Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: advanced writing tips

We’ve been talking about the most critical flaw in most new manuscripts, and that is the lack of the CORE STORY PROBLEM. In order to make things simpler, I came up with the concept of the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker) because the core antagonist is not always a villain. He/She/It merely has a goal that runs counter to what the protagonist wants. Without that core story problem in need of solving we don’t have a novel, we have Day of Our Lives.

Just bad situations mixed with melodrama and angst.

So we need to give our protagonist a problem and not just any problem, but the perfect problem and one that is seemingly insurmountable. Now, we as Author God know this is good for the protagonist, but our character will likely scream, cry and resist more than a toddler headed for nap time.

Yet, whenever I write about the BBT (core antagonist), inevitably I get this in the comments, which is perfectly fine and a legitimate question…

“Great article, Kristen. I have a question. What about novels with an internal conflict? Where the main character has to make a hard choice and all the conflicts with the “bad guys” in the story are really just manifestations of the MC’s own character flaws coming to light as she works out the solution? Is there a BBT in this situation?”

Short answer? YES!!!!

One of the toughest concepts to grasp in writing fiction is this notion of “inner demons.” In all my years working with writers and busting apart countless manuscripts, the single greatest weakness I’ve witnessed with writers is a failure to truly understand how to plot. And before anyone breaks out in hives that I am encouraging detailed outlines, I’m not.

But the problem with inner demons is they are…well…inner. This means that our job as writers is to draw the demons out so they can be destroyed. It’s kind of like The Exorcist, though green puke and spinning heads is all your call.

You might laugh but if you have ever seen any movie involving an exorcism, what is the general progression?

The victim starts acting weird. Not herself. At first it might be written off as depression or lack of sleep or not enough caffeine. Then as the demon gains a toehold, the outward symptoms become more pronounced. Maybe physical changes (growling voice, speaking in Latin). Priests intervene and stuff gets cray-cray but to defeat the demon, what has to happen?

The demon must give its NAME.

You know you watch far too many horror movies when you are no longer scared, but are yelling critique.

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But the point of this I want to make clear is that the one thing these exorcism stories pretty much all have in common is the demon must be NAMED and manifest OUTWARDLY to be defeated.

Same in fiction.

Inner demons are tricky for a number of reasons we will talk about today. The trick is finding the plot problem that will drive the demon to the surface so it can be defeated.

Inner Demons are Inner

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Yeah, I already mentioned that but this is kind of a big deal. Many new writers begin the novel with a character doing a lot of internalization and thinking and thinking and more thinking.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but the biggest is we (readers) just don’t care. We haven’t spent enough time to be vested in a stranger’s emotional baggage.

Do any of us like spending time in person with folks who do nothing but talk about their character flaws and problems? NO. So we are unlikely to want to pay to endure this too much in a book. Can we get there eventually? Sure.

Just like dating. I would hope by the time we dated someone a couple months we might know they haven’t talked to their father in three years and we would care about this problem. In the first fifteen minutes of a first date?

*backs away slowly* *slips barista a $20 to create a distraction to cover ex-fil*

Demons Hide in the Blind Spot

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One key thing to remember about demons is they hide really really well. If they didn’t then shrinks would starve and be treated like writers.

Wow, you’re a psychotherapist? Really? What’s your “real” job? Seriously, people PAY you to listen to their problems?

This is another reason we don’t begin with a protagonist thinking about her inner demons. Odds are, she is oblivious they are even there. She isn’t yet that self-actualized.

Denial is more than a river in Africa 😉 . In fact, the stronger the denial, the better the story (or if you’re a therapist, the better the $$$$$). This is why your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in Act One should lose. He/She has not grown enough in order to defeat the core story problem.

Plot is What Exorcises the Demons

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The plot is the crucible that will fire this demon to the surface so the character can then defeat it. This is why understanding plotting becomes so vital. A great plot problem is going to sprout directly from that inner demon. Why?

Because fiction is the path of greatest resistance. What good is a plot problem unless it pits the character against her deepest flaw and weakness?

Some weaknesses might be fairly obvious—grief, betrayal or addiction. The problem, however, is no one wants to read 300+ pages of someone whining about a loss or a compulsion. We would probably want to smother such a person to get her to shut up.

