist WANTS, then it is easier to pinpoint where and how his life intersects with our protagonist—also known as the inciting incident.

Normal World—Shows us the protag’s life as it would have remained had the antag never come along to disrupt the protagonist’s life. Normal World grounds us and gives us a chance to become vested in the protag. We need to connect if we are going to spend the next 80-100,000 words caring for this character. Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.

Inciting Incident—Is that event that offers the possibility of change. The protagonist still has to MAKE a choice before we make it to the first major plot point. The inciting incident is that point where the agenda of the antagonist intersects the life of the protagonist.

Normal World–>Inciting Incident–> (Choice) Turning Point into Act One

In screenplays there are three acts, always. In novels, there are four acts. Normal World, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.Screenplays generally condense that Normal World so much that it is just part of Act One. In novels, we need time to be vested in the character. Hooking the reader is less about fast action or heart wrenching melodrama and more about presenting a character we like, and who we care about. We connect and we sense trouble, so we worry, and that’s why we stick around.

When we understand the antagonist and his agenda, it is far easier to write great endings.

In Star Wars, we knew Darth’s plan involved the Death Star. Thus, the ending logically would involve the Death Star getting all blowed up, right? In Romancing the Stone, the bad guys kidnapped Joan Wilder’s sister in order to get the jewel. Thus, even if we had never seen the movie, it would be easy to extrapolate that the ending likely involves rescuing a sister and making sure bad guys go to jail and don’t end up with the jewel.

Our beginnings will change a dozen times or more before we make it to the final draft. If you are beginning a book, my advice is that you write out your antagonist’s history. What does he want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting what he wants?

Also, remember that the antagonist, in his mind, is not the bad guy. This will help give your antagonist dimension. Antagonists are not always villains. Vilains are merely ONE FLAVOR of antagonist.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero in his own story.

Great villains do not believe they are the bad guy. Hannibal Lecter felt he was doing society a service by eating the less desirable members of the species. It is his warped justification for his actions that makes him even more fascinating.

Antagonists are not always wrong; their goals just conflict with the protagonist and disrupt her life and force change.

For instance, the antagonist in Steele Magnolias is the daughter, Shelby. What is her agenda? Have a baby despite having severe, life-threatening diabetes. That is a noble goal that isn’t necessarily wrong. Why does this make Shelby the antagonist? Because, if Shelby had been happy to adopt, then M’Lynn’s (mom-protagonist) life would have remained the same. When we understand Shelby’s plan—have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes—then plotting becomes far easier. At the end, there must be a baby. Whether that baby lives or dies is up to the creator.

Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist’s agenda for roughly 75% of your story. It is only in the final act that your protagonist will transition into a hero and will start gaining ground.This is why, when we begin a novel, it makes sense to figure out out ending first. Then, plotting becomes MUCH easier in that we know how and where the story ends. Then plotting is just a matter of getting the protag from point A to point Z.

Some outstanding references to help you guys:

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.

James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit

What are some of your favorite movie endings? Some really well-layered antagonists that had you on the edge of your seat? I vote for Law Abiding Citizen.  I had a hard time rooting for the protag, and found myself hoping the “bad guy” would win. It was very surreal, but proof-positive that this was a BRILLIANT antagonist that made for a spectacular ending…because his PLAN was just that darn great.

What about you guys?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, 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 April 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.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

47 Comments

Balance the Party—Guide to Creating Legendary Characters

For the past couple of weeks, we have been talking about antagonists, and how vital it is to create an antagonistic force capable of sustaining literary momentum over the course of 60-100,000 words. I worked as freelance editor for almost a decade, and have run critique groups for seven years. I have read literally hundreds of manuscripts. The single largest factor that will keep many new writers from ever being successfully published is they do not understand the antagonist.

A “novel” comprised of one bad situation after the next with no core problem and no clear antagonist is not a novel. It is a series of vignettes. Novels must have genuine conflict that progressively escalates until the reader can’t stand it anymore and MUST finish our book if he ever hopes to get to sleep. Read this earlier post for more.

Agents and editors are not out to get us. Really. They are there to keep us from embarassing ourselves by publishing something that ticked off readers and reviewers will publicly shred.

That said…

I left my old writers’ group and created WWBC to fill a glaring hole in the world of critique by blending the insight of a beta reader with the world of the critique group. It has been an effort to steer writers away from the comfort of line-edit, and stretch their skills in innovative ways that develop great storytellers.

One of the greatest goals of WWBC is to help writers create multi-dimensional characters–and especially multi-layered antagonists. One-dimensional antagonists (particularly villains) are mustache-twirling caricatitures. In my critique group, participants are asked to create their story’s antagonist first.

Why?

Because the antagonist is the impetus for disrupting the protagonist’s happy-happy-joy-joy life. If Sauron never created a Ring of Power designed with the sole purpose for ruling Middle Earth, Frodo would have just continued goofing off with his buddies and being bored with Hobbit life. If Wild Bill didn’t have a fetish for size 14 Chick Skin Couture then Clarice Starling wouldn’t have a job very long at the FBI. If the Wicked Witch of the West….

…you get the idea, :).

Yet in my years of being an editor and running critique groups, there is one character that makes an appearance in virtually every new writer’s manuscript…the Born Evil Bad Guy (Antagonist).

Of course, along with Born Evil Bad Guy, I tend to see the Born Noble Hero, and the Born Loyal Minions and the Born Wise Mentors—all in the same book. And these characters can be interesting, but they are only one part of a highly complex and dynamic psychological gamut. That’s like using only two colors of the entire spectrum to create art.

WWBC helps writers get away from the cardboard caricatures by exploring the entire psychological continuum then mining it for attributes that breathe life into any character. How? We do this using a most unique resource from my painfully awkward youth.

Dungeons and Dragons.

For the benefit of those who were not social outcasts, a quick overview.

Before any game play, one is requires to basically build a character using a D&D Compendium. Everything is included—race (Moon Elf), class (assassin), physical attributes, skills, gods, feats, weapons, etc. I often ask the WWBC participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc.  breaks down character alignments into the following:

Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil

 

These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.

***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me :).

We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing creatures. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”

Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.

I recommend picking up a copy of The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook or you can check out this nice article in Wikipedia for a fantastic breakdown of all the character alignments.

As a former D&D acolyte, I can (sadly, LOL) attest to the accuracy of the following information, and I hope it helps guide you in your writing.

As authors, our task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context. Once we understand their moral compasses, we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations.

One quick example…

If I am creating a character that is Lawful Good in alignment, I now know that character’s strengths (noble &  just) as well as his weaknesses (inflexible & unwilling to break laws even if it is for the greater good). By knowing my character’s alignment, it is now far easier to see stressors (other characters of a more neutral disposition who are eager and willing to bend and break rules and laws). It is also far easier to see how the antagonist can make his life miserable (force protagonist into situations where he cannot escape unless he breaks society’s laws).

