Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: story

It’s Cait again! The coup might be over, but I have now assumed squatters rights on Kristen’s blog. The fun part is that you never know when I’m going to pop up and come at you with stuff that is unusual, unsettling, and occasionally unnatural.

Today, I’m going to talk about writing young adult (YA) fiction. In the past decade, YA has experienced a renaissance and earned ‘theme park money’ for some lucky authors (I’m looking at you, sparkly vampire lady). Some YA has become incredibly sophisticated and gone to really challenging places both with its characters and subject matter (hello, dystopian-commentary-on-society and too-young-and-in-love-to-die-from-cancer books).

On the other hand, there is some really, really, really bad YA out there. Bathetic. Trite. Cringe-worthy.

The question is, how do we avoid all the traps and pitfalls that lead us to commit atrocities (i.e. write books) that are doomed to dwell in the 400,000 rankings on Amazon?

When Writers Need to be Grounded

When I wrote Downcast, I periodically went through my old yearbooks, notes I used to pass back and forth with my friends in classes, my old diaries from the time, and even a few of the papers I wrote for classes and kept for whatever reason. There was a method to my madness, because it’s absolutely madness to want to go back and torment yourself with looking at your yearbook photo from freshman year. (Note: if I get ten comments or more on this post, I will upload a copy of my freshman year photo…that is how much I believe in the cause…or something like that…)

The reason I delved not once, but multiple times into the memories of the micro-dramas and nostalgic optimism of my own high school experience was because it forced me to be realistic about teenagers, even the smart, responsible ones like myself. No other characters come with so much conflict and so many interesting limits already built-in simply by virtue of their age.

Let’s just list out the ways in which we are constrained as writers in working with teenage characters:

  • Teenagers live at home with their parents or other legal guardian figure;
  • Teenagers attend school Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.;
  • Teenagers must face and deal with the same people every day (other students, teachers, etc.);
  • Teenagers may or may not be able to drive;
  • Teenagers have curfews at night;
  • Teenagers generally have a limited income (after-school job, chores, etc.); and,
  • Teenagers have only had so much life experience in their 14-18 years and therefore almost everything can be and is new for them.

Of course, as writers, we get to break all those rules and constraints if we want. However, as every teenager will tell you, breaking the rules has consequences. The convenience of doing so is a slippery slope of permissiveness, and each exception pulls the character a little further away from reality and being easily identifiable with by the reader. There has to be a really good reason to change one of the baseline constraints for a YA character, and just because we are too lazy to figure out how to work within that particular restriction.

One of the early beta critiques of Downcast complained that it was boring to have the characters going to school every day, that it was…wait for it…repetitive. While I took that particular critique and beta reader with a grain of salt, I didn’t entirely discount her opinion. I knew that given my plot and world-building, there was no reason for these students not to be in school. Instead, I took the idea of repetitiveness and pushed it, turning the school week into something that was inescapable and claustrophobic. The protagonist had to face her tormentors every single day. There was no reprieve, no “I don’t feel like going to work so I won’t” choice. Thus, when things break down the structure and routine, it’s not just a variation. It’s cataclysmic and amps up the tension in the plot.

Like OMG!

So, we’re writing YA. We need to be au courant with the vernacular, the fads, the apps (Vine is sooooo 2015), and the fandoms. However, we run the danger of forgetting we are the grown-ups in this situation.

What does that mean?

It means don’t dumb it down.

Just because we are writing for young adults, we are not automatically required to use words of only two syllables and simple sentence structures. We obviously want to hit the right balance between clarity and casualness, eliminating a lot of the ‘like’s’ and ‘um’s’ that pepper both adult and teenage conversation. That doesn’t preclude the use of a broader, richer vocabulary or taking advantage of the full range of grammatical tricks to create provocative, evocative prose.

While being careful to avoid the verbose pomposity of obstreperous troglodytes, there’s no reason we can’t use words that teenagers might be unfamiliar with, provided we do so naturally and with context that suggests the meaning of the word in a way that mimics the organic process of learning language. YA shouldn’t just be engaging and challenging in the concepts it presents. Teenagers that read YA are at an age where reading should be both a pleasure and a learning experience, driving emotional and intellectual growth.

Also, we need to make sure that the emotions, motivations, and decision-making processes of our characters are easily relatable but not carelessly simplistic. A lack of life experience doesn’t mean that teenagers don’t have complex psychologies (just ask anyone with a teenager), even if they don’t have the vocabulary yet to explain fully.