Whining is not a plot.

Also remember that there is a reason for the grief, feeling of betrayal or addiction and THAT is the real inner demon that must show its head. There must be an outside challenge that forces the character to eventually choose to remain the same or to evolve (Act III).

You gonna keep hiding in a bottle? Or are you gonna face/defeat WHY you drink so you can walk your daughter down the aisle?

Not all inner demons are as obvious, though. The tricky demons look a hell of a lot like our greatest strengths, because…..um, they are.

Remember that every character strength has a corresponding weakness.

These inner demons are a real bugger to spot because they serve the character really well (or at least the character believes they do). In fact, this inner demon might be the very reason the character has always been successful…until you Evil Author Overlord hand her a problem where the old tools no longer work.

New level, new devil, baby 😉 .

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For instance, maybe your protagonist has a heart of gold. She is always there to help a friend, lend an ear, or fix a problem. Helping is the core of her identity.

But what happens when she wants to open a new cupcake bakery but then realizes she is spending too much time helping people who really don’t want to help themselves?

The plot forces her to recognize she sucks at putting down boundaries. She might even realize that she wasn’t helping after all…she was enabling or even controlling. She might come to finally see that the dark side of her helping. Deep down she doesn’t trust and so she always has to keep the ledger balanced in her favor. Or she could really believe she doesn’t deserve to be successful and helping others is a way of avoiding risk of failure.

Well, as soon as I get my brother sobered up, THEN I can focus on the cupcakes.

When the outside challenge—opening a cupcake bakery—reveals the BS of her core identity, what will she DO? See, before she had a dream of a cupcake bakery, she could be there for everyone and every problem. The plot problem, however, drives the demon to the surface and shows its real face.

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Notice how the problem (outside goal) helps this become a story, not just 300 pages of tedious navel gazing and infighting. Without the goal, there is no real way to see if our imaginary protagonist succeeds. Yet, add in a cupcake bakery and it is pretty easy to spot failure. If, in the end she is still nagging her brother to stop drinking and does not have a successful cupcake bakery?

She failed.

Every side trip to rescue others that stops her from realizing this dream makes us worry (dramatic tension).

It All Goes Back to the Paradigm

Remember a couple posts back we talked about paradigms. The paradigm is the set of lenses (flawed) that the protagonist sees herself and her world through. Inner demons are what create the distortion in the lens. I strongly recommend checking out the Emotional Wound Thesaurus because these wounds are what grind the distorted lenses through which your protagonist sees the world.

The needs, false beliefs, fears, strengths and weaknesses are all part of the paradigm. The BBT is what forces the protagonist to see the lenses are no good and propels her to do the hard work required to see her world and herself more clearly.

For instance, using our cupcake baker above, WHY does she feel the need to rescue? “She just does,” is a bad/lazy answer. Her need to rescue is merely a symptom of the wound. Her paradigm is family-centered. Her paradigm tells her, “I am not worthy of happiness on my own. I am only worthy when I am ‘helping’.”

Thus, if we know we are working with this sort of character and this sort of inner demon, plot becomes self-evident. We now know exactly what kind of existential crisis to toss in her path to make her fall. We place her in a situation where she no longer can help the way she used to. Take away her crutch, let her fall and eventually she will see she never needed it at all. She was always capable of walking.

In the end, all great stories involve inner demons (character arc). But even in literary fiction, the outside problem is what is going to make that inner demon manifest. So take time to really think about how your outside plot problem can make the protagonist squeal then make them suffer…a lot. It’s good for them 😀 .

***NOTE: Also pick up a Positive Trait Thesaurus for help finding your protagonist’s weak/blind spots.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to better make readers care about the internal struggles of your characters? Any questions? Suggestions? Additions? Recipes for holy water?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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One of the most common blunders I see with new authors is they botch the “flashback.” Why? Well, for starters I don’t think subjects/techniques like these get talked about in depth very often (though I could write an entire book on just flashbacks alone). This is part of why I created this Friday’s class, So You Want to Write a Novel. All the lovely stuff English class never taught you 😉 .

Additionally, many writers are mimicking what they are writing off what they “see” in movies. Problem is? Movies are a completely different medium. Film is concrete. Black letters on a white page? ABSTRACT.

