Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: David mamet

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

Now that we’ve discussed the Big Boss Trouble Maker who creates the core story problem in need of resolution, we’re going to tackle…endings. When we authors know our story ending ahead of time, we gain major creative advantage.

What is this madness? How can I know the END?

Calm down. I’ve been there, too. Which is why I’m here to walk you through and help this puzzling concept make total sense.

*hands paper bag*

If you’ve followed this series on structure, you already know why the BBT is so critical. The BBT creates the external problem that launches everything to come, the problem to be resolved (ending).

No Darth Vader and Luke likely remains a moisture farmer on Tatooine. Unless there’s a major external problem—Darth Vader and a Death Star—Luke can/will never become a Jedi.

No WWI pilot crashing through the veil hiding Themiscyra? Amazons continue doing Amazon stuff. Without the pilot, and the massive threat beyond the bubble (pre-Nazis), there is no external force burdening Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, to make a tough moral choice.

Remain hidden in Amazon Safe Space and hope for the best, or step into the fray? No external problem and Wonder Woman can never exist.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension
Okay so maybe not exactly Thucydides. Plato and Napoleon Bonaparte get some credit, too.

A protagonist cannot become a hero/heroine without triumphing over a big problem, despite all we (as Author God) will throw at them. Once we know the problem, it’s far easier to have a sense of the ending.

If we’ve crafted the core problem in need of resolution, we should have a fairly solid idea how and where the story wraps up. Granted, we may not end our novel precisely the way we first envision, but that’s okay. A general idea is totally cool. When we begin writing our story, the ending we have only needs to be close enough for government work.

This loose boundary is what will fire up the muse for endings that are ‘surprising yet inevitable‘, as the great playwright David Mamet likes to say.

Surprising, Yet Inevitable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

I believe the greatest compliment any story can earn is the surprising yet inevitable ending. When we craft a story, ideally the reader will finish and say two things.

I never saw that coming and How did I NOT see that coming?

If we do a bit of work on the front end, and are vastly familiar with our core problem, then this offers us (writers) a myriad of ways to mess with the readers’ heads.

How? We know what they will expect. Why? Because (logically) we’d expect it, too. So, we don’t do THAT.

This is when the reader settles in for that smooth right turn he’d anticipated…and then we zing left across four lanes and take that weird left exit and U-Turn (for bonus smart@$$ points). Meanwhile, the reader screams and hangs on for life, simultaneously hating and loving us.

The reader is stunned, breathless, and maybe indignant.

Ah, but if he’d paid closer attention, he would’ve noticed we (the author) did put on our story blinker and it wasn’t signaling right 😉 . Yet, we had so much distraction in play, the reader missed the blinker signaling LEFT and hidden in plain sight.

Not to give an excuse for sloppy writing, but a story problem that gut-hooks can compensate for a lot of weakness. Conversely, no solid story problem and no one cares how pretty the prose is. Why? Because the reader longs for a bookmark much more than she longs to know the ending.

Case in Point

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

Recently I listened to an audiobook, a psychological thriller (legacy published). Overall, the novel was dreadful. I about choked on the purple prose, and if we made this author’s word echoes into a drinking game? Alcohol poisoning by Chapter Five. Why did I press on? Because the story PROBLEM hooked me.

I knew I had the mystery solved as in who did what, but couldn’t quite nail the HOW. I pushed on through the swamp of overwriting because I had to know the ending…which was surprising and inevitable.

Granted, don’t know if I’ll ever read another work by this writer, but alas, the author did the job. The writer created a compelling story problem. So compelling, I was willing to gut through the slow pace, the protagonist who was too dumb to live, and absurdly detailed descriptions of…everything.

Why? Because I had to KNOW the ENDING. And, the ending made me happy, so we’re cool.

Problems Reveal Endings

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

If we know an evil necromancer is taking over Middle Earth, and the ONLY way to ultimately destroy Sauron is to melt a special ring in one specific volcano? Care to make a bet where and how that story should reasonably END? Likely the ending somewhere close to Mt. Doom. (The Lord of the Rings).