We must respect our readers, no matter their age, and in return, they will respect us…even if they are teenagers

The Bell May Have Rung, but Class is not Dismissed!

Well, actually, class hasn’t even started yet.

Not surprisingly, I have SO much more to say on YA fiction. Therefore, I am teaching a W.A.N.A. class on it. Here’s the class description and where you can sign up. It’s gonna be totally fun.

Class Title: OMG, Like How to Write Fleek YA
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $40 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 7th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

As long as there are teenagers, there will be a demand for angst-ridden, unabashedly romantic YA fiction. Whether the story is paranormal, dystopian, fantasy, or everyday literary, YA demands the author walk a tightrope between realistically capturing the young adult voice and meeting some very grown-up standards in terms of plot, characters, and style.

Who wants to sound like a tax-paying grownup with a minivan pathetically trying to sound like a teen? Yeah. No one. But it happens ALL the time.

This class will discuss some of the critical issues in crafting a story and characters that truly resonate with the YA audience. Topics include:

  • Talking like a teenager without describing like a grown-up (or sounding like a dumb@$$)
  • Tip-toeing through the minefield of sex and swearing
  • Tropes, types, and technology
  • Techniques for getting in the mindset to write a YA POV
  • Teenage-level decision-making skills vs. Too-Dumb-to-Live decisions
REGISTER HERE!

 

****Just FYI, in an effort to combat spammers your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me! And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

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

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

NEW CLASSES WITH CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

      

  

OMG, Like How to Write On Fleek YA July 7th $40 with Cait Reynolds

Research for Historical Writing – Or, How not to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8 $35 with Cait Reynolds

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear July 15th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Today we are going to talk about character, but I want you guys to breathe and relax. Give yourselves permission to not know everything. Art is not one of those things that we take a few lessons and “graduate” as experts. True artists never stop learning.

We read, take classes, and always push ourselves to the next level. Most new writers do not sufficiently understand plot, but I will say that the key to creating better plots rests in a deeper understanding of character.

But How Do We Come Up with Plot?

Some people naturally think in terms of plot. They are the kind of people who think of a story problem, but then need to cast characters appropriate to the story. Other people think in terms of character, a person who they want to cast, but they need to find the right story. Both ways of thinking are fine, but both require an in depth study of character.

Story/Plot Comes from Characters—Characters Create the Problem

Take a handful of flawed humans with agendas, put them together, shake, slowly turn up the heat and watch the drama ignite. Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness. All good stories are biblical. They are all birthed by inherent human flaws—the desire for power, control, recognition, jealousy, rage, cowardice, lust, vengeance, etc. This is why perfect characters are super boring. We can’t relate.

Failure/Weakness is the Hinge Point of Connection and Story

Character flaws help us connect. In good stories, we should be able to connect with both the protagonist and the antagonist. If our antagonist is a pure evil mustache-twirler, that generally leads to a literary snooze fest. In fact, the more we connect with the antagonist, the better the story.

For instance, the movie Law Abiding Citizen is an excellent example. The antagonist, Clyve Shelton, is a husband/father whose wife and young daughter are brutally raped, tortured, then slaughtered by two repeat offenders.

Clyve is beaten, bound and left for dead, yet survives to testify. In the end, the justice system fails to serve appropriate justice and one of the bad guys cops a plea and walks free. Clyve Shelton is a father/husband out to avenge his murdered family and to punish a lax justice system.

Vengeance is definitely biblical.

It is really hard not to root for the antagonist in this movie, which is what makes Law Abiding Citizen a superior example of story-telling.

We see easily how story/plot is birthed from character. When we look at Shelton’s background, we see that he is a tinkerer of the deadliest sort. He has used his skills on all kinds of black bag operations. NOT a guy to screw with.

Thus, we see how, if the murderers picked on the family of an ice cream truck driver, we could have never had the construction materials for the plot of Law Abiding Citizen. Story is birthed from the fact that the justice system failed the wrong citizen. They failed a guy who has the skills to take them out….literally. We find ourselves rooting for him because we connected emotionally. What would we do for our own children?

Dig Down to the Uncomfortable Stuff

We cannot bear when our children are hurt…

This is a photo of my son after he’d been terribly injured. I struggled with whether or not to post it, but this image (captured on my cell phone) was just so haunting, and it spoke volumes with its quiet pain. All of us react viscerally to injustice and pain, especially when an innocent is involved.

