Last week we began a series discussing structure and, if you haven’t read last Monday’s blog, I strongly recommend checking it out. Each of these blogs will build upon the previous lesson. By the end of this series, I hope you to give you guys all the tools you need to be “structure experts.”
If you are planning to do the National Novel Writing Month Challenge (50,000 words in the month of November) then these lessons will help you tremendously. If you are going to put in that much effort, wouldn’t it be great to have something worthwhile at the end of the month?
Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach aspiring writers how to finish a novel in four weeks or three or two or whatever. And that is great…if a writer possesses a solid understanding of structure. If not? At the end of 4 weeks, you could very likely have a 60K word mess that no editor can fix.
Finishing a novel is one of the best experiences in the world, but wanna know the worst? Pouring your heart and soul into a novel, finishing it, and then finding out it is not publishable or even salvageable. I make a lot of jokes about my first novel being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists.
I’ll tell you where the bomb is just not another chapter of that booook!
Some of you might be in the midst of having to face some hard truths about your “baby.” If you have been shopping that same book for months or years, and an agent has yet to be interested, likely structure is the problem. Many of you might have a computer full of unfinished novels. Again, structure is likely the problem.
Good news is that most structure problems can be fixed, although many times that requires leveling everything to the foundation and using the raw materials to begin anew….the correct way and killing a lot of little darlings along the way.
Last week I broke the bad news. Novels have rules. Sorry. They do. I didn’t make this stuff up. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.
Authors who break the rules do so with a fundamental understanding of rules and reader expectations. Remember the pizza analogy? We can get creative with pizza so long as we do so with an appreciation for consumer expectations. A fried quail leg on filo dough with raspberry glaze is not recognizable as a pizza. We can call it pizza until we are blue and a consumer will just think we’re a nut.
Same with a novel. Readers have expectations. Deviate too far and we will have produced a commodity so far off the standard consumer expectations that the product will not sell…which is why agents won’t rep it. Our novel can be brilliant, but not sell. Agents are interested more in making money than breaking literary rules. Rumor has it that agents do have to make a living.
I can tell if a writer understands structure in ten pages. So can an agent. We are diagnosticians and when we spot certain novel “diseases” we know there is a big internal problem. We’ll discuss two major symptoms of a flawed plot today, but first we are going to pan the camera back this time. Last time we zoomed in and looked at the most fundamental building blocks of a novel. Today, we are going to get an aerial shot—the Three Act Structure.
Aristotelian structure has worked for a couple thousand years for very good reasons. To paraphrase James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure (cuz he says it the best):
There is something fundamentally sound about the three act structure, and it is very much in harmony with how we live our lives. Three is a pattern. Childhood is short and introduces us to life (Act I). Most of our living comes in the middle span of years (Act II), and then we are old and we die and that sums up our existence (Act III). We wake in the morning (Act I) then have the day living life (Act II) and then night ties things up (Act III). When we are confronted with a problem we react (Act I) then spend the greatest amount of time searching for insight and looking for an answer (Act II) and then finally the solution (Act III).
Three act structure has endured thousands of years because it works. Beginning, middle and end. We can ignore the three act structure, but we do so at our own risk that our work will fail to connect with readers.
Beginnings present the story world, establish tone, compel the reader to come on the adventure, and introduce the opposition.
Middles deepen the character relationships, keep the reader emotionally invested in the characters, and sets up the events that will lead to the final showdown at the end.
Ends tie up the main plot and any other story threads and provide a sense of meaning.
(If you don’t yet own Jim’s book, buy it today. It is a must-have for every writer’s library.)
Ideally, our story’s tension will steadily rise from the beginning to end, getting more intense like a roller coaster. Think of the best roller coasters. They start off with a huge hill (Inciting Incident that introduces the ride) then a small dip to catch your breath, and then we are committed. If the biggest hill is at the beginning of the ride, the rest of the ride is a total letdown.
