Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: novel structure

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Last post in our structure series, I introduced the core antagonist, what I call the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT is our central opposition. This is the force responsible for creating the core story problem in need of resolution. While stories have all sorts of ‘antagonists’ we’ll get to them another time.

In fact, buckle up because this is Master’s Class material.

Today’s post is advanced content, since we’re going to explore the BBT far more deeply than ever before. I’ve blogged on the BBT before with a simpler explication. But, after 1,200 or so blogs, even I need a good challenge.

One of my goals this year is to offer far more demanding content and accelerated lessons. There are plenty of Writing 101 blogs catering to new writers. Hey, I’ve written a few hundred, myself.

Problem is, not all writers are brand new and even those who might be just starting out? It’ll be good for you to stretch your synapses and give the gray matter a hardcore workout. The Internet has plenty of ‘pink weight’ craft blogs and I don’t care to add any more. Namely because I know you guys are wicked smart and dying to be truly punished.

I meant pushed. Yes, pushed.

Here we go…

The CORE (IDEA)

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

The BBT is a wholly unique sort of antagonist. This specific antagonist, the BBT, is the BRAIN (mastermind) of all great stories. Why? Because all great stories involve an IDEA that must be defeated.

How do we do this?

Great stories are almost like living creatures. Like all living creatures, there are critical limitations when it comes to structure. What this means is not all ‘components’ are equally necessary for an organism to be considered ‘alive.’

If a kitten is born with no hair? We call it a Sphynx then sell it for big bucks to people who adore cats that resemble space aliens.

If our kitten is born with unusable back legs, it’s sad. But, we humans get creative and craft a Lego ‘kitten wheelchair’…producing a kitten now drunk with power. ZOOOOOOM! LOOK AT HIM GO ALL THE PLACES!

Ah, but a kitten born with no brain stem? Little to do but mourn. We can’t work around this missing ‘organ,’ no matter how much we may want to. Regardless how creative we get, actual life requires a brain that directs every other system.

The Living Story

We can say the same about story. It, too, must have a brain (core story problem/IDEA generated by BBT).

Some ‘elements’ of story are not, per se, required because they’re NOT the brain. These ‘components’ might simply be a matter of stylistic choice.

Loads of detailed description and weighty prose? Unnecessary. For instance, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway chose literary austerity to elicit a highly specific ‘feel’ in his work. Bold, exposed, nowhere to hide. No flowery exposition to ‘cover’ any plot weakness.

I happen to love flowery prose, which is why I don’t care for Hemingway’s stories but can respect the art.

Linear plotting, as in Point A to Point Z in sequence and in order? Not necessary either.

Sure, this three-act linear Aristotelian structure is the most common and the best place (in my POV) for emerging writers to begin and to master FIRST. It also happens to be the easiest structure on readers, which is why it’s the structure most commonly used.

But, again? It is not imperative for our story to progress linearly in time. This, again, is a stylistic choice and will often be employed for a purpose. There’s a specific effect the author desires to create.

Examples of Structure as Art

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature
Image courtesy of Joana Coccarelli’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Purple prose and a hundred-page lexicon of new terms, kingdoms, creatures are not the only ways (or even the best ways) to transition a story into art. Structure, when truly understood, is extremely powerful.

For instance, Chuck Palahniuk deliberately used nonlinear plotting for Fight Club. Gillian Flynn also employed nonlinear structure in Gone Girl.

Why? These authors chose these advanced plotting methods for excellent and very specific reasons: to craft the unreliable narrator. 

In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Tan also utilizes a non-linear structure. At first glance, the novel might seem like a mere compilation of flashbacks, but that is far from the case. We could ‘snip’ these stories apart, line them up in chronological order.

They would play out sequentially in mini three-act stories, bookended by a larger three-act story (Jing-Mei’s story about forgiving her dead mother Suyuan).

Yet, Tan’s story is addressing a dark force impacting three generations of Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters. Thus, a simple linear structure wouldn’t deliver the message in a way that resounds so deeply this book would be worthy of a Pulitzer and a movie.

Yet, we must grasp the BBT or it’s impossible to create a simple linear plot. Forget about the fancy stuff. It’s imperative to fully grasp the power of the BBT or characters fall flat and stories will struggle to break out from the ‘meh.’

So, basics first.

Dead or Alive?

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

It doesn’t matter if we choose to use tons of detailed description or almost none, if we plot linearly or nonlinearly. We can include maps, made-up languages, on and on. These are all stylistic preferences which can all work so long as at the center of it all, the story must have a BRAIN (the idea).

