Posts Tagged novel structure

Choosing a P.O.V.—What is BEST for YOUR Story? Structure Part 9

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This is my Upside-Down-Face

P.O.V. is a word that throws many new authors into panic. What is THAT? Prisoners of Vietnam? Pets of Vegans? Pals of Viagra? P.O.V. stands for Point of View. Traditionally, I’ve not included this lesson in my teachings on structure, but I am amending that since P.O.V. will affect structure.

The structure of a novel written in first person is very different than a novel using multiple third-person P.O.V. characters. Scenes will need a different kind of balancing, so choosing a P.O.V. should not be taken lightly. Yes, often choice of P.O.V. will come from author voice, but not always. Sometimes genre might influence our decisions as well.

Thus, today, we are going to whiz through Kristen’s P.O.V. Spark Notes.

***Just a quick reminder though. Comment over at my new Dojo Diva blog and there is a separate contest for comments with better odds of winning my 20 page critique. We are talking about How to Be the Sheepdog. Not a wolf, not a sheep, but a sheepdog. Moving on….

Anyway…

We ALL know writing a novel is FAR from easy. We just make it look that way ;) .

Today, I’m putting on my editor’s hat. Many of you decided to become writers because you love to write. Duh. I’ll even bet most of you, back when you were in school, also made very good grades in English. Thus, you might assume that you naturally know how to write a novel that is fit for successful publication.

Maybe you do. But, if you are anything like me when I started out? You might not know as much as you think you do.

Why?

Our high school English teacher didn’t care that we used 15 metaphors on one page. Why? Her goal was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor…NOT to prepare us for a career in commercial fiction. Same with college.

The single largest mistake I see in new manuscripts is the author does not understand P.O.V. and often this is why agents and people like me only need a page or two to know the manuscript/writer isn’t ready to publish.

This is an easy mistake to make, in that, as I stated earlier, formal education classes aren’t neccessarily there to teach us how to be great novelists. Some writers pick up on P.O.V. intuitively, but most of us need to be taught, lest we leave the reader feeling as if she is being held hostage on Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl.

P.O.V. Prostitution (A.K.A. Head-Hopping)

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess (hope) all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?

Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel like she’s been bungee-corded to Satan’s Merry-Go-Round—not good.

First, we have to know what P.O.V. is if we hope to use it to our advantage.

P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera?

Image courtesy of Jon Gosier, via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Jon Gosier, via Flickr Creative Commons

Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story.

There is no wrong P.O.V., but we do have to be consistent. P.O.V. is a HUGE factor in determining our writing voice.

What are the types of P.O.V.? What are their inherent weaknesses and strengths? For the record, this is HIGHLY redacted for the sake of time.

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

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There are three disadvantages to this P.O.V.

1. This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.

2. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.

3. First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.

There is the I Remember When camp and the Come Along with Me camp.

One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father and I were attacked by a pack of Mary Kay ladies gone feral….”

The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”

Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to mix the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

The benefit of First-Person? First-person P.O.V. adds an intimacy that no other P.O.V. can, and is useful for stories where we might want to withhold information from the reader.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

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Um…YES.

Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping.

Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut.

Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next. It is usually a good idea to limit one P.O.V. per scene. When we switch perspectives inside the same scene, that is called head-hopping, and it will confuse and frustrate our readers.

There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting:

1. It can add additional depth and insight to your story.

2. It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.

3. Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story.

For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist. In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V might not be the best fit. The scene might be more powerful if told from someone watching this protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.

Ah, but there are also inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.

1. Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.

2. It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera.

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Oh stop mucking it up and give Me the camera…

This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.”

Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

1. Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Epic battle scenes are a good example.

2. Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in NYTBSA Bob Mayer’s Area 51 Series (which I HIGHLY recommend), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist.

To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob used an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose would remain remain nice and smooth and the fictive dream could stay in tact.

There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

1. Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to tangle together.

2. Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I’ve edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

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Whose head am I in? I can’t tell. Help meeeee…..

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution” or “Head-Hopping.”