I could go on, but I have promised to work on brevity. I hope you can see how knowing a character’s alignment immediately helps us as writers see him or her in a 3-dimensional way.

For more ways to create amazing, multi-dimensional characters, I highly, highly recommend Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.

What are some of your favorite characters and why? What makes them stand out to you and live on in your memory? What qualities do they possess? What resources would you guys recommend for learning about character creation? Please, share!

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 April 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.

Stay tuned for March’s winners. Will post soon.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

34 Comments

Introducing the Villain

All right. We are going to talk some more about the ever misunderstood antagonist today. As a side-note, I am going to actively work to make these posts shorter. I tend to get excited and pee on the rugs when the doorbell rings.

Wait, that’s not right. That’s my dog. I’m tired. It’s Monday.

Anyway, I do tend to get excited and try to teach you guys everything you ever wanted to know all at once. So I am working on brevity. See, we all have our weaknesses. Even me. Although mine are waaaay smaller than yours :P.

First, a quick review. Last week we talked about that Oh, but he is his own worst enemy. That isn’t an antagonist. That is arc. There must be an outside story that drives the inner arc. If your protagonist is up against alcoholism, then he doesn’t just one day decide to sober up. There must be an outside event that ignites the need to change and gives the protag stakes and a ticking clock.

For instance, the protag could lose his marrage if he doesn’t beat his addiction to alcohol, and thus his quest is to save his marriage. The outer conflict might be that his wife has filed for divorce and plans on moving across the country with the protag’s children. The inner conflict is what drives the need to drink and that must be battled and conquered by the story’s end. The inner arc must be satisfied (demons conquered) in order to realize the outward story goal (marriage saved). 

We, as readers, must see what the end goal is (saving a marriage) or it will be almost impossible to generate dramatic tension. We must know what is at stake and what could be lost if the protag doesn’t get his act together. 

When our protagonist is up against a culture or a belief, there will be a representative that will be the “face.” In the 1984 hit movie Footloose the protagonist is a big city dancing boy who now is up against hellfire and brimstone fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the face of this culture that forbids dancing? Reverend Shaw Moore.

The plot is not that complex. Big city boy trying to find his place in a small town. The real story is in the characters and how they grow…but note the story goal that drives the changes. 

Have a dance. That’s it. But it creates more than enough conflict to make a great story.

Today I want to introduce the villain. Villains are wonderful and some of the most memorable characters. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Joker, Blackbeard the Pirate, Dracula, Rasputin, and I could go on all day. Villains can be the stuff of nightmares and can elevate a story to legendary heights.

But let’s get this straight. Villains are only a type of antagonist. Yes, a Chihuahua is a dog, but all dogs are not Chihuahuas.

A lot of new writers use antagonist and villain interchangeably. That will limit your writing. The more we understand the antagonist and all his multi-hues, the more color and richness we bring to our storytelling palette.

Villains do not have to be the guy in the black hat twirling his mustache. That is not a villain; that is a one-dimensional flat villain born of a writer who failed to do proper planning before she wrote him.

Any character that only exhibits surface elements—what we see externally—will be a caricature. Villains I think tend to me more prone to this because:

1. We like to think more about our heroes than our bad guys.

2. Villains don’t generally arc, so we often overlook the villain’s motivations

3. We fail to appreciate that most bad guys don’t think they are wrong. They always have a good reason why they are doing what they do.

Larry Brooks has a wonderful book called Story Engineering, and he has a really neat way to craft characters with psychological depth. Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit and Bob’s workshops are also a great place to learn great techniques for layering your characters.

Great villains reach deep into our psyche and torment those soft places we try to protect. I personally believe villains are the toughest characters to write. I think it is a real feat to be able to create that kind of darkness, and it is so easy for us to botch…ergo why villains are often the subject of cackling parody.

In my opinion, I feel the most terrifying villains are the ones we relate to. One of the most disturbing books I ever read was The Shining. What made Jack Torrance so frightening was that he started out a fairly normal guy with a dark side. Hey, we all have a dark side….but Jack’s took over to frightening proportions. Thus, the real question in the back of the readers’ minds is, “Under the right circumstances, could we spiral into darkness just like Jack?”

*shivers*

In The Dark Knight Joker was the premiere example of chaotic evil. Chaotic evil is not easy to write, and yet, somehow great screenwriting and unparalleled acting merged and birthed a villain that will live on for generations to come.

Joker scares us. Why? Well, we normal folk generally have motives. We don’t go out of our way to hurt, torment and destroy others for no reason. We can’t wrap our mind around the idea of annihilation simply for the fun of it. Joker is chaotic and unpredictable, yet below this veneer of bedlam is a masterful planner who preys off the goodness driving those around him.

Villains when done properly can live on as literary legends. Botch the villain and he will be a cardboard caricature bent on ruling the world. Aside from the writing books I recommended, I would also advise that you read a lot of books on psychology.

John Douglas, the father of modern FBI profiling, has some great books. I recommend Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive. I also recommend The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD.

To create great villains, you are going to have to crawl into the dark spaces of their minds. Probably a good idea to read about real evil before putting pen to paper. Play BAU profiler. Evil behaves in accordance to patterns. That’s how profilers catch evil men and women. They look to the behavior of evil to look into the mind of evil to see the face of evil.

Same with great writers ;). We will talk more about villains next week.

So what are some of your favorite villains of all time? Who kept you up late at night with a light on? What villains scare you and why? What are some resources you might recommend?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 on March 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.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

51 Comments

“He is His Own Worst Enemy…”–Antagonist Part 2

Part of why I am writing this series on the antagonist is that most new writers don’t understand 1.) how vital the antagonist is, 2) how to properly use the antagonist and 3) often cannot spot an antagonist if he were dressed like a Vegas showgirl holding sparklers (okay, maybe that last one was just me).

As we discussed last week, the antagonist is the engine of our story. No antagonist, and no story. The main antagonist, I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. Read last Monday’s post for more. The BBT Antagonist is who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life and sets the story in motion, dragging your protag over the main narrative points until he is tenderized enough to stand on his own two feet and fight the Big Boss Battle at the end.

Ah, but some of you are going to try to cheat.

“But my protagonist and antagonist are the same. He is his own worst enemy…”

Yeah…um, no.

Hey, I tried it too. Then Bob Mayer popped me on the snoot and told me to “Give.” Grudgingly I spit out my half-ass attempt at an antagonist and curled up in my crate to think of a new antag.

The funny thing was I had been on the editing side for YEARS. I, of all people should have known better. The problem was that I understood my craft on a gut level. I didn’t understand it in a “nuts and bolts” fashion…which is why I began this blog almost two years ago. I have read almost every top craft book from the best teachers in the industry and I use Monday blogs to share what I have learned on my own journey of Death Star Fiction Editor to Fiction Author.

