Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Plot & Structure

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Yesterday we talked about great stories and why the world craves them and needs more of them. It’s easy to assert the world needs more great stories, but how do we go about writing them? Glad you asked.

Great stories that endure for generations are not the result of whim, accident or even a lot of ‘rising and grinding.’ There’s an end vision, a planning phase, and a way to make sure all the parts come together to create what was originally imagined (or perhaps something that surpassed all hope).

This is true of all enduring structures. Can you imagine the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Mayan temples, or the Nazca Lines being the result of whim? Hey, lets go pile some stones and chip away at a cliff and see what happens?

Um…no.

Great stories possess an inherent architectural design unique to building with words. In fact, the more vast and complex a story we desire to write, the more structure skills matter.

Mastering how stories are fundamentally put together will increase our odds of crafting a story readers love.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Narrative structure is fundamental, especially for any writer who longs to craft great stories that can withstand the test of time and Goodreads trolls 😛 .

Structure, sadly, is probably one of the most overlooked topics even though it’s the most critical.

Why? Because structure is for the reader. The further an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect and resonate.

When structure is missing, incomplete, or flawed, the easier it is for readers to become confused, frustrated and finally give up. Structure isn’t simply for function, but for beauty as well (refer to jacked up Ikea fail above).

Sadly, too many emerging writers want to get to the ‘fun’ stuff (for them). Pretty prose, descriptions, characters, using new words are great imaginative play. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. Play.

Crafting great stories is work. Too much play and too little planning is the reason many ‘novels’ are Literary Barbie Dream Houses or Literary Holodecks (if you prefer).

While the writer is vested in the ‘story,’ no one else cares because the ‘book’ was written to entertain the creator not the consumer. Hey, I am not judging, for the record….

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics
Representation of Kristen’s First Novel

Story that connects to readers = lots of books sold

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

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most pre-published writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me, agents and readers with their glorious prose.

Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot.

We have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming craft series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Great Stories Possess Intrinsic Order

I get it. Learning story structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school Chemistry.

The funny thing about Chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in Chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the ‘lunch room.’ Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves ‘The Ionics’ thinking it sounded cool.

Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called ‘The Covalents.’  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it.

Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of Chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. All parts serve an important function. Normal World has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. If we fail to understand this, then crafting a great story becomes more accident than intention.

Dunno about y’all, but I prefer odds I can control, thanks.

Great Stories: Back to the BASICS

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure (non-linear structure), turning points, rising action, and darkest moments, etc.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I’m going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Again, prose is not a novel. Just because we can write beautiful sentences doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 60-100,000+ word novel (or a 300,000 + word series).

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, so I can build a house! Uh, probably not. Or, I can build a house, so I can construct a skyscraper! Um…no. Different scale, different skills.

Do they share some basic components? Sure! But a novel (or series) requires a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that the skills to create a great short story are the same for a novel. Or the same for a novel are the same for an epic ten-book space opera.

No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like Chemistry.

Simplicity Births Complexity

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they’re also essential for lotuses, lions, and lemmings. Today we’re going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming posts.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I’m boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be further from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—peach or poodle? Paranormal Romance? Or OMGWTH? 

Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

The Micro Scale of Structure

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics
Same thing can be said for writers…

We’re going to first ZOOM IN and place the novel under a literary electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. Super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (yes, even literary works).

Cause and effect are like a nucleus with orbiting electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

I know that in life random things happen and people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that ‘seed’ needs to be planted ahead of time.

Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book.

We’ll chat more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we’ll discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your ‘chapters’ but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms.

***I know carbon chains also make some dead things, but great stories are living ‘creatures.’ Dead stories are, well, dead and deserve to rot in a slush pile. Ah, but living stories are immortal!

Anyway, carbon chains and various elements from that Periodic Table act like Legos—put together differently, in innumerable ways…but always using the same fundamental blocks.

Assembled in the wrong order—>steaming pile of goo.

***Lest I remind anyone who saw The Fly about that baboon that didn’t quite ‘make it’ through the teleportation pod.

Carbon chains create flowers and ferrets and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries, romances, fantasies and thrillers and all things literary.

Order Matters: Scene & Sequel

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy and read and study).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level.

Meet & Exceed Expectations

On some intuitive level, all readers expect some variation of this structure. When things happen for no reason, or there are actions that should have consequences then don’t? Formula for a book mark.

Readers eventually grow weary and move on, especially these days when humans have the attention span of a crack-addicted spider monkey.

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sun-dried tomatoes or feta cheese.

But, on some primal level, a patron will know what to expect when we ‘sell’ them a pizza. They will know that a fried corn tortilla stuffed with shredded bison and a raspberry chutney is NOT pizza…even though it is certainly ‘creative.’

