Structure Part 5–Keeping Focused & Nailing the Pitch–Understand Your “Seed Idea”

Welcome to the 5th installation on the topic of structure. As an editor for years, I consider myself an expert in spotting and fixing structural problems. Sadly, over the course of doing this many years, I have run into far too many novels that had plot problems that ran so deep there was no saving the manuscript. Like a building with massive structural flaws, the best course of action was simply implosion. Rebuild. Start from scratch.

I used to try to teach from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my thinking was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We are trained to look for problems. Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings? No. Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards. Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector. Week one, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Week two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. Week three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the Big Boss Troublemaker, and last week I gave you a tested method to make sure your core idea was solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

Today I am going to show you how to construct your novel’s core—the log-line. I learned this tactic from NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. If you can ever get the opportunity to take his novel writing workshop, please do. It will change your entire career.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, you should be able to tell someone (an agent) what your story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.  In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels. Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread. We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great logline:

Great log-lines are short and clear. I cannot tell you how many writers I talk to and I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel. Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

Bob Mayer taught me this tactic a couple of years ago and it WORKS. In my novel writing workshop, every participant has to be able to tell what their story is about in ONE sentence before we ever start plotting. If the writer gets too far off track, then we as his teammates know to do one of two things. 1) Change the plot and get back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer you are the more fear you will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early. I have seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers.

Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

The best way to learn how to write log-lines is to go look at the IMDB. Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described. You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing.  Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

I feel a good novel log-line will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist.

Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind.

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a best-seller, I think Crichton did well.

So here is an exercise. See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park.

What are some problems you might be having? Share in the comments. Maybe you have a tactic or a resource you would like to recommend. I love hearing from you guys.

Happy Writing!

Until next time…

If you want to build the kind of platform agents are looking for, then buy the book agents recommend. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is an essential for every writer who wants to succeed in the new paradigm of publishing. My book will show you how to build a platform designed to connect with READERS and still have time left over to write great books….oh, and sleep and bathe and have a life.

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  1. #1 by Bob Mayer on November 29, 2010 - 5:22 pm

    Recently Elizabeth George gave a guest talk at my Warrior Writer workshop. She talked about this concept, but she called it the Kernel. It’s the Alpha and the Omega. The Alpha in that it starts your creative process. The Omega in that everything in your novel supports this idea. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

    • #2 by Amy Rose Davis on November 29, 2010 - 6:43 pm

      Ooh, that’s good, Bob. Thanks for posting that.

  2. #3 by Amy Rose Davis on November 29, 2010 - 6:51 pm

    Another good post, Kristen. Reminds me of doing root action statements in my Shakespeare classes…🙂 I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were just log-lines for the plays.

    I think the problem we run into a lot of times is trying to distill 400+ pages with multiple characters and subplots and settings into one line. Everything is so vivid in our own minds that we have a hard time herding all those cats into one summary statement. But the thing is–that one statement doesn’t HAVE to summarize everything. It just has to summarize the main plot.

    Thanks for the useful post!

    Amy

    • #4 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 29, 2010 - 8:17 pm

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, that’s why I recommend looking at log-lines of movies similar to the story you are trying to tell. It gives us a simple template because we are going to make it way harder than it really is. That’s just a guarantee, LOL. Thanks for being such a loyal reader and for the feedback!

  3. #5 by Jessica on November 30, 2010 - 2:02 am

    Kristen,

    Thank you for this detailed, step by step blog. A friend from the Yahoo Writer’s Workshop recommended it to me this morning and I have read every entry today. I am learning so much.

    I have recently finished a novel and finally understand why my critique partner had a slight bit of dissatisfaction at the end–the antagonist, an incubis demon intent on walking the earth by possessing a 27-year-old virgin, isn’t truly defeated. One of his minions is, but the BBT isn’t. I’ve got some thinking to do, but I think the ending will be much more satisfying if my antagonist, an ex-exotic dancer in love with the 27-yo virgin, actually defeats the BBT.