A well-designed roller coaster gives escalating thrills—bigger and bigger hills and loops—with fewer troughs to catch our breath and all leading up to the Big Boss loop, then the glide home to the other side of where we began. We all want to get to the Big Boss loop, but we do so with a mix of terror, dread and glee. Same with a good story.
Great roller coasters are designed. So are great novels. Everything is done with purpose.
Two major problems will occur when we fail to follow this design. In almost two and a half years of running countless plots through my workshop, we have given them names—Falcor the Luck Dragon and The Purple Tornado.
Meet the Luck Dragon
Remember the movie The Neverending Story? Beautiful movie and amazing special effects…but (in my opinion) a HORRIBLE story. I loved the movie too. I have a soul. But I feel this movie is remembered and loved more for great effects and puppets, not the storytelling.
The beginning starts with The Nothing eating away a world we haven’t been in long enough to care and gobbling up critters the viewing audience hasn’t even been introduced to. Total melodrama. And the solution? A boy hero who the viewer doesn’t know from a hole in the ground and who, truthfully, isn’t nearly as likable as his horse that sinks into the Bog of Despair. Yes, I cried.
So High Council instructs unlikable boy hero to go and talk to the Northern Oracle. Northern Oracle is a giant turtle that is suffering depression and is apparently off his meds. Northern Oracle tells boy hero the answer to their problems rest with the Southern Oracle…but it is ten thousand miles away.
Boy trudges off depressed and defeated and music rises to cue the audience that we are supposed to care. Unlikable boy hero falls into the swamp…oh but Falcor the Luck Dragon swoops down from the sky and flies him ten thousand miles to the Southern Oracle. How lucky for the boy hero. Better yet. How convenient for the screenwriters that Falcor was there to bail them out of a massive plot problem.
No, your protagonist cannot find a journal or letters or some contrived coincidence to bail her out of a corner and get her back on track. That is what we at WWBC call a Luck Dragon. Don’t think you can sneak a Falcor by an agent or editor either. There is no camouflaging this guy. Did you see the picture? He’s HUGE, and he will stand out like, like…like a Luck Dragon bailing you out of a plot problem. But take heart. Looking at structure ahead of time will make all actions logical and Falcor the Luck Dragon can stay up in the clouds where he belongs.
Watch out for that Purple Tornado!
Next plot problem? The Purple Tornado. What is a purple tornado? So glad you asked. One of the first participants of WWBC had a YA fantasy. By page 30 there was this MASSIVE supernatural event with a purple tornado. This writer clung to the purple tornado scene until I thought I was going to break his knuckles prying it away from him.
Why was I prying the purple tornado from his hands? Because he couldn’t top the purple tornado!!! He had his Big Boss Battle, his grand finale, his giant loop too close to the beginning. The rest of the book would have either been a letdown or totally contrived.
Plan where that loop will be situated and put it in the spot that will evoke the greatest emotional reaction….at the end.
I see too many new writers trying to “hook” the reader with some grand event like a building exploding. Well, okay, but what are you going to do for the grand finale, blow up a city? The planet? It’s too much too soon and before anyone even cares.
I hope you guys get a lot out of this series. I know it took me years to learn some of this stuff and part of the reason I started this blog was to help shorten the learning curve. I would imagine most of you reading this would like to be published while you are still young enough to enjoy it. Join me next week for more on structure and plotting.
What are some problems you guys have faced in plotting? What are the biggest struggles? Do you have any suggestions for books on the subject or methods you use that you could share? Have you been guilty of a Falcor or a Purple Tornado? Share your thoughts.
I do want to hear from you guys!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
Winner of 5 Page Critique for Week 2 of October Teresa Owen. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail addy is Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.
#1 by angela quarles on October 10, 2011 - 9:36 am
Love your analogies! You mentioned Bell’s book, and I wanted to say that book as helped me so much. His tips are very clear, especially the First Doorway of No Return, and the Second Doorway in explaining how to move from Act 1 to Act 2, etc. The MC has to have no choice but to go through that door. If he can walk away, the reader will wonder why he didn’t.
