Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: story structure

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

We have been discussing Deep POV, and yesterday I mentioned hating flashbacks with the power of a thousand suns and promised to explain why next post.

Yay! Here we are.

So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places.

Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.

That is called conflict.

Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.

One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Last time I held my First Five Pages class (which there is a NEW ONE open *wink, wink*), I could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.”

But, I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.

One of my students sent her pages and they were the best example I have seen about WHY I hate flashbacks. Fabulous story and the flashbacks absolutely killed it.

***And, so you know the student was cool with me using this example and later fixed the story per my suggestions and it was successfully published.

😀

HOOK

We’ve talked before about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.

This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.

Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.

We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.

I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.

ER????

NO, I WANT TO SEE A BRIDESMAID PUKE IN THE FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS!

This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.

NOTHING Should Work

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?

Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems REAL-TIME. We do not need to go back in time to explain or tell what kind of person the protagonist is. She didn’t need to go back and tell me about the protagonist’s character when she could easily show me in the current timeline.

Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out…a spare.

She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).

Whatever.

So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).

Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.

Flashback Fizzle

I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…using a flashback.

When we feel the need to use a flashback and go back in time? Often we are reacting to tension we’ve successfully created and now y’all might see why I feel flashbacks are bad juju. Fiction is all about conflict. No conflict no story. No tension? Good place to stop reading.

How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?

We explain.

Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died. 

Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.

I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.

EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins
Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.

Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering is good for readers (and book sales).

***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules 😉 .***

Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery

When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:

1) Increase tension.

2) Show character.

If she’d had this flashback information revealed real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.

THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all turns out for the better.

Most Backstory CAN Be Told Real-Time…I Promise

One major reason new writers rely on flashbacks (aside from a possibly weak/flawed/nonexistent plot OR as a tension release) is that there is something that happened earlier the writer wants to share. Backstory.

A lot of writers don’t give readers enough credit. We believe we need to travel back in time to explain the backstory or the reader won’t “get” what’s going on. They will.

Let’s take a quick look at one of yesterday’s hastily assembled examples of Deep POV.

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Look at ALL the stuff we learn without having to go back in time. We learn the time of year. That Mother’s Day was a week ago. That the family picked up Fifi from rehab. We learn she has an addiction to pills that is bad enough she has special drug-hiding containers. We later realize she has suffered a serious injury that crushed part of her spine.

You guys get the idea. We don’t need to go back to her being picked up from rehab. We don’t need to go back to the car accident or the fall or the ambush by ninjas wielding large sticks to see HOW Fifi was hurt. None of that is salient to the current story problem aside from fleshing out the character.

In fact, if I have my addict stranded with a broken down car and STOP and rewind to explain how she injured her back? Odds are it would just confuse you.

The story is about a family breaking down on the way to a vacation destination. Taking side trips back in time is distracting, redundant, confusing and makes the conflict fizzle.

Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.

We will talk more about flashbacks in the coming posts because, as I mentioned yesterday, often what folks believe is a flashback is actually unorthodox plotting (I.e. parallel timelines).

What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

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

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

So what’s this log-line thingy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

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

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

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

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

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

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

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

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

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

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

The Fear Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 10.59.42 AM

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

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

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

Let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

Riddick’s goal—remain free

Bounty Hunter’s goal—capture wanted criminal Riddick

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

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

Riddick and the BBT, Lord Marshal.

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

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

Remember high school literature?

Man against man.

Man against nature.

Man against himself.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Your BBT is the entire reason for your story.

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

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

So we have Big Boss Troublemaker.

We have the BBT’s emissaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Rings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure Matters
Structure Matters

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. Also, in the new paradigm of publishing, writers who produce more content have greater odds of making money at this writing thing.

Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers. Structure is essential to all stories, from screenplays to novels to epic space operas.

Plotters tend to do better with structure, but even pantsers (those writers who write by the seat of their pants) NEED to understand structure or revisions will be HELL. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

 

I’ve run my 20 page Death Star Critique contest for a few years now, and I will say that the #1 problem I spot is that the writer clearly doesn’t grasp structure fundamentals. Yes, I can generally spot that in less than five pages 😉 . Strangely, readers can too, only they may not be able to articulate why a book failed to hook them. Structure helps stories make sense on an intuitive level.

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Kristen's First Novel
Kristen’s First Novel

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

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

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya.

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 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 series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative 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.

Image via Wikimedia Commons
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. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Again, prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel.

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. 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. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are 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 am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther 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—banana or butterfly? 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.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

***Though, I will say this holds true for all variations of story, just the novel tends to be the BUGGER due to length, so we will talk about that here.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is 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 nucleus and 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).

Before it went BOOM!
Before it went BOOM!

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed 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 talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will 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. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients.

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

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).

  • 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 that 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. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Pinterest Fails
Pinterest Fails

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 sundried tomatoes or feta cheese.

But, on some primal level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.

