For the past month, we have been discussing story structure. Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs. I bring the best teaching in the industy right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.
Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea. I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?
Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words. Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?
Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.
James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.
When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.
Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK
First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.
Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.
Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!
That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction. Bad juju. We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her.
Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with Roger Moore.
Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” charater, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.
To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):
Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.
Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shapeshifters….”
Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*
Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.
Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.
Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).
Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.
Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.
Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective–The Joy Luck Club.
The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.
We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).
Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.
Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.
There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.
Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?
Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.
Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.
Applicant: I like rape.
This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene. I am not making this up. And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.
So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.
Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster of a mother-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their…shenanigans.
This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it. She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.
So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:
Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?
Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?
Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?
Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?
This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the coming weeks, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.
What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.
I do want to hear from you guys!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Winner of 5-Page Critique–Barbara McDowell. Please send a 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.
#1 by Darlene Steelman on October 24, 2011 - 9:51 am
ha ha! You, my dear… are so genius-ee! 😉
I am in the process of a novel. I did insert an attempted rape scene.. there are three characters.. blah blah blah. It does go with the element and theme of the novel.
I like how you brought up the “too perfect” or “too imperfect” characters… point taken.
I’ve told two people the plot of my story in two sentences – both said “eew, interesting.”
😀 Yes, I am a sick hamster!
Thanks for all the super duper fantastico info in your posts, Kristen.
#2 by susielindau on October 24, 2011 - 10:00 am
I am fired up now, locked, and loaded with clear objectives between the cross-hairs to type away today on my WIP!
#3 by Paul Anthony Shortt on October 24, 2011 - 10:02 am
Wow. I’m bookmarking this post. The LOCK system is just brilliant.
And yes, even in published works, rape has become the new “someone killed my parents.” It’s a short-cut to real drama and depth, frequently over-used and rarely dealt with maturely, particularly in genre fiction.
#4 by Robin D. Ader on October 24, 2011 - 10:02 am
Perfect. Thank you. You’ve saved my book. You’re my hero.
PS: Will you please leave my Angelina alone!
#5 by Piper Bayard on October 24, 2011 - 10:02 am
“Ith twue! Ith twue!”
#6 by Diane Capri (@DianeCapri) on October 24, 2011 - 10:12 am
This is one of the best summaries of plot requirements I’ve read in a very long time — and I think I’ve read everything out there on the subject. Thanks for the LOCK system!!
#7 by the writ and the wrote on October 24, 2011 - 10:14 am
The timing couldn’t be better. I’ve been struggling with whether or not my idea is strong enough and it’s definitely not there yet. I need to do some reading and go back to the drawing board.
#8 by Samuel on October 24, 2011 - 10:22 am
Well done, Kristen. I am really enjoying this series on structure. I am especially enjoying it because it is consistent with my WIP, and my instinct for structure seems to be pretty good, given that I have no formal training. So far, so good.
I’d be very curious to get the scoop on other potential pitfalls of structure, like the rape scene issue mentioned above. What other sorts of common (or uncommon) elements should a rookie novelist be cautioned against?
#9 by Monique on October 24, 2011 - 10:22 am
Thank you for this! I have taken the test and my idea does have the necessary integrity. It is perfect timing as just this weekend I was having a few doubts.
The LOCK concept is clear and straightforward. Thank you for sharing!
#10 by August McLaughlin on October 24, 2011 - 10:23 am
Terrific post, Kristen! I often start with a main character, or set of characters, and a very basic premise. If the characters are compelling enough, I believe the story will be, too.
Thanks for sharing your ever-fabulous insight!
#11 by Stephanie M. Lorée on October 24, 2011 - 10:25 am
Thank you for bringing up rape in writing. I have often lamented how tired I am of seeing rape used as a tool by the writer to bring a heroine low. I’ve read it too much, it’s too often poorly dealt with, and it has no bearing on the rest of the novel. Furthermore, not every antagonist is a rapist for Pete’s sake.
So yes, thank you for mentioning it in this post. I hope many writers read and listen. 🙂
#12 by Annalise Green on October 24, 2011 - 10:45 am
Great post, Kristen! As someone who likes to write about mean people, I often have to purposefully figure out ways to endear characters to the audience. But, I do think there’s a difference between sympathetic characters and likable characters. Can you be sympathetic but not necessarily likable in a conventional way? I think so. And I would argue that characters don’t necessarily need to be likable – but they do need to be sympathetic on some level. That’s why there are so many characters that we would never want to meet in real life, but that we love to root for in the context of a story. They might not necessarily be likable as in “We would like to get a drink with that person,” but they do have our sympathies for whatever reason.