    Long story short-you’ve given me inspiration and enlightenment. And resources. Your blog is a treasure trove of recommendations for books I need to add to my library.

    By the way, my log line is:
    Jade’s Spirit is about an ex-exotic dancer and a 27-yo virgin determined to have a chaste relationship while battling an incubus demon intent on tempting them into fornication.

    Thanks again for the excellent blog!

    –Jessica

    • #6 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 30, 2010 - 1:24 pm

      If you are doing a series, and want to bring the BBT back in the next book remember you are a writer. We are god and can resurrect anything. Blow him to little nuggets and in the next book a minion/follower/lover/random tourist from Germany on the way to Disney World can intentionally or accidentally raise your BBT from the “dead.” Yes, you will need to kill the BBT or utterly defeat him in some way or your audience will just want to toss squishy vegetables at your head. Log-line sounds awesome.

  4. #7 by Marilag Lubag on November 30, 2010 - 6:55 am

    That is the hard part–distilling everything into three sentences. Nevertheless, it is important because if I don’t, I’ll confuse myself and nevertheless, the readers.

    • #8 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 30, 2010 - 1:22 pm

      That is one of the reasons I decided to write this structure series. If you do all of these steps before you write, there is a lot less revision. Of course you can apply all of this retrospectively, but often it means rewrite. But, at least you will be able to quickly hone in on the weak nodes.

  5. #9 by Dale Eldon on November 30, 2010 - 11:07 am

    Very well said Kristen. I have been reading through all of your blogs, especially the series on structure, and I see what you mean about the weakness that us newbie writers have. The log-line really got me because the other day I had a friend online who wanted me to give her a synopsis for a guest post on her blog. And I wanted it to be the best statement I could write for my story. I found it to be very challenging to write in a few sentences the core of my plot.

    So the log-line idea is perfect, because if I can create a great log-line, then the synopsis will be easy in comparison.

    A tactic that I have been pondering in my head is making the outline sheet similar to the outlines for speeches in Communications class. We would start out with having the Thesis Statement at the top of the page. This short paragraph (much like English composition) was the synopsis of the speech. And all the points that were made had to reflect on that statement.

    So for the writer thesis statement, I was thinking for my outlines, I would have the log-line and synopsis at the top. So that when I go write my headlines (main plot points in a specific order) I can always scroll up and hold my feet to the fire. Also, when the day comes that I do get published, it will be far easier to sell the idea of my book if I have log-lines with a synopsis ready to go. Not to mention the writing will improve.

    • #10 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 30, 2010 - 1:20 pm

      Actually I am going to (in future weeks) guide you through a very similar process. Start with your log line at the top of the page (thesis). Now break your book into the component 3 acts. Give ONE sentence that summarizes events in those three acts. Do they support the log-line or do they wander off? Then, once you have done that, write notecards for every scene. Summaraize what happens in that scene. Does the scene support accomplishing the goal stated in the summary sentece for the Act? Does it support reaching the goal of the log-line? Once you have all these “summary sentences” you essentially have your full synopsis written.😀

  6. #11 by Dale Eldon on November 30, 2010 - 1:53 pm

    Awesome! I am copying this over to my plot notes!

  7. #12 by Ton Bil on November 30, 2010 - 11:58 pm

    Glad to find your blog and this post, after finishing #nanowrimo with +50k. Here’s the log line that I made after reading your post – the ms is in Dutch… I’d love to read your comment.

    A criminal shares his life story and new buddhist attitude with a former school comrade and abuses his trust to accomplish his last cybercrime

    • #13 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 1, 2010 - 12:42 am

      Well, first you have a problem with the protag. Something needs to be redeemable. Most people don’t like criminals and we wish them much suffering so we probably won’t care about his plight. So use “reformed criminal.” Then what is the story about? Sharing a life story doesn’t say “conflict” to me. What is the goal of your protag? What are the stakes?

