Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: how to plot a novel

 

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Today we are going to talk about a GLORIOUS time of year—NANOWRIMO—which stands for National Novel Writing Month. It is meant to support creativity and encourage those who say they want to be authors to give it a go and write a novel (50,000 words) in a month. Notice the challenge is 50,000 words. No one said they had to be good words. Or publishable words. Or polished words. Or edited words.

This is actually why I believe Nanowrimo is very useful for all levels of writers. It trains out perfectionism. No half-finished novel ever made the NY Times best-seller list, but some crappy slightly-less-than-glorious novels have. The biggest threats to your finished novel (and mine) are Mr. It Must Be Perfect and his evil sister Editina.

Preparing for Nanowrimo

Have Fun and Fuel Up

Anyway, whoever chose November as National Novel Writing Month was seriously brilliant, because Halloween is like Mardi Gras for writers. If you are smart, use trick-or-treating to your advantage. After combing the neighborhoods for bags of gooey corn syrup and chocolate morsels of literary energy, be a diligent parent.

Search your kid’s candy for stuff like “illicit drugs”, “poison” and “razor blades” and “get rid of it” which of course is code for “hide it in your office.” You will need that fuel for Week Two of Nano. Tape the pixie sticks under your desk in case this goes into Week Four.

You see anything that looks like THIS? It’s drugs. Confiscate it!

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Because seriously, who’s giving their Adderall away for FREE to complete and total strangers? *rolls eyes*

No…really. I need an address.

Where were we?

Technically, taking half our kids’ candy under false pretenses is gas-lighting them, but reading and literature is vital for a civilized society. The world needs more writers and normal people make crappy writers. It’s science. So how are we going to create more literary geniuses if we don’t damage our kids just a little bit?

You’re welcome.

True, years later our kids might wonder why we continued to live in a neighborhood full of psychopaths who tried to murder them every time they trick-or-treated. And they may put two-and-two together that their lives were only “in danger” the years Mommy or Daddy did Nano. But, by then, we will be a filthy rich NYTBSA and we can buy them all the candy they want to take to therapy.

OR we can team up on our grandkids because the plan was successful and our kids grew up to become writers!

I am a freaking genius.

And if you don’t have kids? Well…yeah, sucks to be you. You’ll have to pay for your own sugar rush.

Some More Practical Tips (Other than Crockpots & Yoga Pants)

Often why writers fail to finish Nanowrimo is they don’t do the right prep work or enough prep work. They believe that they will make it through 50,000 words on creativity alone and that’s like thinking a Share-Size bag of Skittles is plenty of fuel for a double marathon.

Uh huh.

BS and glitter is good for about a day. Maybe three. After that? $#!t gets real and if we haven’t done some preparation it’s going to make finishing a lot tougher, if not impossible.

I highly recommend doing Nano. Nanowrimo gives a taste of the professional pace. It also gives a sample of the professional life of a writer (especially the weeping and drinking heavily part right around November 30th).

Most of the time we (pros) do not feel inspired. If we felt inspired all the time and were a limitless-cerebral-slushee-machine-of-cherry-flavored-rainbow-imagination-genius, no one would have ever needed to invent this thing called a deadline.

And then call it something super terrifying like DEADline.

Nano Makes it REAL

Nanowrimo gets us over our romanticized notions of “writing” and lets us fall in love with the real deal. A “WIP” (Work in Progress) does not send you dozens of roses, run you bubble baths or give you long massages.

Your WIP has no idea what a hamper is, eats the last slice of pizza and leaves the box in the fridge, farts under the covers and yells DUTCH OVEN! and shoves your head under the covers. You stick with it and love it through disease plot holes sickness adverb infestations, and infidelity revision until death—deadline—do you part.

THAT is reality. THAT is being a real writer 😉 .

You can do it!

What makes it easier is we learn how to rely on skills instead of just creativity because creativity will wear out pretty quickly.

Yes, many of you were star students in school. I was too. I made As on all my papers. But, unless you had a teacher that who you turn in a paper 50,000 words long? Trust me, this is a whole new world and some preparation is going to go a LONG way toward helping you finish.

Also, I want for you to do more than finish. I want to help you create something that can actually be shaped into something worthy of publishing.

If we are going to half-kill ourselves, why not?

To help you do this, I’ve linked to one of my most popular series:

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel

This series is a crash course in all you need to write a novel. I go over plotting on the micro and macro scale. We discuss three-act structure, etc. etc. No, it will not make your writing “formulaic.” Formulaic writing comes from execution. This series is valuable whether you are a plotter or a pantser or somewhere in between.