There are times, like with my son, that the injury is a result of an accident. Yet, doesn’t this terrible yet beautiful picture speak an untold story? What if this injury was the result of an abuser? A kidnapper? What acts would we “forgive” in the pursuit of “justice”? How easily could the lines of hero and villain blur? This is when things get sticky.

Sticky = Interesting

Law Abiding Citizen connects us on the same emotional fault lines. We are willing to forgive the antagonist, but how far? That is the question the screenwriters explore. The story is one that will leave audiences talking and taking sides. The premise isn’t neat and clean. It is an ugly jagged gash with no clean edges, which makes excellent fiction.

And, just so you guys know, my son is just fine.

All better!

Plot is birthed from character. Characters are vital to plot, and that is one of the reasons that attendees of my old critique group were required to write very detailed character backgrounds before plotting. We needed the character’s history to understand her story.

What were her inner demons? What world-view did the character have? What need is not yet fulfilled? What is she afraid of? What are the character’s strengths? What does the character believe she needs to be happy? What does she need to prove? How is the character used to getting her way? Is this tool effective?

This is Especially True for Literary Fiction

Despite what anyone tells you, literary fiction must also have a plot. The only difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction is that the character arc takes precedence and plot is of lesser importance (lesser importance, not NO importance).

For instance, in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, there is a plot. Man and Boy must make it to the sea. But it is more important HOW they make it than IF they make it. If the Man and Boy resort to cannibalism, that is an epic fail. They must make it to the sea, but without sacrificing their humanity. Yet, if you read The Road there is a three-act structure, turning points, rising stakes, etc.

There is an end goal—make it to the sea. No journey, no crucible. If the story is Man and Boy sitting in a cave reminiscing about the good old days and being bummed about having no food, we have a bad situation. Bad situations are not conflict.

But again, story is birthed from character. There is a Man and a Boy who are obviously father and son. Much of the plot and decisions stem from this being a father and son. The story would be very different if the characters were different. The Man might have laid down and died if he had nothing to live for, to fight for.

It makes the conflict far more interesting. As parents, would we watch our child starve to death, or would we serve up some hobo BBQ with extra ketchup and tell the kid it’s chicken? The child would live, but at what cost? This story probes the really hard questions. What would we do to survive? What is “living” if we forfeit humanity? Again, the questions are not easily answered because the problems aren’t black and white.

Go Deeper

Whether we are plotters or pantsers, we still need to ask the tough questions. We need to play armchair psychologist and get to the heart of the character, to go beyond hair and eye color. It is the weaknesses, demons, and skeletons in the closet that make the best stories. This is an especially important for step plotters, otherwise, it is easy for all your characters to become “talking heads.”

To help, I highly recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, Fire in the Fiction by Donald Maass, and The Successful Novelist by David Morrell.

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite characters? What do you think adds dimension to fiction? What are some exercises you recommend?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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

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

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

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

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

I hope everyone had a FABULOUS CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY!!! AND YES I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SUGAR! Fortunately, though, I also had a good week of rest. Thanks for letting me take last week off, though I did miss you guys a lot. Okay I do need to be honest. After hubby took away my Internet, I had about three days of DTs—night sweats, uncontrollable twitching and rapid heartbeat. Fortunately, I had a Smart phone taped to the back of one of the toilets, and, if I did this yoga stance that looked like Triangle pose and Half-Moon pose had a deformed baby, I could get enough bars to approve comments.

So thank you for your patience. *hugs* Happy to be back!

Before we start talking about writing, there are still some slots left for my on-line Blogging to Build Your Author Brand Class. It is only $4o for TWO months and I help you harvest your imagination and background for blog content that will use your creativity…not shove you into a straight-jacket. The only reason I am mentioning this is that there are only 100 slots and they are almost all gone.

Sign up here. Give it as a Christmas gift to yourself to help improve your odds of success in the new year.

We authors MUST have a solid platform. It is just a requirement of the 21st century author. Few social media tools are as powerful as the blog…when done properly. Launching a blog without the proper preparation is a formula to end up curled in fetal position clutching a bottle of scotch. Ask me how I know.

We need to blog, but we also need time left over to write more brilliant books. I’m not here to turn you guys into marketing gurus…I am here to help you use that same imagination you use to create entirely new worlds and utilize it to build your platform so your excellent stories can sell themselves.

Okay, enough of that.

Today, we are going to focus on some common writing errors that seem to plague virtually all new writers. I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.

So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first five pages that can make us lose interest.