#13 by Ellie Ann on October 24, 2011 - 11:00 am
Loved what you wrote about having an active goal and tangible antagonist!
#14 by Marcy Kennedy on October 24, 2011 - 11:14 am
Thanks for another great post in your structure series. I love James Scott Bell’s book, and I think it, along with your posts, are going to be helpful as my co-writer and I figure out the plots for the two remaining books in the series we’re writing.
#15 by Julia Indigo on October 24, 2011 - 11:15 am
“This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK.”
To quote Charlie Brown: AAAUUUGH!!
Back to the drawing board.
#16 by Anne R. Allen on October 24, 2011 - 11:20 am
ROFL: “looks to wine bar in the corner of the room”
We gotta get going on those wine-bar bookstores!
Superb post. I’m bookmarking this one. You’re breaking this down in ways that anybody can digest. Well, except for the people who really don’t know the difference between writing fiction and therapy. Love this line: “Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction.
#17 by Tamara LeBlanc on October 24, 2011 - 11:23 am
I read both The Fire in Fiction and Plot and Structure (marked both books up with loads of notes too) They are both fantastic examples of what to do. Thanks for linking them for those who haven’t discovered them yet.
And thanks for the excellent post – and like many of your other commentors, I’m bookmarking this sucker!
Have a great week!!
#18 by Gene Lempp on October 24, 2011 - 11:34 am
Love the LOCK system. James’ Plot & Structure is one of three books that are always on my writing desk (the other two are Brooks “Story Engineering” and Snyders “Save the Cat”). Thanks for sharing this with us Kristen!
#19 by Catherine Johnson on October 24, 2011 - 12:18 pm
Just bookmarked this post for whenever I decide I can write more than 10,000 words. Awesome resource as usual Kristen 🙂
#20 by Jenny Hansen on October 24, 2011 - 1:18 pm
I love the LOCK system too, Kristen. Thanks for reminding me that even Memoirs have to have it. 🙂
#21 by lanceschaubert on October 24, 2011 - 1:45 pm
Big fan of the “humility follows strength” bit. That’s one thing I’ve been struggling with – either beating the living shiz out of my protag without giving him the chance to redeem himself, or flinging him into rambo-fantasy mode without letting him run out of bullets.
#22 by leogodin217 (@Leo_Godin) on October 24, 2011 - 1:58 pm
Thank you for such a concise description of such a complex topic.
I agree with August. The books I love all start with characters I love. Great characters will carry me through a novel, even if the plot isn’t great. BTW, I recommend George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series for those who want to read great characters.
#23 by Patrick Thunstrom on October 24, 2011 - 3:18 pm
I always forget to apply LOCK to my stories.
Of course, the one I’m plotting now is trying to break the last rule a bit.
#24 by Kim Weiss on October 24, 2011 - 5:40 pm
What an excellent post. Thanks, Kristen.
#25 by Jillian Dodd - Glitter, Bliss and Perfect Chaos on October 24, 2011 - 6:03 pm
Love this post series, and trying to fight myself to make my characters more messed up!
#26 by Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson on October 24, 2011 - 6:52 pm
Not only does my protagonist have one clear objective, so do I: Get her story out there! 😉 Thank you for everything. 😉
#27 by heatherishither on October 24, 2011 - 7:39 pm
Your series has been really helpful as I’m working on my first novel. Every week it makes me want to throw up, but it’s so helpful! (As in I’m doing everything wrong- I’ll just go throw up.) Thanks for all the great advice.
#28 by Jess Witkins on October 24, 2011 - 7:49 pm
So helpful while working on my logline. Your advice and Piper’s help give me more to think about. I’ll be zeroing in on my character’s lead now.
P.S. That Martha Stewart bit was HILARIOUS! “making curtains out of old prom dresses” Love it!
#29 by Barbara McDowell on October 24, 2011 - 9:11 pm
“Plot & Structure” is a new go to for me as I start my first novel and this series is a weekly read (and reread). Thanks and keep them coming! 🙂
#30 by Reetta Raitanen on October 25, 2011 - 1:43 am
Great post. James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and all Donald Maass’ books are the most useful craft guides I have ever read. Thanks for reminding me about LOCK method.