When a self-absorbed teenager wishes away her baby brother to a Goblin King—who takes baby brother—and the only way to get him back is to solve the Labyrinth? Again, care to hazard an ending? Labyrinth solved and baby brother safe (The Labyrinth).

When a daughter loses her mother before she has a chance to reconcile and forgive, that’s a bad situation. But when she’s offered a chance to board a boat to China to meet her long lost half-sisters—the twins her mother ‘abandoned’ and the blade daughter often used to slice mom—how should the story END? Disembarking a boat in China to meet the long lost twins, fulfilling her dead mother’s dream (Joy Luck Club).

When a prince in Denmark’s father dies, that is a problem. It’s also a problem when he returns home to his mom who’s married his Uncle Claudius before Dad’s body is even cold in the ground. Oh, and uncle has also declared himself king—despite Hamlet being next in line. It takes no genius to figure out, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Also doesn’t take a ghost to put two and two together. Seems fairly clear King Uncle-Dad Claudius offed his brother to take his place.

And y’all thought your family was jacked up…

Thus, how should the story end? By Claudius in some way paying for his crime and someone other than Claudius crowned king. And, since Shakespeare wrote it, everyone dies. BUT, we do know the ending. Claudius will pay dearly and will not be king.

Ending with Intention vs. Formulaic Writing

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

I can hear all the howls of complaint. Kristen, but I don’t want to be crammed into formulaic writing. Having a story ending that is surprising and inevitable is not ‘formulaic.’ Great drama has an ending.

The ending to a story is as integral as scales on a lizard. When a ‘lizard’ has fur instead of scales, it ain’t a lizard. Don’t know what the heck it actually is, but reptile pretty much ruled out.

When ‘stories’ have no clear ending, we call those soap operas.

Note: Still unsure if Stefano actually dead.

Formulaic is when we write some paint-by-numbers story where nothing is shocking. We (readers) are never fooled or mislead. When and if the audience reaches the ending of a novel, play or movie and have managed to predict everything as if by telepathy? THAT is formulaic writing.

Formulaic writing abounds more now than ever because quantity has taken over quality.

Emerging writers rush to ‘write a novel’ without taking time to train and learn to ‘craft a story.’ Publishing and the movie industry are pushing the next thing and the next and the next.

The entertainment business model has shifted because the digital age has opened up distribution and drastically lowered production costs. Now, the business model is to make a little money off a lot of crappy stories instead of make bank off something truly remarkable.

This is a major reason I’ve all but given up on most Hollywood movies. Their endings inevitably make me want to throw things.

The Cage that Frees the Muse

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension
Recreation of Kristen’s playpen.

Structure erects boundaries and parameters. Many new writers wail that structure (I.e. conceptualizing endings ahead of time) wrecks creativity. Yet, I believe quite the opposite.

Ever put a toddler in a playpen then gotten distracted? Trust me, they get REAL creative. Study any super-max prison and one thing you’re guaranteed to witness? Mad creativity, boundless imagination.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this series, I don’t care how any writer constructs the story so long as the end result is solid. It doesn’t matter if we outline in detail, write by the seat of our pants, or work out the story in jazz hands while channelling Liberace.

Plotter, pantser, or plotser? That’s process, which is personal. But all processes will work far better with a solid understanding of what the story must eventually accomplish. Having the problem and a notion of the ending, makes this way simpler.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

If I know my goal is to drive from Dallas, Texas to California (ending) then this automatically rules out thousands of roads. I-20 East is a dumb plan unless my goal is to circumnavigate the globe.

Ah, but then my goal (ending) actually is to get to California from Dallas, TX by circumnavigating the globe. This ALSO rules out thousands of routes. In this case. I-20 West not a good place to start, since it is too direct for my goal of having to circumnavigate the globe to reach California (ending).

***Or it’s proof I’m using Apple maps.

Use the Ending to Torture Readers

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

If we don’t even know where WE are going, this craters imagination. When we’re unsure how the story will (likely) end, it’s impossible for us to misdirect readers. We lose that amazing capacity to mess with the audience’s head. Readers love books that defy expectations, that ‘fool’ them and make them suffer.

