Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: plotting a novel

Last time, we talked about the core antagonist or as I like to call it, the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT is responsible for creating the core story problem in need of being solved and we will continue our discussion on the BBT and different types of antagonists later.

But before we do that, I want to talk about a symptom of a novel with no BBT. Sort of like a doctor might take blood pressure or check off a list of symptoms before cracking open your chest to diagnose a bum ticker.

As an expert on plot, one clear symptom of a novel with no plot (or the fatally flawed manuscript), is the story will break out in little darlings. The more the severe the outbreak? The sicker the manuscript. Some cases are even fatal. Nothing to do but pull the plug and harvest for clever dialogue.

Why is this?

When we fail to have a core story problem, deep down we sense something is missing and so we put our best work into buttressing weaknesses. We spend hours on scenes of lavish description, or sections of super witty dialogue, or crazy twists and turns and a surprise ending that only makes sense if we use jazz hands and flannelgrams to explain them.

Because there is no simple CORE problem, we must invent contrived backstory, interstellar empires and black magic conspiracies to explain the, frankly, unexplainable. And, since we put a LOT of brainpower into this? Pulling us off these clever bits of our story is like trying to deprogram a family member from a New Mexico cult.

We’ve partaken of our own Kool-Aid and dammit, we like it!

Yet, the problem with a mass outbreak of little darlings is that, if we don’t spot them and then kill them dead? The novel has no chance of being saved because the little darlings are often the very thing keeping it sick.

What’s a Little Darling?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime

Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”

Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian Google Doc where they would come back as really bad novels.

…oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. They can also look like “never before thought of ideas” and “wicked twist endings that put Shyamalan to shame.”

To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Why are little darlings so dangerous?

Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go. Here are three BIG reasons your little darlings need to die.

#1 We Risk Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.

As my awesome friend and talented author/writing teacher Les Edgerton mentioned a while back in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.

Since little darlings are often birthed from a flimsy plot (or no plot), the writer is left to manufacture conflict (melodrama). This weakness often manifests in pointless fight scenes, chase scenes, flashbacks or hospital/funeral scenes that seem to go nowhere.

Zzzzzzzzzz.

We are creating bad situations, not authentic dramatic tension.

#2 We Mistake Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:

Me: What’s your book about?

Writer: Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a demon, but a nice demon because in my world some of the demons actually were half human mage which makes them not evil. Anyway he’s a demon, well half-demon, and actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…

Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

Writer: *blank stare*

Me: What is her goal?

Writer: Um. To find out who she is?

Me: No, what does she need to do? What bad thing must she stop?

Writer: Someone is stalking her.

Me: *looks for closest bar*

Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. As mentioned earlier, it’s my opinion that new writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.

I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a subconscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.

When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping it will fly. How do I know this?

I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o.

“Complicated” is Not Conflict

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to BS our way through something we don’t understand and pray no one notices.

Um, they will. Trust me.

Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

“Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.

I can prove this. Let’s take one of the most complex stories of the 20th century. Yes, yes, you know where I am going. Lord of the Rings. Simple story. I can give it to you in ONE sentence.

A race of naive and innocent homebodies must travel across a dangerous world to drop an evil ring in a specific volcano before a power-hungry necromancer takes over the world and casts all they love in darkness and despair.

The CORE of that complex story is two Hobbits tossing a ring in a volcano. Everything else supports that singular simple idea.

The difference between complex and complicated is this. With a complex plot we can say what the story is about in one sentence. When the story is complicated? Trying to unravel our plot is about as easy as unravelling the Gordian Knot.

#3 We Fail to Spot/Correct Weaknesses

We fall so in love with our fun characters, our witty dialogue, our amazing inter-stellar conspiracy that we never finish. We can’t finish.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.59.35 AM
You’ve rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.

Since we aren’t being honest about why the book isn’t working, we aren’t doing the hard work that would make the story publishable and we end up making a bad mess even worse.

In the end, be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your pets little darlings for real.