Key Points to Remember:

In First-Person—Come Along with Me stories can easily turn into I Remember When stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.

In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)—Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.

In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) —“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just remind Him nicely of commandment number eight, and ask Him to give the camera back.

In Omniscient—“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

P.O.V. is one more reason it is critical for writers to read if they hope to become great authors. Read, read, read. Read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors using different P.O.V.s to see how it is done well.

EXAMPLES:

Veronica Roth brilliantly employs the first-person Come Along With Me in her Divergent trilogy. Her choice of P.O.V. gives an intimate feel no other P.O.V. can, and, since it isn’t an I Remember When story, Roth is able to maintain reader suspense.

Stephen King does a great job of using first-person in an I Remember When style in The Green Mile. King chose this P.O.V. for a very specific reason, which I will not say so as not to spoil the ending even though y’all have had like, TWENTY YEARS to read it.

Dennis Lehane does an amazing job of employing omniscient in Mystic River. If you think you might want to use omniscient, I’d recommend reading him.

James Rollins uses third-person shifting very well in The Doomsday Key. Third-shifting is generally a great P.O.V. for thrillers in that it helps manage/reveal a lot of information that the protag may or may not know.

I would recommend Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero: Joe Ledger Series.  I HIGHLY recommend Iron River by T. Jefferson Parker. Both these authors mixed third-limited and first-person and the effect is impressive.

P.O.V. when used properly can take a story to a whole new level. Read, experiment and practice. I know I just touched on a handful of suggestions, so feel free to add your thoughts, expound, ask questions.

Also, if you want to meet me and author and Hollywood TV/Film Producer Joel Eisenberg, we will be in Boaz, Alabama on June 15th. Joel will be doing a workshop called, “Catching Your Muse: How to Claim Your Artistic Spirit” and I will be there to help any of your social media angsts. We can also plot global domination using a weaponized Bedazzlers and trained hamsters….so REGISTER HERE.

I LOVE hearing from you!

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).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

Both winners will be announced next blog. We just came in from assessing flood damage at our ranch and I haven’t had a chance to tally the winner. So stay tuned!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Choosing a Genre—Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part 7

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.42.33 AMUnderstanding structure helps us write cleaner and faster. Whether we plan every detail ahead of time or just intuitively have the architecture in our head, structure makes the difference between a workable first draft and a nightmare beyond salvage.

I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. 

If we don’t pick or we get too weird, we will confuse agents and readers because there is no clear idea of where this sucker should be shelved. It will also make plotting more than problematic.

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

I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

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

Um, ew.

Part of why I stress picking a genre will be a huge factor in driving sales and connecting readers with a work they will LOVE. We need to make certain we have slotted our product correctly because 1) we want readers to FIND our work and also 2) readers can be very unforgiving with reviews.

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As an example, writers often make the mistake of putting their books for sale in the incorrect spot. One of the most common oopses I’ve seen is writers believing they have a Romance, when in fact they have a Women’s Fiction or a General Fiction. Romance has rules and expectations.

I once worked with an author who’d had terrible sales for her book and gotten some scathing reviews. But, when I looked at her work, she didn’t have a romance at all and had listed her book for sale in the wrong place. She’d gotten razed in reviews because guy and gal didn’t end up with an HEA. In Romance, that is BAD. In Women’s Fiction? Not bad. She was connecting her work to the wrong audience.

Once she reslotted her work, sales improved and so did the reviews because she was now connecting to the correct audience who were now judging her story as a Women’s Fiction.

Additionally, some writers will try to get clever and blend genres together. Literary Thriller is one example.

Yes, it can be done, but in my POV, why? Readers who love thrillers love fast-paced action. Readers who like literature love a slower pace and lots of deep probing character development….which is likely to alienate most thriller readers. Also, add in the action and it’s going to be tough to keep the attention of the literary folks.

Can this genre work? Yes, but we have to realize we DO risk losing the audience so it better be done really well. Also, I think the term “Literary Thriller” is just for marketing. “Thrillers but written gooder.” And either they are a thriller or a general fiction. I think this genre term is confusing, misleading and more than a bit insulting to thriller authors.

