Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing instruction

One reason we might be tempted to use a flashback is to explain or to expound to artificially prop up weak characterization or a weak plot (the training wheel flashback). This is what good editors will cut. Then there is the other way to use time and that is time as a literary device. This is when our going back in time is used intelligently to serve the forward momentum of the story.

Last time, we delved into the idea of a loop around (one form of flashback as a literary device). Sometimes we see a story that is smack in the action and then after the inciting incident the story shifts back in time until it catches up where we began then continues real-time.

I used the example of Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Live Nun. This is looping back in time as a literary device and I explained how this was done. So go HERE if you’d like to explore this method of storytelling.

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Today we are going to look at parallel timelines.

What happens with a lot of new writers is that they simply see the surface. “Well, in X BOOK the author went back in time quite a lot, therefore flashbacks are AWESOME.” This is true on the surface, but if we dig down and look at WHY and HOW we see a bigger picture emerge. Some of our favorite books or TV shows or movies might appear to be just flipping back and forth in time, but if we can get an aerial shot, we see something more.

Often what the author is doing is running two timelines parallel. The present-day story is the superlative of the two and the reason is that the past has already happened. And when I say “present-day” I mean the most contemporary of the two timelines.

If a woman in The Great Depression is struggling to rebuild her life after losing the farm in the Dust Bowl and she does so by reading letters written by her grandmother during the Civil War, then the gal in the Great Depression’s decisions and thus the RESOLUTION to her struggle will be fed by the secondary timeline.

Unless she has a time-machine and THAT is a WHOLE ‘notha blog 😀 .

We will have the A Plot and the B Plot and the B Plot eventually merges and A finishes us out with a resolution.

An excellent example of this is the HBO series, True Detective. There is a tad bit of spoiler in this lesson, but not enough to ruin anything. I recommend watching and studying this series.

And I like using TV series because if we look at the TIME it takes to watch a full season and then cross-compare that with the TIME it takes to read a novel, the two are far more comparable than a movie and a book. Thus, I do recommend studying series to help with writing a novel because the intimacy with the characters and intricacy of the plot is much more relevant.

Anyway, Season One of True Detective has two timelines. The episode The Long Bright Dark starts us off and it involves two detectives (Rust Cohle and Martin Hart) being interviewed separately regarding a serial killer case they worked together back in 1995.

One might first be tempted to claim, “See! Look at all those flashbacks!” but hold up. WHY are we going back in time? We don’t have two detectives just talking about the Not So Good Old Days. If there was nothing important about the contemporary timeline, then our story would actually be SET in 1995.

The “present day” interview sessions would be contrived filler and likely meet a cutting room floor and for good reason. There is no POINT to them being there throughout unless we have a parallel timeline.

If there was nothing relevant in the present, we’d interview the cops and they’d tell an “I Remember When” story and not a very good one because that would actually KILL most of our suspense because we’d know, no matter what happened they LIVED to tell the tale. So I do recommend that if it is an I Remember When Story, try to maintain suspense.

***BTW, this is a MAJOR reason that prequels are a nightmare to write. We knew Obi Wan had to live to be in the New Hope so we weren’t ever worried.

For a parallel timeline story told in an I Remember When fashion, I recommend both the book and the movie The Green Mile.

In Stephen King’s The Green Mile there are TWO stories running in tandem. The contemporary story of an elderly gentleman in a nursing home who is being bullied intwined with the tale of a prison guard working death row. It isn’t until the end that we see HOW these stories fit together and WHY. The past takes up a lot of storytelling time, but it still is subordinate to the present. Eventually both timelines merge for the conclusion of the contemporary timeline (story) taking place in the nursing home.

What happened to John Coffee cannot be changed, but John Coffee changed Paul Edgecome and so the future is still mutable.

