Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: how to create dramatic tension

One of the major issues with first-time novels is that the young writer fails to understand what a novel really is. All great stories are about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS. More specifically? Every good story has one core problem in need of being resolved. Granted, there will be many other problems along the way, but they are the setbacks and are all related to solving the core problem.

The trouble is that many of us got our “author training” in school, which really is no training at all. That purple prose that scored us an A on our college short story won’t get us far in the world of commercial storytelling. Additionally, pretty prose might be fine for keeping a five page or ten page short story interesting, but it falls apart under a body as weighty as a novel.

The new writer often senses this, so will work in navel-gazing and inner demons and then random bits of stuff going wrong and, instead of a well-structured story where tension and drama flow organically? We end up with melodrama.

Our “novel” then devolves into Days of Our Lives where nothing is really happening. Conflict is manufactured instead of inherent. “Bad stuff” is happening because the writer needs it to, not because “bad stuff” was inevitable.

How do we fix this?

Antagonists

The antagonist is a highly confusing topic. Hell, it confused me for years which is why I came up with my own term, which we will discuss today. Remember we said every story must have a core story problem?

That core story problem is created by the antagonist.

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum.

Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead. The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Yes villains are always antagonists but antagonists are not always villains.

Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

This series is to explore the many facets of the most important element in fiction. Today, we are going to begin with what I call the BBT–or Big Boss Troublemaker. Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I simplified things.

No BBT and you have no story. The BBT is not always bad or evil. The BBT simply creates the core story problem in need of being resolved.

Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the core story problem. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle (Act Three).

The lead up to the show-down with the BBT is responsible for creating our story tension. Will the protagonist evolve and triumph, or will he fail?

In commercial fiction, it is generally easier to spot the BBT.

No Sauron and no need for the Hobbits to leave the Shire.

No Darth Vader, no reason for Luke to leave Tatooine.

No Buffalo Bill, and Agent Starling is left doing paperwork.

This might seem simple enough, but time after time I get new manuscripts where there is no core story because there is no BBT. I get fantasy or science fiction manuscripts with a lot of fancy world-building and magic and bad stuff happening, but no core party responsible for a singular problem….so it all just fizzles.

Even in more literary works there is also a BBT and that BBT must have a face despite all we heard about man versus man, man versus religion, man versus nature, man versus society, etc. in school.

When the BBT is not corporeal? This is when things get tricky. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why we then need the proxy.

Let’s explore these.

Man Against Society

Whatever larger idea your protagonist is battling, that idea will need a manifestation. For instance, in The Hunger Games trilogy, “the system” is represented by Snow. The story is not over until Snow is defeated and his defeat marks the system’s defeat.

In The Help, the BBT is racism, but it is manifested in the white socialites who mistreat the maids (I.e. Hilly Holbrook). “Racism” is defeated when the socialites are defeated.

Man Against Nature

Some new writers take this as man fighting bad weather, but really? Who wants to read about bad weather for 300 pages? Often these stories are not about the weather at all, but rather what the weather reveals in people.

For instance, In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely the impetus that brought forth the real BBT…pride which was manifested in the captain, Billy Tyne?

The fishermen are suffering. They are on the verge of losing homes and marriages because of their dire economic situation. The captain decides to do one final fishing voyage even though it is the most dangerous time of the year. When the fisherman go out, they land the catch of a lifetime, but the refrigeration system breaks.

They are faced with a choice. Let the fish rot and then it was all for nothing. Or they can risk everything and take on the perfect storm (pride).

In my POV, the story is never man against nature, it is man against himself and nature is simply the catalyst.

Man Against Himself

No one wants to read a book of nonstop navel gazing. Thus if your character’s worst enemy is himself/herself? You need a proxy. The BBT will represent the particular aspect you are seeking to destroy and then the BBT will have a face.

For instance, in the movie 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but it is represented in the proxy Jasper, the hard-partying boyfriend who fuels and normalizes Gwen’s addiction.

Gwen is her own worst enemy. She must defeat her own alcoholism. But this will be manifested when she can finally see herself as an addict and walk away from the life of addiction (where Jasper is its representative).

We could go on forever on this topic, but we won’t. Just pay attention to your favorite stories and see if you can pinpoint the BBT and then notice how it is always the protagonist-turned-hero who will face off with him/her/it at the end.