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 that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share? Resources? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

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

Will announce the Dojo Diva winner on next DD post.

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

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.
Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

This week we have been discussing flashbacks. What are they? Why do readers, agents, editors generally want to stab them in the face? Is it truly a flashback or is the writer employing an unorthodox plotting structure (The Green Mile or The English Patient)? Shifting time IS a legitimate literary device, but like ALL literary devices, it has strengths and weaknesses.

Theme is wonderful. But if we lay it on too thick, we can turn off readers because our story comes across as preachy or lecturing. Symbolism? Love it! But overdo this and readers can get irritated. Can the drapes JUST BE BLUE? Deus ex machina IS a legitimate literary device. Feel free to use it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but knock yourself out.

As I like to say, Have fun storming the castle! *waves and grins*

Deus ex machina hasn’t been used much since, oh, Odysseus, but hey. It might work. *cough Neverending Story* Anything can work. Don’t let me stop you.

All righty. Today, I’d like to talk about WHY flashbacks can be red flags for me as a teacher/editor. I feel I can speak to this because when I started writing I was CLUELESS. My first novel is being used in GITMO because it is more effective than water boarding.

So, why might too many flashbacks make people like me twitchy?

Our WIP can feel a little like THIS...
Our WIP can feel a little like THIS…

We Don’t Have a Core Story Problem 

Most new writers cannot tell you what their book is about in ONE sentence, yet that is all we should need. Three, MAX, but one is better. I don’t care how complicated or long the work, it should have a simple core.

Lord of the Rings

A naive, sheltered race must leave home for the first time and toss an evil ring in a volcano before darkness destroys their world and all they love.

Simple. Ah, but simple is not always easy. And while Lord of the Rings is EPIC in length, with mind-bending description and layers and symbols and sub-plots and invented languages…the core is simple. Destroy The Ring of Power before Sauron casts the world in darkness and destroys everyone.

Many new writers don’t know how to plot or believe plotting means writing will be formulaic (which us UNTRUE). Or they have no idea how to whittle all the shiny fabulous ideas in their heads and pick ONE. Thus, flashbacks become a way that we explore different stories and ideas, but since there is no skeleton, we have a gelatinous mess only we love or understand.

Whether a pantser (write by the seat of your pants) or a plotter or a mixture of both (me) we need to know what our story is ABOUT. 

This is often why, when I challenge writers to write the ending first?

*BOOM! Brain matter all over the walls*

But, if we KNOW our story problem, the ending should be there (or at least AN ending). In the LOTR, we know if they don’t toss the ring in the volcano, they lose. We know the story ends somewhere near….wait for it….a volcano.

Same in literary fiction. In The Joy Luck Club if June Mei isn’t on that boat to China in the end, she has failed to break the cycles of the past. In The Road if Man and Boy resort to snacking on people to reach the ocean, they fail. There is still a goal and there has to be a goal in order to generate true dramatic tension.

Thus, flashbacks are often a way of us trying to figure out what the story is really about. While this is a good exercise, it is a loooong and arduous way to write books.

Back to the future, then past then future...
Back to the future, then past then future…

We Don’t Yet Know Our Characters

Often flashbacks (particularly for the new pre-published writer) are a way we use to get to know who we are writing about. Maybe we aren’t comfortable with a character background sheet. It feels too… “Fill in the Blank.” I was that way and still am. This is why, when I do a character background, I write their life stories first. Then I can pick what is salient and have a developed character who is three-dimensional.

We Have Chosen the WRONG Protagonist

Writers are weird ducks, but y’all know that *quack quack*. We have to be ruthless almost to the point of sociopathy, but on the flip side, we must be intimate and vulnerable in a way mere mortals can’t be. In the beginning, being vulnerable is hard. It might always be hard. But for those of you who’ve had a work that had a ton of flashbacks, I’d like to ask this.

Did you begin your work thinking the story was about one character, only to find out you were telling the wrong story? That you’d unwittingly cast the wrong person?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

When we are new, we are insecure. Mainly because our family might be more supportive if we’d chosen to join a cult. Our protagonist is often US or at least a reflection, and, since we feel insecure, we often end up with a perfect protagonist, which is code for “dull as dirt.” Why? We can’t be vulnerable. 

Ah, but supporting characters are different. We don’t have the same armor on with those guys…which is often why people love them more and they often stage a story coup and take over.

We Have Chosen the Wrong Beginning

Sometimes flashbacks occur because our subconscious senses we aren’t starting in the correct place. We have gone too far into the action and our subconscious is dragging us back.

The flip side of this is everything is cause and effect. We sometimes just have to pick a point and start THERE. My first book in the trilogy I’m working on is a good example (and an easy one for the moment).

Romi is broke and without a job because her ex-fiance pulled an ENRON, stole a half a billion dollars, cleaned out all her accounts, and left her the FBI’s prime suspect…even though she IS an innocent victim.

