Posts Tagged novel structure

Selling LOTS of Books and Why Bright Ideas Can Go BADLY

The Reliant Robin: Image via "Top Gear"

The Reliant Robin: Image via “Top Gear”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Your Plot Have “Chemistry”?

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

Location, location, location.

Here's the Per--ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Here’s the Periodi–ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

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

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

Period.

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

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

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

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

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

And BABIES!

And BABY SPAWN!

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

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

Anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

Structure is important.

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

The Micro-Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

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

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

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

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

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

I do want to hear from you guys!

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

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

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

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

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

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

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5 Misconceptions About Your Story’s “Normal World”

Structuring Your Novel

by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland)

Yes, today I have a guest post. KM and I go way back. We did prison time together. By the way glue-guns CAN get you in legal trouble and our lawyers have advised we not say anything more. But, she knows her stuff about story structure, and that’s an area many of us struggle with…along with a compulsion to use a glue-gun, glitter and pipe-cleaners to “spruce up” the IRS satellite offices. Okay, shutting up now.

Take it away!

*****

Writers sometime balk at the idea of beginning a story with the character’s “normal world.” Isn’t that kind of starting before the story? Won’t readers be bored if they have to wade through all that normalcy before the character’s adventure really starts? How in tarnation are we supposed to be able to open with a hook if we also have to show the character in his workaday life?

These are all legitimate concerns. In structuring a book’s beginning (which I discuss, in much more depth, in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story), the entire first quarter of the book will be focused on setup—or, in other words, establishing that normal world.

At first glance, you might think that seems like an insanely long length of time, and you’d be right. But . . . you’d also be wrong. Let’s take a closer look at some of the misconceptions surrounding the notion of the “normal world” at the beginning of a book.

Misconception #1: The normal world is boring.

Honestly, that one’s up to you. But with a little imagination, there is absolutely no reason your story’s normal world can’t be enthralling in its own right. Just because we call it the normal world, by way of contrast with what follows, doesn’t mean it has to be ordinary at all.

Your character’s normal world could be a cutthroat stock trading floor as in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, a hilariously neurotic morning routine as in Frank Oz’s What About Bob?, or an action-packed exotic land as in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia.

Misconception #2: The normal world forces the story to open too early.

What’s with this nonsense about using a full quarter of the story to set up the characters, settings, and stakes? What self-respecting reader is going to hang with you that long in order to reach that first game-changing plot point at the first quarter mark? If you do it right, every reader is going to hang with you.

Taking this time to appropriately set up your story is vital if readers are going to understand the conflict and invest themselves in your characters.

Consider how Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park uses its comparatively leisurely first quarter to introduce its characters, show their normal world, and guide readers to an understanding of their goals and what they have at stake. Had the movie opened with the first dinosaur attack—or even with the characters’ arriving at the park—readers wouldn’t have been properly prepared. They would have been missing out on the answer to the all-important “why should I care?” question.

Misconception #3: The normal world isn’t important.

The normal world is crucial for several important reasons. As we mentioned above, the biggest reason is simply giving readers enough time to care about your characters before you plunge them into the heart of the conflict. More than that, by the time the action heats up, you’re just plain not going to have time to explain important story elements.

Ridley Scott opens Gladiator with a gripping battle (hardly boring!) in order to show his soldier protagonist’s normal world, then slows down to discuss other important details, such as the state of Rome and the protagonist’s relationships with other key characters.

Misconception #4: The normal world has to do only with setting.

The word “world” tends to throw us a little bit. It can make us think the term is referring solely to setting. As a result, we might end up believing our protagonist’s normal world has to be his home, his bedroom, or maybe his business place. But these settings may have no role in the main story. So how does that work?

The truth is this: your character’s normal world is about way more than just setting. When you introduce his normal world, what you’re really doing is introducing key facets of his personality and, most importantly, the internal conflict he will be fighting throughout the story.

Charlotte Brontë opens her classic Jane Eyre by showing Jane’s normal world as an unloved orphan in her aunt’s home. But she also takes the opportunity to show us important aspects of Jane’s personality and, particularly, her inner struggle between her need for love and her need for freedom. That struggle will frame the entirety of the plot to come.

