Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: conflict

We are into October and National Novel Writing Month is around the corner (November–NaNoWriMo). Thus, I am running my structure series to help you guys get prepared. Why write 50,000 words if, at the end you have an unpublishable mess? Some of you might have seen these lessons, but a good refresher can’t hurt.

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. Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

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.

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.

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

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

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

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 aspiring 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.

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. Last week we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). 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. 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 weeks.

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 WTH? 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.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important.

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

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).

 

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.

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 intuitive 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?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

NOTE: If you have won an edit from me and haven’t heard back, PLEASE resend to my assistant Gigi Salem (if you haven’t already). Likely, the wormhole (spam folder) ate your submission. I do look for them, but sometimes they slip by. Just send your pages to Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com and I will get you hooked up.

Winner’s Circle:

GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (6500 words) OR a blog diagnostic. Diane Henders

Monthly Winner of 15 Pages (3250 words) of Edit Joylse Barnett

Weekly Winner of Five Pages (1250 words) Ramblingsfromtheleft

All winners, send your words in a Word document to my assistant Gigi at Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

I know I talked about this only a couple of months ago, and yes, you guessed it. This is my 7th Deadly Sin of Writing. As an editor, I found that I kept correcting the same blunders over and over and yeah…over. The mistakes were so universal among new writers that I finally put together my Seven Deadly Sins of Writing so that these issues could be corrected ahead of time. This, then, would leave me more time to comment on the actual story instead of taking valuable time slashing through these common oopses. Feel free to ignore any of the Sins, but I will tell you that editors don’t sit up all night thinking of ways to make your lives miserable….we only stay up until ten doing that :D.

Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s  race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable. The Seven Deadly Sins are designed to make sure your plot is sleek, fast and unstoppable until the finish line.

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Everyone who has ever argued this point with me was wrong. I don’t say this to sound like a jerk, I say it because if you are using all these props, you don’t need them. Have confidence. Your writing is stronger than you believe. I have read the writing samples sent to me by huffy writers who thought they were robbing the reader of some experience by removing the bold and/or italics, and guess what? I still found the bold and italics annoying and distracting. We readers really are smart. Really. We can figure out what should be stressed. Lose the prose training wheels to race with the big boys and girls.

And as far as italics for internal dialogue? Yes, that is technically correct, but internal dialogue should be used VERY sparingly. Too much internal dialogue, to me the editor, is a major red flag of an author not yet strong enough to maintain POV and keep the flow of narrative. Switching a reader from a third limited perspective to a first-person internal dialogue is jarring. Do you mind being jarred once in a while? No. But every five minutes? It gets tedious.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

Okay, I am behind on announcing winners due to family drama, so catching up today.

Last Week of August’s Winner–Diana Stevan

First Week of September’s Winner–Donna Amis Davis

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

Winner of fifteen pages of critique for the month of August is Susie Lindau

Please send 3750 word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of September I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Until next time…

Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.

Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.

This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?

Worry=Page-Turner

Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).

Back to conflict…

When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.

Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc.  Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.

Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.

The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.

First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.

Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.

All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”

If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.

Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.

So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:

1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.

As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.

“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.

One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.

If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.

2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.

After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.

Marlin><Dorie

Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.

-/+

(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)

Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.

There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.

3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.

Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.

Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.

At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.

What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 pages (1250 words) of critique:

Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Last week, I introduced you guys to my first three Deadly Sins of Writing. Many of you, in the comments, requested I keep going and reveal the rest of my Deadly Sins. All I have to say is, y’all asked for it :D.

Creating great characters has to be one of the toughest tasks for any fiction writer to successfully accomplish. Let’s be honest. Plot is important, but characters have the power to make or break a story. Most of us don’t remember plot…we remember people. We identify. There is something about that character resonates within our soul, and we’re hooked.

Today’s blog will help you give life to great characters. How? By teaching you not to kill them.

There are a number of ways to strangle, smother, or otherwise crush the life from what could have been a wonderful character. One popular method of involuntary homicide (character-cide?) is the ever-tempting Bog of Back-Story.

Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and we ain’t getting out.

I have edited hundreds of short stories and novels. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read a really clever story that had some great forward momentum…only for the author to stop and go back in time to explain why such-and-such did thus-and-such. What? Huh?

It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of our failure to plan ahead of time. Writers (especially new writers) are super excited to start writing, so they often charge into a plot without understanding the psychological terrain of the characters ahead of time. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.

New writers often try to thread flashback after flashback into the plot as they try to understand who their characters really are. Weighting down any plot with bag after bag of memories, dreams and flashbacks is a surefire way to sink any story…and kill all souls on board.

Failure to understand key characters ahead of time often has terrible effects.

Back Story Kills Plot Momentum

Loading back story onto the narrative often has the effect of riding in a car with a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. We just about get going and it looks promising and….we roll backwards, stall and have to wait a few minutes to get going. Just like we wouldn’t want to make a 700 mile drive this way, readers don’t want to read a novel this way either. It leaves them beat up, exhausted and in a foul mood.