The BBT is the IDEA that creates the core problem in need of resolution/defeat. Every book mentioned above has a Big Boss Troublemaker (and corresponding proxy/proxies).

Problem is, far too many emerging writers spend far more time pondering the color of their main character’s eyes (amethyst or peridot…no jade) than they do considering what the heck the MC is even up against.

WHY does he/she exist?

The BBT is the sole reason for our MC (main character) to exist. Period.

Whenever I blog about the BBT, inevitably I get the whole ‘But my MC is his/her own worst enemy’ counterpoint (which really isn’t a counterpoint at all).

First, a properly crafted MC always is his or her own worst enemy in the beginning. This is why the character must arc in order to win. If our MC is flawless and fully self-actualized, this is not a story.

It’s a sedative.

Back to structure.

Yes, Commercial BBTs Easier to See

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

I get it. In most commercial fiction, the BBT (core antagonist) is easier to spot (I.e. The Emperor in Star Wars or Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs). Yet, even these ‘villains’ are driven by a ‘brain’—the BBT.

The BBT in Star Wars is that Perfect Rule Can Only Be Obtained By Total Control. The Emperor is merely the proxy—the brainchild—of this malevolent idea. He is the heart and hand that executes this idea. The Emperor, then, is the intangible made tangible…thus able to be defeated.

The BBT in Silence of the Lambs is Altering the Outside is ALL that Can Alter the Inside. Buffalo Bill is a tragic character and serves as the proxy executing the BBT BRAIN’s deadly and diseased idea. Again, though a simple ‘serial killer’ story, it is anything but.

Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is the corporeal manifestation of the idea, thus only in this physical form can he (and the BRAIN’S agenda) be defeated.

Ideas can ONLY be defeated when they take on a physical form. Once this happens, our MC is then able to rise to the call and stake the beating heart (proxy) that’s pumping the (BBT) brain’s toxic tautology.

All well-written stories have a BBT…even if they’re not ‘in the reader’s face’ obvious. This is why, in previous lessons, I often lumped them together. Sauron is the BBT in The Lord of the Rings. Until Sauron is defeated, the story isn’t over.

Yet, particularly in more complex stories, we are wise to tease the BBT apart from the proxy. Explore and codify the IDEA, then select and craft the perfect proxy (Hand of the King…um BRAIN).

The Subtler BBT

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Some BBTs (and their proxies) are tougher to spot. Ah, but just because a gas is odorless and tasteless doesn’t mean it isn’t there and that it isn’t also deadly.

Remember, many great works of fiction tackle any number of pervasive, potential, invisible or insidious social maladies…then use story to expose the ‘disease.’

This is why it’s wise to make the story also entertaining. If our novel bores the paint off the walls or is some thinly-veiled rant, no one will read it (a common problem with ‘literary’ stories).

Thus, if the story IS engaging, readers will pay attention. Then, once readers are listening, we writers can make the world aware of social, cultural, and personal cancers that plague humanity.

This takes skill and finesse, which is why I selected these particular stories to expound on our lesson.

The Old Man and the Sea

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

The Old Man and the Sea might seem like a simple Man vs. Nature story, and the giant marlin is the BBT…but not so fast. There are a lot of layers to this beyond the obvious. Yes, it is Man vs. Nature, but also Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself and Man vs. Society.

The old Cuban fisherman, Santiago, has lost his identity because of his advanced age and inability to do what men in his culture and chosen occupation DO.

They catch fish.

Santiago, however, has gone 84 days without a single catch, rendering him a ‘salao,’ which is considered the worst form of unluckiness. Thus in his world, he’s now old, devoid of purpose, labeled a pariah and essentially banished.

The BBT would be Santiago’s culture—the Cubano definition of what makes him worthwhile and a MAN (an IDEA). The proxy of this ‘belief’ appears in the form of a monstrous marlin Santiago manages to snag—a catch that would redeem him—but it is a long, brutal battle where Santiago essentially ‘fails.’

Or did he?

By the time Santiago makes it to shore, he’s exhausted and has only a ravaged carcass that was once a magnificent creature as proof of his epic struggle. Yet, when the locals witness the sheer SIZE of the fish Santiago caught (even though now only skull and bones), Santiago is redeemed as a man, hailed a hero, and accepted back into the fold of his people.

Without the marlin (proxy), there is no story because Santiago has no possibly way to defeat the BBT (the IDEA that he is worthless).