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

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

Rule #2—In ROMANCE, the love interest cannot be the BBT. Romance has rules and this is a big one. Now, in romance, the love interest will take on the role of antagonist in scenes, but they cannot be the BBT. Why? Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Romance is all about the HEA (happily ever after)

Feel free to break this rule, but I will warn you that when the BBT is the love interest, it is no longer a romance. It becomes Women’s Fiction 😉 .

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

There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. Nope. Sorry. Try again.

There are two types of series. One type is connected only because of the protagonist. Detective books for instance (I.e. Harry Bosch books). In these it is pretty easy to see that the BBT must be defeated in each book.

The second type of series is connected through a singular story, but the thing is, each book will have a mini-BBT that marks the culmination of that part of the story. So I get it, your “Sauron” is not defeated in Book One, but that doesn’t absolve you of the Big Boss Battle for that book.

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

In the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, each movie had it’s own BBT. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie wasn’t over until the showdown against the Uruk-Hai who is actually a minion of Saruman (The Two Towers) who is a minion of the Big Guy, himself…Sauron (defeated in The Return of the King). Each movie has a Big Boss Battle against that movie’s BBT. If we panned back, each movie would make up one Act of a larger 3 Act whole.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

I LOVE hearing from you! And if you want me to look at your writing, make sure you check out my Hooked class. I am offering levels that come with edits from MOI! *smooch* And I only do this class a couple times a year so sign up and get your spot.

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, 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).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

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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

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

One of the reasons I LOVE NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November) is it gives new writers a glimpse of a professional pace. It teaches discipline, writing no matter what, how we feel or whether or not we’re inspired. Writing is a profession, not a playpen. I remember when I was new thinking that 500 words a day was such a BIG DEAL. 

Now? I generally have 1200 words written before breakfast. My daily average can range from 1000-6000 words, depending on what I’m doing, how many projects I have going, etc.

I also love NaNoWriMo because it employs one of my favorite techniques, Fast Draft. Wear out the inner editor and the subconscious can come up with some pretty amazing stuff. This technique isn’t for everyone, but I do recommend trying a little of everything when we’re in the beginning stages of our career. Eventually, if we stick with it, we’ll find out what works. I LOVE Fast Draft because I’m, at heart, an editor.

I can nitpick until the prose screams and taps out.

Perfect prose is wonderful (though imaginary—-someone will always hate it). But, the world doesn’t reward perfection; it rewards finishers. So if you took the NaNo challenge (or even did a Fast Draft on your own) odds are you might find yourself stuck. It happens to us all.

WANA, Kristen Lamb, We Are Not Alone, WANA International, how to be successful writer
Image via Marie Loughin WANA Commons

I finally finished my mystery-thriller. I fast-drafted it and finished it in a month—70,000 words. I wrote it right after I fast-drafted my NF and newest best-selling book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World. NF is left-brain. Left-brain was tired and needed time to marinate over what I’d written. Right-brain was bored and coloring on the walls and eating Play-Doh. So, while left-brain was resting and contemplating its belly-button, I put right-brain to work.

This gave me time to subconsciously ponder the NF while plowing through the fiction. Change is great. Get out of the house and out of your head and many times roadblocks will melt away. Read other books, watch movies, read some NF to feed and refresh your subconscious. In time? You’ll see what magic it can create ;).

Then I had to travel all spring and summer and finish and publish ROM, so I set the fiction down. Then we had WANACon and then my world went KABLOOEY personally, but all of that was fine, because I was still working on the fiction, rolling it over in my mind. I’d written four different endings and they were “good” but not “good enough.” Something was missing.

Maybe you finished the 50,000 words. Odds are, you hit somewhere between 20,000-35-000 and were stuck like a Ford Fiesta in icy mud. This is one of the reasons I recommend at least getting the log-line and basic plot points before beginning any fast-draft. If we don’t, we might find it hard to locate our literary butt with a literary flashlight.

But, I’ve been stuck and here are some tips.

Take a Break

Too many people dive into revisions right away. Take at least two days. Two weeks is better. Two months? Might take that long. Write your blog posts for the next week or month. Let the fiction simmer for a while and often problems will become clearer. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Get away. Start plotting/fast-drafting the next novel. The human mind is an amazing thing. It will still be working on the other book, so expect some weird dreams.

Take a Different Path

Find a place where your character/story hit a wall? Nothing is happening? Back up. Can the protagonist make a different decision? As writers, we must guard against sanity. Sanity is our enemy. Great fiction comes from dumb, bad, miscalculated choices. If our protagonist is so evolved that he/she always has the right answers? Never makes emotional decisions guided more by baggage than logic? SNOOZE FEST.

screen-shot-2012-03-27-at-6-17-32-pm

You might even find yourself resistant to a certain direction. Why? Because it’s the correct path. It’s the uncomfortable path.