      A reformed criminal, betrayed by a close friend, must DO X to stop (antag) from doing (blah). what you have here is a statement, not a log-line. I am also confused with who is doing what (and that could be language barrier). What genre is this? That might help.

      Happy you like the blog!😀

  8. #14 by Alice on December 2, 2010 - 10:21 am

    Thanks for another great post. I have been working on a one-line summary off and on for awhile. I think it sounds too generic:

    When a young teen unwillingly moves with her mother to grandparents she’s never met, she discovers secrets in her mother’s past that change her life forever.

    By the way, it’s snowing on your blog. Just a very light flurry.

    • #15 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 2, 2010 - 1:38 pm

      Alice, here is the thing. If the log-line is dull then the story likely is too. “Discovering secrets” is common first-time novel theme, but doesn’t usually make for a good book. There is nothing really at stake and events have alrerady happened. Donald Maass talks about this topic in “Writing the Breakout Novel.” That is a story that is going to lend itself to a lot of flashbacks, which are bad. Makes the reader feel like they are trapped in a car with a teen driving a stick-shift. It can be done, but you need to be more specific and the secrets need to mean something in the present. I recommend Maass’s book for better insight.

      What genre are you wanting to write? YA?

      Yes, I thought the snow was cute for Christmas time. Thanks for the comment😀.

      • #16 by Alice on December 2, 2010 - 3:09 pm

        Yes, it is YA. I have that book, and when I read your post I remembered reading about it. It’s on page 164. There won’t be any flashbacks since the secrets are the mother’s. And I am writing first person with the daughter. So let’s try it again.

        After her mother’s last chemo treatment a young teen believes her life will return to normal, but her mother moves her to grandparents she has never known, dates a high school friend and acts like this is her last fling before dying as she drifts farther from her daughter.

        • #17 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 2, 2010 - 3:26 pm

          Try again. Not picking on you, just helping if you want it. This sentence uses pronouns and has serious subject antecedent issues. It’s confusing. What is the goal? This to me looks like a statement. Also, the “her life will return to normal” is assumed. So this superfluous information bogs down your log-line. “Drifting” doesn’t sound interesting. That’s a Blake Snyder “Watch out for that glacier!” Get the book and it will make sense, LOL. This doesn’t speak to me about any stakes. Conflict is what gets readers interested. High stakes, even if they are emotional stakes. They may be already there and you just aren’t seeing them…or if they aren’t then that is a critical flaw. See if you can clear it up then post again and I will be happy to look at it😀.

          Just curious…have you written this already?

      • #18 by Alice on December 2, 2010 - 4:14 pm

        Okay, I had to look up antecedent. No this is not finished. I tried to get to 50000 with NANO but only made it to about 16,000 and a lot of those words are crap. But I have an outline with inciting incident, point of no return (which showed up in NANO) a middle shift, a couple of pinch points…well, I’ve been working on it a lot and tried to write the one sentence pitch a few times. Is this any better?

        14 year old Whisper fights for a stable home life and her mother’s attention when a man Whisper doesn’t trust invades their lives.

        Thank you so much for taking the time to help me.

        • #19 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 2, 2010 - 4:31 pm

          Market-wise, you have a problem with the age of your protag. I will tell you this now. Young readers read up. Your protag is too young for YA. Stable home life again doesn’t sound very interesting. Why doesn’t she trust this man? Maybe that will help me understand and help you better.

      • #20 by Alice on December 2, 2010 - 9:58 pm

        I know the age is kind of wrong and readers read up. So maybe it’s mg instead. I say YA because she is 14. I have been up since 3 am thinking about this one line summary thing. But now as I reread about premise in Donald Maas book, I have decided to change it up a bit. I’ll be back in maybe a week, 3? with another go at it as I ask myself WHAT IF? like what if it’s her dad and not her mother. What if it’s her Dad with the cancer, her Dad that makes her move back. So thanks for making my head scramble and think harder. I shall return with a one-liner. Although, I’ll be lurking and reading your other posts.