Readers relish a challenge, and look to US (authors) to present them a challenge worthy of their money and 12-15 hours of their most precious possession—TIME.

Endings also insert necessary context for dramatic tension. If we give the audience no sense of how the story should/will end, then there is no way for them to discern a setback, and thus, worry.

As an author, if I crash a plane of soccer players on a mountain in the Andes, where they’re forced to eat their dead teammates to survive, that’s morbidity. Interesting in a gruesome way, and a problem, but not yet a story.

***This is why survival alone is not a story.

Ah, but what if when the blizzard clears, off in the distance there’s what appears to be an abandoned ranger station or hunting lodge? Something to use as shelter, but that might also have provisions (beyond that center half-back) and a radio? Or flares? Some way to signal for help.

NOW we have a story because there’s something resembling an ending. Every setback that prevents the surviving soccer players from reaching THAT station makes us worry. Avalanches, blizzards, injures, hypothermia, frostbite all evolve from ‘bad situations’ to ‘dramatic setbacks.’

There are also CHOICES to be made.

Stay at the crash site or move? Staying increases odds rescuers will find our unfortunate group. But, the plane is unstable, could crash down the mountain. Also, the region is so remote, who knows when help will come?

Oh, but trek for that thingy that seems to be an old ranger station and what if it isn’t? What if it’s a hallucination? A mirage? The Unibomber’s old time-share, equipped with nothing more than rage and a typewriter?

Now, characters can FIGHT. They fight each other, fight with themselves, fight against nature and fight to LIVE and to WIN! And this, my friends, is now a story 😉 .

À la fin…

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension, ennui cat

Ennui Cat says nothing matters and life is futile, and he’s judging your book…and you.

Mostly you.

In the end, mastering structure unleashes imagination, provides opportunities to create mad twists, turns and endings that leave readers breathless. By gauging an ‘idea’ for our ending, we make plotting simpler.

Some added bonuses?

We’re far less likely to write ourselves into a corner unable to figure a way out. Also, since the structure is sound, revisions will be more pleasant…and less like water boarding while getting a root canal.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 15th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Were you like me and when some ‘expert’ told you to write from the ending you were all SAY WHAT? Are you INSANE? Does it make a bit more sense now?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of FEBRUARY, for 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).

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.



Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, March 1st, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.

There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.

This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?

We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:

  • The Product
  • Agents/Editors
  • Types of Publishing
  • Platform and Brand
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Making Money
  • Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus


Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $99.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 2nd, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?

Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.

Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.

Topics include:

  • Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
  • Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
  • Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
  • Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
  • Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
  • Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
  • How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)

Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Oréal says, you’re worth it! Also, a recording of this class is also included with purchase.

The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!

Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.


Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.43.36 AM

Today we are going to talk about dialogue. Everyone thinks they are great at it, and many would be wrong. Dialogue really is a lot tricker than it might seem.

Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals wouldn’t bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders.

I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are reflective of WHO we are. Dialogue can not only show age and gender. It can elucidate level of education, profession, personality, ego, wounds, insecurity, and on and on and on.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.51.05 AM

In fact dialogue is so powerful that one way we know we have done our job as a writer is when we can remove all dialogue tags and the reader still knows which character is talking. This said, there are a LOT of newbie errors I see when it comes to writing dialogue and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

#1 Please Punctuate Properly

When it comes to dialogue, we need to make sure we are punctuating properly. This might seem like a picky matter, but improper dialogue punctuation is a quick way to end up in a slush pile. If a writer doesn’t yet know how to punctuate dialogue correctly, then most agents (or even readers) simply aren’t going to commit any more time.

Also, if you are paying good money for an editor, they have a hard time getting to the MEAT of your story if they are spending all their time fixing disastrous punctuation.

When I get samples from new writers, I see a lot of this:

“Have a nice day” she closed the door and that was when Kristen had to spend the next few hours repairing punctuation.

“Have a nice day.” She closed the door blah blah blah….