Back to the cop out, “Oh, she is her own worst enemy….”

Yeah, sorry. That is a character arc, not an antagonist.

Virtually any protagonist who displays a character arc is his or her own worst enemy in the beginning of our story. The Inciting Incident is whatever action the BBT Antagonist takes that sets the story in motion. It is through this journey of escalating conflict that our little protag will hopefully—with the help of mentors, allies and lots of soul-testing conflict—pull his head out of his a$$ and stop being a moron long enough to triumph at the end.

In the beginning of the new Star Trek movie, Captain James T. Kirk is a power-drinking adrenalin junkie who gets in fights and is wasting his brilliant mind and talents. Without the Inciting Incident—the fight at the bar with members of Star Fleet Academy—he would have continued drinking and racing around on his crotch rocket until he was just an old guy with male pattern baldness driving around with his growing beer gut stuffed in crotch rocket leathers.

Not pretty.

Who is the antagonist? Well, the BBT is Nero. But in the scene after the bar fight, the antagonist is actually Captain Christopher Pike who throws down the gauntlet that will forever change Kirk’s life. Pike challenges Kirk to actually make something of himself and to use his God-given talents for something better. Come to Star Fleet Academy.

 Come join Star Fleet. I dare ya! I triple-dog dare ya!

How is Pike the antagonist? Because his wants are in direct conflict with Kirk. Remember Bob Mayer’s Conflict Lock (for more, seriously go buy Bob’s book):

Kirk wants to power drink and feel sorry for himself and jet down a road to self-destruction on his shiny bike.

Pike wants Kirk to sober up and channel his destructive behavior into something productive–like living up to his father’s legacy.

Captain Pike is the character that induces CHANGE…ergo, the antagonist.

Without this CHANGE, Kirk cannot face off against Nero at the end.

I know that every time we talk about the antagonist, we get the “Oh, but my character is her own worst enemy.” Okay, we know that. That’s called arc. But unless your character is a loser at the end of the book, too, there is an antagonist driving that change.

In the beginning of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the Hobbits are their own worst enemy. Merry and Pippin are like trying to take Gilligan on a covert Special Forces operation to take out Bin Laden.

Half the tension of the first movie comes from Merry and Pippin nearly getting everyone slaughtered. They steal from the farmer, and while running, send the whole crew tumbling down the hillside practically into the path of the Dark Rider. Then at the Prancing Pony, they all but hang a bull’s-eye on Frodo.

When they escape intact from the trauma at the inn, these two idiots get the “bright” idea to light a fire to make a late night snack, basically sending off a beacon to the bad guys. Samwise is right there enjoying the campfire with them. And, yes, bad guys do show up and are really grateful for the fire to lead them directly to their target. Frodo is nearly killed when he is stabbed in the shoulder with an enchanted blade.

Merry and Pippin, in effect are not only allies, but they’re antagonists, too because it is their antics that stand in direct opposition to Frodo and Samwise achieving their goals (stay hidden from Sauron and make it safely to Rivendell). It is also their shenanigans that will eventually harden Frodo and Samwise.

Naïveté is a luxury Fordo and Samwise can no longer afford in this threatened world. They cannot be innocent and naïve little Hobbits if they hope to make it to Mount Doom. If they are going to sneak past the Black Gate, they cannot be the type of heroes who light a fire to have a snack.

We see their character progression in the final scene of the movie (which ALWAYS makes me cry, btw). The four Hobbits—Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin—are sitting in the tavern having a beer. In the background the happy, childlike Hobbits dance and sing, unaware of the darkness that nearly won. Merry, Pippin, Samwise and Frodo now are battle-weary war veterans, and it is clear from the grief etched forever in their features, that they sacrificed their innocence so the other Hobbits could keep theirs.

Tolkein layers antagonists brilliantly. Let’s revisit the action I mentioned a minute ago. Right after the turning point into Act II:

Frodo and Samwise want to make it to the Prancing Pony to meet Gandalf.

Merry and Pippin want to escape from an angry farmer.

Result: These two goals are in conflict. Frodo and Samwise end up rolling down a hill with Merry and Pippin nearly into the path of the BBT (Sauron’s) emissary…the Black Rider.

Sauron is not corporeal BUT we face off against his emissaries over and over until the climactic scene. The heroes fight Sauron over and over through other scene antagonists like the Black Rider, the Uruk-Hai, Saruman, etc. This story is like a giant chess board. The goal for the Hobbits is to topple the Black King but to do this, they must outwit, outmaneuver, and defeat the pawns, rooks, bishops, knights…peeling back the layers of the BBT’s defenses.

This applies even in the world of literary fiction. To make things easier, I will go with a movie example.

One of my favorite movies of all time is that Academy Award-winning drama Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American factory worker and Korean War veteran who is recently widowed. Walt is not a nice person. He is angry, mean, bigoted, and holds everyone at an emotional distance. We find out over the course of the movie that this is, in large part, due to the guilt he feels for the things he had to do in Korea.

Walt is forced to ally with someone he hates in order to take out a gang that is terrorizing the neighborhood. This battle will force Walt to face the darkest aspects of his character.

For instance, he must come to grips with the self-centered brats he fathered by being emotionally absent.

But back to the main plot…

By Walt allying with Thao (Toad), his emotional walls must be broken down in order for Walt to take out the entire gang at the end of the movie. The sacrifice Walt makes at the end would not have happened had Walt not changed from the mean-spirited self-centered racist he was at the beginning of the movie. How do we know Walt has triumphed against himself? His selfless action at the end. The people he despised at the beginning are now his only family, and he freely gives up everything to save them.

The gang, however is the BBT. Had they not started picking on Walt’s Korean neighbor, Thao, it is likely Walt would have died an angry bitter man with lung cancer and not a friend or a loved one in the world.

Our protagonist may be his own worst enemy, but even in literary pieces there will be an outside force that drives change (BBT), and there will be a final event to demonstrate this change is complete. Your character might be an alcoholic on a road to redemption, but there is an outside story that drives that change, and a BBT who started it all.

I know that makes your mind cramp, but if your protag is a self-destructive alcoholic, his Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever takes away his booze.

Not only will you have a BBT, but likely there will be a series of antagonists to keep the momentum going and force the change. If your protag wants to drink, then the person who throws a bucket of ice water on him and drags his sorry tail to AA is your antagonist…because their goals conflict.

There will also be a scene at the end to cue us the change is complete. Ie. Alcoholic father walks his daughter down the aisle at her wedding (a wedding he was banned from attending in the beginning by the BBT ex-wife).

A character analyzing his emotions and indulging in lots of flashbacks is therapy…not fiction. Great fiction has forward action and is comprised of a series of events that force the protagonist to change so he can triumph at the end.