Now, the marlin isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ at all. Yet, without the giant marlin, there is no mechanism for Santiago to win his redemption and earn restoration. If Santiago dies at sea or makes it back completely empty-handed…he loses.

Fight Club

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Chuck Palahniuk tackles a similar subject in Fight ClubThis novel strikes out at modern culture (BBT), the notion that our society has somehow erased human beings and molded us into compliant, mindless drones.

The assertion in Fight Club is the IDEA that modern culture has robbed human agency, authenticity, and devoured true intimacy and purpose (for men in particular).

The story lays bare how sterilized, uncaring and unvested our modern world is regarding humans. This social malaise (BBT) is immediately evident when our unnamed protagonist goes to a doctor, desperate for help with debilitating insomnia…and he’s blown off.

Our MC is suffering profoundly, but is dismissed and minimized.

He is…no one.

He begins to realize he consists only of what he consumes; what he buys from Ikea, his job, etc. Without that? He does not exist.

This novel posits that we’ve created a world that takes and takes and takes and takes…until it uses us up. And we accept the inevitable horror with faces ‘calm as Hindu cows…’

Our MC wants to dismiss this new way of looking at his world, but…

Tyler Invades His Life

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Our protagonist learns this new way of viewing his world when he encounters a sexy, unapologetic anarchist…Tyler Durden.

Tyler makes everything clear, gives voice to a nameless angst our MC hasn’t been able to pinpoint. Tyler eventually reveals his plan for the world to hear what the people have to say…LOUD and CLEAR.

But the plan Tyler (proxy enacting the IDEA) has ‘cooked up’ is horrible beyond imagination. Eventually our protagonist realizes Tyler Durden might be correct with his social assessment, but he also must be stopped because TYLER IS NO SAVIOR. Rather, Tyler is the VERY BEAST this toxic culture has created.

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Our MC must finally see the TRUTH of Tyler—who and what he really is—and stop him before countless people die. It is by stopping Tyler that our MC will become a HERO because he’ll finally exist and can then exercise his human agency.

No Tyler Durden (proxy of the BBT), no story. No evil Tyler plan to stop, no way for the MC to truly be a man, a human, and exercise self-sacrifice and free will. If our hero fails to see the hard truth and stop Tyler, he fails.

Kill the heart and the brain will die.

Gone Girl

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

In Gone Girl, the BBT is the Idealization of Perfection. Perfect parents who dote and coddle and elevate a child to a sort of divine status. Perfect jobs. Perfect life. Perfect romance. Perfect marriage. Perfect behavior. Perfect adoration.

But does perfect even exist? Also, at what point do good intentions make gods? When does perfection turn into tyranny?

In Gone Girl, as mentioned, the BBT is the Idealization of Perfection (brain) and the proxy (heart and hands) is Amy Elliot Dunne (a.k.a. Amazing Amy).

Amy, the perfect wife, daughter, neighbor, friend, etc. goes missing under highly suspicious circumstances. When husband, Nick Dunne, becomes the prime (only) suspect for his ‘perfect’ wife’s murder, he’s forced to realize the truth about himself.

Even more terrifying, he has to face the truth about the woman he married.

He also must admit his humiliating flaws and publicly confess his ‘sins’ or his story has only one ending. Prison and the death penalty.

The BBT is IDEA that Perfect is Attainable. It is the Idealization of Perfection and the proxy is Nick’s wife, Amy (Amazing Amy) who then executes the physical reality of the flawed idea.

No missing and presumed dead Amy, no story.

The Joy Luck Club

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Why I chose to create the term BBT is that ideas aren’t always good or bad. This means the proxy (proxies) might not be per se ‘evil.’ It’s critical to understand this distinction in certain genres (I.e. women’s fiction, general fiction, literary).

The BBT in The Joy Luck Club is a cultural conflict. Obedience Makes a ‘Good’ Chinese Woman. In Chinese culture there’s a profound reverence to maintain the old ways, no questions asked. Females are obedient, quiet, dutiful, self-sacrificing, no matter the cost.

All noble qualities.

Yet, can these ‘noble qualities’ also have devastating consequences? Yes.

In the novel, the mothers immigrated from China for a new life, believing they’d left the old life (and ways) behind. Yet, it’s only when their daughters grow into women that the BBT comes into full bloom and can be seen.

The mothers realize they may have changed geography, but they’ve unwittingly passed down the very ideas they’d sacrificed everything to outrun.

What is ‘Good’?