Back to True Detective

True Detective is NOT an I Remember When story, it is a straightforward parallel timeline. There is a reason these men are being asked about the serial killer they hunted and caught back in the 90s. And the reason is, they didn’t get the right guy. They only stopped ONE bad dude in a nest of vipers and they failed to cut off the monster’s head. Women and children are still disappearing and being murdered (this is actually a turning point in the overall plot of the series).

Remember our litmus for going back in the past.

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved). 

In the case of Cohle and Hart, the past is the reason they are in the interrogation room. A case they believed had been solved actually wasn’t and they nailed some low-level dirtbag and not the Big Kahuna. Being in that interrogation room eventually thrusts these two partners back to working together to finish what they started.

The reason we (the audience) are given a tour through the 90s is because all of this story is essential for uncovering the identity of the murderer and exposing a vast coverup (resolving the plot problem). It is also vital to see how these men were as young men, how they interacted, how they fought and why to fully appreciate the place they will eventually end up at the conclusion of the journey (resolving the character arc and story worthy problem).

We have to see the bitter, corrosive atheist Cohle and experience him to appreciate how this case eventually changes who he IS. We have to see the self-righteous and hypocritical (yet charming) Hart to appreciate the depth of character this case will create.

The parallel timelines are essential for us reconciling past and present both in story and character.

Thus, when you look at your favorite movies or shows or books, I recommend unpacking the WHY and the HOW so you can get a better glimpse of the magic this writer created.

A Quick Announcement: I ran into the first technical problem I’ve had in three years of running classes with my Log-Line Class (probably because my tech person went on vacation for the first time and wasn’t there to babysit me). We had class and an AWESOME time, but something went sideways with the recording. So I am holding it AGAIN July 8th to be able to get attendees that free recording.

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.

Now that I’ve announced that, what are your thoughts? Does the flashback seem clearer now that we are unpacking the various ways it is employed? Do you maybe see some of your favorite stories in a new light?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

I will announce JUNE’S WINNER next 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

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This is my Upside-Down-Face

P.O.V. is a word that throws many new authors into panic. What is THAT? Prisoners of Vietnam? Pets of Vegans? Pals of Viagra? P.O.V. stands for Point of View. Traditionally, I’ve not included this lesson in my teachings on structure, but I am amending that since P.O.V. will affect structure.

The structure of a novel written in first person is very different than a novel using multiple third-person P.O.V. characters. Scenes will need a different kind of balancing, so choosing a P.O.V. should not be taken lightly. Yes, often choice of P.O.V. will come from author voice, but not always. Sometimes genre might influence our decisions as well.

Thus, today, we are going to whiz through Kristen’s P.O.V. Spark Notes.

***Just a quick reminder though. Comment over at my new Dojo Diva blog and there is a separate contest for comments with better odds of winning my 20 page critique. We are talking about How to Be the Sheepdog. Not a wolf, not a sheep, but a sheepdog. Moving on….

Anyway…

We ALL know writing a novel is FAR from easy. We just make it look that way 😉 .

Today, I’m putting on my editor’s hat. Many of you decided to become writers because you love to write. Duh. I’ll even bet most of you, back when you were in school, also made very good grades in English. Thus, you might assume that you naturally know how to write a novel that is fit for successful publication.

Maybe you do. But, if you are anything like me when I started out? You might not know as much as you think you do.

Why?

Our high school English teacher didn’t care that we used 15 metaphors on one page. Why? Her goal was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor…NOT to prepare us for a career in commercial fiction. Same with college.

The single largest mistake I see in new manuscripts is the author does not understand P.O.V. and often this is why agents and people like me only need a page or two to know the manuscript/writer isn’t ready to publish.

This is an easy mistake to make, in that, as I stated earlier, formal education classes aren’t neccessarily there to teach us how to be great novelists. Some writers pick up on P.O.V. intuitively, but most of us need to be taught, lest we leave the reader feeling as if she is being held hostage on Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl.