So does this help you guys understand the antagonist better? Have questions? Comments? Any recommendations? What are some dramatic movies you love and who was the BBT?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 on March 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.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

52 Comments

The Antagonist Part One–Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum. Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead. The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

This series is to explore the many facets of the most important element in fiction. Today, we are going to begin with what I call the BBT–or Big Boss Troublemaker. Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I simplified things. Hey, I’m blonde. I need small words preferably with pictures, please.

For long-time followers of this blog, we have talked about the BBT before. So this will be a refresher.

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 protagonist’s world to turn upside down. This 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. 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. 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 diabetes/death, manifested in the proxy of the daughter Shelby. Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite having life-threatening 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. Shelby is the proxy of the BBT–diabetes/death. 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).

She looks awfully sweet for an antagonist, doesn’t she?

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. No storm and no Perfect Storm. If Shelby didn’t have diabetes, then there would be no challenge and, thus no story.

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. We will go into this in more detail in lessons to come.

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 generally is not the BBT. He or she can wear the antagonist’s hat, but he or she is not the best choice for 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. Yes, of course this rule can be broken, but in order to break the rules, we must first understand the rules.

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 have a choice whether or not to tell the reader that this is only an emissary). But at the beginning of the next book, the reader realizes that the BBT defeated in the previous book, really was only a BBT emissary for an even bigger BBT.

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

In the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, each movie had it’s own BBT. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie wasn’t over until the showdown against the Uruk-Hai who is actually a minion of Saruman (The Two Towers) who is a minion of the Big Guy, himself…Sauron (defeated in The Return of the King). Each movie has a Big Boss Battle against that movie’s BBT. If we panned back, each movie would make up one Act of a larger 3 Act whole.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

What are some of your all-time favorite BBTs? What made them so awesome? What are your biggest problems with the antagonist? What do you find confusing? What books or resources helped you? Any recommendations?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 on March 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.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

72 Comments

Dare to Be Excellent (This Might Hurt a Little)

Years ago, when I first started writing, fiction was my passion.  The problem, however, is that passion devoid of training is a formula to end up with 174,000 word tome that is the stuff of agent nightmares.  I wish I was one of those talented people who “got it” from the start. I didn’t. I have had to take the road of hard knocks. But, in truth? I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Over the years, I have hit a lot of roadblocks when it comes to writing fiction. For instance, I didn’t truly understand the antagonist the way I needed to.  We have a running joke in Warrior Writer Boot Camp that an antagonist is a serial killer (which can be substituted by ninjas if necessary).

For years, I could edit narrative structure, but I failed miserably when I tried to create a plot of my own. I understood conflict as a reader, but when it came time for me to ante up? Again, I stumbled away unsure how I ended up on the wrong road. I could spot plot holes in a microsecond when editing…but somehow developed tunnel-vision when it came to my own fiction.

Over time, I began to see I wasn’t alone. Others shared the same problem.

We have the ability to spot problems in the work of our peers, but when it comes to the construction side, we founder around like a goldfish out of a tank.

Why?

First of all, we aren’t emotionally vested in stories that aren’t ours. Sort of like, we can see the flaws in other people’s children, but ours are perfect little angels. We often lack objectivity.

Also, there are no great monuments erected to critics. Anyone can pull others apart. Criticism is easy. It takes more to create, to dare to dream, to admit when we are wrong and try again.

I started Warrior Writer Boot Camp for a very specific reason. I was president of a standard critique group. We did the typical read 5 pages and then everyone could chime in and give feedback. But, over time, I became frustrated and disillusioned.

Week after week I had the same complaints—no clear antagonist, fuzzy/nonexistent objectives, one-dimensional flat characters. Week after week I made the same red marks, but the writing never improved. I began to lose faith. I had become president of the group with the hope that I could change the format so we could make meaningful critique.

I believed there was no way to really fix a novel by looking at it through a microscope. A handful of other writers agreed with me. They too had begun to lose hope. No matter how we tried to pry our home group away from their addiction to line-edit…nothing changed.

So we never changed. We couldn’t grow.

Then I asked NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer if he would come to DFW. If he would come to Texas, I would fill a workshop. That core group of disenchanted members and I made just enough to make it worth Bob’s time.

Unlike the others, we were desperate enough to admit we were struggling. We knew we needed professional help. Bob was the answer to our prayers. In two days, we learned more about the craft than we could ever hope to retain. We felt delivered, but at the same time we were fearful.

Here we had this new insight and we were afraid we would lose it if we didn’t do something different. Bob had given us a lot of great tools, but we were light years away from being experts. We watched in awe as Bob pulled apart plots in minutes. He could hear three sentences and know if there was a story.

We wanted to be like Bob.

So we started what we called Warrior Writer Boot Camp. It was a gesture of thanks to Bob who had enlightened us with his Warrior Writer ways. We knew that without consistent practice, we would lose all Bob gave us, that his seeds of wisdom would die if not nurtured, and that the weeds (bad habits) would return.

Even though it was highly emotional and we lost a lot of people we believed were our friends, we pulled away. We started with Bob’s books, which I highly, highly recommend. Then, we totally changed the format to resemble what Bob did with our novels that fateful Saturday. We bought whiteboards and had to find a new meeting location.

We had no real idea what we were doing, but we had faith we would figure it out. We knew practice would make us stronger.

Once finished with Bob’s books, we added in more and more material, ideas and methods.  As de facto leader of this gaggle of misfits, I read every book on the craft I could find and added in other tactics and techniques.

But, the point of this blog is to share with you the lessons I learned and hope you might be blessed.

Find a mentor.

Bob was my first of many mentors. Bob’s teachings resonated, and so I bought every book he ever wrote. I even read the “bad” ones from when he was new. I wanted to look at how HE had grown. What made Z different from Area 51? Could I see where Bob struggled? How he changed? I sign up for all his workshops and I still read all his blogs. And I STILL learn something new every time.

I even started this blog to talk about all the things I was learning after Bob’s workshops, before I even knew I had it in me to become a social media expert. It was Bob’s teachings on fear that revealed a destiny I didn’t even know I had.

*Snorts and rolls eyes* I wasn’t an expert. I just spent too much time on Twitter.

Bob’s Warrior Writer Workshop helped me be brave and realize that maybe I did have something to say that others wanted to hear. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media might not have happened without Bob’s workshop. I still apply his techniques and have grown tremendously as a person and a professional.

If  I blog about Bob, his methods, his teaching, it is only because I can never express how grateful I am. I doubt I would have grown as much as I did and as quickly without his influence.

In time, I made mentors out of other writers. I read their books and studied their methods. I read their blogs and listen for the craft books they recommend. Twitter is an excellent way to make mentors out of successful people. Follow agents, editors, authors and pay attention to their habits, sign up for their classes, read what they recommend.