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

Through the stories, we witness how the grandmothers were all excellent examples of the ‘good Chinese woman’, but this made them victims. These women suffered tremendously for doing what was ‘honorable’ and the ‘Chinese way.’

This ‘noble suffering’ then flowed down the cultural tributaries from the grandmothers to the mothers and finally to the daughters.

Thus, in the story, the mothers and daughters—together—must learn to forgive themselves and each other. They then must grow and challenge the series of BBT proxies with action and intention.

For instance, Lena’s mother Ling Ling confesses her own weakness, then challenges Lena to stand up to her abusive husband (proxy of BBT; Harold, the ‘Traditional Chinese Husband’ who is a good provider, but who is also controlling, emotionally bankrupt, and condescending). If Lena stays with Harold, who has zero intention of changing, she loses.

BBT, non-linear plotting, non-linear structure, advanced plotting, Big Boss Troublemaker, antagonist, core story problem, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, novel structure, how to write literature

If Lena swallows her pride and anger and sacrifices her self-respect in order to ‘suffer with dignity’…she loses. The BBT wins because though inaction Lena, by default, is agreeing with the IDEA that Obedience Makes the ‘Good’ Chinese Woman.

The ways of China didn’t work well for the grandmothers, but those women had no choice. The mothers and daughters, however, DO have a choice, which is the point of the book.

By burying the past and creating new futures, the BBT (Obedience Makes the ‘GOOD’ Chinese Woman) is challenged and defeated.

Obedience is not universally good. In fact, it can be downright deadly.

“Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.” -An-mei

~Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

In the End

I’ve worked hard to give a wide variety of examples to assist you as we deep-dive this component of structure. A story begins with an IDEA. The core antagonist has an IDEA that must be made corporeal in order to be defeated. If we fail to do this, we don’t have a story.

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?

I do love hearing from you. Where 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. I want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales. Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below. I changed the dates due to having the flu :/ .

Business of the Writing Business: Ready to ROAR!

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

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

Self-Publishing for Professionals: Amateur Hour is OVER

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.

DOUBLE-TROUBLE BUSINESS BUNDLE

BOTH classes for $129 (Save $25). This bundle is FIVE hours of professional training, plus the recordings, plus Cait’s workbook to guide you through everything from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution and more.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 5.35.06 PM
This is my Upside-Down-Face

P.O.V. is a word that throws many new authors into panic. What is THAT? Prisoners of Vietnam? Pets of Vegans? Pals of Viagra? P.O.V. stands for Point of View. Traditionally, I’ve not included this lesson in my teachings on structure, but I am amending that since P.O.V. will affect structure.

The structure of a novel written in first person is very different than a novel using multiple third-person P.O.V. characters. Scenes will need a different kind of balancing, so choosing a P.O.V. should not be taken lightly. Yes, often choice of P.O.V. will come from author voice, but not always. Sometimes genre might influence our decisions as well.

Thus, today, we are going to whiz through Kristen’s P.O.V. Spark Notes.

***Just a quick reminder though. Comment over at my new Dojo Diva blog and there is a separate contest for comments with better odds of winning my 20 page critique. We are talking about How to Be the Sheepdog. Not a wolf, not a sheep, but a sheepdog. Moving on….

Anyway…

We ALL know writing a novel is FAR from easy. We just make it look that way 😉 .

Today, I’m putting on my editor’s hat. Many of you decided to become writers because you love to write. Duh. I’ll even bet most of you, back when you were in school, also made very good grades in English. Thus, you might assume that you naturally know how to write a novel that is fit for successful publication.

Maybe you do. But, if you are anything like me when I started out? You might not know as much as you think you do.

Why?

Our high school English teacher didn’t care that we used 15 metaphors on one page. Why? Her goal was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor…NOT to prepare us for a career in commercial fiction. Same with college.

The single largest mistake I see in new manuscripts is the author does not understand P.O.V. and often this is why agents and people like me only need a page or two to know the manuscript/writer isn’t ready to publish.

This is an easy mistake to make, in that, as I stated earlier, formal education classes aren’t neccessarily there to teach us how to be great novelists. Some writers pick up on P.O.V. intuitively, but most of us need to be taught, lest we leave the reader feeling as if she is being held hostage on Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl.

P.O.V. Prostitution (A.K.A. Head-Hopping)

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess (hope) all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?

Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel like she’s been bungee-corded to Satan’s Merry-Go-Round—not good.

First, we have to know what P.O.V. is if we hope to use it to our advantage.

P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera?