P.O.V. Prostitution (A.K.A. Head-Hopping)

Let’s step back in time to the days before we all made the decision to become writers. I would guess (hope) all of us were readers. We loved books, and books were a large part of what prompted our career choice. Ask yourself the following questions:

Have you ever tried to read a book, but eventually had to put it down because it was too confusing? You couldn’t figure out who was doing what, and you needed Dramamine to keep up with the perspectives?

Have you ever read a story that was so good you actually felt as if you had taken on the character’s skin? His success was yours, as was his failure. By the final page, you were sad to say good-bye?

P.O.V. used properly can create entire worlds, and breathe life into characters. Used improperly, it can make your reader feel like she’s been bungee-corded to Satan’s Merry-Go-Round—not good.

First, we have to know what P.O.V. is if we hope to use it to our advantage.

P.O.V. stands for Point of View.

Although this literary device is one of the most vital tools an author possesses, it is probably the number one style problem I encounter as an editor. I cannot count how many new writers (and, sadly, some not-so-new writers) give me a blank stare when I write P.O.V. in big red letters all over their manuscripts (and H.H., but we’ll get to that later).

The best way to describe point of view is to think of your story as viewed through the lens of the video camera. How many people (characters) are going to be permitted to hold that camera?

Image courtesy of Jon Gosier, via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Jon Gosier, via Flickr Creative Commons

Is your camera going to travel with one main character through the entire story? Or, do others get a turn? Is “God” holding the camera? These are simple questions you can answer to help you select the point of view perfect for your story.

There is no wrong P.O.V., but we do have to be consistent. P.O.V. is a HUGE factor in determining our writing voice.

What are the types of P.O.V.? What are their inherent weaknesses and strengths? For the record, this is HIGHLY redacted for the sake of time.

A quick overview:

First-Person P.O.V—uses “I” a lot. Only one character (the narrator) has the camera.

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There are three disadvantages to this P.O.V.

1. This P.O.V uses a lot of “I” which can become repetitive to the point of distraction.

2. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator knows. This limits the flow of information. Probably good for a mystery, but if you aren’t writing a mystery this may not be the right P.O.V for you.

3. First-Person P.O.V is a bugger when it comes to tense. Why? Because First-Person breaks into two camps.

There is the I Remember When camp and the Come Along with Me camp.

One is in past tense, a recollection. “I remember the day my father and I were attacked by a pack of Mary Kay ladies gone feral….”

The other is in present tense, and the reader is along for the ride. “I walk these streets every morning, but today I am just waiting for something to go wrong….”

Note of Caution: It is extremely easy to mix the two camps together. Tense can be problematic…okay, a nightmare.

The benefit of First-Person? First-person P.O.V. adds an intimacy that no other P.O.V. can, and is useful for stories where we might want to withhold information from the reader.

Third-Person P.O.V—is when you, the writer, permit one or more of the characters to lug the camera through your story.

Third Person Locked allows only one character access to the camera. The entire story is told through what that particular character can experience through the 5 Senses. So, if your character’s eyes are “shining with love,” then she’d best be holding a mirror, or you are guilty of head-hopping.

Third Person Shifting allows more than one character access to the camera. Here’s the rub. Your characters must to play nice and take turns. Only one character with the camera at a time. When the next character wants a turn, there has to be a clear cut.

Think of the director’s clapboard ending one scene before shifting to the next. It is usually a good idea to limit one P.O.V. per scene. When we switch perspectives inside the same scene, that is called head-hopping, and it will confuse and frustrate our readers.

There are advantages to Third-Person Shifting:

1. It can add additional depth and insight to your story.

2. It can allow you (the writer) to hold back information and add to suspense.

3. Third-Person Shifting can allow other characters to take over during emotionally volatile points in the story.

For instance, if your protagonist walks in on her brother lying dead in a pool of blood, the emotions experienced are realistically too overwhelming to be properly articulated by your protagonist. In this scenario, First-Person P.O.V might not be the best fit. The scene might be more powerful if told from someone watching this protagonist react to discovering a deceased loved one.

Ah, but there are also inherent problems with Third-Person Shifting.