Granted, there are people who like to read everything, but betting our writing future on entertaining statistical outliers is a serious gamble.

I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

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

know I haven’t listed all the genres, so if I miss one, feel free to add it in the comments ;) . These are just the “biggies.”

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit.

Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your Big Boss Trouble Maker (read Structure Part Three if you want to know what a BBT is). Yes, the guy will likely be a scene antagonist, but that is different.

Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance because there are SO many categories of romance that it could make a book.

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

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

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

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

Note: Literary fiction is not a free pass to avoid plotting. There still needs to be an overall plot problem that forces the change. People generally don’t wake up one day and just decide to change. There needs to be an outside driving force, a Big Boss Troublemaker, and a tangible physical goal. Again, in The Road, the man and boy have a tangible goal of getting to the ocean.

The only difference in literary fiction and genre fiction is that plot arc is now subordinate to character arc. In commercial genre fiction the plot generally takes precedence. In Silence of the Lambs catching Buffalo Bill is top on the priority list. Character evolution is secondary. In literary fiction these two arcs reverse. The character growth and change is of primary importance and plot is merely the vehicle to get them to change.

For instance, in Joy Luck Club, June’s impending trip to China is what brings the women together and what forces each of them to change the patterns of the past. The trip is irrelevant save for two purposes—1) bringing the women together to face their demons and 2) when June actually makes the trip to China to meet her mother’s twin sisters (the lost babies) we know the change has occurred and the chains of the past have been loosed.

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

In regular fantasy, we will generally have a singular protagonist. In high fantasy, the various parties each become protagonists. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

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

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

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

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association

Young AdultI won’t talk long about YA, since YA beaks into so many subcategories. Often YA will follow the rules of the parent genre (i.e. YA thrillers still have a ticking clock, fast pacing and high stakes just like regular thrillers). The differences, however, is that YA generally will have a younger protagonist (most often a teenager) and will address special challenges particular to a younger age group.

For instance, in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Tris is taking on a very real political battle between factions. But the plot also involves her evolving from child to adult, how she defines her identity aside from Mom and Dad and forging a new romantic relationship with Four. These are all prototypical struggles for someone in that age group.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin.

This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story or change the genre entirely because she actually wrote a Women’s Fiction and NOT a romance.

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

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

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Is Your Story PRIMAL?—Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part 6

Geiko Caveman.

Geiko Caveman.

Okay, so if you have read all the blogs in this series, you should understand what makes a scene vs. a sequel, understand the three-act dramatic structure. You also understand that the antagonist—or Big Boss Troublemaker—is the engine of your story. Without the BBT, your protagonist’s world would remain unchanged. The BBT’s agenda drives the story. It is the engine. No engine, no forward motion.

By this point, you should also be able to decipher a good idea from a not-so-good idea and then, once decided, state what your book is about in ONE sentence. You can have up to three, but let’s shoot for one.

Welcome to part SIX of my series on novel structure–whoo-hoo! Today we are going to discuss gimmick versus fundamentals of a good story.

First, gimmick. Here is the thing. There are only so many plots. DO NOT try to get creative with plot. Everything has been done. Seriously. Remember Part One of this series? There are only so many elements on the Periodic Table, yet everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements. Think of core plots like the elements on the Periodic Table.

Many new writers make writing a novel way too hard in that they try to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works. Leave the wheel alone. You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.

I find a lot of new writers get really excited about gimmick. Gimmick is dangerous, and gimmicks can bite back. Don’t believe me?

Okay…M. Night Shyamalan. He got us with The Sixth Sense, but after that? It was over. Why? Because the “magic” only worked with a naïve audience. After The Sixth Sense we were like CSI Vegas with every Shyamalan story. Short of using a swab kit and blacklight, we paid attention to every last little detail trying to figure out the twist ending.

This also limited Shyamalan in that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn’t. If he told a story with a twist ending, then the audience (no longer naïve) was looking for the clues, so no ending could possibly measure up to The Sixth Sense. But, if Shyamalan tried to do a movie with no twist and do something different, then the audience was ticked because there was no twist.