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Angelique leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her twist-ties and fuzzy pink pipe cleaners if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Gregor’s hand. They only had minutes before Sondra would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile. When we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Adverbs are Evil…

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. Another MUST HAVE reference?  102 solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. And I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. So if you got some gift cards for Christmas, start with these. You will thank me later.

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you.

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

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

Now that NaNoWriMo is behind us, it is time to take a hard look at the 50,000 or so words we wrote. Is it really a story? Or is it 50,000 worth of organic goo that we can maybe perhaps grow into a story? Maybe some of you didn’t participate in National Novel Writing Month, but you are working on a novel. Maybe you have finished a novel and can’t understand why you’re getting rejection after rejection. Perhaps you desire to write a novel, but have no clue where to even begin? Where do professional authors get all their ideas?

All in due time…

Three years ago, I left my home critique group even though I had been president for three years. Why? My home critique group placed too much importance on reading pages. My opinion? Beautiful prose does not a novel make. Is prose important? Absolutely. But it isn’t the most important. We can have prose so lovely it makes the angels weep, yet not have a story. Sort of like, I could have the flawless skin of a twenty-year-old super model, but if I don’t have a skeleton? I’m dead meat. Same with prose and novel structure. Novel structure makes up the internal support structure, and prose fills it all in and connects everything and makes it look pretty.

I broke away and, with help from a few close friends, created a new kind of critique group that we named Warrior Writer Boot Camp in honor of our favorite mentor NYT Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. When creating WWBC, I wanted to create something with the capacity to look at stories as a whole and judge the “big picture.” The first lesson all writers receive upon entering my critique group has to do with the antagonist (the spinal column of your story) and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

Why is the antagonist so important? No antagonist and no story. I think most craft books make a critical error. They assume us noobs know more than we do. Most new writers don’t understand the antagonist the way they need to. We have some hazy basics from high school or college English and then we try to go pro. Then it takes years of trial, error, rejection and therapy to see any success. Um, yeah. Bad plan. The antagonist is critical, and is often one of the most troublesome concepts to master. No worries. I am here to help.

What happens when we don’t have an antagonist?

I teach at many writing conferences and see all the nervous writers, eyes dilated and skin pasty with panic. They are waiting for their agent pitch session and it takes every bit of courage they have to not throw up in their shoes. Ask them what their stories are about and 99% of the time I get fifteen minutes of convoluted world-building and a character cast that would rival Ben Hur.

Why?

The writer generally didn’t understand the antagonist when she wrote the book. So, since there wasn’t a clear-cut antagonist with an overall plot problem, what we have left is a bunch of literary Bond-o (extraneous characters, world-building, extra sub-plots and gimmicky twist endings).

This is one of the reasons many writers find it easier to do brain surgery on themselves with a spatula than to write the novel synopsis or the query letter. They can’t boil down the plot into one sentence because the plot is so complicated even they barely understand it.  Been there, done that and got the T-shirt, myself.

When helping writers plot, I often suggest that they write their ending first. Many look at me like I just asked them to reverse the earth’s orbit around the sun. Why? They don’t have a clear story problem to be solved. Yet, when we look at it, what is any story’s ending? The solution to the problem created by the antagonist. That is the climax.

All of this angst with pitches and queries and synopses can be traced back to one single problem. There is no antagonist or there is a weak or unclear antagonist. How does this happen? I feel there is a huge logical fallacy to blame.

For those of you who have slept since high school, a logical fallacy is an argument that mistakenly seeks to establish a causal connection when dissimilar objects or events are compared as if the same.

In English?

All apples are fruits. An orange is a fruit therefore all oranges are apples.

What does this have to do with today’s topic?

Most writers mistakenly believe this:

All villains are antagonists, therefore all antagonists are villains.

Uh…no.

The antagonist seems to be a real sticky wicket, especially for new writers. Hey, I’ve been there. It is easy to see how there could be confusion. Villains make no bones about the mischief and mayhem they seek to create. Nobody doubted who the bad guy was in The Dark Knight. Joker will live on in infamy as one of the greatest arch-villains in movie history. Yet, villains are only one kind of antagonist. So if the antagonist isn’t merely a villain, who is he?

The antagonist is merely whoever drives the conflict.

All stories are the antagonist’s story. Why? Because without the antagonist, there is no problem. The protagonist’s happy joy-joy life would go on as normal. If there is no problem, then there is no need for our protagonist to rise to the occasion. The antagonist represents this dire change that must be set right by the end of the book. Great fiction actually uses many antagonists. Let’s take a look.