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a ‘pizza.’ Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and Biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so we can BREAK and BASH them!

*evil laugh*

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.

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).

***January’s winner is Maria D’Marco. Please send your first twenty pages (5,000 words) double spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font (12 pint) with one-inch margins in a Word doc to kristen at wana intl.com.

CLASSES!

Business of the Writing Business: Ready to ROAR!

Instructor: Kristen Lamb

Price: $55.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Thursday, February 15, 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, February 16, 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.

Bridgette Jones Diary
Bridgette Jones Diary

I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists, even those who are preparing to take the NaNoWriMo Challenge in November. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60,000-100,000+ words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task.

That said, all novels begin with an idea. We talked a bit about how to create a SOLID idea yesterday. Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. 

Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words.

Think of your core idea as the foundation that will eventually support your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm foundations with lots of rebar. If our goal is to write a trilogy or a series? We must create a foundation capable of supporting 170,000 to 250,000 words or more (depending on genre and length of the series).

So how do we know if the idea we have is strong enough?

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods.

When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today, and I strongly recommend you either read Jim’s book or even take one of his classes or consults. He’s by far one of THE BEST writing teachers out there.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

We will begin with the LEAD,  because a large part of our story’s foundation is the protagonist we create.

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It’s critical to have a protagonist the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

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

Seriously.

If we make characters too perfect, readers will revel in their destruction. If we didn’t like tearing down “the beautiful people” then Star Magazine and The Inquirer would have folded decades ago.

As writers, we need readers to rally to our protagonist’s team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws. Make her HUMAN. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.

One of the reasons Bridgette Jones is a fabulous character is because she’s flawed and shares all the same angsts other women struggle with daily. She’s insecure, trying to lose weight, says all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but she is a good person and we love her.

What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people?

Give them flaws.

The recent Iron Man movies did a fabulous job of casting one of “the beautiful people” and making us love him despite. How? Tony Stark comes to realize he’s a narcissistic jerk, and that “he’s created his own demons.” Yes, he might be fabulously rich, good-looking, brilliant and has lots of cool toys, but he’s DEEPLY FLAWED.

Image via Iron Man III
Image via Iron Man III

In Iron Man III, when attacked, Stark directs his armor to protect the woman he loves knowing he could die. He is kind to the kid who’s being bullied. Yes, he’s a jerk, but he knows it and is working to be a better man, even if the path for redemption has not yet been clearly revealed.

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

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

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

In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.

*eye twitches*

What are some of your favorite characters in movies or in books? Why did you “like” them? How were they flawed? What other characters fell flat? You could never like them because they passed a certain line?

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

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

The Neverending Story circa 1984

Okay, since I get to drive to San Antonio today, I figured we’d just plow ahead and take on Lesson Two in my structure series. I strongly recommend checking out Monday’s lesson if you haven’t yet. 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.

If you are planning to do the National Novel Writing Month Challenge (50,000 words in the month of November) then these lessons will help you tremendously. If you are going to put in that much effort, wouldn’t it be great to have something worthwhile at the end of the month?

Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach aspiring 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.

Monday 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 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 four 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 guys!

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of September I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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

For the past month, we have been discussing story structure. Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs. I bring the best teaching in the industy right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.

Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea. I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?

Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words. Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?

Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.

James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.

When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.

Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK

LEAD

First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective

Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shapeshifters….”

Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*

Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.

Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).

Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.

Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.

Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective–The Joy Luck Club.

The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.

We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.

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

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

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene. I am not making this up. And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

Knockout

So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster of a mother-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their…shenanigans.

This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it. She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the coming weeks, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

I do want to hear from you guys!

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

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

Winner of 5-Page Critique–Barbara McDowell. Please send a 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

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

Last week we began a series discussing structure and, if you haven’t read last Monday’s blog, I strongly recommend checking it out. 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.”

If you are planning to do the National Novel Writing Month Challenge (50,000 words in the month of November) then these lessons will help you tremendously. If you are going to put in that much effort, wouldn’t it be great to have something worthwhile at the end of the month?

Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach aspiring 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. Many of you might have a computer full of unfinished novels. 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 week 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 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):

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 two and a half years of running countless plots through my workshop, we 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 we at WWBC call a Luck Dragon. Don’t think you can sneak a Falcor by an agent or editor either. There is no camouflaging this guy. Did you see the picture? 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. One of the first participants of WWBC 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 started this blog was to help shorten the learning curve. I would imagine most of you reading this would like to be published while you are still young enough to enjoy it. Join me next week 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 do want to hear from you guys!

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

Winner of 5 Page Critique for Week 2 of October Teresa Owen. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail addy is Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.

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

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