I had to make a choice. Begin the book when she is down and out and blackballed OR start the story when she gets out of college and lands a dream job and dream fiancé (who will both turn into nightmares). Either would have worked. I picked starting after the $#%^ hit the fan.

Just because a set of events made a character a certain way doesn’t mean this information is salient to the plot problem. We all have a background and are all a collection of our experiences. And we could look for causation ad infinitum and go back thousands of years to figure out why. But that makes a LONG book and is therapy not fiction.

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons
Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

Emotional Distancing

As I’ve shown in examples over this week, flashbacks can be a symptom that we are doing something right. We ramped up the tension to the point of shredding nerves (GOOD), but then, to ease our own anxiety, we flashed back to explain. Remember great fiction is totally counterintuitive to what normal humans do. Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

We might be avoiding a storyline or casting a certain character because it hits too close to home.

I did this with my first novel The Past Never Dies (does the title tell you anything?)

In this book I was “attempting” to run two parallel timelines. Vivi was the outgoing world traveler and her friend, Eileen, she left behind was trapped by paralyzing OCD. The friend was living vicariously through gifts and letters and journals (I KNOW. I told y’all I’ve done all this, too).

But what was really fascinating to me was people didn’t care for Vivi (a character I projected as me at the time). She was too perfect and thus a caricature. Eileen, on the other hand, had the far more interesting story.

In the beginning, Eileen is trapped by OCD and a survivor of religious abuse. She grew up with an OLD SCHOOL Pentacostal preacher for a father who hated women, and a mother who’s too browbeaten to fight back. To compound this trauma, she was tormented in school because her father insisted she wear homemade long dresses, no makeup or jewelry and never cut her hair (in the sweltering heat of Florida).

In fact, this is how Vivi and her became friends. Vivi took on the bullies.

I tell that all in many, many….*sigh* many flashbacks.

Eileen has a routine and is borderline Aspergers. Her routine must be as precise as a Swiss watch or she short-circuits. She breaks free of Dad and explores her passion for art. Just as she is opening up, she’s the victim of a cruel and public prank at her workplace.

For the first time, she bolts. Instead of turning inward, she finally blows outward. She burns her paintings and literally walks away from her life in a very Thelma & Louise way. She rebels.

This parallel story (and the one I believed to be lesser of the two stories) arcs from Eileen being repressed, bullied and enslaved to facing those demons and finally experiencing liberation and actualization.

Vivi? A travel brochure and manufactured drama. Every poor family member who read my TOME loved Eileen’s story and was bored to tears by Vivi’s.

Why?

I wanted to be Vivi. I was Eileen. I could be vulnerable with Eileen because, in my mind, I was Vivi not Eileen.

At the time I wrote the book, I was a slave to OCD and had crippling panic attacks and social anxiety. I would shop at three in the morning so I didn’t run into people. I was terrified of the outside world and others…and that is why Eileen was far more authentic and REAL. She was deeply and profoundly flawed yet overcame it.

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 8.16.28 AM

I have seen this same phenomena time and time and time again with writers I’ve worked with. They will believe wholeheartedly their story is about Such-and-Such, but it is really about a character they “thought” was in the supporting cast.

Summing Up

Can you use flashbacks? Yes. But if we are using too many, ask the hard questions:

1. Do I have a CORE story problem I can articulate in three sentences or less?

2. Do I truly know my characters?

3. Have I chosen the wrong protagonist?

4. Am I starting in the correct spot?

5. Am I failing to choose a certain spot because I fear commitment or failure so I keep digging back in time to avoid moving forward? The past is set, the future not. Ground is given, sky is scary.

6. Am I using the flashback to emotionally distance from a story, an event or even a character?

7. If I am afraid of this thread or this character, is that perhaps the better direction to go?

In the BBT Gold class is we talk, a lot. I am more of a Book Therapist than Doctor. Often writers know the story they yearn to tell. What I do is listen to all the ideas and characters and dramas and say, “I hear all of this, but what I am hearing is your story is really about X.” I don’t have a magic ball, just good listening skills that can peel away a bunch of stuff I’m not attached to (but the writer is).

This class is designed to save a LOT of time, money and fruitless revisions. Everyone walks away with their story on a sentence, a basic plot and a very clear idea of what their novel truly is about.

Six hours or less can save you six years or more 😀 .

Like couples therapy. You and your WIP. You think it’s about the toothpaste lid being left off alien invasion and her childhood when it isn’t. An outside professional can help you go deeper to what’s at the heart of the matter/story, whether that is me, a good editor, a great critique partner or group.

I hope at the end of these posts you can see why I am not really being mean when I challenge you to lose flashbacks. My goal is for you guys to tell the story you were born to tell, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

What are your thoughts?

For those who’ve relied on too many flashbacks, does this help? Maybe you’ve picked the wrong point in time or are scared of your true story? Have you cast the wrong character before? Maybe handed your work to others and they ask, “Why aren’t you writing about HER?” Are you going backward because you fear going forward, or maybe don’t know how to?

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.