But another problem with flashbacks? In my POV, the term “flashback” is far too broad.

We can mistakenly believe that any time an author shifts time, that THIS is the dreaded “flashback” I am referring to and the one I (as an editor) will cut.

Not necessarily.

We need to broaden our understanding of the “flashback” because lumping every backwards shift in time under one umbrella won’t work.

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Seems legit.

I will add a caveat. While shifting in time can make for EXCELLENT fiction, we have to make sure we are doing it in the right spots. Most of the time, one of the worst places to have a flashback is in the first five pages of the work.

My reason is this. The first pages of our book are some of the most critical. We need to stick to ONE timeline long enough to hook a potential reader into the story and allow them to get grounded and care. If we bounce forward and backward, with a new time and new cast members and a new setting? Readers will get confused and likely put the book down.

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Can it work? Sure, anything can work. But if we break the rule, better have a good reason for doing so.

The Trouble with Jumping

Think of writing a novel like being a figure skater in a performance. Sure, figure skating is already hard. The skater might stumble in a spin or meet a wall, but usually those aren’t the high danger spots. We can tell the trickiest parts of any ice skating performance by how they are scored.

What is the make or break? Jumps. The more complicated (and dangerous) the jump, the more points.

We can add “lifts” in couples skating, but the idea the same.

But jumps are a gamble. Nail the jump and WIN! Botch the jump and maybe it costs more points than it could have gained. Or, worst-case-scenario, the jump was so dangerous, the resulting injury is a career-ender.

Um…OUCH!
Um…OUCH!

Every time those skates leave the ice is dangerous, because one tiny mistake can ruin the magic. When we decide to shift time (jump), our literary skates are leaving the ice, so execution becomes paramount to keep the performance seamless.

Also, what new skater is doing a routine filled with ten quadruple Lutz jumps? Probably won’t find many Olympians doing that either 😉 .

Now you see why I want you to use jumps sparingly/strategically. Also, if we are going to jump, we better know how to execute it lest we destroy a knee our story. Jumps are also blended into a fabric of a larger performance and serve the whole or we would be left with ice-jumping as a sport.

To continue with our ice skating analogy, all jumps are jumps, but they each are different types of jump and each has a varying degree of difficulty worth a corresponding amount of points.

The same idea applies to “flashbacks.” Yes, broadly speaking, all “going back in time” is a flashback. But there are different ways of going back in time. And, within each “way” of going back in time, there is a corresponding level of difficulty (and possible payoff).

Also, some of you may have more than one time-line and more than one “protagonist” and that can and has been done, but remember that jumps now reach a new height of difficulty. Because we are balancing partners, timing must be perfect and if one partner stumbles, it brings down everyone.

Before we talk about time as a device…

The Training Wheel Flashback

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The training-wheel flashbacks are the ones we should learn to nix right away (and the one I see most commonly with new writers). It is weak writing. This type of flashback does what training wheels do. They artificially “prop” up the weak plot and weak characterization.

Most of us start with training wheels. It is OKAY to be new. But eventually, we look rather silly.

When I wrote my first “novel”, I had two protagonists with parallel plots. Okay. More than a tad difficult for a first-timer, but all righty. But THEN, I kept feeling the need to go back and explain. How did they become friends? How did the one character develop such bad OCD she became agoraphobic? Etc.

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Thing is, I had no plot. But, even if I did have a plot, these were elements I didn’t need to go back in time and explain. They were friends. I am Author God and if I say they are friends, the reader accepts that.

The one character was OCD. That was all I needed. She was just OCD. That’s all. There was nothing in those flashbacks that couldn’t have been related current-time in narrative or dialogue. I didn’t need to hop in a Literary DeLorean and explain by detailing her abusive childhood.

In fact, had I not explained why she was OCD and agoraphobic, I might have maintained/increased tension because the reader would have hoped I might reveal WHY.

Flipping back and forth in time added way too many characters, places and problems that had nothing to do with the current story problem in need of resolution.

When I took hostages asked friends and family to read my novel, the largest complaint was I confused everyone. They had no clue what my story was about (namely because I didn’t know either). I’d strung together a bunch of beautifully written vignettes all across time, propped up with training wheels flashbacks.