I noticed the popularity of the rape plot when I was doing collaborative writing. Strange thing. I am not a fan
#31 by Kate on October 25, 2011 - 3:28 am
Have ordered the book. This post was beautifully reassuring as I finally don’t feel the dread at being asked what my story is about. I knew straight away, and it included ‘active’ goals! I expect tomorrow I’m going to find another huge flaw.
#32 by ashchristians on October 25, 2011 - 9:03 am
I look forward to these structure posts every week. Thanks for putting them up.
#33 by Kathryn Roberts on October 25, 2011 - 2:53 pm
This is something I’ve been trying to perfect. I’ve decided that if I can’t make an emotional connect to the reader, no matter what type of BBT I have, then I have failed. My battle scene is coming up and it will be a challenge to make sure I don’t have any loose ends.
#34 by katewoodauthor on October 25, 2011 - 3:59 pm
I’m really diggin’ this series, Kristen…keep ’em comin’!
#35 by authorleannedyck on October 25, 2011 - 4:18 pm
Thank you so much for this series, Kristen. I can see how that having a firm understanding of structure will not only help me building a strong novel but also a killer synopsis.
#36 by Julie Musil on October 25, 2011 - 6:07 pm
Plot & Structure is THE go-to book for me! I actually read through it as I plot each novel. You’ve summed up JSB’s brilliant advice perfectly.
#37 by Angela Orlowski-Peart on October 25, 2011 - 10:13 pm
Kristen, your LOCK system is awesome! And you explain everything so well, step-by-step. I’m in awe with your attention to details. Brilliant!
#38 by Marcia on October 25, 2011 - 11:09 pm
You helped me shift my protag’s goal slightly…now it’s more on track. Thank you. Love JSB’s book and LOCK system. You explained it in easy to understand terms. Love the series.
#39 by neelthemuse on October 26, 2011 - 3:50 am
Thank you Kristen for your posts….so informative. Does the LOCK help when you are attempting non-fiction?
#40 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 26, 2011 - 7:01 am
No, in NF, it is better to use outlines. You are dealing with information, not narrative. Narrative non-fiction would be the exception I can think of.
#41 by Lee (@lcmcdonough) on October 26, 2011 - 9:18 am
Quick question about LOCK – specifically O. For a novel that has more than one protagonist, say more of an ensemble cast, does the O need to be the same for each character? (FYI, as I’m writing this comment, I’m thinking of “A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby – not sure if each character has the same O, but it works – at least it did for me.)
#42 by colin marks on October 28, 2011 - 8:29 am
Very good article, thank you. I must read the others in the series.
#43 by swordsoftheancients on October 31, 2011 - 11:42 am
LOCKed and loaded for NaNoWriMo now. 😀 Thanks, Kristen!
#44 by Laura Rae Amos on October 31, 2011 - 12:20 pm
I honestly love it when you talk about literary fiction! You should teach an MFA! Seriously, all the books and professors will teach us about lovely prose, character development, themes, metaphor, and story arcs, but the way you put it in terms of real, living stories is so clear. Thank you! 🙂
#45 by Jonathan Ham on November 10, 2011 - 4:14 pm
This is my first NaNoWriMo and my first novel. But I’ve read countless hundreds of books, both well written ones and ones that are a waste of paper. I think all of that reading and unconscious analysis has prepared me for this challenge. I just read this article and realized that I was already following LOCK (at least in my mind). Except that the major conflict so far is my MC trying to get home. I may have to retrocon a BBT who’s been there all along. Thanks for the great advice to new writers like myself!
#46 by Niki Savage on November 10, 2011 - 4:43 pm
Thanks Kristen, for a wonderful post. I’m a newbie to your blog and will check out the first three parts of the series. Regarding the writing of a rape scene, yep guilty as charged. But mine is well within context and comes near the end of the novel. My purpose was not so much to bring the heroine down low, but to represent the utter failure of the hero to achieve his goal. Sometimes I feel the protag should not succeed, and of course that leaves great fodder for a sequel. Whether I’m right or not, only time will tell, because it’s already out there.
#47 by prueitt on January 1, 2014 - 4:02 am
…And there I was thinking I had a story. I’ve followed your blog Parts I – IV and, if you listen closely you can just make out the shrill saw-chomping sound of 42,000 of 62,000 words in my story screaming as they slide through the schredder. It was a mercy killing, trust me on that.
I knew a guy, a photographer who told me that if you are enjoying yourself at 2 AM numbering the backs of photos from a wedding you shot, then you know you are a photographer. Now I get that…