Shyamalan, in my opinion, is a victim of his own brilliance, and I can see how The Sixth Sense really put him in a bind…because it worked so well. Most of the time gimmicks suck, but even when they are really good…they still suck. So avoid gimmick and just focus on becoming a darn good storyteller.

Anyway, back to my original point.  There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.” Go ahead and try. I guarantee you that one of two things will happen.

One is that you will think you have this new plot no one has ever seen. All excited, you will posit this new-and-shiny-never-before-imagined-idea to your fellow writing friends, and one of them (I promise) will go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like the movie Blah.”

….and then you are required to drink heavily and cry and wonder why you were doomed to be born a writer.

The other end-scenario is that you get so weird that you barely understand your own story, and the poor the reader will need a Dungeon Master Guide, a Garman and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird. If you still want to invent the plot never seen before? Have fun storming the castle *waves and smiles*.

Moving on…

Plots, at the very core, are usually simple. Why? The plot is the foundation. Now what you construct on top of that foundation can be super-complex. Note I wrote complex NOT complicated.  Even the most complex stories can be boiled down to very simple goals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, James Clavell’s Shogun, and MacMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove all have very simple forces driving very complex and dynamic stories.  Good versus evil. Struggle for power, for survival, for love. Very simple.

As Blake Snyder says in his book Save the Cat: Is it primal? Would a caveman understand the core of your story?

Good storytellers connect with the audience on a basic level. So when you whittle down that idea or novel into a one-sentence log-line, step back and be honest. Does your story hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death?

Does it have physical and or emotional stakes? Your story might seem complex, but at the core it should be very basic and connect at a visceral level.

People in China LOVED Titanic.Why? Because it is a love story. Love is basic. It is primal.

Before you start any novel, there are some fundamental questions we can use as a litmus test for our idea. Ask yourself:

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

Notice I said sympathetic…not likable. Be careful here. If we are expecting readers to spend 10 hours (average time to read a novel) with our protagonist, it helps if they are rooting for him to win. If you have a rough protagonist, then you need to at least offer the reader a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed. If he can’t be redeemed, then you must offer the reader something about your protagonist that puts the reader on his side.

For instance, one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE movies is Tropic Thunder.

Don’t judge me.

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The main protagonist Tugg Speedman is a washout and an action movie has-been. The entire group of actors are hard to like. They are insecure, narcissistic and extremely high-maintenance. One is a hardcore addict. These guys are tough to root for. BUT, when placed in relation to the dreadful Hollywood producer Les Grossman?

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BEST Tom Cruise role EVER!

We can’t help but cut the actors a break and sympathize, especially after they end up in way over their heads when they are dropped in Vietnam and the plan goes sideways. The actors believe they are in an action movie, but (after a freak twist of events) they are actually pitted against real drug dealers…with real bullets.

*giggles*

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

A lot of first-time novelists get fascinated writing novels about journals, letters and buried secrets. I have a theory about this. It is called, “We-Are-Squeaky-New-and-Don’t-Know-Jack-About-How-to-Plot Syndrome.” Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.

Novels that involve a journal or finding about a secret past usually involve the newbie author’s favorite tactic…the flashback. Since we have no big goal at the end, forward momentum is scary, so we roll back…and this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift.

Journals and letters, in my opinion, are so attractive because they provide the unskilled author a contrived mechanism for stringing together unrelated vignettes. That is not a plot. Sorry. I was bummed too. That is okay, though. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m here to help :D.

Yes, you can use journals in your story, but seriously? How many best-selling novels have you seen that involve someone reading a journal? Things written in journals are in the past, which means they have already happened and the world didn’t end so who cares?

To paraphrase Blake Snyder, it becomes a Watch out for that glacier! No rising stakes and no pressing danger. Watch out for the glacier! It’s moving at an inch a year, but watch out!

Conflict drives stories. My best advice? Journals are for self-actualization. Leave self-actualization for therapy. Want a gut-wrenching plot? Stick to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy ;).