Misconception #5: The normal world precludes an action-oriented hook.

Once again, that emphasis on normal may make us think we have to open our stories in ho-hum, everyday mode. The character gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, walks to work. Yawn. Where’s the hook in that? But, as we’ve already seen from some of the previously mentioned stories, some characters’ normal worlds are anything but boring.

But what if they are?

What if your character isn’t a warrior or an archeologist, but just a construction worker? Sometimes we can work a little trickery to get around this. Sometimes we can open our stories with an action hook that is really just an intro, in its own right, to the character’s normal world.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim opens with an action scene that sets up his main character’s normal world as a washed-up pilot who is haunted by past tragedies. It works both because the opening sequence sets up character and setting, on its own merits, and because it leads into where the protagonist needs to be for the story proper to begin.

If we set it up correctly, our story’s normal world can provide one of our most useful and enjoyable opportunities to explore and develop our characters. This segment can—and should—be just as gripping as everything to follow, even as it lays the groundwork for more exciting scenes.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 8.34.25 AM

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

You guys have any questions? Comments? Other ideas of how to decorate the TSA scanners for Halloween?

I love hearing from you!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Since it was such a HUGE success and attendees loved it, I am rerunning the Your First Five Pages class SATURDAY EDITION. IT IS THIS SATURDAY! Use the WANA15 code for 15% off. Yes, editors REALLY can tell everything they need to know about your book in five pages or less. Here’s a peek into what we see and how to fix it. Not only will this information repair your first pages, it can help you understand deeper flaws in the rest of your manuscript.

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

If you REGISTER NOW, you get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE (and all recordings) for $119 (regularly $149). Sign up today, because this special won’t last and seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

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Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel

Balancing scenes? I thought you meant balancing ON the scenes…
Image via L.E.Carmichael WANA Commons

Welcome to Structure Part 8. We have spent the past few weeks studying the fundamentals of what makes up a novel, and today we are going to discuss the actual scenes that make up a novel and how to keep track of them. It is easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel, so I hope to give you a nifty tool to keep everything straight.

As a fiction author, you will often feel like an acrobat spinning plates while standing on your head and juggling fiery chainsaws. There are so many components to keep track of, lest you end up down the Bunny Trail of No Return. Organization is key when it comes to being a successful novelist.

First, let’s talk about scenes.

According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, scenes do four things. Bell calls these the four chords of fiction:

The two major chords are: (1) action and (2) reaction.

The two minor chords are (1) setup and (2) deepening.

Back when I used to content edit, I was known to draw cute little cartoon flies on the page when the story took off down a bunny trail and lost my interest. This became known as my, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’” and was a signal to the writer that this was a section with no real purpose so it needed revision, tightening or to be cut completely. The reader is a fly on the wall when it comes to the world we are creating. Make them the fly on the wall of something interesting at all times.

How do we accomplish this?

All Scenes Need Conflict

Conflict is the fuel that powers the story’s forward momentum. “Scenes” that are merely back-story, reflection (rehash of what the reader already knows) or information dump, slow down the story and make the reader either want to skim ahead or put the book down. Bad juju. We want our readers hooked from the beginning until we finally let them go on the last page. How do we accomplish this? We add lots of conflict.

Scenes, according to Bell, need three components, collectively known as HIP—Hook, Intensity & Prompt.

Hook—interests the reader from the get-go. This is why it is generally a bad idea to start scenes with setting. Waxing rhapsodic about the fall color is a tough way to hook a reader. If you do start a scene with setting, then make it do double-duty. Setting can set up the inner mood of a character before we even meet him. Setting should always be more than a weather report. Try harder.

Intensity—raises the stakes. Introduce a problem. Scenes that suddenly shift into reverse and dump back-story KILL your intensity. Cut scenes at meals unless there is a fight. If your characters are in a car, they better be in an argument or a car chase. Also cut any scenes that the sole purpose is to give information. Have a scene that’s sole purpose is two characters talking about a third? CUT! CUT! CUT!