“Have a nice day,” she said. She closed the door blah blah blah…

The comma goes INSIDE the end quote mark and then we add a tag. If there is NO tag word (said, asked) then we insert a PERIOD.

DO NOT use actions as tags. Why? Because actions are actions…not tags.

“Have a nice day,” she closed the door said.

For all the neat ways dialogue is punctuated, refer to a handy dandy grammar book.

#2 No Weird Dialogue Tags

This goes with the “no action tags” idea.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Kinsey snarled.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Jake laughed.


Characters can say things or ask things but they can’t smirk, snarl or laugh things. Again, when agents, editors, or even savvy readers see these strange tags, it is a red flag the author is green.

#3 Stick to Unassuming Tags

When using tags, keep it simple— said, asked, replied (maybe). Why? Well, I hate proffering rules without explanation so here goes.

Simply? When we add those creative tags on the end, we are coaching the reader. Our dialogue should be strong enough alone to convey the tone we want. When we coach the reader, we are being redundant and more than a tad insulting to the reader.

“You have some nerve showing your face,” she spat.

See what I mean? By adding the “she spat” I am essentially telling you that I worry you aren’t sharp enough to know this character is upset.

But, I am betting the dialogue alone—“You have some nerve showing your face”—was plenty for you guys to give the appropriate tone of voice in your head. I really didn’t need to add the “she spat.”

I know that keeping to simple tags seems harsh, but if we have done our job writing dialogue, the tags will disappear in the reader’s mind. The dialogue will simply flow.

Additionally, if we write using Deep POV, we don’t even need/use tags.

“I have no idea what you mean.” Kinsey refused to look at him and polished the wine glass so hard she wondered if she’d bore a hole clean through.

See how the character is DOING something that tells us the tone of the dialogue. Remember that communication is about 90% is nonverbal. Body language is a big deal.

Notice we are showing and not telling. Instead of spelling out that Kinsey is irritated, we have her DOING something that shows us she is ticked and trust the reader to fill in the blanks. This also keeps “said” from getting annoying. We shouldn’t need to tag every sentence if the writing is strong.

#4 Do NOT Phonetically Spell Out Accents

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Yes, when we dust off old volumes of literature we see that the writers (I.e. Twain) wrote out dialogue phonetically to show the accent of the character speaking.

BUT…Herman Melville also spent over a hundred pages talking about whales for the same reasons. Most people lived and died in isolation. Travel was reserved for the very rich. Photographs and paintings were rare. There was no television, radio or Internet.

Just like Melville’s readers could live an entire lifetime without seeing the ocean (let alone a whale), Twain’s audience in Europe likely would never travel to the rural American South. Thus, they would have no concept of what a Southern accent “sounded” like. Therefore, in fiction, it was perfectly acceptable to phonetically write out how someone would have talked.

These days, if we are writing a character who has an Irish brogue or a Southern drawl or a Cockney accent, we no longer need to spell it all out phonetically. The reason is that there has been so much entertainment (movies, etc.) that we know what an Irish brogue should sound like and when we “spell it out” for the reader, it makes the dialogue cumbersome.

Spelling out every single word phonetically will wear out the reader. This dovetails nicely into my next point…

#5 DO Feel Free to Use Unique Words, Expressions or Idioms

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I write a lot of characters who are Texans. It’s true I don’t need to write out the Texas accent phonetically, but I can add in some terms and expressions to keep the reader “hearing” a Texan in her head without making my dialogue weird.

“Y’all won’t believe this. Delroy got a job. A J-O-B.”

“Who’d hire him? He’s useless as ice trays in hell. ”

Feel free to use a couple of words that convey an accent—ain’t, gonna, bloody—just avoid spelling it out in entirety or risk frustrating readers.

#6 DO NOT Have Characters Constantly Calling Each Other By NAME

I see this one a lot and it is seriously weird.

“Biff, what are you doing?” Blane asked.

“Why Blane, I am making a present for Buffy. You know how Buffy is about her birthday. What are you doing Blane? Are you having lunch with Beverly?”