So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies? If you need help looking at your own plot with honest eyes, I have never met a plot I couldn’t fix and am an expert at assisted suicide for Little Darlings, so email me at kristen at wana intl dot com if you need help. I would also strongly recommend my Hooked—Your First Five Pages class below because you get me shredding through your novel’s intro. I can spot every problem in a novel in 20 pages or less. So save some time and get my help. There is no shame in needing outside eyes.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

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

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

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

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

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 April 13th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

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

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)
Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? 🙂

Yesterday’s post stirred quite the debate and flurry of panic attacks, so today, we will delve a bit further into Le Mystique of Le Flashback. First of all, for future reference, I need to ignore all Facebook comments that begin with, “I haven’t read your post, but completely disagree…” Er? Ok. Here’s the thing. I play dictator on my blog, because it’s my blog and it’s FUN.

I’m a realist and I KNOW there is some writer out there who has broken every rule there is. But, bringing up every last exception is a confusing way to teach and a fabulous way to make your heads explode.

It’s like the “I before E Except After C (except for when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor) Rule.”

If I give you guys the BASICS and explain WHY editors, agents and readers almost always dislike flashbacks, you know what is distressing about a flashback so you can avoid the pitfalls if you choose to employ a flashback.

…but still avoid them. Ok, I’ll shut up now.

Defining a Flashback

When is a flashback a literary device? Hint: Rhymes with…NEVER.

Oh, before y’all get your panties in a bunch, let me expound.

One thing that jumped out at me yesterday is that we don’t seem to all define the flashback in the same way. I see this with the term “antagonist” ALL THE TIME, which is why I have an entire class dedicated to un-confusing you. Yes, un-confusing is a word :P.

For instance, many writers use villain and antagonist interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable. A villain is only ONE TYPE of many variations of antagonists. Antagonists are not always bad and often they are the protagonist’s allies.

This is like saying an orange is a fruit, thus all fruits are oranges. Logical fallacy.

Flashbacks, to me, are when a writer either breaks a scene and jumps back in time to explain (and thus alleviate tension as in yesterday’s example). OR, a flashback is when another scene serves ONLY to explain another scene (thus again, alleviating present tension).

In the first type, we have a scene, which is action. Protagonist has a goal, but then X happens. The point of the scene is to make the reader wonder if the protagonist will reach the goal or fail. The more roadblocks, the better.

To Flashback to Yesterday’s Post…

In yesterday’s example, we had this GREAT, TENSE scene where a wedding planner is trying (rather unsuccessfully) to herd hungover bridesmaids to the wedding on time. Nothing is going well for the poor planner. WE LOVE IT. We are HOOKED! Yet, with no warning or a clear scene break, suddenly *screeching of tires* we are  hurled back into an earlier conversation in a different place and time with totally different people when the bride-to-be decided to move the location from Napa to Mexico.

Huh?

What this did was:

1. Break the forward timeline.

2. Make the reader have to reorient to a new time/goal.

3. Introduced a new cast of characters and dialogue that had to do with a TOTALLY different goal that had nothing to do with herding half-drunk bridesmaids to a chapel on time (and also had me floundering to keep up with 10 names).

The going back in time did nothing for the plot except break the tension by explaining and add a bunch of characters who weren’t even in the present scene. There was no information in that minor flashback that could not have been done BETTER in forward gear.

We know Mom gave in and let the bride have the wedding in Mexico, because…we began the story IN MEXICO!

In fact, putting the flashback real-time actually raises the tension through the roof. Nothing like having Mom wag a finger and say I told you so to make a nervous bride’s hangover improve :P.

Another example.

I’m working on a trilogy. Any book within a series should be able to stand alone. In series, however, it can be very tempting to explain in case someone hasn’t read the earlier book(s). Don’t.

Romi (my protagonist) is shot in the first book. In Book Two, this is page ONE when my protagonist meets with a character from Book One:

“Romi Lachlann,” he said close to my ear then leaned back, studying me. “You look different.” 

“I’d hope so.” I absently rubbed the scar on my ribs from the gunshot wound and poured myself a cup of black coffee from a large carafe.

Then, I continue the story. Sally forth!

Romi’s goal is to find out why, after 18 months of silence, someone from her past suddenly needs to see her. Yes, there is this teasing of the past, but I don’t stop and explain who shot her. I don’t lurch back to the final Big Boss Battle in Book One when she is on the floor begging for her life. I let the reader wonder.

Er? Gunshot wound? WTH happened?

If I stop mid-scene to explain, I confuse the reader and dilute the wondering. If I indulge in another scene back from when Romi was shot, I shoot myself in the foot.

Why would anyone 1) bother reading the first book or 2) keep turning pages to figure out what happened and how/why she was shot?