Discomfort=Dramatic Tension

Readers crave resolution. All humans do. We don’t like unresolved problems. This is how we get readers to turn pages faster and put our next book on their wish-list (if we have a series).

In my novel that I finally finished yesterday, the protagonist’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. She sees the best in people and tends to ignore her gut when red flags go up. She has to grow. Why I didn’t like those four other endings was they all had an HEA (Happily Ever After). But, that didn’t work with this book as much as I tried. There was only ONE ending that would satisfy. It’s dark, heart-wrenching…but (hopefully) satisfying. It was the ONE ending I didn’t want to write, but it was the only ending that tied up all loose threads in the mystery and demonstrated true character arc.

Take a Different POV/Recast

I’ve won multiple awards for short fiction, but have struggled when it comes to writing a full-length novel (though I can plot and edit them all day for others). Why? Because I LIKE strong female characters. Ah, but the trick is how to make a woman strong, and not be viewed as a b!*&%. Originally, I wrote virtually the same story as the one I just finished, but in close third. Everyone LOVED my supporting characters…and hated my protagonist.

No matter how many times I rewrote it? People did not like my protagonist  (which is a problem). What did I do? I changed POV. I switched out deep third for first-person and this infused more of my humor I naturally use in blogging. Also, instead of a female war vet, I chose a disgraced salesperson who’d been blackballed by her fiancé who’d stolen billions of dollars and left her as the FBI’s prime suspect.

She’s strong because she came from the trailer park and grew up in a family straight from The Jerry Springer Show…not because she was a soldier. She ran away to go to college, knowing it was her escape from The Cactus Flower Trailer Park…only to have to go home because she’s out of money and options. She has to face the demons of her past and new demons she never knew existed.

Suddenly? Beta readers were in love. Final version of The Devil’s Dance (working title) is 97,000 words (which is square in the ballpark for a mystery-thriller’s word count). Will cut some away, but overall? I am VERY happy with the story.

I can apparently write likable/believable male military characters, but the female? Yeah….

I had to redefine what a STRONG female was. Did she have to be a former MP when a Waffle House waitress who works the drunks at 2:00 a.m. might be more relatable and interesting?

Cool thing is, I now have an option. I can go back and rewrite the same book in close third and then see if just changing perspective removed the coldness readers were feeling in the first go-round. If not? Then maybe first-person is my thing. Try switching POVs and see if that doesn’t fix the problem.

Have you been stuck? Are you stuck? Any tips? Advice? War stories?

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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

I hope you will check out my newest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World onAmazon or even Barnes and Noble.

Also, here is a list of WANA International classes and Christmas specials.

 

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons
Debbie Johannson WANA Commons

Fear is the most important tool in any writer’s toolbox. Fear is the beating heart of conflict, no matter the genre. Fear of death. Fear of losing love, not finding love, not recognizing love. Fear of change. Fear of remaining the same. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novella The Road, the story was less about a fear of death and more about the fear of survival at the expense of one’s humanity. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores the fear of continuing generational curses.

In Winter’s Bone, Woodrell examines fear of family, what it takes to possibly betray family and risk death by turning on kin. In Virginia Woolf’s classic Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf probes the fear of being meaningless. Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World explores the fear of government, the tendency of the masses to devolve to mediocrity, and the dangers of society that only exists to seek empty pleasures and instant gratification.

Suffice this to say that I believe all great works (even outside of Horror) tap into our deepest primal fears, probe them, open them, expose them and maybe even (if we are fortunate) give us a glimpse of a cure.

Kevin continues today with a final word about horror.

****

We’ve discussed many things in the past few days about why the horror genre is important, why writing it is important and hard, but I’d like to offer this final thought: if we expand our definitions of horror past chainsaw wielding maniacs and human centipedes, we find that horror, at the root of it all, is often about a quest into the unknown.

As I’ll detail in one of my workshops at WanaCon, almost all the horror plots involve some level of discovery, penetrating the unknown. So horror exists not only because of mankind’s universal fears and a desire and NEED to deal with those fears, horror exists because there exist those special folks – horror writers – who are consumed with the desire to KNOW things, to ask questions that others would never think of asking, or, as the case may be, never dare ask.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, about why some of us blessed (cursed?) folks are drawn to writing horror:

“As you get ready to leave, think about this…or brood upon it:

Unknown.
Unknown.