Stories can have a journal/letters, but they MUST ALSO have a main conflict and the journal/letters are merely a tool that drives the present conflict…which is your plot.

The journal isn’t the plot. Neither are the letters.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had conflict happening real-time. Yes, the novel contained each girl’s experience with the pants, but each girl’s story was a separate plot joined in one large plot and happening real-time. Each girl was facing a different challenge and had to mature in a different way, but the group of girls (the group is actually the protagonist) had to learn to mature while finding a way to hold on to childhood friendship.

Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood. The Ya-Ya Journal was critical for the daughter and mother (present-day) to repair the rift in their relationship. So there was a present-day problem that the journal solved, and basically you have a Fried Green Tomatoes. Two parallel plot lines and the present-day plot relies on past-time events to drive forward momentum in the present.

Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was the same thing. Two parallel love stories, but both had a plot arc. The love story told in the notebook drives the present-day love story in the nursing home.

Same with secrets. The secret must have something to do with the present-day story or it is just a contrivance. The secret can be a part of the story, but generally doesn’t work as the entire story.

Linda Castillo executes this brilliantly in her novel Sworn to Silence. Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, grew up Amish, but made a choice to live in the world with the English. She is the Chief of Police in a small Ohio community of both Amish and English, and she acts as a cultural bridge.

When a serial killer begins butchering women, Kate leads the investigation, but a secret from her past holds clues to catching the present-day killer. Kate’s secret drives the forward momentum of the present-day plot, and adds mind-bending tension.

Is my story primal?

Beneath the empires and spaceships and unicorns, is your main plot driven by a basic human desire/need? Here is a list of some best-selling novels to illustrate my point.

Michael Crichton’s Prey—Survival. Save/protect loved ones.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic ParkDon’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Don’t die. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

Linda Castillo Sworn to Silence—Fear of death. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Jennifer Chiaverini The Aloha Quilt—Love. Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island—Survival. Vengeance. Protect loved ones.

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Veronica Roth’s DivergentSurvive. Belong. Protect loved ones.

Okay, so as you can see, I read a lot of genres. But most great books can be boiled down to a very simple driving force. New writers very frequently rush into the writing with no idea of the story they are trying to tell. I know. I’ve been there. And since deep-down we know we do not have a core goal that is simple and primal, we try to compensate by making things more and more complicated.

That’s why so many writers have a panic attack about the agent pitch session. We are forced to boil down our plot to the primal core…and we can’t because there isn’t one. So we ramble and blather and try to fit 400 pages of world-building complications into our pitch while trying not to throw up in our shoes (Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt).

Being complicated is like trying to use Bond-O putty to fix your plot. Won’t work. Strip that baby down and look at the bare bones. Simple. Primal. This is why gimmicks are a sticky wicket. Gimmicks make stories complicated instead of complex. Stay away.

Remember that there are no new plots. So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own? The award-winning novel A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. In my pov, Twilight was Jane Eyre with vampires (and I am not alone in this assessment).

Instead of trying to totally revinvent story and plot as we understand it, why not take a book you love so much the pages are falling out of it, and see if you can use the premise in a new and exciting way?

Utilizing another author’s plot is not plagiarism. It’s smart. Remember…the number of plots is finite. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. Heck, I did! We believe we have to come up with a story never told before or risk being accused of plagiarism. Not so.

Plagiarism is when someone takes the execution of another author’s plot and tries to hide that by only changing surface elements. So if I wrote a book called Evening about girl who moves from Texas to Northern California to fall in love with a vampire who merely glimmers in sunlight…. See the point?

Actually, a great way to come up with story ideas is to go to the IMDB and look at log-lines, then ask yourself how could you tell that story differently.

A timid romance author must travel to South America and join forces with a handsome opportunist to rescue her sister who’s been kidnapped by treasure-hunting thieves. (Romancing the Stone).

A shy librarian must travel to South Texas and join forces with a handsome biker to rescue her brother who has been kidnapped by desperate drug-dealers. (Kristen’s Made-Up-Just-Now Story).

See how you can take a story that has already been done and make it something amazing and new?