Additionally, my Book Two Romi is so paranoid she’s three steps away from wearing a tin-foil hat. If I go back and tell WHY, the story fizzles. Yet, by revealing details from what happened earlier in real-time (and when relevant to the current story problem), the reader eventually comes to understand the full depth of what Romi survived.

In fact, if I do my job properly, part of what will keep the new reader engaged is finding out what on earth transpired that tipped Romi off the deep end. For those who (hopefully) read Book One, her behavior is just an organic growth of the character/story they already know.

Also, if some people have read the first book, then I’m not trapping myself in an “As You Know, Bob Syndrome” when I withhold information. Why repeat details some readers already know and that would ruin tension for those who don’t yet have answers?

Flashbacks and Parallel Timelines are TWO Different Creatures

Flashbacks disorient, diffuse tension and can be cut without harming the story. All the information in the flashback can be explained in narrative or dialogue at a later point. No need to hit the “Reverse.” Your protagonist’s conflict isn’t in the past, but the present and future. The past has already happened, so readers CAN’T WORRY.

In my book, the reader knows Romi survives being shot. She’s drinking coffee and NOT a ghost. Flashing back to a bunch of pain, suffering, betrayal is self-indulgent melodrama.  Her conflict is in the current problem—the large bounty for her head (literally).

A Parallel Timeline is NOT a Flashback

Image via "The Joy Luck Club."
Image via Amy Tan’s, “The Joy Luck Club.”

Just because some scenes are set in an earlier time, doesn’t mean they are flashbacks. If we pull past and present apart then set the scenes side-by-side, we will see they exhibit three-act structure and eventually converge with the present in the final scenes of the story. Some examples are Fried Green TomatoesThe Joy Luck Club, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Notebook and The Green Mile. 

For instance, I love the example of Stephen King’s The Green Mile not only because it is a great story and superb example of what we are discussing, but the book and movie are very close. This movie would be a great study if you are so bold as to try parallel timelines. They are tricky and I am not so brave.

The Green Mile begins in 1999 with Paul Edgecomb in a Louisiana nursing home. Paul begins to cry while watching the movie Top Hat. When his elderly friend Elaine shows concern, he confesses the movie reminded him of his time as a prison guard in charge of the death row inmates at Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the summer of 1935.

Old Paul Edgecombe.
Old Paul Edgecomb.
Young Paul Edgecombe
Young Paul Edgecomb.

One timeline follows Young Paul as a prison guard and his miraculous encounter with John Coffee. The other timeline follows Old Paul and his trials in the nursing home. It isn’t until the end that anyone bothers doing the math and sees HOW these two timelines converge. In fact, the timelines converging is essential to the core of the story. What happened to Young Paul has altered Old Paul forever.

Also, note that Young Paul Edgecomb was a jailer who held the power over the powerless, yet used his authority for good. As an elderly man in a home, Paul comes to experience what the inmates in his care might have felt like under the sociopath Percy Wetmore. Old Paul is no longer in a position of power and is at the mercy of a sadistic care giver (a present-day ghost of Percy Wetmore).

Or is he? 😉

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 7.17.46 PM
Percy Wetmore in “The Green Mile.”

Not All Story Timelines Have to Be Completely Linear

Some stories will begin with a tragic event in the beginning, then we see something like TWO DAYS EARLIER. This is not a flashback. This is merely a different way of plotting and a solid literary device. Though these types of stories might begin in a future moment, once the timeline goes back, it often stays there. Time then keeps pressing forward until the two points in time meet. There is no back-and-forth psychic whiplash.

Can these rules be broken? Sure. Pulp Fiction.

From the Quentin Tarantino film, "Pulp Fiction."
From the Quentin Tarantino film, “Pulp Fiction.”

But, I might add that Pulp Fiction ticked off as many people as who loved it (and this was a movie and visual so easier on the gray matter). Yet, even in Pulp Fiction (or The English Patient) eventually the jaunty timelines converged for those of us who’d gutted through being tossed all over the place.

***Note: I wanted to set The English Patient ON FIRE….but someone beat me.

But let me point out something interesting. If we snipped the scenes in either of these stories apart, we could set them side-by-side into a completely linear story with no spare parts.