1. Your characters must play nice and take turns. Otherwise, your reader will likely become confused and eventually frustrated.

2. It is best to permit camera access to key characters only. The reader has to stay in one head long enough to feel connected. Too many perspectives can easily become overwhelming and dilute the strength of your characters.

Omniscient P.O.V is when “God” gets to hold the camera.

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Oh stop mucking it up and give Me the camera…

This P.O.V is like placing your camera up high over all of the action. The narrator is omnipresent and omniscient. “If Joe had only known who was waiting for him outside, he would have never left for that pack of cigarettes.”

Joe cannot experience anything beyond the 5 Senses (third-person). So, unless Joe is actually Superman and possesses X-Ray vision, it takes an omniscient presence to tell us someone bad is lurking outside waiting to do Joe harm.

There are advantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

1. Omniscient can relay information that would be far too overwhelming to describe if limited to the 5 Senses. Epic battle scenes are a good example.

2. Omniscient can give information critical to the story that the character doesn’t have to personally know. For instance, in NYTBSA Bob Mayer’s Area 51 Series (which I HIGHLY recommend), he relays a lot of factual and historical information that is critical to understanding the plot. But, it would really seem bizarre to the reader if his characters just started spouting off the history of the pyramids like an Egyptologist.

To avoid this jarring scenario, Bob used an omniscient presence to relay the information so the prose would remain remain nice and smooth and the fictive dream could stay in tact.

There are disadvantages to Omniscient P.O.V.

1. Third-Person P.O.V. and Omniscient P.O.V. are VERY easy to tangle together.

2. Omniscient P.O.V. and Head-Hopping are not the same, but are easy to confuse. I’ve edited many writers who believed they were employing Omniscient P.O.V. In reality, they were just letting every character in the book fight over the camera simultaneously, leaving me (the editor) feeling like I was trapped in the Blair Witch Project.

Proper use of P.O.V. takes a lot of practice to master. It is very easy to shift from one type of P.O.V. to another, or what I like to call “P.O.V. Prostitution” or “Head-Hopping.”

Key Points to Remember:

In First-Person—Come Along with Me stories can easily turn into I Remember When stories (or vice versa). Tense is a big red flag. Do you shift from present to past or past to present? Pay close attention to verbs.

In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting)—Characters will only play nice and take turns if you, the writer, force them to. Make sure whatever is happening in a scene is something that could be filtered through ONE character’s 5 Senses.

In Third-Person (Locked & Shifting) —“God” is really bad about grabbing your character’s camera, so keep an eye on Him. If there is suddenly information your character has no way of knowing through the 5 Senses, that is a big clue the Big Guy snagged your camera. Just remind Him nicely of commandment number eight, and ask Him to give the camera back.

In Omniscient—“God” is in charge. Be careful your wide-lens isn’t zooming in and out and making your reader dizzy in the process.

P.O.V. is one more reason it is critical for writers to read if they hope to become great authors. Read, read, read. Read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors using different P.O.V.s to see how it is done well.

EXAMPLES:

Veronica Roth brilliantly employs the first-person Come Along With Me in her Divergent trilogy. Her choice of P.O.V. gives an intimate feel no other P.O.V. can, and, since it isn’t an I Remember When story, Roth is able to maintain reader suspense.

Stephen King does a great job of using first-person in an I Remember When style in The Green Mile. King chose this P.O.V. for a very specific reason, which I will not say so as not to spoil the ending even though y’all have had like, TWENTY YEARS to read it.

Dennis Lehane does an amazing job of employing omniscient in Mystic River. If you think you might want to use omniscient, I’d recommend reading him.

James Rollins uses third-person shifting very well in The Doomsday Key. Third-shifting is generally a great P.O.V. for thrillers in that it helps manage/reveal a lot of information that the protag may or may not know.

I would recommend Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero: Joe Ledger Series.  I HIGHLY recommend Iron River by T. Jefferson Parker. Both these authors mixed third-limited and first-person and the effect is impressive.