We are writing novels, not screenplays for Days of Our Lives.

Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to happily go to bed at the end of a scene, that is a subconscious cue to your reader that it is okay to mark the page and close the book.  There should always be something unsettling that makes the reader want to know more.

Going back to the chords of the writing. Every scene should involve one of your key characters in pursuit of an interesting goal that is related to the overall conflict of the story. Each of these scenes are stepping stones that take your character closer to the final showdown. Most of the time, it will feel like two steps forward and one step back.

Your POV character (protagonist) sets out to do X but then Y gets in the way. Your character then will have some kind of a reaction to the setback.

So we have the major chords I mentioned earlier:

ACTION–> REACTION to the obstacle

Now when we add in the minor chords, it might look something like this:

Setup–>ACTION–>obstacle–>REACTION to the obstacle–>deepening

Setup and deepening need to be short and sweet. Why? Because they don’t drive the story, conflict does. We as readers will need a certain amount of setup to get oriented in what is happening, but then drive forward and get to the good stuff. Deepening is the same. We want to know how this conflict has changed the course of events, but don’t get carried away or you risk losing your reader.

Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock. Bob Mayer teaches this tactic in his workshops and if you get a chance to take one of his classes, you will be amazed how your writing will improve.

The conflict lock is a basic diagram of what the conflicting goals in the scene look like. Here is one from one of my earlier fiction pieces. My protagonist’s roommate has just been taken by bad guys, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:

Jane wants to pursue the trail of the kidnappers deeper into Mexico.

Tank wants to return to Texas and call the FBI.

Even though these two characters are allies, it is clear they want different things. Jane wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her friend. The love interest doesn’t want Jane hurt or killed. He wants to take the safer route and let the pros handle the kidnapping. Both have reasonable goals, but only one of them, by the end of the scene, will get his/her way. One path takes Jane closer to finding her roommate. The other ends the adventure.

So how do you keep track of all these elements? The note card is a writer’s best friend. We will discuss different methods of plotting in the future, but I recommend doing note cards ahead of time and then again after the fact. I stole a very cool tactic from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

On each note card, I write the location, then a one-sentence header about what the scene is about. Then there is a neat little symbol for conflict (><) I use to show who is in conflict in this particular scene. Then I do a micro conflict lock. Who wants what? I also use an emotional symbol to note change +/-.

Characters should be changing emotionally. If your protag enters on a high note, crush it. Enters on a low? Give some hope. If a character is constantly okey dokey, that’s boring. Conversely, if a character is always in the dumps, it will wear out your reader and stall the plot. I also note any facts I might need to keep up with. Has my main character suffered an injury? Lost her weapon? Gained a bazooka and a pet hamster?

Let’s look at an example from the movies. Romancing the Stone.

So the card might look something like this:

Jungles of South America (Location)

>< Joan (protag) and Jack (love interest/antagonist)

Joan wants a guide to get her to Cartejena, Columbia to trade the treasure map for her sister.

Jack wants to recapture the exotic birds he lost when the bus crashed into the back of his truck.

-/+ Joan finally convinces Jack to take her to Cartejena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartejena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)

Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartejena (decision), but then bad guys arrive and start shooting at them (prompt).

Yes, Blake Snyder’s system is designed to keep up with all the scenes a movie, but it can do wonders for novelists, too. When I finish my first draft, I go back and make set of cards. Using this system makes it painfully clear what scenes are in need of a total overhaul. If I can’t say in one sentence what the scene is about, then I know my goal is weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there isn’t any emotional change, then that’s a big red flag that nothing is happening–it’s a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?'”

If I find a scene that’s sole purpose is information dump, what do I do? I have three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that has existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Note cards also make it easy to spot bunny trails—goals that have nothing to do with the A or B plot.

This tactic can help make a large work manageable. If you are starting out and outlining? Make note cards for each scene and who you foresee being in conflict. If you already have your novel written, but you want to tighten the writing or diagnose a problem you just can’t see? Make note cards.