Image courtesy of Jon Gosier, via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Jon Gosier, via Flickr Creative Commons

Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story.

There is no wrong P.O.V., but we do have to be consistent. P.O.V. is a HUGE factor in determining our writing voice.

What are the types of P.O.V.? What are their inherent weaknesses and strengths? For the record, this is HIGHLY redacted for the sake of time.

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 7.35.04 AM

There are three disadvantages to this P.O.V.

1. This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.

2. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.

3. First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.

There is the I Remember When camp and the Come Along with Me camp.

One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father and I were attacked by a pack of Mary Kay ladies gone feral….”

The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”

Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to mix the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

The benefit of First-Person? First-person P.O.V. adds an intimacy that no other P.O.V. can, and is useful for stories where we might want to withhold information from the reader.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping.

Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut.

Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next. It is usually a good idea to limit one P.O.V. per scene. When we switch perspectives inside the same scene, that is called head-hopping, and it will confuse and frustrate our readers.

There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting:

1. It can add additional depth and insight to your story.

2. It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.

3. Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story.

For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist. In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V might not be the best fit. The scene might be more powerful if told from someone watching this protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.

Ah, but there are also inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.

1. Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.

2. It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera.

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Oh stop mucking it up and give Me the camera…

This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.”

Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

1. Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Epic battle scenes are a good example.

2. Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in NYTBSA Bob Mayer’s Area 51 Series (which I HIGHLY recommend), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist.

To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob used an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose would remain remain nice and smooth and the fictive dream could stay in tact.

There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

1. Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to tangle together.

2. Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I’ve edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution” or “Head-Hopping.”

Key Points to Remember:

In First-Person—Come Along with Me stories can easily turn into I Remember When stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.

In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)—Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.

In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) —“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just remind Him nicely of commandment number eight, and ask Him to give the camera back.

In Omniscient—“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

P.O.V. is one more reason it is critical for writers to read if they hope to become great authors. Read, read, read. Read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors using different P.O.V.s to see how it is done well.

EXAMPLES:

Veronica Roth brilliantly employs the first-person Come Along With Me in her Divergent trilogy. Her choice of P.O.V. gives an intimate feel no other P.O.V. can, and, since it isn’t an I Remember When story, Roth is able to maintain reader suspense.

Stephen King does a great job of using first-person in an I Remember When style in The Green Mile. King chose this P.O.V. for a very specific reason, which I will not say so as not to spoil the ending even though y’all have had like, TWENTY YEARS to read it.

Dennis Lehane does an amazing job of employing omniscient in Mystic River. If you think you might want to use omniscient, I’d recommend reading him.

James Rollins uses third-person shifting very well in The Doomsday Key. Third-shifting is generally a great P.O.V. for thrillers in that it helps manage/reveal a lot of information that the protag may or may not know.

I would recommend Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero: Joe Ledger Series.  I HIGHLY recommend Iron River by T. Jefferson Parker. Both these authors mixed third-limited and first-person and the effect is impressive.

P.O.V. when used properly can take a story to a whole new level. Read, experiment and practice. I know I just touched on a handful of suggestions, so feel free to add your thoughts, expound, ask questions.

Also, if you want to meet me and author and Hollywood TV/Film Producer Joel Eisenberg, we will be in Boaz, Alabama on June 15th. Joel will be doing a workshop called, “Catching Your Muse: How to Claim Your Artistic Spirit” and I will be there to help any of your social media angsts. We can also plot global domination using a weaponized Bedazzlers and trained hamsters….so REGISTER HERE.

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).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

Both winners will be announced next blog. We just came in from assessing flood damage at our ranch and I haven’t had a chance to tally the winner. So stay tuned!

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

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.42.33 AMUnderstanding structure helps us write cleaner and faster. Whether we plan every detail ahead of time or just intuitively have the architecture in our head, structure makes the difference between a workable first draft and a nightmare beyond salvage.

I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. 

If we don’t pick or we get too weird, we will confuse agents and readers because there is no clear idea of where this sucker should be shelved. It will also make plotting more than problematic.

Fifteen years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-inspirational-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants.

I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a pure literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at an Indian restaurant.

Um, ew.

Part of why I stress picking a genre will be a huge factor in driving sales and connecting readers with a work they will LOVE. We need to make certain we have slotted our product correctly because 1) we want readers to FIND our work and also 2) readers can be very unforgiving with reviews.

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As an example, writers often make the mistake of putting their books for sale in the incorrect spot. One of the most common oopses I’ve seen is writers believing they have a Romance, when in fact they have a Women’s Fiction or a General Fiction. Romance has rules and expectations.