The Story of “Little Miss Nobody”

On July 6th, 1944, the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus was giving a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, before 7,000 paid customers. A fire broke out; 168 persons died in the blaze and 487 were injured. One of the dead, a small girl thought to be six years old, was unidentified. Since no one came to claim her, and since her face was unmarred, a photograph was taken of her and distributed locally and then throughout the U. S. Days passed, weeks and months passed, but no relative, no playmate, no one in the nation came forward to identify her. She remains unknown to this day.

The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walls of the tunnel vision we develop as  adults, bust it wide for a little while, to provide a single powerful spectacle for the third eye (our imagination). The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, (the reader), for a little while, a child again.

And the horror writer himself/herself?

Someone else looks at that item about Little Miss Nobody – still unidentified – and says, “Jeez, you never can tell, can you?” and goes onto something else. But the fantasist begins to play with it as a child would, speculating about children from other dimensions, about doppelgangers, about God knows what else.

It’s a child’s toy, something bright and shiny and strange. Let us pull a lever and see what it does, let us push it across the floor and see if it goes rum-rum-rum or wacka-wacka-wacka. Let us turn it over and see if it will magically right itself again.

In short, let us have our Fortian rains of frogs and people who have mysteriously burned to death while sitting at home in their easy chairs; let us have our vampires and our werewolves. Let us have Little Miss Nobody, who perhaps slipped sideways through a crack in reality, only to be trampled to death in  a rush from a burning circus tent.

“It’s the best set of electric trains a boy ever had,” Orson Welles once said of making movies; the same can be said of making books and stories. Here is a chance to bust that tunnel vision wide open; bricks flying everywhere so that, for a moment at least, a dreamscape of wonders and horrors stands forth as clearly and with all the magical reality of the first Ferris wheel you ever saw as a kid, turning and turning against the sky.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig

“Someone’s dead son is on the late movie. Somewhere a foul man – bogeyman! – is slouching through the snowy night with shining yellow eyes. Boys are thundering through autumn leaves on their way past the library at four in the morning, and somewhere else, in some other world, even as I write this, Frodo and  Sam are making their way toward Mordor, where the shadows lie. I am quite sure of it.” ~Stephen King, Danse Macabe

This is the best way to end my series, I think. I’ve tried to say some very noble things about the importance of the horror genre, and how it’s just as valid as any other genre, and why writing good horror is just as difficult as writing the next Great American Novel.

But all those comments come from my critical, analytical side (where I live every day as an English teacher), and all my own noble and worthy writing goals have become very rooted in my subconscious. What really pushed me toward the horror genre to begin with was the eternal, burning question: Why? and its inevitable follow up: What if…?

And for me?

The horror genre, the genre of the fantastic and strangely beautiful wonders and horrors, simply offered me the most room to play in. I could write a story about a father mourning the loss of his son, and, gripped by guilt, how he goes and sits next to a pond to watch the ducks, and maybe somebody rides by on a bicycle, and then through some heavy exposition – or through the symbolism of a burning sunset – our grieving father works through some resolution, gaining closure as he finally forgives himself.

But that’s just not me.

Cause I really like the idea of his dead son being on the late night movie, reaching through a very special and strange television screen….

Somewhere deep in my own little Twilight Zone.

******

THANK YOU, KEVIN! *does cabbage patch dance* Cabbage Patch Dolls. Talk about creepy (and yes I had them anyway).

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself holding back in your own writing? Afraid to go to the dark places? What other works (horror or not) do you think did a really fabulous job of exploring our fears? Why did they rattle you? What made you uncomfortable? Did you find relief at the end?

I LOVE hearing from you, and I know Kevin will, too. Ask him your questions. Tell him your fears. Comments for guests get double weight in the contest. Btw, I will announce September’s winner next week. Too slammed with WANACon right now to do it properly. Ah, the contest…

Which is…

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. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Horror Author Kevin Lucia
Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Kevin Lucia has worked as an Editor for Shroud Magazine and a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and is now an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror ChannelHis podcast “Horror 101” is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify and his short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English at Seton Catholic Central High School and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

WANACon is THIS WEEKEND!!! Day One and Day Two are for sale separately so you can choose if you only can fit part of the conference. Just a note: A LOT of major authors sacrificed time for no or little pay to pay it forward and offer an affordable and easily accessible conference for those who need one and WANA is extremely grateful to have them.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

AGAIN, THIS WEEKEND!!!! Get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE for $149 and all recordings for anything you miss or need to hear again. Sign up today, because seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.