Okay, so I am being a bit silly here to make a point, but how often do you call the other person by name when talking? Who does this? Worse still, who does this over and over and over, especially when there is only one other person in the room? Try this in real life.

Me: Shawn, why are you home so early? I thought you’d be at work.

Hubby: I had to run an errand, Kristen.

Me: Well, Shawn I have to run to the grocery store.

Hubby: Kristen, that is…

Okay, I am giggling too much. Y’all get the gist.

#7 Do NOT Write Dialogue in Complete Sentences

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My above examples are kind of a twofer. Not only is the dialogue seriously strange with everyone using a proper name, but notice all the dialogue is in complete sentences. Most people don’t talk that way. If we do, we sound like a robot or a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the language.

Is it wrong to have dialogue in complete sentences? No. But usually it is ONE character who talks that way and it is an idiosyncratic trait particular to THAT character. Ie. Data from Star Trek or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

#8 Avoid Punctuation Props

Avoid overusing exclamation points and ellipses. Again, if our dialogue is strong enough, readers will “get” when a character is yelling or pausing. Especially avoid being redundant with the punctuation and the tags.

“Get out of my house!” she yelled.

Really? No kidding.

And remember…that…when we use…a lot….of ellipses…we are being annoying….not…….dramatic.

(And ellipses are only THREE dots and in some cases four 😉 ).

#9 NO “As You Know” Syndrome

I love David Mamet and I really love his Letter to the Writers of The Unit where he tears the writing team a new one. I love forwarding on his advice, because no one says it better and this is just as true for novels as it is for screenplays. I’ve included the best lines about dialogue:

Look at your log-lines. Any log line reading, “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” is NOT describing a dramatic scene.

Here are the danger signals. Anytime two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of s&%$. Any time any character is saying to another “AS YOU KNOW” that is, telling another character what you—the writer—need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of s&%$*. ~David Mamet

No brain-holding. We are in the drama business, not the information business.

Later we will talk about ways that we can use dialogue to convey character. What are your thoughts? Questions? Who are your favorite authors regarding dialogue? I adore Sue Grafton. Every one of her characters just leaps off the page. I love great dialogue and have been known to highlight it just to keep it. What about you? Or am I the only dialogue geek?

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 NEW classes below! 

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.

 Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

July 6th, 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


Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

As an editor I have some pretty standard red flags I look for, but a REALLY common blunder is the dreaded information dump. Some genres are more prone to this than others. Science fiction and fantasy can be particularly vulnerable. How DO you keep the pace of the story and still relay about the prophecy, the starship, the dragons and the dragons prophesied to have starships?

It’s tough.

Once again we have Alex Limberg guest posting with us. And if you’re already tired of him? Suck it up, Buttercup, because I LIKE HIM. He’s helping me through the holiday season so I can dig out of the pile of work that buried me when I got the flu.

So Alex is here to share ways to help fold in information so that you (the author) don’t inadvertently shatter the fictive dream. He’s here to give you some tips on how to relay the information required so the reader isn’t confused, but also maintain the spell you’ve cast.

Definitely check out his free ebook that lists and explains “44 Key Questions” about any narrative– if you get them right, you will have an awesome story. Aaaaaand, here we go. Take it away, Alex!


Some parts of storytelling are way more exciting than others.

For example, you get to page 724 of your grand novel, and finally Richard the Lionheart faces the seven-headed hydra right in front of the abyss and sends her to hell once and for all.

It’s the absolute peak of your story, nail-biting suspense, unbearable tension, action, risk, fear in the middle of a breathtaking scenery. Everything you have worked for so long, it’s all coming together.

Plus, Richard and your readers don’t even know yet that the seven-headed hydra can spit fire too. Boy, that’s gonna be some BIG surprise…!

On the other hand, some parts in fiction writing we hate.

For example, weaving in the personal history of Richard, so we get to know him better and root more for him.

Or bringing in very unobtrusively 200 encyclopedia pages of background knowledge about medieval England, to establish realistic background.

And where should you discreetly slip in the fact about the hydra’s failed gallbladder surgery?