So what are some problems you guys are facing when it comes to plot? Do you have any resources to share? Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration? Share. I love hearing from you guys. Lets me know I haven’t given you a massive coronary and killed you off, :D. I appreciate your loyalty to this series.

Oh, by the way. Since there seemed to be a lot of interest in log-lines and creating them or repairing them, I am thinking on doing a class and workshop to help. Is this something that would interest you guys? It would be about $35. Lemme know.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Your Novel in ONE Sentence—Anatomy of Story Part 5

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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.

In Lesson One, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Lesson Two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. In Lesson Three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the opposition, 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.

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 log-line:

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.

Back when I ran a novel writing critique group, every participant was required to tell what their story was about in ONE sentence before we ever started plotting. If the writer wandered too far off track, then we as his teammates knew to do one of two things. 1) Assist the writer in changing the plot to get him back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we 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.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes.

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’s existence (stakes).

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. Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

What are some problems you might be having? Do you find you wander too far off your original idea? What are your struggles with remaining focused?

I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Is Your Idea Strong Enough? Story Structure Part 4

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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 you buy & read, 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, but these are just my notes, so get the book for the real meat.

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

LEAD

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 should 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.

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. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, 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 we’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.

In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.

Objective

Our 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 shape-shifters….”

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 ;).

Conflict

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 time we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is whose agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end.

The 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.

Knockout

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-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 sh—enanigans.

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 upcoming lessons, 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! What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? I LOVE hearing from you.

Lynette Mirie is the winner over at my Dojo Diva blog. Today at Dojo Diva, we are talking about the POWER of QUITTING. Since this is a new blog (and a way shorter one), I am running a separate contest for commenters so the chances of winning are A LOT better!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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37 Comments

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story 3—Opposition

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Ah, structure. We are discussing the fundamentals of story. No skeleton and our story is a puddle of primordial adverb ooze. In Part One, we talked about the micro scale of fiction the scene and the sequel, cause and effect. In Part Two, we panned out for the BIG picture, Aristotelian Three-Act Structure.

Today? We talk about the essential ingredient for ALL fiction. Just like carbon is the ONE key ingredient for all LIFE, conflict is the key ingredient for ALL stories. No conflict? No story.

If you want to self-publish or indie publish, I would assume most of you want to be successfully published, regardless the format or distributor. To be considered “successfully published” we have to sell a lot of books. To sell a lot of books, we must connect with readers. That is what this series is about. Structure is how readers connect to stories. The stronger the structure, the better the story.

Let’s get started.

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Yes, we can break rules, but we must understand them first. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist.

I am not going to use that term in the traditional way because I think it can be confusing. Every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but I am getting ahead of myself. Today we are going to start with the Big Boss Troublemaker. No BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the hero’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the story problem that must be resolved by the end of your tale. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle. In Star Wars, the BBT was the Emperor. It is his agenda that causes the inciting incident and it is he who must be faced in the final battle or the movie ain’t over.

In the beginning of The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick is running from bounty hunters. Due to the nature of the story, it begins right in the action. Who is the antagonist? In that scene it is the bounty hunter.

Riddick’s goal—remain free

Bounty Hunter’s goal—capture wanted criminal Riddick

Their goals are in conflict. The bounty hunter is the antagonist in the scene, but he isn’t the Big Boss Troublemaker.

Lord Marshal actually was the party responsible for bounty on Riddick’s head (via the Elementals). The Lord Marshal was also responsible for the extinction of Riddick’s home world in an effort to kill the Furyan male who was prophesied to bring his end. Who is fighting in the Big Boss Battle?

Riddick and the BBT, Lord Marshal.

The stronger your BBT, the better. In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.

The Big Boss Troublemaker doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a storm, like in The Perfect Storm or disease, like in Steel Magnolias.

Remember high school literature?

Man against man.

Man against nature.

Man against himself.

The first one is pretty simple, but the next two? This is where things get tricky when the BBT is not corporeal. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism. Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle (which will require a proxy). What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself?