#2 by Sue Southworth on October 10, 2011 - 10:03 am
I agree, structure should be the first thing a new writer is taught. My writing partner and I spent two years writing and polishing our book, a western historical. when we finished we shrugged our shoulders and admitted something was wrong. Both being avid readers we new our book didn’t have the zing of the stories that we loved so much they demanded to be read more than once. We are determined to be published. We had fixed our beginning writer mistakes, our characters are strong, scene and sequel in order for individual scenes, what was wrong? To use a cliche, in a nut shell, our book didn’t follow the three (or four) act structure. After days of studying story structure, we tore into our book with ruthless, gleeful, abondon. I’m proud to say we are almost finished with the moving of scenes, the rewriting, writing new, and deletion of scenes and we are proud of what we’ve done. This weekend we are going to our first conference, and I can’t wait to pitch an agent.
#3 by Jessica O'Neal on October 10, 2011 - 10:03 am
Loved this post! It is so true about “luck dragons”. I hate it when I am really into a story that has high stakes and in the 11th hour some contrived circumstance with zero setup occurs to save the day. I don’t know that I have run across many “purple tornados” though. I am really enjoying this blog series. Can’t wait for next weeks!
#4 by Trish Loye Elliott on October 10, 2011 - 10:05 am
Great advice as always Kristen. I’m off now to go look for any Luck Dragon’s in my novel. 🙂
#5 by Ruth Hartman Berge on October 10, 2011 - 10:18 am
I really enjoyed reading that advice. I haven’t headed into novel space yet, I’m finishing up a series of short stories first, but I do find myself thinking more and more about if the story makes sense. I think the critical skill has also increased my love of reading. There are times now when I stop and shake my head at a totally improbably twist in the plot. It can ruin an otherwise good story. Great series and thanks for taking the time to post the advice.
#6 by Hannah Hale on October 10, 2011 - 10:36 am
Love, love, LOVE this post! It’s SO much easier to fix these types of issues before you’re neck-deep in the story. Thanks for gentle reminders and purple tornados 😀
#7 by H.L. Banks on October 10, 2011 - 10:44 am
Luck Dragon’s – love the concept.
#8 by Republicofwrite on October 10, 2011 - 11:16 am
My first novel was more of the luck dragon variety. That would be why I gutted it and started over. Add to that the fact that I realized too late that it wasn’t the story I needed to tell at that point. That’s why it won’t see the light of day. This newest one feels more structured and doesn’t have a luck dragon or purple tornado anywhere in sight. Yea!
This series is so helpful, And I am learning so much. Thank you.
#9 by susielindau on October 10, 2011 - 11:24 am
So true. I have read pages of boring text after a climax came too soon in a story. I am still amazed at what gets published. I also hate when the novel has been presented as realistic and then it goes for a magic carpet ride. It leaves me shaking my head and asking, “WHAT?”
#10 by Anne R. Allen on October 10, 2011 - 11:57 am
I think all beginning novelists battle their share of luck dragons and purple tornadoes. And sometimes critique groups will actually encourage the purple tornadoes, because they keep demanding more and more action, action, action. If a writer is reading in a group once or twice a month, the group may encourage the book’s climax to come too soon, because they don’t have a real sense of how far they are into the story. Critique groups can mis-shape story structure in a number of ways, so it’s good to have beta readers who can read a ms. in a day or two instead of over a year.
#11 by Marcy Kennedy on October 10, 2011 - 12:43 pm
I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series. I’m a plotter by nature, but I always worry about being able to get the structure just right.
#12 by lynn kelley on October 10, 2011 - 12:43 pm
I’m giving NaNoWriMo a try for the first time, so thank you for these posts. Very helpful. I guess I need some more caffeine cuz I read ‘Purple Tornado’ as ‘Purple Tomato’ at least three times before I read it right. A purple tornado sounds more intriguing than a purple tomato! Haha!
#13 by ashchristians on October 10, 2011 - 2:04 pm
Now I’m angry at the movie for having him go to the first Oracle in the first place. I think they just wanted to kill the horse!