It’s okay to admit you don’t know everything.

It is hard to find mentors if we won’t admit we need to grow. When I left a career in sales to start writing, everyone thought I was crazy. I couldn’t admit I didn’t know what I was doing, because then I was sure my family would have me committed. It took a long time to let down my guard and set down my pride and humbly say, “Teach me.”

Every day I bow my head to others and humbly say, “Teach me.” Every day is an opportunity to grow, but we have to be empty vessels. If we are already full of our own “knowledge,” there is not room to be filled and refreshed by others. We become a stagnant, stinking pond of our own rotting hubris.

Dare to do things differently.

It was terrifying breaking off from a group I’d known and even led for 4 years. I had to open myself to new friendships, but that could only happen if I let go of the old. If something isn’t working, then do something different.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.

Break away from toxic people.

One of my favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada. I love studying that movie. In the beginning, Andy Sachs lands a job as the assistant to one of the city’s biggest magazine editors, the ruthless and cynical Miranda Priestly.

In Act One, Andy is comfortable with her average friends and her average boyfriend. They regularly get together to gripe about their bosses and the unfairness of life. Their attitude is naïve in regards to success. They fail to see the work and sacrifice successful people make.

Act Two we see the tension build. Andy’s boyfriend and friends have issue with her new job. She is working long hours and can’t hang out like the old days. We see how they resent and undermine her. We know they will eventually force Andy to choose between her career and them.

Act Three, Andy has to make a choice. She can go after her dreams or make her old friends happy.

When you decide to become a writer, you will very likely lose friends. They won’t understand why you can’t hang out, go shopping, or even remain in the same old critique group. They won’t “get” your blog and will resent that you are changing.

Daring to dream will show you who your real friends are. The quicker you let go of toxic friendships, the faster you will make room for friends who love and support you no matter what.

Surround yourself with excellence.

When I broke away to create a content-critique workshop, a core group of friends supported me every step of the way. Had I remained tethered to my fear, I would have remained tethered to people who cared more about maintaining the status quo than they cared about me.

Why did I sign up for this? What was I thinking?

WWBC is full of the most talented, hardworking, amazing writers. I am inspired to try harder every time I am near them. Some of them not only blog multiple times a week, but they write thousands of words a day on their WIPs…and have families and school and other obligations. They raise the bar and make me work harder. I am honored to be part of such an outstanding team of committed professionals. It scares me every time I think how close I came to giving in, how close WWBC came to dying before it even began.

Remember…we can only shoot for the stars if we are willing to let go of the ground.

What are some sacrifices you have had to make for your dream? Has it cost you friends? Did you make new friends? How do you find excellence? What inspires you to keep going?

I love hearing from you guys, and to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 WANA 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 on March 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). For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

71 Comments

“In the Beginning” Part One–Normal World

 

Anyone in publishing will tell you that one of the most important parts of your novel is the beginning. As an editor I hear, “Oh, but wait until you get to the good part on page 50. This is all the lead up.” Um, no. Doesn’t work that way. You might have a humdinger on page 50, but you are competing against authors who hook readers in the first 1-10 pages.

Many agents freely confess that they can tell by page five if they will even bother reading the entire sample submitted. I know. Nothing has changed. I spoke at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this past weekend and sat through the Agent Q & A. Agents have a lot on their plate, so they are looking for a reason to put a story down. Why?

Because agents are out to get you. They are really psychic vampires who feast on the crushed dreams of writers. Muah ha ha ha! Kidding!

To be blunt, agents love great writing. They also want to be good at what they do and make at least a living doing it (like the rest of us :D). How do they do this? By helping writers sell a lot of books. They understand that a novel’s beginning is the “hook” that will make or break a novel when it comes to readers. Agents want writers to succeed, and they know that excellent beginnings are vital to selling many, many books.

I actually believe that, as e-readers become more popular that beginnings will become more important than ever. I know that I frequently download free samples. I figure if a writer can interest me (sell me) in 3 pages, then I will read 5. If she can hook me in 5 I will read the free 30 pages. If I make it through 30, then this writer deserves my money and my time. But, remember, she had to make it past 3. Good writers do their homework and know what goes into a great beginning. I recommend studying great beginnings so you know what they look like.

So what makes a great beginning? Glad you asked. There are a lot of components that can go into a great beginning, but I am only going to discuss one of those components today—normal world. I believe if you can understand why normal world is important, the functions it serves, then you will be less eager to cut it out completely.

Normal world is vital. It is easy to feel the pressure to be interesting and begin our books with a car chase or a shoot-out.

**Hey, there isn’t a mistake I haven’t made as a writer or seen as an editor. Lighten up. It’s okay to goof up and live to laugh about it. The important thing is to learn and do better.

We as writers are so eager to be interesting in the first three lines, that we can easily forget an essential component to fiction…the normal world. Not wanting to bore readers, we toss them in a tank of sharks and grin—That’ll hook ‘em for sure.

The problem with that thinking? When we thrust a reader right into the heart of the action immediately, they haven’t been given a chance to care about or connect with any of our characters. Thus, what can easily happen is that we end up creating melodrama instead of drama. That is a bad situation, not conflict. What is the difference? Read last Monday’s post .

My favorite example of a story that desperately needed normal world is the movie The Crazies. The inhabitants of a small Iowa town are plagued by insanity then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply (via IMDb). This plot idea had the potential to be an excellent movie (I know it was a remake, but haven’t seen the earlier version). I feel this movie would have made it to a whole other cinematic level had the director made one vital change. I wish he would have kept us in normal world longer. Why?

We didn’t get a chance to meet and connect with any of the people who lost their minds and essentially became zombies that the protagonist had to put down like rabid dogs. The director had a great opportunity to create some real drama…but he missed it. He got too focused on zombies and forgot that the true drama came from the main character being forced to kill people he’d known and cared about his entire life…but we the audience didn’t really care. Oh, granted, we cared on a superficial level, but we hadn’t spent any real time with these characters, so when they died it didn’t make us emotional.

The director didn’t have to take long in normal world, either. Star Wars proves that. Who didn’t cry when Skywalker’s family was found dead? But we saw a scene with the aunt and uncle alive and well and they were nice people who we kind of liked…and it moved us to see them butchered. So keeping these movies in mind….

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Two mangled cars lay in ruins, and there are still figures draped with blue blankets surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane, and one of the cars you recognize. It belongs to the nice family you chatted with in line at Wal Mart when you had to wait 40 minutes in the customer service line. You even helped the dad load groceries and put away their cart so the mom could buckle in their babies. You had to stop for gas, but 30 minutes ago that family was alive and well and now the coroner’s van is showing on the scene.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If we open our story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, we are taking a risk. Readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes them have to close the book and get tissue.