Ah, but pretty prose does not a story make.

Shifting in time is something that can be and is done. It might be a parallel timeline (The Green Mile, The NotebookTrue Detective).

It can be non-linear structure (Memento, Vanilla Skies, Pulp Fiction, The Murder House by James Patterson).

It can even be using true flashbacks for places in time that are critical to the unraveling current story problem (I call these Easter Egg Flashbacks). For instance, an event that happened earlier that directly relates to solving/conquering the real-time story problem that won’t work in a prologue (Love You More, by Lisa Gardner—and one of the BEST BOOKS I have EVER read).

We’ll explore all of these and ways they’ve been done well.

But, before we talk about bending time, let’s look at the inherent pitfalls to time travel (even when we do it well).

Bending Time

Back to the future, then past then future...
Back to the future, then past then future…

There are a lot of ways to bend time. But, like the quadruple axel, there are risks. Bending time is part of our author toolbox. There is nothing saying all stories MUST go from Point A to Point B in a linear, chronological fashion.

This said, we need to be careful how much we bend time and why we are bending time. Remember that every time we shift time, we can lose members of our audience. Yes, a handful of film geeks loved Memento. 

But, Memento is one of those movies that can probably only be done ONCE.

Pulp Fiction did a fabulous job of hopping all over time, but just as many people who loved the movie hated the movie and couldn’t finish. Same with The English Patient and The Hours (both the books and the movies).

We have to remember that, ultimately, stories are for the audience not for us (unless we are happy selling a book to ourselves). What experience are we giving them? Are we killing our tension and momentum because we keep jerking the reader back into a past that has no purpose other than exposition?

One of the reasons I play the Flashback Dictator, is that if I pull the training wheels away and help you learn to NOT rely on them, your writing will improve. THEN, if you do decide you must shift in time, you will be careful to do it with intention and will execute it WELL.

Instead of wobbling all over, any time shift has purpose.

A good litmus?

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).

Some questions we might ask when tempted to go back in time.

FLASHBACK TEST QUESTIONS

Is this something that can be explained real-time?

For instance, in the series True Detective which I explored in this post, the story follows two detectives who do NOT get along. The more amiable detective is trying to get to know his tortured and gloomy partner.

Detective Marty Hart: Your mom alive?

Detective Rust Cohle: Maybe.

Just this line of dialogue speaks VOLUMES. Of course later, Cohle explains in a few lines of dialogue that his father returned from fighting in Vietnam when he was two. Mom couldn’t take it and left and he hadn’t seen her since. We didn’t need to go BACK there because Cohle’s family problems, him being abandoned as a toddler and resulting relationship with his dad, has nothing to do with the current PLOT problem…finding a brutal killer.

If I cut the flashback, does it really harm the story?

If you have beta readers, critique partners or an editor, try removing any scenes that “go back” and often they aren’t as critical as we believe. Maybe one or two we need to keep, but I guarantee most can be weeded out (unless this is non-linear plotting).

Have I started in the wrong spot? Am I telling the “right” story?

Sometimes when we get writing, our subconscious knows that the more interesting story actually happened earlier, which is why we keep going back. Often, changing WHEN the story begins helps.

Have I unintentionally smooshed TWO separate stories together?

IF we keep flipping back and forth, we might also be muddying two separate stories together. It might be we need to separate the timelines and give each story a separate stage.

Remember:

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).

From Pulp Fiction to The English Patient to The Hours past and present are tethered and eventually the timelines converge and empty into the same gulf.

If we look and realize one timeline is going one way and another is going a different way and end in different places? A good time to cut in half and have two books 😉 .

I hope this helps you guys understand the difference between the “bad” flashback and simply using time as a literary device. We will explore the ways we can bend time some more and I will work to give you tips for how to land that quadruple-axel without taking out a small village.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with movies or novels that bounce all over time? Have you struggled with shifting in time and maybe you were telling the wrong story or beginning in the wrong spot? Have any questions?

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).

Check out classes below and Battle of the Pages is almost full, so get your seat while you can!

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages TOMORROW!!!!! ONLY A FEW SEATS LEFT!

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

June 24th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

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