Tomorrow, we will discuss why misused flashbacks can be a symptom of bigger issues/problems. But, I hope this helps you guys understand what I mean when referring to “a flashback” and the difference between a flashback versus parallel or non-linear timelines. Unorthodox plotting can be a literary device that enhances tension. Flashbacks, however, diffuse tension…and this is why they should be killed without pity.

I’m right.

It’s science :P.

What are your thoughts? Unless your thoughts are, but “But Kristen! Rules can be broken! Such-and-Scuh used flashbacks every page and now bathes in diamonds!” I know. And everyone hates her so I hope her money makes her happy. All rules can be broken and broken well.

Other thoughts than that? Did this help you guys see the difference in the “flashback” that irritates readers, editors and agents versus a parallel timeline or non-traditional plot structure?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have a FANTASTIC class coming up to help you!

CLASS COMES WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

Understanding the Antagonist

If you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension.

Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.

Additionally, why pay thousands for an editor or hundreds for a book doctor? This is a VERY affordable way to make sure your entire story is clear and interesting. Also, it will help you learn to plot far faster and cleaner in the future.

Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

I’ll be running the First Five Pages again at the end of May, so stay tuned.

And, if you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

 

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine

Many writers struggle. We hate our beginnings, revisions are a nightmare and endings can fizzle. We work, rework, cry, try again and still don’t nail it. The second act sags and we start wondering if maybe we should reconsider learning medical billing instead of writing.  Yet, I do have good news. I’ve never worked with a dying patient manuscript that couldn’t be saved.

Granted, we might have to do massive reconstructive surgery, but I have yet to have a patient die on the table :).

I’ve been blessed enough to help countless writers see the story they were trying to tell all along….just couldn’t seem to execute. Often this is a perceptual problem.

We can be too close to our own work.

Also, remember, high school and college English classes aren’t preparation for understanding HOW to create a work spanning 60,000-110,00 words. I might be going out on a limb here, but MFA students aside, I doubt’ y’all ever wrote a paper longer than 50 pages (more like 20). So stop beating yourself up. You might just need a little training and surgical residency.

Let’s look at some reasons for the most common maladies that can kill novels.

Weak, Flawed or Unclear Story Problem

When we have a weak, confusing or flawed story, there’s no way to know where to begin or even end. Why? We don’t know where we’re going. There is a difference between a clever idea and a defined problem in need of solving.

A recent BBT Advanced student brought me book she’s been working on since the 90s. Why didn’t it work? She had a clever idea, not a strong plot problem (the heart was weak…ok not there).

The problem wasn’t big enough and worse, the story problem made the protagonist unsympathetic. The protagonist was part of a matriarchal society who essentially used men for the purposes of propagation only. The laws had been set that if a woman didn’t birth a female child by a certain age, then she’d lose everything and be banished.

Interesting premise, but then I spotted the problem…

The writer’s goal for the book was for the protagonist to have the law changed and extend the time she had to birth a child because she hadn’t found the “right guy” and didn’t want to be exiled.

Yet, my first comment after hearing her story idea was, “Um, but you’re essentially wanting us to sympathize with a reluctant sex-trafficking slave-owner whose biggest goal is to modify an inhumane law so she has more time to get preggo. And what is the Big Boss Battle? C-Span? She changes a law? Doesn’t seem terribly exciting.”

*Cues Schoolhouse Rock’s I’m Just a Bill*

Her answer? Wow, um didn’t see that.

Without this observation, the writer could have revised into 2020 and still not have a workable story, because the core was flawed (though pretty simple to repair). She was fixing ingrown toenails when the beating heart of the story was dead.

But, with these critical pieces of information, we could go back to the drawing board surgical table and make her character into a hero. Yes, the protagonist is born into this matriarchal society that uses men like human cattle, but WHY are they doing it? What started it? What are the consequences for a society like this? What happens if protag fails?

HOW do we make the protagonist into a person who dismantles the evil system and brings freedom and restores love?

By the end of our talk, the writer still had all the essential pieces of the story, but they’d been strengthened and put into proper order. Now she has the template for a three-book work that is heroic and that addresses problems as old as humans—freedom and love.

Strong beating heart.

More Problems

There are other problems that can create MAJOR pits of WIP death.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Story SiameseTwins

We may be trying to make one book do too much (and it needs to be more than one book).

Story Anemia

Our story might be confusing or the premise too weak to support something novel-length.