Back Story Creates Fish Heads

On virtually every first novel I’ve edited, there is what author Candy Havens calls a fish head. It is almost always 100 pages long. Why? Because the writer who takes off writing without knowing her characters needs roughly a hundred pages to figure them out. The first hundred pages of first-time novels (98% of the time) are something that can be chopped off and thrown away…ergo the term fish head.

Every character sounds alike and the dialogue is flat. Then, suddenly about page 100, the characters start coming alive and develop their own voices. It is also about this point the writer finally settles on what the real story problem is.

Doing detailed character backgrounds ahead of time can prevent fish heads. Take time to write out each major character’s story. Write freely and let your imagination go wild. Then, once you get to the plotting, it will be easier to see what parts of the back story are good to harvest for your main story for plot and even sub-plots.

Back Story is Important but not Always Relevant

Back story is critical for our characters. In fact, in my current critique group, highly detailed character backgrounds are the first step before ANY plotting. It is absolutely essential to know each of the characters and why they are good, evil, confused, etc.

Why?

Because we are all the sum of our experiences and our backgrounds affect our choices, body language, dialogue and decision-making. Characters need to be real people with baggage (Just because they have baggage, doesn’t mean the reader wants to hear about it. That is therapy, not fiction).

What is NOT, relevant, however, is that the reader know ALL of these critical details unless they apply to the current story problem. We don’t need a heavy-handed flashback to when our heroine was a little girl and her father left her and there was great crying and gnashing of teeth.

Really.

We (readers) really don’t need to know the why behind everything. Don’t believe me? Go read my post about why the Star Wars prequels sucked. Explaining is not necessary and it ruins tension (The Force was better before it was explained).

Yes, our readers might want to know why, but let them suffer. Not giving readers what they want when they want it is exactly what keeps them turning pages and buying books. It’s called dramatic tension.

Instead of dumping a crude flashback in the beginning so your reader will understand Such-and-Such…let them wonder. It’s good for them and it’s good for your career.

Think of it this way.

Writers are word magicians. If we tell the audience how we made the woman float, we ruin the show.

Back Story Needs to Be Used Sparingly

Back story gives life to a character much like water gives life to a plant. However, filling a plot with back story (like overwatering) will just kill forward momentum and drown your character. Part of growing as novelists requires we learn finesse. Many of us, when we start our writing, are very heavy-handed and it takes time, practice and study to acquire the skill of folding back story seamlessly into the narrative. We need to learn to be so smooth that the reader never even sees what we’re doing.

A quick example:

“Fifi, are you going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.

Fifi wanted to meet up with Josh, and hoped the night would go as planned. But, bad things had happened before. Fifi thought back to the time her father had promised he would take her to the Father-Daughter Dance. She had been waiting weeks to wear the pink chiffon gown her mother had bought her for the occasion. Even though her mother had forbidden her to wear it, Fifi would sneak the dress out of her closet and twirl in front of the mirror like a ballerina. She remembered counting the days up to the dance and how it had started to rain and her mother begged her father not to go to the store for a corsage to go with Fifi’s dress…

And we have just taken a side-trip into The Land of “Who Cares?”

This approach takes away from the current story problem and trails the reader down a story thread that may or may not be relevant to the current story problem. Yes, Fifi might have had a tragedy, but telling all the details kills the mystery and ruins the momentum of the current conflict.

So instead, try something like…

“Fifi? Are You going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the best history with dances,” Fifi replied. “People tend to die.”

See how much shorter this is? It gives back story, but doesn’t tell so much the reader gets lost and distracted. Also, by not telling everything, the reader wants to know more.

Fiction is a lot like dating. We writers are courting the reader. Give too much too soon, and it’s too easy. We ruin the thrill. Don’t give enough? The reader goes looking for more exciting fiction.

So have you escaped the Bog of Back Story and lived to tell the tale? What techniques do you recommend for avoiding this writing pitfall? Have you thrown a book across the room because it kept going back in time? Or does it not bother you? Come on and share your thoughts.

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Ruth Nestvold. Please send your 1250 word Word document to kristen @ kristen lamb dot org.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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. Many writers don’t have the luxury of writing full-time. Thus, it becomes critical for us to use time effectively. We don’t have time to waste writing 30,000 words only to realize our “great idea” cannot support the bulk of a three-act structure. Thus, we need to get really good at testing our ideas.

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. In my novel writers critique group, we have experienced first-hand that 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 highly, highly recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. 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 must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.

Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!

That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction. Bad juju. We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her.

Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with William Moore.

Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” charater, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.

To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):

Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school.”

Huh?

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 in March we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, rapes, car chases and dead bodies are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

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. Darth (Annakin) had to face the Emperor. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster of a mother-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their…shenanigans.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using Bell’s 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. Bell makes plotting simple. I was a die-hard pantser (writer who writes by the seat of her pants) and Bell helped me learn to plot, yet still retain the pantser spontaneity.

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 love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 page critique is Stella Deleuze. Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.