In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride, manifested in the ship’s captain who acts as the proxy. In the end, the men lose. They believe that their skill will be able to triumph over the storm, and they are wrong, which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.

In Steel Magnolias the BBT is disease/death, manifested in the proxy of the daughter Shelby. Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite having diabetes (Inciting Incident) is what changes the mother M’Lynn forever. What must change about M’Lynn? She is a control freak who must learn to embrace life for all its ugliness. She cannot beat death, or can she?

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.24.05 AM

We see M’Lynn in the beginning of the movie fluttering over her daughter’s wedding, controlling everything and tending to the flowers and the broken glasses (symbol). When Shelby dies, M’Lynn is once again trying to control everything, tending the flowers and the broken things—her husband and sons. She falls apart after the funeral.

M’Lynn has let go of control and the arc is complete. In the Big Boss Battle, the BBT is defeated. How? Shelby is dead. The BBT is defeated in that there is resurrection.

Diabetes and death have been defeated. Shelby lives on in the son she left behind, a grandson that M’Lynn would never have had if she’d gotten her way in the beginning and been permitted to control Shelby’s life. (Note that this entire movie is bookended by Easter).

In the movie Footloose the BBT is religious fundamentalism, which is represented by the town preacher and father of the protag’s love interest. Kevin Bacon wants to dance, BBT wants no dancing. The town preacher is responsible for the story problem. How can a dancing city boy hold a dance in a town ruled by religious fundamentalism?

Your BBT is the entire reason for your story.

No Emperor and there is no Star Wars. No Lord Marshal and Riddick would be off doing what Riddick likes to do when he isn’t killing things. If everyone agreed the storm was too big to mess with, then there would have been no Perfect Storm. If Shelby didn’t have diabetes, then there would be no challenge and, thus no story. In Footloose, if the town had been Catholic there wouldn’t be an issue.

So, once you have your Big Boss Troublemaker, you will have emissaries of the BBT. Depending on the type of story, usually the BBT will have a chain of command. Some will be actual characters. The Emperor had Darth and Darth had Storm Troopers that he could send out to cause massive inconvenience to others. They all trace back to the original BBT, though. The BBT is the core of the story and must be defeated by the end of the story. Everything leads to destroying the BBT.

So we have Big Boss Troublemaker.

We have the BBT’s emissaries.

Ah, but EVERY scene has an antagonist. What is the antagonist? The antagonist is whoever is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving her goal. Allies, more often than not, will serve as scene antagonists generating the necessary conflict required to drive the story forward.

In Romancing the Stone who is the Big Boss Troublemaker? The BBT is the crooked inspector. Who are the emissaries of the inspector? The two thieving brothers who have kidnapped romance author Joan Wilder’s sister (the crooked inspector is using them as unwitting pawns to get the map and get the jewel). What is the goal? The jewel. What is the final battle? When the inspector and one of the thieves are fed to the alligators in an act of poetic justice, and the younger brother is taken to jail.

Who is the antagonist? That changes, but Jack (the love interest) often serves the antagonist’s role. Joan wants to just give the map to the thieves in exchange for her sister. Jack wants to use the map to find the jewel. CONFLICT.

Some Pretty Hard and Fast BBT Rules—Break these Rules at Your Own Risk

Rule #1—BBT (or a proxy of the BBT)  MUST be introduced in Act I. No leading us on for 50 pages before we get an introduction. BBT is responsible for Inciting Incident.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.33.32 AM

Granted, we don’t have to be ham-fisted. In the book, Divergence, we are introduced to the Erudites and Jeanine Matthews in a very subtle way. Tris’ father is an Abnegation leader complaining at the dinner table about an Erudite leader who’s making his job running the government difficult and then the story moves on and focuses in on Tris’ defection to the Dauntless faction.

Though Jeanine is responsible for the story problem in need of defeating, we don’t get that in flashing lights. We see only extensions of her agenda for almost half the book (movie).