Keeping organized with note cards is an excellent way to spot problems and even make big changes without unraveling the rest of the plot. There are, of course, other methods, but this is the one I have liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code. For instance, each POV character can have a designated color. Using these cards makes it much easier to juggle all the different elements of great novels—characters, conflict, inner arc, plot, details.

Have any questions? Are there other methods that have worked for you? Please share so we all can learn. What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to plotting?

I love hearing from you! (Contest details below)

Quick Announcement. CLASS IS TOMORROW!: Have trouble putting down and enforcing boundaries with yourself? With family? Always putting everyone else ahead of yourself? I am teaching a new class called Good Fences–The Writer’s Guide to Setting Boundaries and it is only $15 so I hope you will take advantage. This class is perfect for those who want to do Nanowrimo. I’ll help you learn the Art of the Loving NO.

***Class fee does not apply to meth-addicted howler monkey with a sidearm to guard your office door.

Anyway, again, I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU!

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of October I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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

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Black Swan–The Trick to Inner and Outer Demons

It’s now September and we are closing in on NaNoWriMo, so I am going to be posting on some core issues that stump many a new writer. Most new writers do not properly understand the antagonist, and that is a HUGE problem, namely because no antagonist, no story. The antagonist creates the story problem the protagonist must solve/resolve by Act III.

Here’s the rub.

Whenever I blog about the antagonist, I always get, “Well, my protagonist is the antagonist. She is her own worst enemy.” We have discussed this somewhat in earlier blogs. But, in a nutshell for those of you who have slept since we talked about this, virtually all protagonists, at the beginning of the story are their own worst enemies. That is called character arc. If properly plotted, all protagonists would fail if pitted against their enemy in Act One. It is the story that makes our protagonists grow, mature and rise to become heroes and heroines.

Ah, but what if our protagonist literally is the antagonist?

This is when a proxy can be extremely helpful. Even fancy Hollywood directors know that.  There will be a character who represents that side that must be conquered in order for the protagonist to be triumphant. One of the best examples of this I have ever seen is the movie Black Swan. Spoiler alert if you choose to keep reading (will try to minimize spoiling the movie if you haven’t yet seen it, but come on! The movie’s been out almost a year and a half).

Anyway…

In the movie Black Swan, the protagonist Nina is very literally at war with herself. She is a high-strung perfectionist who has clearly not been allowed to grow up like a normal young woman. Nina is cast to take the place of an older dancer who is retiring (not so willingly). Nina must embrace the light and the dark, but can this good girl unleash the darkness pent inside, yet keep her sanity?

This is the big question presented in this psychological thriller.

For those not in the know, Swan Lake is basically a tragic fairy tale. A young girl is bound by a curse to become a swan forever, and true love is the only thing that can break the spell. The cursed girl (Odette-the White Swan) finds hope in a young prince, but her evil twin sister (the Black Swan-Odile) seduces him away. Faced with defeat, Odette kills herself.

In the movie, Nina wins the role as the lead in “Swan Lake” and is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan, Odette, but then progressively loses her mind as she becomes more like Odile, the Black Swan.

Nina does great with uptight, naïve innocence, and is perfect White Swan material. The problem is that Nina’s big life goal is to be perfect, BUT Nina needs to learn that true perfection is a mixture of order and chaos.

The Black Swan is a sexualized role. The Black Swan is a raw, visceral temptress. Nina can’t relate. She is too repressed by her overbearing mother who is living vicariously through her daughter.

Nina is her own worst enemy.

Ah, but here is where proxies come in handy, because a movie with Nina arguing with herself would be weird and probably boring (Hint: In novels this is just as annoying, if not more annoying). Aronofsky and the screenwriters came up with a brilliant solution which had me sitting on the edge of my seat all three times I watched the movie.

Their solution? Lily.

Mila Kunis plays Lily, Nina’s rival for the role of prima ballerina. Nina, coincidentally, has a rather intricate flower tattoo (black lilies) on her back that, in the right light, looks like a set of black folded wings. Lily is everything that Nina longs to be. She is beautiful, wild, carefree, and doesn’t have some weirdo narcissist mother making her go to bed before 9.