Hydra 1

Bringing information into your story is like forcing healthy vegetables down a kid’s throat: It’s necessary and the right thing to do, but the work sucks.

When it becomes obvious the author just wanted to insert information, that’s an information dump. What an ugly word!

But it seems like the word exists for a good reason.

Think about it: Somebody took an information dump. That’s when the information comes out and it’s too concentrated, and you can smell the author’s intentions 100 miles against the wind.

Imagine Tracy telling her husband over dinner: “I don’t love you anymore like I loved you 16 years ago when we married. Me and our son Philipp, who is 15, has outstanding grades and dreams of a career as a professional hockey player, lost all our respect for you when you drunkenly caused that car accident. I like cooking and painting and I’m afraid of being alone, that’s why I’m still with you, but I have an affair with our neighbor who is a certified animal trainer.”

The hand of the author becomes really visible here…

Fiction shouldn’t list facts like a newscast. If we wanted to read the news, we would go on the New York Times website (and some of us would actually buy a newspaper, or borrow one from the waiting room of our favorite doctor). In fiction, the reader wants to be gently taken by the hand and led into the carefully woven illusion.

But how can we do that?

They say Don’t give them fish, give them a fishing rod!, and so it shall be. There are a million ways to discreetly distribute some pieces of tasty sushi amongst your readers– you can and should be very creative with it! But start with these five basic ways to avoid an ugly pile of information:

1. Let Your Characters Say It

No, you, the author, got nothing to do with it; it’s your characters who are spreading all that good information like wildfire. Keep in mind the key rule though, so your readers don’t feel cheated on: Your character needs to have a reason to mention the information!

The two most natural reasons that come to mind are:

  • He has to pass his info on to another character who doesn’t know about it.

Imagine a colonel who has to report some military information to his general about what just happened in battle.

  • The character’s emotions are boiling over.

Imagine the accusation of an overworked co-worker to a lazy colleague: “I’m so sick of this! You never get your tasks done on time!” Or take enthusiasm: “Jim, you will never believe what just happened! I won the lottery!”

It’s a very natural and discreet way of smuggling some high-octane info into your story.

2. Don’t Tell the Show

Here it comes, the old Show, don’t tell!

While in some cases it is okay to say “Uncle Albert was tired,” it’s generally much more literary to let the reader discover herself how tired Uncle Albert was.

Describe the “dark circles” under his eyes, his constant yawning and how he forgets his keys at the office. Often it’s much more elegant to not tell about a condition or past events, but to show a couple of clues that hint at them.

3. Spread Your Info Thin

Small chunking over many pages or chapters makes your info a lot more unobtrusive than serving it in one big indigestible cluster.

It’s often convenient to let your reader have the info a little while before she actually needs it; in any case, make sure she doesn’t get it right before she needs it, because that would really look constructed.

Sometimes, a piece of info isn’t absolutely necessary to understand the story, but it gets the reader more involved emotionally. Because it’s not vital, you have more time to nicely gift-wrap it with a ribbon on top– but on the other hand, the longer you wait, the longer you leave out an opportunity to engage your reader further.

For example, we don’t have to know that Walter White has terminal cancer in Breaking Bad. We already understand that he is producing meth and can follow the trouble he gets himself into.

But when we learn about his cancer, it lets us empathize and identify with him more– his decisions become easier to understand, he becomes a more multi-faceted character and thus the story engages us more.

You have more time to bring in information like this.

4. Harness the Power of the Media

From where does the most overwhelming flood of information descend upon us unsuspecting characters?

From the mass media, of course: TV, radio, newspapers and internet. You can let your readers know much just by letting the character watch TV or read the newspaper out aloud to his wife; and any info mankind never wanted can be found on the internet (except for why girls are so much into Justin Bieber). Just make sure your character has a reason to look for the info.

Likewise, make sure the info is available to the media and it’s interesting enough for them to broadcast or feature it.

That’s not too hard to do, because as author David Mamet famously said:

“The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”

So don’t be shy about letting the media rule even over your little yellow press scandals, man-bites-dog style.