Whether in books or on film, this is why normal world is critical. It gives the observer a chance to see the world as it would have remained had the inciting incident never happened. Would Luke Skywalker have been nearly as interesting if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed? And since we as the viewing audience were afforded a glimpse of Skywalker’s loved ones at the beginning of the movie, it had more impact on us when they were brutally murdered. It also helped rally us to Skywalker’s side as he set off on his journey.

2. Normal world gives the audience a baseline for character.  

By understanding how our hero is at the beginning, we also get a picture of what must be developed by the climax so our hero can be victorious. In the beginning of Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder is a single older woman who lives alone with her cat and writes about love and adventure because she has neither…and she is too afraid to pursue them.

Because we see normal world, we then recognize the inciting incident when we see it—the phone call from sister who has been kidnapped. Additionally, because we have witnessed this fraidy-cat writer, we observers are now seated in real conflict as we wonder—How on earth is she going to pull this off? We have seen this woman who is afraid of everything and wonder HOW she will develop the courage she will need to triumph. We are…hooked.

Joan’s life from the moment she receives the call from her sister will no longer be the same. A series of events have been set in motion and conflicts must be resolved to restore the natural order of things. But, since we are storytellers, we know that we must leave the world better than when we found it. Joan, at the end of her quest, must have love and courage to live the life of adventure she only could dream about in the beginning, which leads to my next point…

Normal world gives us an opportunity to see the character’s starting point on his or her arc. Joan at the beginning was afraid of her own shadow. Joan at the end has been tested and tried by bad guys, jungles, snakes, and alligators, and has come out victorious. She as a person had to change in order to triumph. Your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in the opening scene (for one reason or another) should FAIL. Why? Because then victory at the end is far sweeter.

3. Normal world also allows the reader to see what is at stake.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the story begins with the Hobbits. The wizard Gandalf the Grey is riding into town for a visit with fireworks in tow. There is a reason for these initial scenes of carefree laughter on a beautiful summer day. We as the audience get to see what is to be lost should our heroes fail.

In the beginning we witness a lush green world that is lovely and innocent…but in danger. We are told in the prologue that the Ring of Power was not destroyed. Thus the Ring represents an invisible, but ever-present threat. But, because we witnessed this world in an almost perfected state, it is more psychologically disturbing to us as the darkness grows. As the tale unfolds and Sauron grows stronger, we see progressively that the days literally grow darker and darker, the shadows deepen, and no one smiles or laughs any more.

At the end of the trilogy, in Return of the King we get to the ending scenes and see that the world of innocence and joy have been saved, but we see it has come at a price. The little Hobbits who were so naïve and bedazzled by the dreams of adventure are now war veterans, home from a journey that no one in the Shire will ever fully comprehend.

We see them sitting quiet at the table. We hear the unspoken words between them because we witnessed the darkness they faced and defeated. We, the audience comprehend the price they paid so the world could remain innocent. Yet, we know it was all worth it in that, unlike the beginning, the Ring will never threaten this world again. The world is restored…only better.

Points to remember:

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama—we have to get to know the characters in order to care and be vested in them.

2. Normal world gives us a character baseline—we need an initial glimpse to see how our hero is not in a position to succeed in the beginning. This creates genuine conflict in that we want to read the story to figure out how that protagonist could ever take down the antagonist. For a deeper understanding of HOW to do this, I recommend Bob Mayer’s on-line character workshop that starts this week, so sign up now for $20.

3. Normal world lets us see what is at stake—We need to see what could be lost. We also need to see what the hero may be clinging to that is keeping him from answering the call to adventure. The inciting incident must pry away something meaningful (Joan Wilder and security) or offer blessed escape (Harry Potter—escape from abuse).

What are some of the great beginnings either in film or in books? How did they hook you and why? Can you think of reasons a film or book didn’t grab your attention? What beginnings would you recommend we study and why?

I love hearing from you. And to prove it, I am going to sweeten last month’s deal and draw every week from the list of names. What do you win? My critique of the first five pages of your novel. At the end of the month, I will draw for the winner of the big prize. A critique of your first 15 pages. That give FIVE of you guys an opportunity to see if your work will hook an agent.

Names? What? Kristen, what are you talking about? Here is how you can win for those who don’t know. 

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 WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. February’s winner will be announced on this Friday’s blog.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. My workshop about building brand starts this week Sign up….like, NOW. Build your brand the right way. Also, as I mentioned earlier, NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer is teaching on character, too. Great stuff for the month of March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

65 Comments

Hooking the Reader and Never Letting Go

 

What is the one ingredient we MUST include to have great fiction? CONFLICT. No conflict, no story. One of the biggest stumbling blocks I see in new writers is that they fail to understand the difference between authentic conflict versus a bad situation. Bad situations do not make good fiction. Bad situations are boring and probably the largest source of melodrama. Today I am going to give you tools to make sure your fiction grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. The best way to ensure your reader is your captive is to have conflict on every page.

The most important component to creating loads of conflict is that our protagonist must have an active and tangible goal.

Conflict is relative. If we have no idea of the objective, then bad events are just bad events. Bad events must become setbacks. How can we transform bad luck to a setback? Give a hint of the end goal.

Want to know one of the quickest ways to get a reader on the edge of her seat? Show a glimpse of the mountain summit, then throw rocks at the characters and knock them off every cliff. If they get to a nice place for a breather, there better be at least a small rockslide to knock them back a 1000 feet. Yet, these setbacks will mean nothing if the observer doesn’t see the end goal.

Too many new writers do not present the story goal, or the goal is passive. Passive goals suck. Passive goals are like “containing Communism.” Guess what? Didn’t work in Vietnam, and it won’t work in our story either.

In my Warrior Writer Boot Camp (inspired by Bob Mayer), every participant MUST tell us what her story is about in ONE sentence. I recommend you check out this earlier blog for a more detailed explication.

ONE SENTENCE?

Yes. ONE sentence, and the number of the counting should be ONE. Not three, not two. FIVE????…is right out! But the number of the counting shall be ONE. Then thou shalt cast off thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and blow thine enemies to teeny tiny….

Oops. Got sidetracked. Okay. ONE sentence. That sentence needs your protagonist, the antagonist, and an active goal.

Recently one of my WWBC participants sent in this log-line.

A teenager must protect the princess of Atlantis from an angry grief-stricken scientist who wants to take her power which will unknowingly release Chaos into the world.

Um, all righty. What is the goal? Protection. This is a passive goal. This is “containing Communism.” It sounds kind of interesting, but do we really get a picture of what this story is about? For all we know the entire story could be an Atlantean Princess stuffed in a human-size hamster ball with the protag guarding her with a shotgun. Not very interesting fiction.

Protection is one of those things that is kind of implied. I recently edited a book for a friend, and her protag’s main goal was “to survive.”