I call myself a plotter 😀 .

There is NO way I am ever going to outline, so I am not quite a plotter. I love the freedom of being a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants). But, pure pantsing is grossly ineffective (my opinion). It is a really good way to stall and it will be a nightmare to revise.

Even if you feel you are a pantser, I recommend checking out the series. Give some plotting a try. The reason. Creativity is ignited with boundaries. We love to believe that boundaries stifle our creativity, but I strongly disagree and I will prove it.

Visit Alcatraz. People incarcerated in supermax prisons are SERIOUSLY creative.

Okay, a better example…FINE.

If I said right now, “Write me a 1000 word short story.” Most of you would either blank or would stall.

BUT, if I said, “Write me a 1000 word short story about a freak show.” POOF! Ideas would abound. With just a little bit of boundaries your imagination sparks to life.

We can still write freely, but a handful of guideposts can keep us on track and can help maintain momentum.

The Series in Order:

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story-Structure Part One

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story-Structure Part Two

Introducing the Opposition-Structure Part Three

Is Your Story Idea STRONG Enough? Part Four

Your Story in a Sentence-Part Five

Is Your Story Primal? Part Six

Choosing a Genre-Part Seven

How to Manage Scenes in a Novel-Part Eight

Which is the Best POV for YOUR Story? Part Nine

Of course I recommend reading all of these, but if you do have to choose one, Part Four is a good one. A major reason many people do not complete Nano is they select far too weak of a story idea. The idea might work for a short story, but it simply is not robust enough for something as long as a novel. Thus it fizzles.

If you pick two to read? Go for Part Three as well. The single largest problem most new writers have is they DO NOT properly understand the antagonist. No antagonist? No story. Waxing rhapsodic for 50,000 words is not a novel. Navel-gazing is not a novel. Bouncing back and forth in time is not a novel. Novels are about one thing and one thing only—trouble. Without an antagonist your story will collapse in on itself.

Well, there you have it. Enjoy the rest of your October. Live it up kiddies while you can. You can sign up for Nanowrimo HERE.

I am still undecided if I’m going to do it. I usually do. I will be fast-drafting a NF I have due to my publisher, but I don’t know if I want to do a fiction at the same time, though I’ve done it before. AND, I have bombed Nano (multiple times), so I’m not perfect. When I blew it it’s because I failed to prepare. Fail to plan plan to fail. When I did prepare, however, I finished in 12 days. So it DOES make a difference.

So, you going to Nano? Were you going to pass but now the peer pressure is getting to you? Have you ever completed Nano? What helped you finish? What was your best time? Or did you sneak in at 11:59 P.M. November 30? Do you think plotters have an advantage in Nano? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Or a plotser?

Planning on confiscating “drugs” from your kids trick-or-treat bags?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. 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.

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

Geiko Caveman.
Geiko Caveman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

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

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

Don’t judge me.

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

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

*giggles*

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is my story primal?

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

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

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

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

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

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

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

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

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

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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

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

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

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

Let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

Riddick’s goal—remain free

Bounty Hunter’s goal—capture wanted criminal Riddick

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

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

Riddick and the BBT, Lord Marshal.

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

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

Remember high school literature?

Man against man.

Man against nature.

Man against himself.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Your BBT is the entire reason for your story.

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

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

So we have Big Boss Troublemaker.

We have the BBT’s emissaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Rings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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

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

Last post, I started talking about the dreaded topic…structure. I write these posts because I really DO want you guys to succeed and as an editor for far too many years, the single biggest reason most new novels flop? Structure. Pretty prose does not a novel make. Each of these blogs will build upon the previous lesson. By the end of this series, I hope you to give you guys all the tools you need to be “structure experts.”

Yes, even the pantsers.

Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach new writers how to finish a novel in four weeks or three or two or whatever. And that is great…if a writer possesses a solid understanding of structure. If not? At the end of 4 weeks, you could very likely have a 60K word mess that no editor can fix.

Finishing a novel is one of the best experiences in the world, but wanna know the worst? Pouring your heart and soul into a novel, finishing it, and then finding out it is not publishable or even salvageable. I make a lot of jokes about my first novel being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists.

I’ll tell you where the bomb is just not another chapter of that booook!