5. Plain description: Just Say It!

Sometimes it may be acceptable when the author simply states information.

How well this works will depend on the overall style and tone and the point of view of your story; it’s basically a question of distance between the author and his narration.

Look at the beginning of Suskind’s Perfume, for example: “In the eighteenth century in France lived a man (…) His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (…) not because Grenouille was second to these more famous villains in pride, contempt for mankind, immorality (…)” Plainly stating how it is, upfront.

This style reminds of some short stories, in which the narrator assumes a more zoomed-out position, because there simply aren’t enough pages to carefully spoon-feed information to the reader.

In general, this position is less elegant and artistic, but you can make a virtue out of a vice: If the large distance to your character seems believable and fits into your story, your readers will just accept it as “your style of choice”– a choice of speeding things up, that is.

Just be aware of your choice, should you decide to use this technique.

Alex Limberg, Photo

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies) and he is now tired of talking about himself in third person. Create intriguing stories with my free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. I have worked as a copywriter in Hamburg and also lived in Vienna, Los Angeles and Madrid.

Ok, that was nice.

Now it’s your turn: How do you stuff that stupid information in there? Are your characters helpful or couldn’t they care less? Isn’t it a good feeling when the reader finally gets what he should know? Do you like information about information?

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

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

And YES, I AM BEHIND. I will announce November’s Winner on Monday. Holidays and all that jazz. Also, remember to check out the new classes listed at W.A.N.A International. Social Media for Writers, Blogging for Writers, and Branding for Authors.

Happy Monday, my peeps. Today we are going to talk some more about the antagonist. The antagonist is THE most critical element of our fiction. Yes, even more important than the protagonist. Blasphemy! No, I’m serious. Our protagonist cannot become a hero (heroine) without the antagonist. No opposition and no story.

Yet, every time I blog about the antagonist, I get the same comments:

But what if nature is the antagonist?

But what if a belief system is the antagonist?

But what if my protagonist and antagonist are the same person?

Most of the time, questions like this alert me that you have slept since high school or college English. Do not feel badly about not knowing this stuff. The English we are taught in school is not meant as preparation for a career in commercial fiction. I struggled with this stuff, too, which is why I am using this blog to help part the fog of confusion.

Today we are going to talk about Man Against Nature, since many new writers believe that bad weather, a hungry bear or a Shark-Clown can be the antagonist (or the BBT if you read last week’s post). Yes, they can, but uh, not really. If we want our story to have more depth than a Hollywood B movie, we need to really understand this Man Against Nature thing and how to make it work.

But First, Man Against Man

Man Against Man is fairly straight-forward. This is probably the simplest form of story antagonism to see and understand. In simple Man Against Man, we have an antagonist who has a goal that conflicts with the protagonist’s goal.

In the Chronicles of Riddick, Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead because Riddick is the last Furian male, and a Furian male is prophesied to bring Lord Marshall’s end. Riddick, however, wants Lord Marshall dead because Lord Marshall wiped out Riddick’s planet trying to kill all the Furian males so that he could stop the prophesy.

A smidge of irony there.

So here the conflict is pretty clear. Lord Marshall wants Riddick dead and Riddick wants Lord Marshall dead. Only one of them can be dead at the end of the story, lest this become a French film and be hailed as genius at the Cannes Film Festival.

Everybody died, even the houseplants! It was brilliant!

Thus, all of Lord Marshall’s actions are to capture and kill Riddick. All of Riddick’s actions are to avoid capture but press closer to take out Lord Marshall. It is this tug-of-war that creates the story tension.

Ah, But What About Man Against Nature?

Okay, to start. How many NYT best-belling novels have we seen where the protagonist is fighting bad weather for 400 pages? And how can a protagonist ever really win against the weather? It isn’t something we can control, so is the weather really the BBT (Big Boss Trouble-Maker)?

Yes, and no.

Often Man Against Nature will also generate a Man Against Man and a Man Against Himself story.