If you guys followed my series last year about structure, then you know the antagonist (or a proxy) MUST be introduced before the turning point into Act One.

Normal World–> Inciting Incident–>Turning Point Act One

This is based off the four-part model—Normal World, Act One, Act Two, Act Three. In screenplays, Normal World usually gets condensed right into Act One. In novels the reader needs more time to get grounded; ergo a 4-part structure.

If Nina is her own worst enemy, how can we introduce her as a protagonist AND an antagonist? We can’t. We need a proxy. We need Lily.

How does the director introduce Lily, yet still hint that the core antagonist is Nina? He uses a tad of camera trickery.

Nina is taking the subway into the city. She is wearing a pale pink coat and a white fluffy scarf, her hair up in a prim ballerina bun. Out of the corner of her eye, she spies what looks like her twin, only the “other Nina” is wearing a black coat and dark gray scarf (not so subtle symbol there). Nina never sees her “twin’s” face, only sees that the girl has on iPod ear buds. In every way, though, this girl looks like the photo negative of Nina….her dark “other half.”

In the next scene, we are introduced to Lily and see she has on ear buds. This cues the viewing audience that Lily is the “twin” Nina spied on the subway. Lily is Nina’s “black swan.” Lily is the main antagonist. Lily represents everything that Nina longs to be.

Yet, is Lily the only antagonist? Not by a long-shot.

To really understand the other antagonists in this movie, we need to get to Nina’s core issue. What is Nina’s problem? She longs to grow up but she is afraid, namely because her overbearing mother does everything she can to keep her a “little girl.”

While the director Thomas is daring Nina to explore her sexuality and discover her wild side, Mom is busy buying Nina more stuffed ballerina bunnies for her pink little girl bedroom. Nina is being pulled against to polar extremes.

Repressed naïve little girl vs. wild sexual temptress.

Even though Nina is her own worst enemy, I challenge you to look at each of the scenes in this movie, and there was almost always an outside antagonist driving her arc, exposing the soft and tender parts that Nina was trying so hard to cover. She is a girl who needs to control and the thought of losing control terrifies her. But, to dance the Black Swan, that is exactly what she must do. She must be able to balance order and chaos. She must be able to keep control and lose control all in the same moment.

Can she?

Thomas is pushing her to let loose. He even says, “The only person standing in your way is you.” Mom is doing everything in her power to force Nina to stay a “little girl.”

Lily is showing Nina everything she could be…but isn’t.

The entire movie is a battle of two questions–Is Lily out to get Nina and take her part? Or, is Nina losing her mind?  The core question, however, is whether Nina can be both White Swan and Black Swan without fracturing. And that part I will leave out. This is an excellent movie and well worth studying.

Suffice to say that movies have leeway that novelists do not. Nina is pitted toe-shoe to toe-shoe with her rival, Lily. This is where the camera work is very cool. Ever so often, we see Lily, but then there is a flash of Nina’s face…hinting that Nina is pitted against her own darkness that she has tried so hard to keep contained. A darkness, that, once let out of the box, has the power to destroy her.

What can we learn from this? If we can’t use the fancy camera trickery, then why bother studying this movie? Study conflict and scene antagonists.

Thomas and Mom represented the two sides warring for little Nina’s heart and mind. Lily was a brilliant proxy and made for a formidable BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). In the Big Boss Battle, Nina had to stand up to Lily (the Black Swan) and claim that she could dance both parts. According to narrative structure rules, Nina must utterly defeat/kill the BBT, which she does.

But who dies? Lily or Nina? Watch the movie :D.

As far as a book that explores inner demons, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is one that I would highly recommend for study, and is a very similar psychological thriller. What about you guys? What books or movies would you recommend? What did you like about the movie? What didn’t you like? Are there other movies you would advise we watch for study?

I LOVE hearing from you guys! And since we have a guest today, every comment counts DOUBLE in the contest.

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, 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 once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of September I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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

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