Some of you might be in the midst of having to face some hard truths about your “baby.” If you have been shopping that same book for months or years, and an agent has yet to be interested, likely structure is the problem. If you went ahead and self-published, but sales are lackluster? Again, problem might be structure. Many of you might have a computer full of unfinished novels. Yes, again, structure is likely the problem.

Good news is that most structure problems can be fixed, although many times that requires leveling everything to the foundation and using the raw materials to begin anew…the correct way and killing a lot of little darlings along the way.

Last post, I broke the bad news. Novels have rules. Sorry. They do. I didn’t make this stuff up. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.

Authors who break the rules do so with a fundamental understanding of rules and reader expectations. Remember the pizza analogy? We can get creative with pizza so long as we do so with an appreciation for consumer expectations. A fried quail leg on filo dough with raspberry glaze is not recognizable as a pizza. We can call it pizza until we are blue and a consumer will just think we’re a nut.

Same with a novel. Readers have expectations. Deviate too far and we will have produced a commodity so far off the standard consumer expectations that the product will not sell…which is why agents won’t rep it. Our novel can be brilliant, but not sell. Agents are interested more in making money than breaking literary rules. Rumor has it that agents do have to make a living.

I can tell if a writer understands structure in ten three pages. So can an agent. We are diagnosticians and when we spot certain novel “diseases” we know there is a big internal problem. We’ll discuss two major symptoms of a flawed plot today, but first we are going to pan the camera back this time. Last time, we zoomed in and looked at the most fundamental building blocks of a novel. Today, we are going to get an aerial shot—the Three Act Structure.

Aristotelian structure has worked for a couple thousand years for very good reasons. To paraphrase James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure (cuz he says it the best, but do yourself a favor and get his book, STAT!):

There is something fundamentally sound about the three act structure, and it is very much in harmony with how we live our lives. Three is a pattern. Childhood is short and introduces us to life (Act I). Most of our living comes in the middle span of years (Act II), and then we are old and we die and that sums up our existence (Act III). We wake in the morning (Act I) then have the day living life (Act II) and then night ties things up (Act III). When we are confronted with a problem we react (Act I) then spend the greatest amount of time searching for insight and looking for an answer (Act II) and then finally the solution (Act III).

Three act structure has endured thousands of years because it works. Beginning, middle and end. We can ignore the three act structure, but we do so at our own risk that our work will fail to connect with readers.

Beginnings present the story world, establish tone, compel the reader to come on the adventure, and introduce the opposition.

Middles deepen the character relationships, keep the reader emotionally invested in the characters, and sets up the events that will lead to the final showdown at the end.

Ends tie up the main plot and any other story threads and provide a sense of meaning.

(If you don’t yet own Jim’s book, buy it today. It is a must-have for every writer’s library.)

Ideally, our story’s tension will steadily rise from the beginning to end, getting more intense like a roller coaster. Think of the best roller coasters. They start off with a huge hill (Inciting Incident that introduces the ride) then a small dip to catch your breath, and then we are committed. If the biggest hill is at the beginning of the ride, the rest of the ride is a total letdown.

A well-designed roller coaster gives escalating thrills—bigger and bigger hills and loops—with fewer troughs to catch our breath and all leading up to the Big Boss loop, then the glide home to the other side of where we began. We all want to get to the Big Boss loop, but we do so with a mix of terror, dread and glee. Same with a good story.

Great roller coasters are designed. So are great novels. Everything is done with purpose.

Two major problems will occur when we fail to follow this design. In almost seven years of running countless plots through my workshop, I have given them names—Falcor the Luck Dragon and The Purple Tornado.

Meet the Luck Dragon

Remember the movie The Neverending Story? Beautiful movie and amazing special effects…but (in my opinion) a HORRIBLE story. I loved the movie, too. I have a soul. But I feel this movie is remembered and loved more for great effects and puppets, not the storytelling.

The beginning starts with The Nothing eating away a world we haven’t been in long enough to care and gobbling up critters the viewing audience hasn’t even been introduced to. Total melodrama. And the solution? A boy hero who the viewer doesn’t know from a hole in the ground and who, truthfully, isn’t nearly as likable as his horse that sinks into the Bog of Despair.

Yes, I cried.

So High Council instructs unlikable boy hero to go and talk to the Northern Oracle. Northern Oracle is a giant turtle that is suffering depression and is apparently off his meds. Northern Oracle tells boy hero the answer to their problems rest with the Southern Oracle…but it is ten thousand miles away.