P.O.V. when used properly can take a story to a whole new level. Read, experiment and practice. I know I just touched on a handful of suggestions, so feel free to add your thoughts, expound, ask questions.

Also, if you want to meet me and author and Hollywood TV/Film Producer Joel Eisenberg, we will be in Boaz, Alabama on June 15th. Joel will be doing a workshop called, “Catching Your Muse: How to Claim Your Artistic Spirit” and I will be there to help any of your social media angsts. We can also plot global domination using a weaponized Bedazzlers and trained hamsters….so REGISTER HERE.

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.

Both winners will be announced next blog. We just came in from assessing flood damage at our ranch and I haven’t had a chance to tally the winner. So stay tuned!

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 courtesy of Reuters.
Image courtesy of Reuters.

I hope everyone had a FABULOUS Christmas and is enjoying this wonderful time of the year. Holidays bring family and friends together and usually? This equals CONFLICT. Use it. Eavesdrop. Great writers make a MESS because that is what is the heart of the best stories. The uglier the better. You will one day be grateful for that seriously jacked up childhood.

Sally forth!

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS. 

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

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. 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

The Reliant Robin: Image via "Top Gear"
The Reliant Robin: Image via “Top Gear”

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. And the key to making money at this writing thing is we have to be able to write books…the more the better. If we can write GREAT books quickly? WINNING!

Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

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.

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.

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

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 new 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 make learning this stuff simple, easy and best of all FUN.

And for those who’ve heard my clever stories before, just be polite and laugh and for the sake of the new kids.

Does Your Plot Have “Chemistry”?

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.

Location, location, location.

Here's the Per--ZZZZZZZZZZZZ
Here’s the Periodi–ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

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 badass. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents” and liked to wear hemp and put flowers in their hair.

And then you had the neutral gases—The “Noble” 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. Today we’re going to cover some basics. We must understand basics before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments, subtext, parallel timelines and where the heck we can buy a Flux Capacitor to go back in time and slap ourselves for spending five years on a seriously dumb plot idea (that seemed GENIUS at the time).

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 65-120,000 word novel.

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 frogs, ferrets and fluffernutter.

And BABIES!
And BABY SPAWN!

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, that’s a lie. Boundaries, even loose ones, actually intensify creativity.

Don’t believe me? Watch any show about maximum security prisons. Those inmates are some of the most creative folks on the PLANET. Who knew a spoon could be so useful?

Anyway…

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 WTH? 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.

If an author understands the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea.

Structure is important.

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

The Micro-Scale

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).

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. If we wanted real LIFE, we wouldn’t read FICTION.

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.

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.”

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 and READ).

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.

This is where “literary-artsy writers” often chime in and want to bring up examples of how “Thus-and-Such won a Pulitzer by writing an Epic-Fantasy-Self-Help told only by using combinations of haiku and emoticons.” Fine. Go for it. I’m here to teach how to write a commercial product, which is something consumers want to…consume. Code for “buy.” Just because we are creating something commercial doesn’t mean it is less-than or “not” art.

One word…Ferrari. Has four wheels, doors in logical places, the steering wheel isn’t in the trunk and people pay BIG BIG MONEY to own one.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kosala Bandara

Cars come in all sizes shapes and variations. The engine can be in the front, in the back, powered by sunlight. Cars can be one color or all colors or have a COOL WIZARD airbrushed on the sides. But, there are fundamentals that the Scion and the Lambourghini should share or it can go badly—“rules.” For a good laugh: Ten Bad Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time .

When we start getting clever for the sake of being clever? Our story can do this:

***WARNING: Do not drink liquids while watching.

Granted, to a small group of collectors and aficionados, these products are valuable. Heck, even that lampshade hat made of prime rib jerky Lady Gaga wears to award ceremonies cost a pretty penny, but most of us will stick to wearing a regular ball cap ;).

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?

I do want to hear from you guys!

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).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

TOMORROW is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on June 27th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.