I once worked with an author who’d had terrible sales for her book and gotten some scathing reviews. But, when I looked at her work, she didn’t have a romance at all and had listed her book for sale in the wrong place. She’d gotten razed in reviews because guy and gal didn’t end up with an HEA. In Romance, that is BAD. In Women’s Fiction? Not bad. She was connecting her work to the wrong audience.

Once she reslotted her work, sales improved and so did the reviews because she was now connecting to the correct audience who were now judging her story as a Women’s Fiction.

Additionally, some writers will try to get clever and blend genres together. Literary Thriller is one example.

Yes, it can be done, but in my POV, why? Readers who love thrillers love fast-paced action. Readers who like literature love a slower pace and lots of deep probing character development….which is likely to alienate most thriller readers. Also, add in the action and it’s going to be tough to keep the attention of the literary folks.

Can this genre work? Yes, but we have to realize we DO risk losing the audience so it better be done really well. Also, I think the term “Literary Thriller” is just for marketing. “Thrillers but written gooder.” And either they are a thriller or a general fiction. I think this genre term is confusing, misleading and more than a bit insulting to thriller authors.

Granted, there are people who like to read everything, but betting our writing future on entertaining statistical outliers is a serious gamble.

I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

know I haven’t listed all the genres, so if I miss one, feel free to add it in the comments 😉 . These are just the “biggies.”

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit.

Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the endThrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the LambsA murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your Big Boss Trouble Maker (read Structure Part Three if you want to know what a BBT is). Yes, the guy will likely be a scene antagonist, but that is different.

Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance because there are SO many categories of romance that it could make a book.

Literary Fiction is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Note: Literary fiction is not a free pass to avoid plotting. There still needs to be an overall plot problem that forces the change. People generally don’t wake up one day and just decide to change. There needs to be an outside driving force, a Big Boss Troublemaker, and a tangible physical goal. Again, in The Road, the man and boy have a tangible goal of getting to the ocean.

The only difference in literary fiction and genre fiction is that plot arc is now subordinate to character arc. In commercial genre fiction the plot generally takes precedence. In Silence of the Lambs catching Buffalo Bill is top on the priority list. Character evolution is secondary. In literary fiction these two arcs reverse. The character growth and change is of primary importance and plot is merely the vehicle to get them to change.

For instance, in Joy Luck Club, June’s impending trip to China is what brings the women together and what forces each of them to change the patterns of the past. The trip is irrelevant save for two purposes—1) bringing the women together to face their demons and 2) when June actually makes the trip to China to meet her mother’s twin sisters (the lost babies) we know the change has occurred and the chains of the past have been loosed.

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

In regular fantasy, we will generally have a singular protagonist. In high fantasy, the various parties each become protagonists. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gamut. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association

Young AdultI won’t talk long about YA, since YA beaks into so many subcategories. Often YA will follow the rules of the parent genre (i.e. YA thrillers still have a ticking clock, fast pacing and high stakes just like regular thrillers). The differences, however, is that YA generally will have a younger protagonist (most often a teenager) and will address special challenges particular to a younger age group.

For instance, in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Tris is taking on a very real political battle between factions. But the plot also involves her evolving from child to adult, how she defines her identity aside from Mom and Dad and forging a new romantic relationship with Four. These are all prototypical struggles for someone in that age group.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin.

This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story or change the genre entirely because she actually wrote a Women’s Fiction and NOT a romance.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like children’s or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

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

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

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

I used to try to teach from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my thinking was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We are trained to look for problems. Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings? No. Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards.

Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector.

In Lesson One, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Lesson Two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. In Lesson Three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the opposition, and last week I gave you a tested method to make sure your core idea was solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, you should be able to tell someone (an agent) what your story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.  In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels. Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread. We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great log-line:

Great log-lines are short and clear. I cannot tell you how many writers I talk to and I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

Back when I ran a novel writing critique group, every participant was required to tell what their story was about in ONE sentence before we ever started plotting. If the writer wandered too far off track, then we as his teammates knew to do one of two things. 1) Assist the writer in changing the plot to get him back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early.

I have seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers. Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

The best way to learn how to write log-lines is to go look at the IMDB. Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described. You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing.  Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes.

Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes).

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a best-seller, I think Crichton did well.

So here is an exercise. See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park. Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

What are some problems you might be having? Do you find you wander too far off your original idea? What are your struggles with remaining focused?

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