Great stuff. It’s really helping me out.
#14 by Linda Gray on October 10, 2011 - 3:46 pm
Hi Kristen, love these posts on plot and structure. (James Scott Bell is probably my favorite of the how-to-write gurus, too.) You’ve been given an award over at our blog. Drop by to pick it up when you have a chance!
#15 by Linda Gray on October 10, 2011 - 3:47 pm
p.s. sorry, I see that the icon doesn’t take you to the blog. It’s critiquesisterscorner.blogspot.com
#16 by EmilyR on October 10, 2011 - 6:12 pm
Thanks, Kristen. Editing a manuscript for the umpteenth time and hoping to avoid the opening Luck Dragon coincidences.
#17 by tomwisk on October 10, 2011 - 8:41 pm
Loved the post. It is enough to get me off the forward progress and take a look at what came before. I need to track my story and get the pace and pulse in order. I can look at forward progress as a plus but it don’t mean squat if everything that leads up to it wanders around making no sense.
#18 by Kathryn Roberts on October 10, 2011 - 8:49 pm
Something I’ve been worried that I have a problem with is not making things believable. Maybe being too melodramatic. When I hit my climax, I wonder if people will buy it, even though I feel I’ve put a lot of thought into it,trying to make it an emotional as well as physically challenging ending. Something that helps me is going back to (so many) author’s advice, where they say if YOU as the writer aren’t feeling any emotional build (in each scene, not just the ending), then your reader is probably not feeling it either. Plus, I am trying to go back and push myself with each scene, quickening the pace where I need to, and building tension as well.
Good post, as per usual!
#19 by Tahlia Newland on October 10, 2011 - 9:55 pm
I love analogies and the luck dragon is just perfect. I’m lucky in that my husband is really good at finding flaws in plots – a lot of published writers don’t pass his test – so the luck dragon I had way back in draft one of Lethal Inheritance got shot in the head pronto.
The purple tornado is an aanlogy I’ll remember too, and it’s great that you’re pointing this out because it’s surprising how many people will tell you to start with a bang that puts people’s lives in danger before the reader even cares about them. I think that good starters are much harder to write than that.
#20 by Reetta Raitanen on October 11, 2011 - 3:53 am
Luck Dragon and Purple Tornado are really great analogies of common story problems. I also recommend James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure. It is an extremely helpful guide and written in a clear way so it’s easy to understand.
My biggest plot issue currently is too many Point of View characters. An epic fantasy needs a complex plot but even masters like George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan started to get off the path in their later books and their stories got way too tangled. A beginner needs to be extra wary of too many side plots.
#21 by Ellis Shuman on October 11, 2011 - 9:48 am
Is there a “Spot the Luck Dragon and/or Purple Tornado” app available for download?
I guess detecting these devils can sometimes require a beta reader.
#22 by Tamara LeBlanc on October 11, 2011 - 10:38 am
Late again in reading this one, but I wanted to say that this post from yesterday, like so many of your others, rocks.
Thank you for your wisdom!!
Have a great Tuesday,
#23 by Samuel on October 11, 2011 - 11:39 am
These are common-sense issues, to me, but a good reminder anyway.
#24 by asraidevin on October 11, 2011 - 2:04 pm
I’m reading Bell’s book and learning where I’m going wrong. Have to finish the book to find out how to fix it.
#25 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 11, 2011 - 2:26 pm
Another FANTASTIC reference is Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.
#26 by Carlee E Schwilk on October 11, 2011 - 5:01 pm
LMAO As soon as I read “Luck Dragon” I somehow KNEW what that was going to refer to! Too true. Great analogy and I’m terrified that I have many of those little (read: gigantic) buggers scurrying around in my stories. Woe! Shame! Frenetic rewrites!
#27 by thespiritguide on October 11, 2011 - 9:22 pm
Seriously, where have you been all my writing life? 🙂
I loved this! Off to read ALL your posts.