Boy trudges off depressed and defeated and music rises to cue the audience that we are supposed to care. Unlikable boy hero falls into the swamp…oh but Falcor the Luck Dragon swoops down from the sky and flies him ten thousand miles to the Southern Oracle. How lucky for the boy hero. Better yet. How convenient for the screenwriters that Falcor was there to bail them out of a massive plot problem.

No, your protagonist cannot find a journal or letters or some contrived coincidence to bail her out of a corner and get her back on track. That is what I call a Luck Dragon. Don’t think you can sneak a Falcor by an agent or editor either. There is no camouflaging this guy. Have you seen the movie? He’s HUGE, and he will stand out like, like…like a Luck Dragon bailing you out of a plot problem. But take heart. Looking at structure ahead of time will make all actions logical and Falcor the Luck Dragon can stay up in the clouds where he belongs.

Watch out for that Purple Tornado!

Next plot problem? The Purple Tornado. What is a purple tornado? So glad you asked. I once worked with a writer who had a YA fantasy. By page 30 there was this MASSIVE supernatural event with a purple tornado. This writer clung to the purple tornado scene until I thought I was going to break his knuckles prying it away from him.

Why was I prying the purple tornado from his hands? Because he couldn’t top the purple tornado!!! He had his Big Boss Battle, his grand finale, his giant loop too close to the beginning. The rest of the book would have either been a letdown or totally contrived.

Plan where that loop will be situated and put it in the spot that will evoke the greatest emotional reaction…at the end.

I see too many new writers trying to “hook” the reader with some grand event like a building exploding. Well, okay, but what are you going to do for the grand finale, blow up a city? The planet? It’s too much too soon and before anyone even cares.

Structure.

I hope you guys get a lot out of this series. I know it took me years to learn some of this stuff and part of the reason I sat down and wrote this series was to help shorten the learning curve. I would imagine most of you reading this would like to be successfully published while you are still young enough to enjoy it. Join me on Monday for more on structure and plotting.

What are some problems you guys have faced in plotting? What are the biggest struggles? Do you have any suggestions for books on the subject or methods you use that you could share? Have you been guilty of a Falcor or a Purple Tornado? Share your thoughts.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Will announce the Dojo Diva winner on next DD post.

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

Image via Flikr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons. Bansky’s “Peaceful Hearts Doctor” courtesy of Eva Blue.

We’ve already discussed the importance of  fueling the muse BEFORE NaNo. But, fueling the muse, creativity, talent and all that jazz IS NOT enough. Finishing, while fantastic, is ALSO not enough. If we finish, yet have written something that can never exist off life-support? We’re back at Square One.

Though I am a fan of NaNo (National Novel Writing Month which is NOVEMBER) and Fast Draft, these tactics will work for writing ANY novel and minimize revisions.

AND…you don’t even have to be a plotter (Hint: I’m not. More of a Plotser–> Plotter + Pantser)

One of the major reasons many writers fail to complete the story is there isn’t a single CORE story problem in need of resolution. The story dies because it lacks a beating heart and a skeleton.

Stories with no hearts and skeletons are primordial adverb ooze and not good for much other than scaring small children.

A great trick one of my early writing mentors taught me was to go to the IMDB and look up log-lines of movies. Search for ones similar to the story you want to write and use it as a template. I will use an older and timelessly popular movie so I don’t spoil anything. Y’all have had 30 years to see the movie, so, yeah.

For instance, the log-line for Romancing the Stone is:

A romance writer sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure.

Okay, so here is “Kristen’s story”:

An OCD accountant sets off to Mexico to find her missing little brother and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure.

It’s good enough. But, I am a perfectionist and not a fan of “good enough.” Let’s give more detail. When it comes to log-lines, I would have written Romancing the Stone THIS way with this formula:

Protagonist must do X (active goal) in order to stop X (antagonist) before super bad thing happens (ticking clock).

A fraidy-cat romance (INHERENT PERSONALITY TRAIT THAT ASSUMES ARC) author (PROTAGONIST) must travel to Columbia and partner with a shady smuggler to rescue her sister (ACTIVE GOAL) from jewel thieves (ANTAGONIST) before they feed her sister to alligators (SUPER BAD THING/ TICKING CLOCK/STAKES).

Using this formula and log-line, we can use it as a pattern for my made-up-this-morning story:

An OCD accountant (PROTAGONIST) must travel to Mexico City and partner with a former Green Beret ex-patriot to save her prodigal brother (ACTIVE GOAL) from a drug cartel (ANTAGONIST) before the cartel makes him an example to other dealers who lose shipments to Border Patrol (SUPER BAD THING/ TICKING CLOCK).