        Have a wonderful Christmas if this takes me into January.

        • #21 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 2, 2010 - 10:58 pm

          Good for you. Yeah the one-liner is a bear, but it can stop you from writing a flawed story or help you quickly spot the problem area. Find a book similar to the story you are trying to tell. What is their log-line. Tweak it and make it yours. You can’t steal plot. There are only 20 or so plots, as few as three and as many as 50, but still a finite number (# depends on who you ask). A Thousand Acres was MacBeth but on a US farm. So don’t worry about stealing plot. You have to.

          I look forward to seeing your log-line and you will get there. Have a wonderful Christmas!

    • #22 by Alice Fleury on March 16, 2011 - 4:35 pm

      Kristen, hope you get emails when a comment is made or I’ll be lost way back here cause I’m baaaack! How’s this one:

      A plucky teen realizes her mother’s premonition of death will come true unless she can thwart her dead father’s plans.

      • #23 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 16, 2011 - 4:39 pm

        Sounds like a solid log-line. Might add about what the plans are, and plucky is a strange choice.

        I.e. A plucky teen realizes her mother’s premonition of death will come true unless she can thwart her father’s plans to sell all their worldly possessions and join a hippie commune. Plans is a bit vague. Go a bit deeper and ur good.

      • #24 by Alice Fleury on March 16, 2011 - 5:00 pm

        Okay, how’s this:

        A spunky teen realizes her mother’s premonition of death will come true unless she can thwart her father’s ghost from killing her mother.

  9. #25 by CrystalSpins on December 13, 2010 - 10:18 pm

    Okay…after I read this I wrote a log-line. I’m suddenly thinking my book may be rather dull.

    “Tonya moves back to her hometown after earning her master’s degree because she can only find work at the mall she worked at during high school, and despite all her academic achievement she is struggling to decide what she wants to be “when she grows up.””

    • #26 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 13, 2010 - 10:29 pm

      Yes, could be literary fiction, but what is the inner change? And we don’t need the name. We need “who” Tonya is. I’ll demonstrate.

      A overeducated divorcee whose husband left her for a stripper moves back to her home town in disgrace, yet still hopes she will find the courage to make her own way.

      This sentence paints a vivid picture of a woman who has been wronged, so we root for her instantly. The masters degree and working at the mall can be part of the story, but not necessarily in the log-line. See how this log-line has an ACTIVE goal? She is looking for her identity. She has been defined by her husband all her adult life and now is like a boat floating adrift with no anchor. We know when we meet this woman she will be shell-shocked and timid, but we root for her to find that inner fire. that is the inner arc that the outer circumstances–plot–will drive. Make sense?

      So who is your “Tonya?” Is she single? A Bridgette Jones? Is she a single mother? What makes us care that she figure out what she wants to be?

      • #27 by CrystalSpins on December 13, 2010 - 11:11 pm

        Okay…I obviously oversimplified.

        First, yes, this totally makes sense.

        About Tonya, she is single as of now, but she doesn’t have to be. Maybe she was engaged but she just broke up with her fiancée because of the move. I like that and it is a simple way to uproot her even more. So it might be worth it to integrate that into the plot. Or maybe she has a long-distance relationship now that she has moved and it is confused and not really going anywhere (kind of like her). I can easily add either of those.

        So much to think about…

        As far as her self-definitions — she has been defined by her major for the past decade. Her biggest goal, since she can remember having a goal, was to graduate from college. She has now done that — twice — and finds herself wondering, “Now what?”

        And honestly, I haven’t decided what she is going to wind up doing in the end.

        Now about the mall…the mall becomes important because that’s where she reconnects with a bunch of high school friends who either didn’t go to college or dropped out of school because they didn’t know what they wanted to be “when they grew up.” So people who went a different way and still wound up back in the same spot as her. (But that might not need to be in the log line?)