Okay, don’t know about you guys, but survival is my goal every day. In fact, when I wake up each morning, probably my biggest objective for the day is, “Don’t get killed.” It’s why I don’t blow dry my hair in the tub or lick light sockets. It’s why I wear a seatbelt and don’t run through my house with knives.

Duh! Unless we are suicidal, EVERYONE’S goal is survival. Fiction is only interesting when characters have goals that are special and unique, and since most of the world’s population has the goal to stay ALIVE…survival is BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRING!

A main goal to protect or survive is IMPLIED. When Frodo and Samwise set out with the Ring of Power, I guarantee you that they want to protect the Ring. I also guarantee you they want to survive, but these two goals are not what make The Lord of the Rings interesting. What makes it interesting is that they MUST protect the Ring long enough, and stay ALIVE long enough to toss the evil ring into the fires of MOUNT DOOM.

Okay…volcanoes are interesting. Volcanoes named Mount DOOM are super interesting.

So my little writer had a passive goal with his “protecting the Princess.” Boring!  After a sound thrashing from the Death Star as my students fondly call me, the participant came up with THIS…

A popular computer geek and the princess of Atlantis must find the last remaining time machine in order to prevent an idealistic Guardian from stealing her power and controlling Atlantis.

Awesome! Now we have a GOAL. The protagonist and allies must make it to a time machine before the bad guys do or BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Those bad things that must be prevented are called STAKES. Great books have HIGH STAKES.

YES, I HAVE HAD A LOT OF COFFEE TODAY AND I AM USING THE CAPS A LOT.

STAKES ARE INTERESTING.

In this new log-line, there is a tangible finish line and a goal that is different than the rest of the world. I bet you woke up today wanting to survive. Did you wake up with the sole notion that you would find a time machine???? Okay, you in the back be quiet, and if you find one, let me know.

I might be going out on a limb here, but I would wager that most of us did not wake up this morning with the goal of finding a time machine. It is an interesting goal.The writer has now provided us with a glimpse of the “summit.” We also know bad things will happen if our hero fails. STAKES!

When we do not have a tangible goal for our protagonist, this is like dropping him in the Andes and watching him eat his friends to stay alive. Kind of interesting in a morbid way, but we have nothing to root for. It is different than dropping Pedro and his soccer team in the mountains and they have to make it to THAT mountain…THAT mountain over THERE…because there is a shed full of food and a radio.

Before, our soccer team was just stranded. Every blizzard and rockslide was merely a BAD SITUATION on top of a BAD SITUATION. Yet when Pedro and the Halfbacks set out for a particular mountain the quality of the situation changes. NOW there is a specific objective that we, the observer can SEE. Every avalanche that takes them farther from food, blankets and a radio makes us squirm in our seats and worry if they will make it in time.

But still, as I just said, that is just a Bad Situation layered on a Bad Situation. Not really genuine conflict…yet. To ensure GREAT fiction, we need a CONFLICT LOCK (via Bob Mayer again :D). A conflict lock can only happen when two parties disagree. If you have a scene with only one person, there ain’t conflict. Sorry. Navel-gazing is therapy, not great storytelling.

And don’t try to cheat with the She is her own worst enemy. Who among you LIKE those people let alone want to see them win? Seriously. I know a lot of people who cannot stand prosperity and will sabotage every good thing in their lives. They are annoying. Readers want to follow heroes and heroines…not losers who can’t get their act together.

If you have a scene, there need to be two people (minimum) and they cannot agree…ever. In fact, it really has to get bleak before they can work as a team. I find it so funny that I get all these novels and everyone just works together. No one questions authority. Yeah, right.

Great fiction mirrors life and I can tell you from experience that if you have more than three people with the same goal, they will almost never agree. Go run a committee for ANYTHING and tell me I am wrong.

Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

Back to the Andes….

If Pedro and Juan are the only two living soccer players, Pedro will want to keep climbing and Juan will want to lie in the snow and die. And the reader will be screaming and hoping that Pedro can convince Juan to keep going…despite the avalanche that just knocked them back 1500 feet down the slope and took their shoes.

Every scene needs a problem that needs to be solved so that protag and allies can make it closer to the goal.

Big Goal: Make it to top of Big Mountain where there is a shed of supplies.

Scene Problem: An avalanche sweeps Pedro and Juan 1500 feet and takes their shoes.

Conflict Lock:

Pedro wants to continue barefoot to the top of Mount X no matter what.

Juan has given up. He wants to lie in the snow and die.

Stakes: If they don’t keep going they will DIE.

Every scene needs a conflict lock, which means every scene needs an antagonist. The scene antagonist is whoever is in opposition with the protagonist. Juan is interfering with the main goal of getting to the shed on Mount X, ergo he is the antagonist. His refusal to be on board with the party plan is what injects genuine conflict into the story. It makes the reader worry. Worried readers can’t quit turning pages until they get relief…the conclusion.

THAT is good fiction.

Why must our characters never agree? Because if they do agree, there is only so much we can throw at them before it is just wash, rinse, repeat. This happens in a lot of bad action movies. We only can endure so many car chases and explosions before we are bored. Same with our stranded soccer players. Great, there have been 12 avalanches. We get it. Oh, but this is a bigger avalanche? Oh, a bigger blizzard? Yeah. Sorry. Really don’t care. That is bad luck, not good fiction.

Remember:

1. Goals must be active and tangible.

2. Bad situations are not enough. Tragedies are not fiction, they are news headlines.

3. Every scene needs a conflict lock.

4. There must be high stakes; either physical or emotional annihilation.

So what are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite stories? What kept you glued to your seat? What are some books or movies that fell flat? Was it because of one of the reasons I just mentioned? I want to hear from you!

And, to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, 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 WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

61 Comments

Are We Being a Responsible Novel Parent or a Deadbeat Book-Daddy?

So this is the year. You are finally going to do it. You’re going to write a…no, you are going to finish that novel. How many of you have a bazillion ideas whirling around your gray matter at all times? How many of you have at least a half a bazillion ideas started and left unfinished? They are lurking in your documents, smoking and picking on the short stories. Maybe even writing gang tags on your recycle bin. The Unfinished are a miserable lot. Their lives began with such hope and promise, but then they were abandoned without so much as a good-bye. We are their deadbeat parents, promising that this weekend we’re going to spend quality time with them. But, we don’t. Why? Most of us are skilled at making babies, but we fail big time when it comes to being good parents capable of nurturing an embryonic idea to a successful novel.

Like “parenting,” we writers need to learn certain skills and gain good habits. We aren’t magically mystically born knowing this stuff. This is why I get such a bee in my bonnet when writers won’t say with pride, “I am a writer.” No aspiring. Aspiring writers aren’t responsible parents. They are the “Deadbeat Book-Daddy” of the writing world. They hang out with their writing when it is convenient and fun, and fail to stick it through when stuff gets hard. They don’t invest time, money, and resources into nurturing their work and maturing it into something they can be proud of and brag about.