I just made up this log-line, but doesn’t it speak VOLUMES about the story? Why is the accountant OCD? Is she the older child who took care of a younger brother who was out of control? The more little brother got involved with bad people, the worse her OCD became? By using “prodigal brother” we get a sense that maybe he was trying to turn his life around and leave being a user and a dealer.

Ah, but “getting out” isn’t so easy.

By saying we have an “OCD accountant” we’ve picked the WORST person to send into the filthy bowels of cartel-land, let alone partner with a Green Beret. She’s going to want to control everything and maybe even use disinfecting wipes on all things in sight (including her Green Beret friend). We see how this could easily be a thriller, a romance, or even a comedy depending on how we write it.

With just this ONE sentence, we KNOW how the story ends and where. It ends in Mexico with brother alive and drug cartel either dead or in jail. So, we know where we are GOING. This makes plotting (even very basic Pantser-Plotting) simple. If our OCD accountant ends up in Kansas instead of Mexico, we know we took a wrong turn.

NaNo can feel a little like THIS...
NaNo can feel a little like THIS…

There are now only so many options that lead to Mexico and finding little brother. There are only so many ways she can encounter an ex-pat Green Beret. Does he save her from being mugged? Does she HIRE him? Does he hit on her in the airport and she turns him down because his clothes are wrinkled and now she can’t get rid of him?

This log-line tells us VOLUMES about character arc, and, as the late Blake Snyder said, “Everybody arcs!”

Accountant is going to have to get over her OCD and become less controlling/neat-freakish and probably FORGIVE little brother, and maybe Green Beret needs to lighten up or even be more serious. If he’s an ex-pat, he could be running a sunglass kiosk on the beach and his motto is “Don’t worry, be happy” because he spent enough years being serious. His relaxed manner might drive her insane.

Formula for AWESOME conflict.

By looking at the IMDB, we can check out movies we loved and likely find there was a solid core story problem (code for “good log-line”). Most of the movies we hate? The ones where we are all like, “Great, two hours I can NEVER get back.” Odds are? Crappy log-line.

Worst….movie….ever (and I don’t give a rip what Sundance says). Melancholia. But I should have known from the log-line:

Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with Earth.

Image from "Melancholia" but also Kristen's face the ENTIRE TIME WATCHING THIS MOVIE.
Image from “Melancholia” but also MY face the ENTIRE TIME WATCHING THIS MOVIE.

Who is the protagonist? There ISN’T one (trust me on this). What is the active goal? Again, NOT THERE. “Finding a strained relationship challenged” is NOT AN ACTIVE GOAL.

It’s a sentence for misery. And, yes, I am bitter.

The movie is literally two sisters b!tch!ng at each other until everyone dies….and there was much rejoicing because I hated everyone in the movie and was happy they were all obliterated.

Yes, there is a super bad thing/ticking clock (a mysterious planet threatens to collide with the Earth) but there is NO WAY TO STOP IT. So the viewer is trapped with the Family from HELL until everyone dies.

The end.

ARRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!

We can learn a lot about what TO DO by studying what NOT TO DO. Yeah, yeah, Melancholia was pretty and had great cinematography and if you watch the movie on MUTE, it probably rocks. But for story? Not there. Trust me. This is three and a half hours of my life I will never get back AND $15 because I was stupid enough to BUY the movie and I can’t even regift it because there is no one I hate that much.

Sorry if I have offended any readers who LOVED Melancholia.

And for a movie that was NOT just supposed to be “art” here’s an older post about how Spiderman 2 (also known as THE MOVIE THAT WOULD NOT END) blew it because the log-line was LAME. Never underestimate the teaching capabilities of movies or books we hate. Why did we hate it? When did we lose interest? Why? Now, make sure WE don’t do that in OUR book 😉 .

But, feed your muse a solid log-line to keep hold of and this will help you spot Bunny Trails of DOOM far easier. It will keep you on track and make that 50,000 words something solid that can be revised, because there will be the bones and beating heart of an actual story beneath all the superfluous description, poor dialogue or small rabbit trails all of us have to edit out later.

What are your thoughts? Does this formula help? What are some of the best/worst movies you have seen? Can you tell a stinker from the log-line? What catches your attention? What loses it? What movies are ones you watch over and over and buy a copy? WHY? Why THAT movie? For me? Minority Report, I Robot, and Monty Python’s–The Holy Grail. Generally because every time I see these movies I catch something NEW.

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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