Rule #2—In romance, the love interest CANNOT be the BBT. He or she can wear the antagonist’s hat, but he or she CANNOT be the BBT. Why? Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Also, in romance, even though guy and girl might not get along in the beginning, they do come together as a team for the final showdown against the BBT. If we deviate from this, we no longer have romance and now have general fiction or women’s fiction.

Pizza has rules and so does romance. I am sure there are exceptions, but it defies the code of great love stories and often leads to a very unsatisfactory ending.  Audiences have tastes that we are wise to appreciate. If we want to write romance, then there is a fairly strict code that guy and gal end up together in the end. It’s the whole point of reading romance, so we can believe love conquers all. If our romance mimics life too much, then there is no escape and that defeats the entire purpose of reading romance.

Yes there are exceptions. I am here to help you guys grasp the overall rules. Once we understand the rules, then we can break them.

Rule #3—BBT MUST be defeated in your book. Period.

There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. No. Sorry. Try again.

In a series, the protagonist in every book MUST DEFEAT the BBT responsible for the story problem. We must treat that book as a stand-alone. If we were hit by an ice cream truck and never wrote another, the problem of our last book would be resolved.

We will talk more about this on another blog, because series are a whole other ballgame. I will give you a nugget to hold you over, though. Think back to what we talked about earlier. BBTs have emissaries sent to do their evil deeds. Treat each emissary as your BBT in each book (only you don’t have to tell the reader unless you want to). Each BBT is a necessary step to complete in the overall defeat of the series’ MAIN BBT.

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

Lord of the Rings

Defeat Uruk-Hai–> Defeat Sauruman–> Defeat Sauron

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. Structure is tough, and hopefully this series is breaking it down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

I want to hear your comments. Who are your favorite BBTs of all time? Do you still have questions or other topics you would like me to explore? Do you have any books or techniques you would like to share?

Exercise I–Watch your favorite movies. Who was the BBT? Who were the emissaries? How was the BBT’s agenda introduced?

Exercise II–Recall your favorite books. Again. Who was the BBT? Who were the emissaries of the BBT? How was the BBT’s agenda introduced?

Exercise III–For the literary folk. Who was the protagonist? What internal flaw was the protag forced to confront? How was it manifested (BBT)? Was the character flaw defeated? How was the BBT defeated?

In Steel Magnolias the character flaw (need to control) is defeated when Shelby dies. M’Lynn lets go of control. Diabetes/Death (the BBT), however, is defeated with life. Shelby will live on through her son.

Yeah, it’s a brain-bender but great exercise for our story-telling muscles.

I do want to hear from you guys! What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? I LOVE hearing from you.

Lynette Mirie is the winner over at my Dojo Diva blog. Today at Dojo Diva, we are talking about the POWER of QUITTING. Since this is a new blog (and a way shorter one), I am running a separate contest for commenters so the chances of winning are A LOT better!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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54 Comments

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story—Structure Part One

Structure Matters

Structure Matters

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. Also, in the new paradigm of publishing, writers who produce more content have greater odds of making money at this writing thing.

Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers. Structure is essential to all stories, from screenplays to novels to epic space operas.

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.

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I’ve run my 20 page Death Star Critique contest for a few years now, and I will say that the #1 problem I spot is that the writer clearly doesn’t grasp structure fundamentals. Yes, I can generally spot that in less than five pages ;) . Strangely, readers can too, only they may not be able to articulate why a book failed to hook them. Structure helps stories make sense on an intuitive level.

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. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Kristen's First Novel

Kristen’s First Novel

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

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 pre-published 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 am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

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.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Location, location, location.

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 cool.

Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral 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. All parts serve an important function. Normal World has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Again, prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel.

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. 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. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming posts.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

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 OMGWTH? 

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.

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

***Though, I will say this holds true for all variations of story, just the novel tends to be the BUGGER due to length, so we will talk about that here.

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).

Before it went BOOM!

Before it went BOOM!

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. 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. We’ll talk more about that later.

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” but all in good time.

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).

  • 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.

Pinterest Fails

Pinterest Fails

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese.

But, on some primal level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

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? Resources? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, 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).

Will announce the Dojo Diva winner on next DD post.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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106 Comments

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