Different types of antagonists:

The Core Antagonist—The Big Boss Troublemaker

All stories MUST have a core antagonist, what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT has a plan that disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and that plan is the overall story problem. Big Boss Troublemakers need to be corporeal. Antagonists are tremendously complex, and thus, in my opinion, the most interesting. Even if the overall antagonist is disease, nature, war, weather, the antagonist will almost always be represented by a proxy. Humans tend to be concrete thinkers, so tangible antagonists generally work best.  In fact, I’ll wager that many stories that seem to have non-corporeal BBTs actually do. Let’s take a quick look.

Weather

The Perfect Storm—The antagonist is not the storm. Rather it is the captain who, out of greed and pride, makes the decision to endanger the crew to save the haul of fish…and everyone dies, which is probably why we should avoid weather/nature as an antagonist.

In fairness, how many best-selling books involve a hero pitted against bad weather chapter after chapter? We can’t control the weather so how can we conquer it? Can’t make heroes with bad weather. Well, maybe someone can, but my advice is to steer clear.

Disease

Steel Magnolias—In the movie Steel Magnolias the BBT is death and disease. Who is the main antagonist? Daughter Shelby. Shelby has life-threatening diabetes. Had Shelby decided to adopt, there would be no story. It is Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite the risks that creates the story problem for the mother (Protagonist) M’Lynn.

See, corporeal.

Society

In the movie Footloose, who is the BBT? Religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the main antagonist? The town preacher who is out to get the city boy (protagonist) who wants to hold a school dance. The preacher represents the BBT—religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing.

Protagonist against Herself

Oh, but my protagonist is her own worst enemy. Yeah, no. Therapy is not fiction. Need an outside BBT.

In the movie 28 Days, Sandra Bullock’s character Gwen Cummings is an alcoholic. Alcoholics do not generally believe they have a problem. Most do not wake up one day and say. “Wow, I really drink too much. I need to quit.” There will be an outside force that creates the problem and drives the change. In this case, Gwen gets a DUI. The judge orders her to court mandated rehab. Who is the BBT? Alcoholism. Who is the antagonist? The judge. If he hadn’t sentenced Gwen to rehab, she would still be drinking. If Gwen fails, then this same judge will send her to prison (stakes). If Gwen finally sobers up, she will defeat the BBT, Alcoholism. But, she must face-off against the judge’s challenge first and prove she can sober up.

Every story needs a Big Boss Troublemaker. If your BBT isn’t corporeal, then your story will need a corporeal proxy as shown in the examples. Existentialism doesn’t make for great fiction. Navel-gazing is therapy, not fiction.

Employing Scene Antagonists

Once you have a clear Big Boss Troublemaker and a story problem, then you can begin plotting. Ah, but how do we ramp up the tension? We use scene antagonists. Every scene must have a clear goal for our protagonist…and he can rarely if ever succeed until the end. There must be obstacles and very often those obstacles will be other characters that your protagonist calls “friend.”

Think of your favorite cop shows. I love Law and Order Criminal Intent. The detectives are after the murderer (BBT), but the Commissioner just called and they’re chief has his panties in a twist. How many times have you seen a police chief kick a detective off a case because of the political heat? Is the police chief a villain? No, but he is an antagonist because his wants stand in direct opposition from what the protagonist wants…finding the bad guy and brining him to justice. This creates dramatic tension. Will our detectives risk career suicide and find the killer? Conflict now comes at the audience from two fronts—long-range (BBT) and close-range (scene antagonist).

After you write your first draft, I highly recommend looking at every scene. Write what the goal of the scene is on an index card. Who stood in the way? Allies should rarely, if ever agree. If they need to escape an island, the hero will want to take a boat and an ally will insist they take a plane. Some of the best conflict for your story will actually come from your protagonist and his gaggle of allies.

The Pixar movie Finding Nemo is an excellent movie to study this. Watch Marlin and Dori. Dori provides far more conflict to the overall story than Darla the Fish-Killer. Darla (BBT) merely creates the overall problem and sets the stakes and the ticking clock. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT because if she’d wanted a puppy for her birthday, there would be no reason to find Nemo. He’d still be safe at home. Yet, aside from a couple of short scenes, we never really see Darla. Lovable ally Dori is the heart of most of the conflict.

Marlin wants to give up when the one clue to finding Nemo drops into a trench.

Dori wants to Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming and go after the clue.