        Something that maybe should be in the line (but I don’t know) is that her high school reunion is also coming up at the end of the summer and the event acts like a catalyst in the lives of all the characters. Hummm…maybe not.

        As far as “What makes us care that she figure out what she wants to be?” Now that I think about it, I was actually sort of counting on a lot of people just relating to her plight of her “knowing” and then wanting her to figure it out because they want to figure it out for themselves. But I can breed more sympathy than that.

        I’m trying to use this line as a starting point (I haven’t written much of this story yet — just a few scenes) but I feel like I have to write more of the story before I can get the log line. Blast!

        As always thanks for your insight!

  10. #28 by Laurawrites on January 11, 2011 - 5:14 am

    I’m finding this series on plot and structure extremely helpful. I’ve been trying to get my log-line down but I’m not sure I’ve quite got it. This is a YA, by the way. Here it is:

    Seeking a way out of a dysfunctional relationship with her emotionally unstable sister, a goal-driven senior enters into a fragile relationship with a free-spirit whose own goals in life are to live in the moment and avoid getting sucked into other people’s problems.

    • #29 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 11, 2011 - 4:41 pm

      This is a nebulous goal with backwards action. If the goal is to avoid something, it will be almost impossible to plot. Give me a movie or book you loved where the hero’s goal was to avoid being sucked into people’s problems. Now you can have a reluctant hero, but he/she must rise to the call to achieve something real. What is the tangible goal? That is a starting point. Go to the IMDB database and look for a movie similar to the book you want to write. What is the log line? Was the movie successful? Nebulous log-lines/goals can kill a movie too.

      You protag should always be striving toward something, but the conflict permits him one step forward and two steps back. If there is no clear goal, your reader has nothing to root for. That is like starting out on a road trip with no idea of the end point. How can we possibly know if we are lost? Delayed? We don’t know where we are going. All actions, setbacks are viewed in relation to the end goal.

      Thanks for the comment and happy you are enjoying the series😀.

  11. #30 by Laurawrites on January 12, 2011 - 2:34 am

    Thanks so much for taking the time to give me your feedback. I’ll need to give this some serious thought.

  12. #31 by Monique H. on August 22, 2011 - 3:01 pm

    Hi Kristen,

    Im starting my first romance novel and your blog is by far the best resource I have encountered to date! I feel like I have struck novel writing gold through the study of your wisdom! Thank you so much! Let’s see if I understand what your saying on log-lines. Here’s mine:

    Dark Waves of Rapture is about an insecure young woman who is living a life of disgrace for her parents betrayal and must uncover secrets within her family in order to destroy The Horde’s threat to humankind.

    I know the blog post was written 8 months ago but hopefully you will receive an email whenever anyone leaves a reply. Any feedback you are willing to give would be greatly appreciated!

  13. #32 by Stormie Kent on February 27, 2012 - 10:12 pm

    Okay, I know I’m late to the party but I just spent 2 hours back reading the structure blogs. How is this for a log line? If it needs work I want to know while I only have an outline and one chapter invested.

    *An emotionally scarred woman, who was publicly denied by her father, must reconcile with the sister that he accepted and open her heart to a male love interest that once cared for/loved them both.*

    This is her emotional deal. It is a futuristic sci-fi romance so of course their will be lots of fighting and space travel.

  14. #33 by Stormie Kent on February 27, 2012 - 10:23 pm

    I was tricked by the gravatar when leaving my last comment and didn’t hyperlink my blog or website like a good little We Are Not Alone acolyte.

  15. #34 by Sharon T. Rose on March 19, 2012 - 10:51 pm

    It took me a whole day of screaming, bleeding on the keyboard, and reading the cruel rejections of others, but I think I finally have my log-line.

    “An emotionally damaged young woman must save the world before her past destroys everyone’s future.”

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