I know. It’s okay. Breathe in a paper bag and trust me. First, understand that even if a storm or a shark-clown is the BBT, we need a corporeal antagonist to generate much of the conflict.

Humans don’t do so great with existentialism.

Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle. What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself? There will often be a flesh and blood representation of that ugly nature.

The Perfect Storm

The Wolfgang Peterson film The Perfect Storm is a great example. Was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride and greed (Man Against Himself).

George Clooney plays Captain Billy Tyne who is desperate for money. Tyne convinces the crew of the Andrea Gail to go fishing during a dangerous time of year to preserve his business and his pride (and frankly, the men agree because they are desperate, broke and trying to preserve their manhood).

The crew presses out beyond their normal fishing grounds, leaving a nasty developing thunderstorm behind. Their luck seems to improve when they hit the Flemish Gap. The men bring in the haul of a lifetime…but then ice machine breaks.

Of course it does!

There are but two choices—go through the storm of the century to get home before the fish rot OR go around the storm but lose the haul and their dignity. A fight breaks out among the crew (Man Against Man). Some want to take on the storm. Others know it’s a fool’s errand and no money is worth dying for.

Ultimately, it is the captain who makes the final decision to risk his men for the fish. He is the physical proxy of greed and pride. He (mistakenly) believes believes that their skill will be able to triumph over the perfect storm, and he is wrong and everyone dies…which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.

But, notice how the storm doesn’t directly generate the story problem. The captain is broke. He is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. The men are broke. They are fighting with loved ones over bills.

It is pride and greed that propel the men out into the ocean during the most dangerous time of year. Pride and greed drive them beyond their normal fishing area. And, in the end, pride and greed lands them at the bottom of the ocean.

It is the captain who leads the way, and that is why HE is the proxy of the BBT. It is his decision to go fishing during a dangerous time of year that changes everything. If Tyne had declared bankruptcy and taken on selling hand-painted garden gnomes, there would be no story and the men would have lived.

Yes, this can be a mind-bender, but practice this enough and it gets easy.

Man Against Hungry Critters

Another great example of Man Against Nature is the 1997 survival story The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays braniac billionaire Charles Morse who becomes stranded in the wilds of North America  when the small prop plane he’s traveling in crashes. Charles is not alone. Though the pilot is killed, two photographers–Bob and Stephen–survive with Charles.

If this were a simple Man Against Nature story it would still be good, but what makes it great is the story doesn’t stop there.

Man Against Munchies Man

Charles is aware that photographer Bob is having an affair with Charles’s wife (a supermodel). He also suspects that Bob deliberately invited him out into the wilds to kill him. This agenda is, of course, put on the back burner due to the fact that Bob is a total city boy and he needs Charles’s photographic memory if he hopes to survive.

***Charles loves reading survival books and Bob is in a pickle without that information running around Charles’s noggin.

Man Against Himself

Charles is a billionaire, a man with the Midas touch. His mind is what has helped him amass a fortune, but he’s never really had to get his hands dirty. When he crash-lands in the wilderness with a man he knows wants him dead, can he do what it takes to come out alive? Nature is what will test this.

See, Nature becomes the catalyst–the brutal weather and sparse food of the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and add in a hungry man-eating bear and now we have the perfect test for Charles, to see what he is really made of.

This movie isn’t scene after scene of fighting off a bear and keeping warm–though there is a lot of that. The fighting the weather and evading the bear really drive the Man Against Man story. Charles vs. Bob. Only one man can walk out alive.

Thus, I hope you can see that Man Against Nature is doable. Mother Nature is a viable choice for a BBT, but she does need help for our story to have any depth. In The Edge, screenwriter David Mamet could have written a script where characters outran a bear for 90 minutes…but he didn’t, and THAT is why the movie rocks.

Next week we will explore some more unconventional antagonists. Did this help? Are your brains now the consistency of scrambled eggs? Any questions? What are some questions or troubles you have with the antagonist?

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April/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. 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 April/May 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–My plane got in late and I didn’t get to bed until midnight. Will announce the winner either Wednesday of Friday. Thanks :D.

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 . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.