Story Disfigurement

Events might be in the wrong order. How effective could we be with our legs growing out of our head? Same with stories.

These maladies can make revisions a living nightmare. How can we know what and where to cut? It’s like performing surgery with no diagnostic tools. We’re just opening the body and hoping we don’t cut out the wrong parts while leaving in the diseased ones.

Story Surgery

This is one of the reasons I run my Antagonist Class. One is coming up in three days (Sept. 20th) and this one is a early class, which is ideal for those who need a daytime class or for any of our overseas peeps.

I’m also offering an evening version on October 16th. These classes starts at a basic level $49 (webinar, recording and detailed notes) and go up to $249 (on the phone/in the digital classroom helping you plot a series or trilogy). Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

The extra levels are optional, of course, but it gives you time working with me, one-on-one to help build or repair your story problem and plot. Sometimes another set of (trained) eyes can really help. The added benefit is that once you’ve been through the process, you will have the skills to fix other unfinished works or start new ones the proper way.

Feel free to read craft books (which I recommend), but even if we only read four craft books, that’s almost 50 hours of reading time, instead of 2-4 hours with me talking specifically about your story and FIXING it.

With the skeleton created, the “Boys in the Basement” have something to work with and can come up with twists and turns, themes and subplots that only the subconscious can create.

Another Option

As y’all know, WANACon is coming soon. I’ve recruited the BEST of the BEST. Learn from the likes of Les Edgerton, NYTBSA Allison Brennan, Best-Selling Author Candace Havens, Award-Winning Author David Corbett and more. Twenty-seven sessions to help you grow in craft and social media from home and recordings are provided for free, which is essentially $5.50 a class. Check out the line-up HERE.

How to Triage Your Novel

I just work hard to give you guys as many cost-efficient tools as possible to make you the best writer you can be. To check the health of your story:

Ask:

What is the CORE problem that will be solved in Act Three?

Can I state what my book is about in one sentence?

Does my book relate to larger human issues?

Is my protagonist sympathetic? Can we at least empathize?

What are the stakes? What happens if my protagonist FAILS? What will be the consequences not only for the protagonist, but the larger world around him/her?

How does my character change due to the plot problem? I.e. Slave-owner who mildly questions the ethics of her society to freedom fighter.

Am I generating drama or melodrama in each scene?

Some references to help you, Hooked (Les Edgerton), Scene and Structure (Jack Bickham), The Art of Character (David Corbett), The Writer’s Journey (Christopher Vogler), Save the Cat (Blake Snyder), Plot and Structure (James Scott Bell), Story Engineering (Larry Brooks), Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature & Purpose of Drama (David Mamet), Writing Screenplays that Sell (Michael Hague).

***NOTE: Two of these masters (Les Edgerton and David Corbett) will be presenting at WANACon.

Do you have a WIP on life-support? Have you ever resurrected a WIP from the dead? What did you do? What suggestions do you have?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

From the movie "Would You Rather?
From the movie “Would You Rather?”

Last week, I was blessed to attend and teach at the DFW Writers’ Workshop Conference. Edgar-Nominated Author David Corbett taught a really excellent class about building dimensional characters. There was a particular message in his talk that stood out for me.

Force your characters to exteriorize. Thoughts and feelings can be taken back. Action makes characters commit to consequences.

Genuine Drama=Commitment

There is a newbie author mistake we all make. Thinking, feeling, more thinking but nothing happening. I’ve blogged many times that writing can be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. I feel that Corbett’s point really crystallized what I was trying to say, but couldn’t seem to articulate nearly as well as he did.

As Long as We are in the Character’s Head, NOTHING is at Stake

There is no push-back, no opposition, thus no conflict. This really gets to the heart of the SHOW DON’T TELL line we have all had drummed into our heads.

I LOVE good horror movies (not slasher flicks). I have two reasons. First, if I am having a really bad day, a horror movie reminds me that life can always be worse. Yes, I am warped that way. But, for me, why I gravitate to horror is that GOOD horror authors understand people.

They have this way of digging down into the primal parts of who people are, for better or worse. Good movies—even horror movies—make you want to discuss the film (or book) afterwards. They rattle you and make you think. I believe this is why Stephen King is such a genius (particularly his early works).

King gets people. He pokes at the tender parts and makes people squirm.

The Higher the Stakes, the Better the Story

There’s one particular movie we watched recently (and I will do my best not to ruin it), but Hubby and I talked for at least an hour after the film was over. In the film Would You Rather? the protagonist is a young woman whose parents have died, leaving her the sole caretaker of her brother who has cancer. It’s a bit more gruesome of a film than I care for, but the character dynamics were fascinating.

Essentially, a sadistic aristocrat seeks out people who are in dire straits, seemingly willing to do anything to solve their current plight. It could be an ill family member who needs an organ donation (the protag’s brother needs a bone marrow transplant), crushing debt, whatever. Play the game. One winner. Winner takes all and the aristocrat has the power to solve all “the winner’s” problems in an instant.

The players are invited to dinner. They chat, get to know each other as people…and then the nightmare begins.

Slowly at first…just a taste.

The crux of the movie is that everyone has a price…or do they? The participants are toyed with through dinner. For instance, the alcoholic who’s been sober ten years is given a bottle of scotch. How much money can coerce him to drink the bottle of scotch? What amount of money will make him compromise all he’s worked for?

Movies are great for studying the show don’t tell rule because it is a purely visual medium—everything is externalized. We see the former alcoholic swear he will never drink again. He’s worked too hard to kick the habit that has landed him in his current desperate situation.

The host has his butler set $5000 in cash right next to the drunk. A dare. Five thousand dollars for just one sip. The alcoholic sweats. He pulls at his collar. He refuses to make eye contact and focuses on the meal. Then $10,000 is stacked next to him and on and on until he finally breaks…proving the aristocrat’s point that anyone can be bought.

The participants are all given an opportunity to leave. Last chance. Ah, but these are people with big things at stake. They stay…and probably wished they hadn’t. The doors are locked and anyone who tries to leave will be shot.

The game is afoot.

Would You Rather?

Take ten lashes with an rattan (a cane that slices flesh) or choose for someone else to take the beating in your stead? Will you endure ten seconds of electric shock? Or give it to someone else? Early on we start seeing the true character of the players revealed. Why? Because everything is exteriorized and has a consequence.

It is one thing to say or believe I am a good person, but will we stick to that when put to the test? When demons are externalized, we see who people really are. Talk is cheap. What will that character do when the heat turns up? Will they sell their soul (the inner man) to solve their problems (outer man)? In case you hadn’t guessed, the game doesn’t reward those with sound moral fiber.

Understanding Your Character’s Weakness Will Help Plotting

Your story problem should be your trial by fire that forces the inside angst to the surface. The plot should change the protagonist leaving a better version at the end (unless it’s horror or a French film and then everyone can die at the end).

An Exercise to Help You Externalize (and, yes, I’m being indulgent and using my novel to give you examples):

What is your character’s greatest strength? Now look to the shadow side and that is likely his/her greatest weakness.

In the novel I just finished, my protagonist is kind and loyal. The shadow side is that she is naive. Predators can smell this. They use her proclivity to believe the best in people against her.

What is his/her greatest fear?

She grew up as white trash in a trailer park. She sacrificed everything to go to college to escape. Her family despises her because of her education, yet she finds herself equally disdained by the rich. They feel she’s nothing but gold-digging trailer trash who doesn’t have the sense to “know her place.”

Her biggest fear is she will always be viewed as trailer trash no matter what she achieves and she will never “belong” anywhere.

What problem can make this character struggle the most?

The story antagonist used my protagonist to build his corporation then, in an scheme of ENRON-like proportions, took off with over a half a billion dollars. He was her fiancé (to add insult to injury). He has left her penniless, broken-hearted, and blackballed. She’s unable to find a job anywhere. Additionally, she owes money to the IRS (also stolen) and she’s the FBI’s favorite suspect.

What problem will force tough moral choices?

Being without options, she must return to the trailer park and rely on the family she abandoned in order to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder and find the missing money and regain her reputation.

What problem has the highest stakes? The most to win or lose?

If she fails, she could die, but that’s not the thing she REALLY fears. She is terrified she’ll be stuck back in the trailer park, working as a maid and taking care of her abusive, angry father and kleptomaniac grandmother.

Will she have to sacrifice the best part of her (her view of humanity) in order to conquer the problem? Will “winning” cost her good heart?

What are your thoughts? What books or movies really made you squirm? Why?

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. 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 May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Will announce April’s winner later this week. Scrambling to catch up :D.