#28 by Jenny Hansen on October 12, 2011 - 3:54 am
Love the last comment…that’s what I thought when I read your first post (which was the WANA Plan for Publishing) – I felt like someone lit me on fire.
So, from then till now – THANKS KRISTEN!. When you’re feeling smothered by grief, I hope you get a breath of fresh air from knowing how many writers you’re helping.
#29 by educlaytion on October 13, 2011 - 8:21 am
Always a pleasure to read your posts during Act I of my day. Hopefully I don’t get hit by any purple tornadoes in Act II.
#30 by susannahsharp on October 13, 2011 - 1:52 pm
This is a marvelous post. I just recently found your blog and am in the process of catching up on all of your great advice. I have already made some changes in my approach to my social media platform (First, get started with one. I set up all the accounts but haven’t done anything with them!) and will purchase your books soon, then devour them. I also have been on the lookout for “luck dragons,” I call it “forcing the plot,” and purple tornadoes, but these are two wonderful analogies we will all remember!
#31 by Keith Rowley on October 13, 2011 - 6:59 pm
How does a split up into a trilogy single book like lord of the rings fit into a three act structure?
How does a book with a more subdued plot like Anne of Green Gables use story structure?
#32 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 14, 2011 - 7:54 am
You plot the trilogy first. Each book is one act of the larger whole. The climactic scenes in book one and two serve as turning points in the larger story. In LOTR the main enemy was Sauron, so that is the ultimate Big Boss Battle (Book Three/Act Three). Yet the battle with the Uruk-hai was turning point from Act One (Book One) into Act Two (Book Two). The battle with Saurauman was the climax of book two, but also the turning point into Act Three (Book Three)…the final full-court press to Mount Doom to take out Sauron for good. The entire trilogy must be plotted first or you risk a TON of crying and rewrite.
#33 by Lesann on October 14, 2011 - 10:56 am
Love the Luck Dragon and Purple Tornado examples. Sometimes just the right example makes something difficult, so much easier to understand. As always, good stuff here. Everyone should read.
#34 by Marilag Lubag on October 17, 2011 - 12:20 am
I’ve never seen Neverending Story so I’m clueless of the story. It seems like it’s a good title. Makes me think of fantasy.
#35 by A.F. White (@albrtwhite) on October 19, 2011 - 11:45 am
It’s amazing how similar plot structure is to a chess game. Like a good story, a game of chess has an opening, a middle game, and an endgame.
During the opening, players develop their pieces, protect their king, and set up future attacks.
Most of the action takes place during the middle game. Pieces are exchanged, plots are devised and foiled, and traps are set.
The game comes to a close during the endgame. After the dust has cleared the few remaining pieces fight it out for final victory.
#36 by Wodke Hawkinson on October 20, 2011 - 1:31 pm
This clarifies a problem with which I have been struggling. The event at the beginning of my book is horrific. So, how to top that? You have given me a lot to think about. Thanks! -K
#37 by star silver on June 12, 2012 - 1:57 am
I love almost everything you write and have found it most useful.
However, for the sake of integrity, I have to disagree with you about the use of Falcor in the novel and film versions of The Neverending Story. In that particular fairy tale style of story, Falcor works for the same reason that a fairy godmother works in a proper fairy tale (or Aslan works in the Narnia chronicles, most of which only make sense as fairy tales). In the story, Falcor functions expressly as an overt deus ex machina (the character all but refers to himself as one) specifically as a metaphor for the divine parent that Bastian the reader is still clinging to — which is why, towards the end of the movie, Atreyu loses Falcor and has to survive with almost everything around him dead, even the protection the universe once gave him. It reminds one not a little of the death of the Narrator in Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Ootherwise, I agree with you about luck dragons. Frankly, I don’t how anyone but a Michael Ende or C. S. Lewis could handle one correctly, and even Ende used the tactic for one chronicle while Lewis used it as a metaphor for the Christ. In many ways, the success of Falcor in The Neverending Story serves as an example of the rare times when someone can get away with violating the rules that we all should follow almost every other time.