My novel graduated today. She will be published this summer. Oh, I never thought I would see that day. *sniff, sniff*

And I am not busting your chops. I have a fair amount of Unfinished lurking in my computer too. They hang out with the spam cookies and send me e-mail about my inheritance in Ghana. But, I love them. They are mine. Some will one day be able to go to reform school. Others? Yeah…..we just won’t talk about them. They drool and say Baby Ruth a lot.

No one is going to fault any of us for making bad babies in our ignorance. My blog lessons, however, are here to educate you about how to take an idea and then lay a plan to grow it into a thing of beauty.

We have spent two months talking about structure. If you are new to the blog and want to write a novel, I highly recommend you go back and read the Structure Series so you have the tools to sally forth with the rest of the class.

Part of why ideas get started then abandoned is that writers really don’t get instruction about how to do this novel-writing thing. We believe we are born to write and for some reason that we should already know what we are doing. In our pride, we take off writing, then wake up one day and realize that we have painted ourselves into a corner. This is the point where most of us will do one of two things. Some of us will just give up and wait for the Inspiration Fairy to visit us in our dreams with all the answers. Others of us (yes, I have done both) will at this point (normally 30,000 words in) whip out the Literary Bond-O putty and slather that crap on until we have a “finished” novel that is so complex we don’t even understand it. Why? Because we had to create a secret government conspiracy, an evil twin for our evil twin and a rip in the space-time continuum all to explain why our protag wasn’t where she needed to be on page 100.

Here is the blunt truth. You need to be taught your craft. We all do. People with natural musical ability don’t feel they are “cheating” if they learn how to read music or take voice coaching. And I know all your family will believe that writing is easy, because, yes, even a chimpanzee can make a sentence.

All right. Enough of that.

So, no more Deadbeat Book-Daddy, and hello Responsible Writer Parent. Today we are going to talk about ways your novel can be hijacked, despite your best intentions. Many of you, in an effort to be a Responsible Novel Parent will go out and join a critique group. Excellent…but beware. I am going to explain how traditional critique groups can hijack your dream of being a novelist. But, I will also tell you how to side-step these problems and use the critique group to its maximum advantage.

Critique Groups

This is my opinion, so take it for what it is. I’m right :D–ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Seriously. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose. When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.

In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean Prisoners of Vietnam. You will learn to spot passive voice. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.

The problem with traditional critique groups is that they lack the ability to properly judge the quality of a novel. Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults.

Traditional critique groups can hurt you in the following ways.

Get you in a habit of over-explaining—In a traditional critique group, those sitting at the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.” Well, duh, of course they are lost. They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.

Book-by-Committee—Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a book-by-committee, also known as Franken-novel.

False sense of security—We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review. How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.

 Also make sure this group is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words.

Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.

Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you.

Modify the content you bring to critique. Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed last week). Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.

Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist dumb or the stuff of greatness?

Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.

This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. They can offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words.

Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Cassandra is in the meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw.

I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show you why you are in a writing group. Is it because you really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like me? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I had to check my ego at the door when I started WWBC. Now I couldn’t hide. My ideas and story took a beating…but produced a final synopsis/outline that was brilliant (mostly because of my brilliant writer peers).

Being a Responsible Novel Parent can be tough on the ego. We have to face up to our “kid’s” problems and then look for ways to fix them. This means admitting we don’t know everything and being humble enough to look for genuine outside help.  Does our “kid” have Novel ADD and go off on a zillion bunny trails? Does our “kid” have Story Autism? It’s in its own little world and not connecting with outsiders? Novel Development Issues are not a sentence for our “kid” to be one of “The Unfinished.” Concept Critique will help diagnose these developmental issues, and then give you ways to solve them so your novel can have an excellent life and be a “kid” any writer parent would be proud to claim…and brag about…a lot.

What are your biggest “Novel Parenting” issues? Problems? Concerns? What do you feel about critique groups? Are they helpful or do more harm than good? Do you guys have ideas for other ways you could re-tool a traditional critique group to be able to better see the big picture? I love hearing from you guys. 

Happy writing!

Until next time…

Give yourself the gift of success so you can ROCK 2011. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books. Put that gift card you got for Christmas to good use, ;).

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

39 Comments

Structure Part 7-Understanding Genre

 

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters. Write cleaner and faster. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point. We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Ten years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants. I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

I believe there are three kinds of writers. One type of writer is the Born Genre Author. This type of writer knows the genre he wants to write from day one. He is a born horror author or fantasy author, or whatever. This type does not start on a horror novel and then suddenly start thinking that YA is more his stride…or maybe sci-fi…or literary fiction. This author’s laser-focus is a tremendous asset, but tunnel-vision can get him in trouble. The greatest weakness I see with this type of writer is that they often don’t read outside their genre and so their work can lack that je ne sais quoi that makes their writing stand apart from others in their genre. Of course, this is easily remedied if this type of author can make a conscious effort to diversify.

Another type of author is like I used to be (and still have to fight). Meet The Dabbler. We love everything and have a hard time making up our minds. We love all kinds of writing, but this lack of focus can hurt our platform and spread us too thinly to be effective. Dabblers also are bad about making the mistake of trying to write a book that is all genres and what they end up with is an unpalatable mess. On the flip-side, though. Dabblers who can finally choose a genre usually are very innovative creatures because they have the knack and ability to draw flavors of other genres into their writing. The trick is getting them to pay attention and focus long enough.

Then there is the third kind of writer, The Profiteer. These writers are in the business for all the wrong reasons, and, because of that, usually never end up finishing, let alone publishing. They are writing for the money and fame and often are genre-hos. They keep a finger in the wind searching for what is currently hot. Vampires? Chick-lit? Whatever is flying off shelves, that is The Profiteer’s  new love. Of course what this writer doesn’t understand is that by the time they finish the novel, land an agent and that book makes it to print, the trends will have changed. But most Profiteers fall by the wayside, so that’s all I will say about them.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, I had a student drop out of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp because I told her that her hero could not be the Big Boss Troublemaker (main antagonist) in her romance novel. I advised her that the hero could be an antagonistic force, but that she had to choose another person to be the BBT. Why? Because the genre of romance has rules, and guy and gal MUST come together at the end and live happily ever after. This cannot happen if the heroine defeats the hero.  Great love stories generally do not involve the hero being beaten up by a girl. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit. Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the end. Thrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the Lambs. A murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your main antagonist.  Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction-is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin. This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like YA or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books! Enter to win a FREE copy. Check out Author Susan Bischoff’s blog.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

38 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36,846 other followers

%d bloggers like this: