Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: screenplays

 

Today we are going to tackle a highly confusing subject for many writers—In medias res. In medias res quite literally means in the middle of things. This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?

Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.

This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies or Facebook.

Thus if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto, No adverb left behind.

Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.

In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.

Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 15,000 words to get the the point.

These days, especially for traditional publishing, we need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

For Those Who Have Slept Since Seeing Star Wars

It is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave the Shock Wave?

Uh…no.

Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure). Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.

In my little example, the GIANT roller coaster represents the story problem. We have a choice to start far earlier than in the parking lot of Six Flags….but we risk losing the reader in the Land of “Who Gives a Crap?”. We, as the narrators, can also choose to start on the actual ride, but then we have a different problem. The readers are then hurled into the action after the decision (rise to the adventure) has been made. Thus, we didn’t get time to give a gnat’s booty about seven-year-old Kristen.

Also, since Kristen is already locked down and can’t walk away, there is no conflict. It isn’t like Kristen can step out of the coaster on the first loop and take on the Tea Cups instead. As long as Kristen cannot make the wrong choice or give into her fears, there really is no story. Kristen MUST have a chance to fail….to walk away and go play the Ring-Toss instead.

Likewise, our protagonists MUST have opportunities to fail or to walk away. This is why they are eventually called “heroes.” Anyone else would have waved the white flag in the face of such circumstances. This is why we read fiction. We like bravery, courage and resilience.

What Star Wars the New Hope Can Teach Us About In Medias Res

To give you guys another example, let’s pretend it is 1977 and we are sitting in the theater watching the movie Star Wars. Star Wars (The New Hope) is a PERFECT example of in medias res. When we start the story, wars have been fought and we are in the heart of the conflict. The twins are grown and living separate lives and Anakin has already whined himself over to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.

Begin on Tatooine

So if you don’t want to start at the Gates of Six Flags, then feel free to Begin on Tattoine.

Star Wars begins (with the protagonist) on the planet of Tatooine just before his life will intersect with the antagonist’s agenda. We meet young Luke in his Normal World and get a chance to meet his aunt and uncle. We get a chance to see his normal life, so we have a basis for comparison when everything goes sideways. We care when Luke’s family is senselessly slaughtered. We are there when Luke is given a choice. Ignore everything that’s happened and return to moisture-farming OR step on the path to adventure.

What NOT to Do

We DO NOT begin the adventure with Little Luke looking at the stars wondering who his father is or longing for exciting adventures in space. It is too early and we aren’t close enough to the story problem–when the Emperor’s agenda intersects with Luke’s life and alters it forever.

We also DO NOT start the story with Luke whizzing through space on the Milleneum Falcon dodging bad guys. That would have been exciting, but jarring and we wouldn’t have cared about any of the passengers. We also wouldn’t have had time to see the overall story problem—The Emperor, Darth and the Death Star.

I feel part of why the prequels sucked were not as good is because Lucas tried to go back and explain the story that we already had loved and accepted. Among many other reasons

Guess what?

We really didn’t need to know WHY Annakin Skywalker turned evil or even HOW the Force worked or WHAT it was to enjoy The New Hope movies. In fact, we kind of liked the movies better before we “knew.”

The Force was better before it was explained.

Some of you are starting too far into the action, which is jarring. But others might feel the need to go back and explain everything. Why your protag is thus and such. Why the world is la la la. How the magic did whatever. Guess what? You really don’t need to explain.

I have used this example before. What if you went to a magic show? The magician makes a woman float. As the audience, we cry out, “How can he DO THAT?” What if the magician stopped mid-show, flipped on the lights and pointed out all the mirrors and wires? What would it do?

It would ruin the magic.

Keep Your Literary Magic

Same with our writing. Sure, some things (backstory) can be explained. But, I will be blunt. Most backstory can be explained in dialogue, real-time in flow with the narrative. Flashbacks and prologues really just bog down the narrative more times than not. Yes, you might want to explain why your vampire is dark and brooding, but why? Many readers will keep reading in hopes they can piece together enough hints to figure it out. Just because readers might want something, doesn’t mean it is in our best interests as authors to give in.

Sure. Star Wars fans all thought they wanted to know WHY and HOW, but once we got what we wanted????

Yeah.

Finding the Literary Sweet Spot

Thus, as writers, we are looking for that literary sweet spot, just close enough to the inciting incident to make readers feel vested, but not so far that we are basically beginning our book with a scene that should be the Big Boss Battle at the end. In medias res is tough and we aren’t always going to nail it on the first try. The key is practice and study. Movies are really wonderful to study because in screenplays, Act One is brutally short.

Watch how the best movies introduce the characters and the problems and see how efficient they are at relaying backstory in dialogue. And sure, some movies use flashbacks, but we always have to remember that the visual medium is different. We can “see” differences and don’t have to “keep up with” a zillion characters. We are passive and watching with our eyes. We don’t have to recreate the world in our head.

Reading is very active, so flashbacks always risk jarring the reader out of the narrative. Also, if you study screenwriting, great screenplays, much like great novels, do not rely on flashbacks. Heavy use of flashbacks is generally a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Highly skilled writers, whether on the page or the screen, are masters of maximizing every word and keeping the story real-time.

So what are your thoughts? Does this help you understand in medias res better? Do you have anything to add?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, 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 January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5-Page Critique Annette Mackey.

Please send your 1250 word Word document to author kristen dot lamb 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 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!

Happy writing!

I am a serious nerd. I grew up on J.R.R. Tolkein and played Dungeons and Dragons all through high school. Trekkie conventions, RPGs, Renaissance festivals, you name it. I had the punch mark on my Geek Card. I still remember being 3 years old standing in line with my father and uncle for hours as we eagerly waited to see this new epic film…Star Wars.

Two hours later, I was hooked. I grew up ankle deep in action figures, and logged so many gaming hours on Atari’s The Empire Strikes Back that even my dreams were pixilated. So when George Lucas announced, many years later, that he would be releasing the prequels to Star Wars, I was soooo excited.

Yeah.

Please do not send me hate mail. I didn’t like the prequels. I have tried to watch them many different times and yet found my mind wandering. I couldn’t keep up with what was going on and I felt, in some way, that I had failed. Maybe I wasn’t a true geek after all. Maybe I would have to turn in my Geek Card.

So this last Memorial Day weekend, I decided to give it another college try. Maybe this time things would be different. Nope…still didn’t like them. Ah, but this time I had a new perspective since I have spent the past two years blogging about writing. What went wrong? What can we as writers learn from this?

Episodes 4-6 remain brilliant examples of storytelling genius, so what happened with the prequels? I think the business of making money took precedence over solid storytelling. The movies were a huge success for their purpose—filling lots of seats and selling loads of merchandise. But, in a way, it saddened me because these movies could have set a new bar in master storytelling.

As writers, we can learn a lot from these movies.

Mistake #1 Bad guy’s plan was far too complicated.

If you need to use a Venn diagram to explain the bad guy’s agenda, then your plan is too complicated. I STILL don’t know what the Emperor’s plan was. Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that Senator Palpatine’s plan rested way too much on chance.  What if Queen Padme Amidala had not given the vote of no confidence that started the ball rolling? Truly great bad guys don’t base their plans on a craps shoot.

I still am not quite sure who ordered the clone army. If Palpatine ordered the clones, then he was pitting them against the droids…which he was controlling as well???? Huh? And then, if the clones were created off the bounty hunter Jango Fett to be an army for the Republic to fight the rebels, then why, when Obi-Wan discovered the clone planet, did Jango Fett go running to hang out with the leader of the rebels, Count Dooku? The guy in charge of the droids? Which are about to be attacked by the clones?

This either makes Jango Fett the dumbest guy in the known universe or Count Dooku the biggest patsy in the known universe. Neither is really good for the purposes of storytelling.

I am certainly no one when it comes to the ways of business in Hollywood, but it seems to me that if you want to make millions off selling action figures to kids, it would be a plus if they could understand the point of the story. Star Wars was not complicated. It was complex. It was brilliant storytelling and the bad guy’s agenda could be summed up in one sentence.

It was so simple even a kid could understand it.

Mistake #2 Heroes are not babies, and bad guys are not whiners.

OMG…I wanted to SLAP Anakin Skywalker. If the end goal was to make Anakin into DARTH VADER the greatest bad guy EVER…then no whining. Scene after scene of Obi-Wan just doesn’t take me seriously got old really quickly.

Yes, as writers it is a great goal to have flawed heroes, because perfect characters lack depth. But, I feel there are certain character attributes that will alienate fans. Whining is one of those.

Mistake #3 Unforgivable acts.

If we lay the movies out in order, the story is really about Anakin Skywalker. It is supposed to be a redemption story. That is fine so long as we care to see the protagonist redeemed. The whining was bad enough, but when Anakin-turned-dark killed the Younglings? I was done. May hordes of a thousand fleas infest his undies.

I hoped he died a horrible death from that point on. To me, there was no redeeming him. He was a Little Kid Killer.

What is sad is that the scene was shock value, not good writing. In my world, where I get to write the prequels? Darth Maul would be threaded through all three movies. He was an AWESOME bad guy who got killed off far too soon and, frankly, far too easily. There was no reason that Darth Maul could not have made it to movie three.

In this parallel universe where Hollywood cares about my opinion, Anakin could have still been on the fence, wavering—Dark Side or Light Side? Dark or Light? Go Dark and save my love? Trust the Light, but risk that she dies?

The Emperor, in that final full-court press, could have ordered Darth Maul kill the Younglings, and then Obi-Wan could have killed Darth Maul. We would have seen this coming. Darth Maul looked like a Little Kid Killer from the beginning, and we’d be happy Obi-Wan sliced him in half.

Little Kid Killer. Take THAT!

Anakin could have unwittingly aided Darth Maul in this horrible act, and, feeling he had done the unforgivable, finally committed to the Dark Side—making it a classic Prodigal Son story. We would have felt for Anakin, for his belief that he could never make things right. We would have sat on the edge of our seats, longing for him to make amends and come home.

There was no reason for Anakin to kill little kids other than to shock the audience.

And don’t get me started on Padme. Really. She is this awesome heroine in the first movie. She’s a warrior and a stateswoman. In movie three we die of…a broken heart? Seriously? Two BABIES are not enough for her to press on? For me, this was totally out of character for the Padme presented, rendering the final funeral scene contrived melodrama. It didn’t ring true.

Characters can act out of character. They shouldn’t be predictable, but there is a fine line that will rip apart believability if we cross it.

Mistake #4 Too many characters.

I am certain things work differently in Hollywood. I know there is a lot of merchandising that rakes in buckets of cash to fund payroll and overhead. That’s fine, but we writers can still learn. The prequels had characters for the sake of having characters. The problem with a super huge cast is that it is far harder for us to connect emotionally. We have too many “people” vying for our attention.

My opinion? Jar Jar Binks was dead weight. He was like trying to go into battle with a hybrid of Ace Ventura meets Rain Man. Why would Qui-Gon take a loose cannon like that along? Jar Jar Binks was a moron and a walking danger to everyone on the team. Comic relief? Perhaps. But it was a stretch…especially in Episode 3 when he is now a politician? The same guy who stuck his head in an energy beam?

Oh dear.

I feel there were some really fascinating characters—Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul—that were killed off far too early when there was no need…other than to introduce brand new characters so we could have more action figures to sell.

The end result of crowding the cast was that the key characters got far too little attention, so we couldn’t watch their arc progress. Thus the actions seemed contrived and forced.

The lesson here? Be careful how many characters you slate in your novel. Movies get more leeway because we can see the characters. We don’t have to learn their names to keep up with the story. I have edited many pieces where they author has a half a dozen characters introduced on page one. This will give the same effect. It will overwhelm the reader and dilute their concern for major players…just like in the Star Wars prequels.

Mistake #5 Characters should progress naturally.

Characters’ wants and needs need to grow logically and organically out of the conflict and be in line with the character’s personality. They shouldn’t feel things and decide thinks simply because we, the writer, need them to. I felt this was the case with the doomed love affair between Padme and Anakin.

It felt forced. The writers needed them to be stupid so that Anakin going to the Dark Side would make sense (which it still didn’t). The problem was that they had created a heroine who was far too pragmatic and self-sacrificing to turn into some mindless ninny. She was the type of leader who was unafraid to get in the mix and to do what was best for her people. She wasn’t some vapid, self-centered socialite, so why did they suddenly have Padme acting like one?

Because they needed her to.

Anakin was adorable in the first movie, but by the second we knew that sniveling rat would sell out at the first opportunity. What on earth would a powerful woman like Padme find attractive about a guy who spends most of his time with her complaining about Obi-Wan? It’s like Jersey Shores goes to Tatooine.  Blech.

Most of the other interesting characters either DIED before we could see a progression OR they got so little screen time—had to make room for C-3P0 and R2D2 banter—that we just missed it. Obi-Wan might have been a really great character…had we ever gotten to know him.

Mistake #6 Don’t explain everything. Sometimes the magic is in the audience not knowing.

Think of a magician. When a magician makes a woman float in the air, all the audience wants to know HOW he did it. But what if the magician stopped the show and gave them what they wanted, and said, “Oh she isn’t really floating, she’s just held up by super strong filament”? That would ruin the magic and likely the magician’s career.

We all want a little magic, and The Force was mystical, mysterious and magical…until the writers explained The Force as sentient microcells known as Metachlorians.

Great. Thanks.

If you have super-technology, magic, ghosts, or anything far-out in your stories, don’t feel the need to explain. The second a reader picks up your books, she has suspended disbelief so you don’t need to spend precious story time making her believe. She already does. We believed in The Force long before anyone concocted a Metachlorian, and many of us wish they hadn’t.

Ah, but these 6 problems are all symptoms of a plot that has no core conflict—back to mistake #1.

All the problems in the movie stemmed from the simple fact that the Emperor didn’t have a simple plan with clear objectives. Thus, what happened was that the story needed to get more and more complicated to make up for the fact that it was missing a core conflict. The writers were trying to fix plot holes with Narrative Bond-o—more world-building, more characters, more subplots, Metachlorians— and the story got more and more complicated all to make up for something that would have been fairly easy to fix had they stuck to the rules of good storytelling.

The writers needed to simplify the bad guy’s plan.

Had Palpatine/Darth Sidius had a simple plan, the story would have then been able to be complex. See, in the movies we grew up with? Star Wars, The Emperor Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi—the antagonist’s objective was crystal clear and so simple a 4 year old could understand it. That left room to develop characters that will live on forever. Writers will study these stories for generations to come.

So what do you guys think? Did you love the movies and I missed something? Tell me what you loved. Did you have the same experience? Were you disappointed? Why? What do you feel could have improved the movies?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of June, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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 June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

Winner for June Week One is Delorfinde

Winner for June Week Two is Jennifer Fischetto

Please send 1250 words in a Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org 😀

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

Together Everyone Achieves More!!!! SUPPORT THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF AMERICA! Spread the word and save a life. Sigma Force saves puppies and kittens, too. Ahhhh.

In the meantime, I 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 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.

Blogging live from L.A. I have good news and bad news. The bad news first. I have done everything I can, and yet no Hollywood agent has “discovered” me yet. I don’t get this place. How has no one seen what I have to offer? Surely there is some movie in need of a cute, slightly fluffy thirty-something-year-old writer. If not, then I could write it FOR them. What a bargain! Not only could they have their STAR, but I could write the script and I would even be willing to direct and…ooh…I would even be happy to do casting, too.  And wardrobe? I could totally handle that too. I am an excellent multi-tasker. Just drop me off on Rodeo and…

Yeah, well they clearly don’t understand that this gem won’t be here for long. Limited time offer, Honey. And … well, they’ll be sorry.

The good news is that this conference seriously ROCKS. That has helped to take my mind off the fact that launching my career as a movie star is not going according to plan. According to my original calculations, I should have been signing a movie deal by now.

But back to the conference…

The Romantic Times Book Lovers Convention has gathered together a mind-boggling collection of experts; everything from forensics experts, to the ATF, to NY Times best-selling authors to teach attendees how to be the best they possibly can be.

Thus, the only nugget of advice I can give you guys is to invest in yourselves. Invest in your careers. We are in amazing times to be a writer. There are so many potential career options. It is liberating and terrifying to think that now everyone can be published. In ways, this is excellent news, but it is staggering to think of the competition we will face in the coming years.

Ah, but the cream will always separate, which makes it even more vital that we do everything we can to learn our craft and take our business seriously.

Thus, a handful of tips for every budget.

1. We must read books about our craft. I gobble up everything I can, particularly books about structure. My opinion? Writers who really understand structure are faster, cleaner, more prolific writers, regardless their style of execution (plotter/pantser). It might take 5 years to write our first book, but when it comes to book two? We need to significantly shorten that timeline without compromising quality.

2. Get on Twitter and follow every agent, editor, publisher and best-selling author you can find. We have to do everything we can to know the ins and outs of our business. Knowledge is power. Twitter is one of the few places that stalking is encouraged. Apparently here in L.A., it will get you banned from a restaurant I didn’t like anyway. Jerks.

3. Read novels of all kinds. Yes, we can read our own genre, but the real art side of the craft often comes when we blend elements from other styles. It gives new blood to our genre and helps our work stand apart.

4. Build a social media platform to support our careers for the long-term. I can attest that it takes time to get momentum. You will feel like nothing you are doing is making one bit of difference. Just keep at it, no matter how discouraging. Too many writers give up just shy of the tipping point.

5. Do everything you can to go to conferences. Feel free to start small with local conferences, but when you get a chance try to go to the big ones. It is a totally different world and the relationships and professional connections you’ll make are priceless.

Everyone can be published. That is now a reality. BUT, not everyone will approach being an author with the skill, energy, focus and planning necessary to thrive as a career professional in this new paradigm.

All right, so back to choosing an outfit for the day. I need something eye-catching. Maybe the Hollywood people just haven’t seen me yet. Okay, well one saw me. I went to the Hollywood track yesterday to become peeps with the producers, but then nothing. Can you believe that? I couldn’t either. So I figured that they probably just didn’t make a big deal out of me because they were worried they might make the other writers jealous. I was not one to give up.

Anyway…

I think that producer Lee Goldberg turned his sprinklers on deliberately to flush me out of his hedges. Ruined my stack of head shots. Some people are so rude. But I was gracious and slipped one under his windshield wiper along with the script I wrote on the plane about the story of my life. I clearly stated in my note that I was totally willing to play the part of me to save the studios money, but that he was free to cast Reese Witherspoon. I would approve.

What does a writer have to do to get famous in this town?

I miss you guys and thanks so much for all of your comments. You have no idea how awesome it has been to read your thoughts and opinions in between speakers. I just don’t understand how I could be so naive. You guys can see how awesome I am. What is wrong with these Hollywood people? I think we need you guys to take over, because clearly you have superlative taste.

What are some of your tips to make it in this modern publishing jungle?

Okay, publishing smublishing. More about me.

I’m running out of time. Any suggestions of how I could get my movie deal? Maybe you guys can think of something. The world needs to know the story of me, or it will be a sad, dark little place where life is never fully experienced. So help me out!

And, in return for your assistance with launching my stardom…

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. 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 April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Stay tuned for March’s winners. Will post soon. No Mash-Up of Awesomeness today. The hotel Internet connection makes glaciers look fast. I nearly tore out all my own hair just trying to get the blog posted. Okay, done whining. The MUA will resume next week. Promise.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Welcome to the 5th installation on the topic of structure. As an editor for years, I consider myself an expert in spotting and fixing structural problems. Sadly, over the course of doing this many years, I have run into far too many novels that had plot problems that ran so deep there was no saving the manuscript. Like a building with massive structural flaws, the best course of action was simply implosion. Rebuild. Start from scratch.

I used to try to teach from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my thinking was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We are trained to look for problems. Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings? No. Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards. Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector. Week one, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Week two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. Week three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the Big Boss Troublemaker, and last week I gave you a tested method to make sure your core idea was solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

Today I am going to show you how to construct your novel’s core—the log-line. I learned this tactic from NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. If you can ever get the opportunity to take his novel writing workshop, please do. It will change your entire career.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

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

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

So let’s look at components of a great logline:

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

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

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

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

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

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

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

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

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

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel. Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

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

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

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

Bob Mayer taught me this tactic a couple of years ago and it WORKS. In my novel writing workshop, every participant has to be able to tell what their story is about in ONE sentence before we ever start plotting. If the writer gets too far off track, then we as his teammates know to do one of two things. 1) Change the plot and get back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer you are the more fear you will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early. I have seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers.

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

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

I feel a good novel log-line will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some problems you might be having? Share in the comments. Maybe you have a tactic or a resource you would like to recommend. I love hearing from you guys.

Happy Writing!

Until next time…

If you want to build the kind of platform agents are looking for, then buy the book agents recommend. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is an essential for every writer who wants to succeed in the new paradigm of publishing. My book will show you how to build a platform designed to connect with READERS and still have time left over to write great books….oh, and sleep and bathe and have a life.

Want to know how to create story magic?

Having trouble at critique group? Something not sitting well with your novel, but you aren’t quite sure what it is? Do you find yourself having to do more explaining than you would like when it comes to this one simple question: So what’s your book about? Want to know the secret to crafting stories a reader cannot put down? Fear not. Whether you are writing a short story, novella, screenplay, or a novel, there is one solid ingredient that can turn any plot into an un-put-down-able masterpiece.

Add this one ingredient (liberally), and you will be shocked how much your writing will improve. It can turn the mundane into magical. What is this super ingredient with such power that would make people turn off the television and send their children to bed early? What is the one pivotal component with the ability to make readers willingly and happily give up their precious sleep?

CONFLICT

Conflict Drives the Story

There. I said it. Conflict. Nothing else. Sorry. I love description and narrative and good dialogue, but they do not MAKE a story, and they do not DRIVE the story. Whether the story is character-driven or plot-driven, the fuel is the same…conflict, conflict, conflict!

Three pages describing a tree was great for a century ago. Steinbeck did it well. But today’s readers have a lot more choices when it comes to how they spend their free time. As an author, your work is competing against FaceBook, Twitter, movies, sporting events, the Internet, cable TV, carpools, etc. The modern reader has a far shorter attention span. Agents appreciate this reality, and so should you.

Let’s debunk one common myth (excuse) for breaking the “Conflict drives all stories rule.”

I love it when I hear this, “Oh, but my piece is literary fiction.”

Um…likely not.

And I do believe that a lot of new writers simply do not understand fundamental rules, and thus are lulled into believing their work is the exception. Do exceptions exist? Sure. Are they common? Not really.

One of the most common excuses I hear from new writers is that their work is literary and that is why there is no clear inciting incident or clear antagonist or even a clear goal. So let’s take a minute to clear this up.

Literary Fiction is Driven by Conflict

Most of the time when I hear a new writer announce that his piece is “literary fiction,” that is a short-hand cue for me to expect no structure, lots of similes, metaphors, self-indulgent flashbacks and no overall conflict other than a main character’s really pretentious angst. Most of the time, it smacks of self-therapy thinly guised as a story.

Sorry. Hate to break the news. Therapy is not interesting (unless you are Tony Soprano).

Am I picking on literary fiction? NO! But I do believe that a lot of authors really do not understand what it is.

Literary fiction is more serious and generally harder to pigeon-hole into a particular genre, but conflict still drives the story. In literary fiction, the story is more character-driven than plot-driven, much like movies categorized as “drama.”

This past weekend I watched Steel Magnolias. A fantastic example. There was no murder or explosion or stolen money to kick off the action. There was a wedding. A turn in life that would change all the characters forever, deeply and profoundly.

I repeat. Even literary fiction (drama) must be driven by conflict.

In literary fiction, the conflict is generally for the purpose of driving character arcs. Let’s use Steel Magnolias to elucidate. Movies make for easier examples.

In the very beginning Jackson (the groom) gives the audience the pivotal decision that will affect all six of the women featured in the movie—Shelby’s decision to have a child despite having Type 1 Diabetes. This is the inciting incident that causes everything to change.

I will go over three of the arcs for the sake of brevity.

Truvy (Friend of Shelby and her Mother M’Lynn)

Beginning—Truvy is estranged from the men in her life (husband and son). No matter how she tries to connect, she only seems to drift farther away from them, a reality that causes her great pain.

Ending—Shelby’s death due to kidney failure gives a sobering wake-up call to Truvy’s husband and son. They are convicted of how they have taken Truvy for granted and the emotional chasm closes.

Shelby (Daughter)

Beginning—Young, carefree, and in many ways very selfish. She is more concerned with the color of her nail polish than the risk she plans to take by getting pregnant against medical advice. Although bubbly and likable, it is clear that not only does she fail to value her mother, but she resents her mother’s efforts to look out for her well-being.

Ending—As Shelby’s arc closes, we see she is more sobered by life’s events and comes to value her mother’s sacrifices (now a mother, herself).

M’Lynn (Mother)

M’Lynn is a very static character who serves to drive the arcs of the others.

Beginning—Her only daughter is getting married. M’Lynn is keeping everything running and is there to fix the broken things (fragile champagne glasses). We see her fussing over the flowers and tending the details as she prepares for a joyous event.

Ending—Her only daughter has died. M’Lynn is keeping everything running, tending the details, fixing the broken things (a grieving husband and two sons who are emotionally crippled by loss [earlier symbolized and foreshadowed by broken champagne glasses]). She is once more fussing over flowers, only now the flowers will adorn a coffin and a grave site. She is the rock of the family, which we will see crack in a highly emotional scene after her daughter is lowered into the ground.

As is clear to see, there is plenty of conflict to drive the story.

For All Stories…

Conflict is the fuel that drives the arcs—character arc, scene arc, and ultimately the plot arc.

If you do not have conflict, you do not have a story. You may have a beautiful scene with lots of pretty metaphors and symbolism, but if there is not an overall problem to be solved, then what you have is dead weight.

In novels (and movies) there is always one large problem to be solved. Each scene is a step toward your protagonist’s problem being resolved. Each scene must have a smaller problem that HAS to be resolved before the hero can continue.

Since we have discussed literary fiction, let’s now look at a plot-driven story.

Plot-Driven Fiction is Driven by Conflict

The movie Labyrinth is a wonderful example. It begins with a kidnapping.

Our protagonist Sarah’s goal is to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King. In order to do this, she must make it to the center of the labyrinth in thirteen hours. Yet, along the way, she must overcome a series of challenges that lead her ever closer to her outer goal—finding the way into the labyrinth, escaping the oubliette, running from the chopping blades of the Cleaners, escaping the Bog of Eternal Stench, and on and on. Each scene peels back a layer of Sarah’s character and serves to drive her emotional arc (inner goal) as it simultaneously drives the plot arc.

Through events (things happening—not internal dialogue or flashbacks or Sarah talking out loud or conveniently writing in a journal), Sarah is made painfully aware of the ugly aspects of her character. She MUST CHANGE if she hopes to save her brother.

The Sarah of the beginning is doomed to failure. In fact, when pitted against her adversary in the beginning, Sarah fails horribly. Because of her childishness and self-centeredness she pays a horrible price—she loses her brother.

Fortunately for our heroine, the Goblin King underestimates Sarah and he generously offers her a chance at redemption (the catalyst). Judging her by who she is in that initial scene, the King fully expects her to give up. Yet, what the King fails to understand is that the very labyrinth he believes will break Sarah, will be his undoing.

Each challenge within the labyrinth serves a two-fold purpose—1) Get Sarah closer to the center. Literal forward progression. 2. Fire away Sarah’s character impurities and forge a heroine who can triumph at the end when pitted against the Goblin King. Symbolic/emotional forward progression.

Conflict continually places Sarah in danger. Will she learn the lesson required to continue the journey? Conflict reminds us that something large is at stake and the clock is ticking. Conflict makes us care.

Whatever story you choose to write, think of it as a machine…like a car. Description, narrative, dialogue, characters all represent your vehicle’s moving parts. Without conflict (fuel) the parts fail to serve their purpose. What good is a strong chassis, a padded steering wheel, and the best Perelli tires if the car has no gas?

I challenge you to inspect each and every scene and ask three questions:

  1. What purpose does this scene serve?
  2. Does this scene propel figurative and literal forward momentum…toward the one large end goal?
  3. If I remove this scene, will it fundamentally change my story? If not…KILL it.

Add good doses of conflict, and I guarantee that readers will lose sleep reading your book or staying up to finish your movie.

Good luck and happy writing.

Until next time…

Want to learn how to become a master at conflict? As always I recommend learning from one of the best. Bob Mayer’s workshops www.bobmayer.org.

Also, I highly recommend Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.