Marlin wants to avoid the whale.

Dori calls out to it.

Marlin wants to give up.

Dori won’t let him.

Antagonists are at the core of all great stories, whether those stories are for children or adults. The bigger the antagonist, the bigger the problem and the greater the stakes. Failure must be catastrophic for the protagonist, or he can’t rise to ever be a hero. Some great books I recommend are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches by Jessica Morrell, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  I also highly recommend taking one of New York Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer’s on-line worskhops. They are $30. Aside from these resources, watch a lot of movies and pay attention to who creates problems and how they do it. Take notes. Study. Learn. That’s the great part of being a writer. Stories are our business, so watching movies counts as work.

So what are your thoughts? Comments? Questions? Feel better or do you need a paper bag (just put your head between your knees and breathe :D).

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, 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 December 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 is Carolyn Neeper. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

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

We’ve spent the past several weeks talking about my Deadly Sins of Writing, which are seven newbie mistakes that interfere with our fiction. “Was” clusters and ellipses overkill are distracting, and POV shifts just make us want to lie down until the dizziness passes. Ah, but once you have successfully removed the offending sins, you can more clearly see the actual story…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more trouble ahead. There still might be more work to do.

Many of you have vowed to take your craft more seriously this year, which means more conferences and many, many more queries. For those of you who have submitted before, every wonder how an agent can ask for the first 20 pages and still reject our book? Did you ever wonder if the agents really read these pages? How can they know our book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on? I mean, if they would just continue to page 103 they would see that the princess uncovers a whole underground movement of garden gnomes with interdimensional capabilitites, and they wouldn’t be able to put it down. Right?

Wrong.

For those of you hoping to win my contest, you might be wondering exactly how much my 5 or 15 page critique is going to help you. Well, today is a peek inside my head. Please ignore the laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

Back in the day before I wrote full time, I paid my dues doing a lot of editing. I have edited countless manuscripts, and today I am going to let you see the first 5-20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.

I mean no disrespect in what I am about to say. I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.

Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book.

Years ago, when I used to edit, I never cared for being called a book doctor. I rarely ever edited an entire book. I guess one could say I was more of a novel diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. Thus, what I want to help you guys understand is why beginnings are so imporant.

I generally can ”diagnose” every bad habit and writer weakness in ten pages or less. I never need more than 50 pages (and neither do agents and other editors). Why? Well, think of it this way. Does your doctor need to crack open your chest to know you have a bum ticker?

No.

He pays attention to symptoms to diagnose the larger problem. He takes your blood pressure and asks standardized questions. If he gets enough of the same kind of answer, he can tell you likely have a heart problem. Most of the time, the tests and EKGs are merely to gain more detail, but generally to confirm most of what the doc already knows.

The first pages of our novel are frequently the same. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.

Info-Dump

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.

Also, readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs. 

Sci-fi/fantasy writers are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip is wrong…well, it needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation. Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So, when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been skipped. Also, if you go back to an earlier blog from last fall, Normal World serves an important function. Thus when a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

Book Begins with Internalization

Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Now, give us (your readers) time to know your character and become interested in her, and then we will care. But, starting right out of the gate with a character waxing rhapsodic is like having some stranger in the checkout line start telling you about her nasty divorce. It’s just weird.

Also, like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking, it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.

Book Begins with a Flashback

Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy.

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked!

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

I’ll give you a great example.

Watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending character back story.

Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained. For more why over-explaining is a total story-killer that RUINS tension, I recommend a visit to my post What Went Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels.

There are three really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Hooked by Les Edgerton, and Scene and Sequel by Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues.

It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” We can take all the asprin we want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong. Hopefully, though, today I gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings? What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell are some of my favorites. I know that I had to put down Next by Michael Crichton because it just went on and on without addressing a core problem. I was a hundred pages in and had no idea what the book was truly about, and had been introduced to so many characters, I had no clue who I was supposed to be rooting for (most of the characters were utterly unlikable).

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

I do want to hear from you guys!

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

Last Week’s Winner of Five-Page Critique–Ted Henkle.

Please send your 1250 word Word doc to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.

NOTE: For those of you who haven’t yet gotten your pages back, I am going on an exploratory mission in my spam folder to see if anyone has been missed. If you don’t have your pages back by Thursday then please resend to my assistant. I get about 500 e-mails a day, so I am redoing things so submissions don’t get lost in the ether. Thanks for your patience.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of September 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: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced at the end of September) 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.

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