Structure Part 6-Getting Primal & Staying Simple


Okay, so if you have read all the blogs in this series, you should understand what makes a scene vs. a sequel, understand the three-act dramatic structure. You also understand that the antagonist—or Big Boss Troublemaker—is the engine of your story. Without the BBT, your protagonist’s world would remain unchanged. The BBT’s agenda drives the story. It is the engine. No engine, no forward motion. By this point, you should be able to decipher a good idea from a not-so-good idea and then, once decided, state what your book is about in ONE sentence. You can have up to three, but let’s shoot for one.

Welcome to part SIX of my series on novel structure–whoo-hoo! Today we are going to discuss gimmick and fundamentals of a good story.

First, gimmick. Here is the thing. There are only so many plots. DO NOT try to get creative with plot. Everything has been done. Seriously. Remember Part One of this series? There are only so many elements on the Periodic Table, yet everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements. Think of core plots like the elements on the Periodic Table. Many new writers make writing a novel way too hard in that they try to reinvent the wheel. The wheel works. Leave the wheel alone. You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.

I find a lot of new writers get really excited about gimmick. Gimmick is dangerous, and gimmicks can bite back. Don’t believe me? Okay…M. Night Shyamalan. He got us with The Sixth Sense, but after that? It was over. Why? Because the “magic” only worked with a naïve audience. After The Sixth Sense we were like CSI Vegas with every Shyamalan story. Short of using a swab kit and blacklight, we paid attention to every last little detail trying to figure out the twist ending. This also limited Shyamalan in that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn’t. If he told a story with a twist ending, then the audience (no longer naïve) was looking for the clues, so no ending could possibly measure up to The Sixth Sense. But, if Shyamalan tried to do a movie with no twist and do something different, then the audience was ticked because there was no twist. Shyamalan, in my opinion, is a victim of his own brilliance, and I can see how The Sixth Sense really put him in a bind….because it worked so well. Most of the time gimmicks suck, but even when they are really good…they still suck. So avoid gimmick and just focus on becoming a darn good storyteller.

Anyway, back to my original point.  There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.” Go ahead and try. I guarantee you that one of two things will happen. One is that you will think you have this new plot no one has ever seen. All excited, you will posit this new-and-shiny-never-before-imagined-idea to your fellow writing friends, and one of them (I promise) will go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like the movie Blah.” And then you are required to drink heavily and cry and wonder why you were doomed to be born a writer. The other end-scenario is that you get so weird that you barely understand your own story, and the poor the reader will need a Dungeon Master Guide and a sherpa to navigate your plot.

So, remember. Pizza has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird.

Plots, at the very core, are usually simple. Why? The plot is the foundation. Now what you construct on top of that foundation can be super-complex. Note I wrote complex NOT complicated.  Even the most complex stories can be boiled down to very simple goals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, James Clavell’s Shogun, and MacMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove all have very simple forces driving very complex and dynamic stories.  Good versus evil. Struggle for power, for survival, for love. Very simple. As Blake Snyder says in his book Save the Cat: Is it primal? Would a caveman understand the core of your story?

Good storytellers connect with the audience on a basic level. So when you whittle down that idea or novel into a one-sentence log-line, step back and be honest. Does your story hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death? Does it have physical and or emotional stakes? Your story might seem complex, but at the core it should be very basic and connect at a visceral level. People in China LOVED Titanic. Why? Because it is a love story. Love is basic. It is primal.

In the upcoming weeks we are going to discuss various methods of plotting, but before you start any novel, there are some fundamental questions we can use as a litmus test for our idea. Ask yourself:

Do I have a sympathetic protagonist? 

Notice I said sympathetic…not likable. Be careful here. If we are expecting readers to spend 10 hours (average time to read a novel) with our protagonist, it helps if they are rooting for him to win. If you have a rough protagonist, then you need to at least offer the reader a glimmer of hope that he can be redeemed. If he can’t be redeemed, then you must offer the reader something about your protagonist that puts the reader on his side.

For instance, Quentin Tarantino knew he had a potential problem in Pulp Fiction. His protagonists (Travolta & Jackson) happen to be a two hit men and human beings of the lowest sort. Tarantino was brilliant in how he handled introducing Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. First, he makes them funny. They stop for a burger before the hit and get into this funny dialogue about the Big Mac vs. The Royale. So we find them funny and we relate. But then Tarantino takes it another step and makes the bad guy badder than these two hit men so that the audience will side with the lesser of two evils. When viewed “in relation” these guys are clear heroes. They are still deplorable, but they are sympathetic.

Do I have a genuine GOAL for my protagonist?

A lot of first-time novelists get fascinated writing novels about journals, letters and buried secrets. I have a theory about this. It is called, “We-Are-Squeaky-New-and-Don’t-Know-Jack-About-How-to-Plot Syndrome.” Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.

Novels that involve a journal or finding about a secret past usually involve the newbie author’s favorite tactic…the flashback. Since we have no big goal at the end, forward momentum is scary, so we roll back…and this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift. Journals and letters, in my opinion, are so attractive because they provide the unskilled author a contrived mechanism for stringing together unrelated vignettes. That is not a plot. Sorry. I was bummed too. That is okay, though. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m here to help :D.

Yes, you can use journals in your story, but seriously? How many best-selling novels have you seen that involve someone reading a journal? Things written in journals are in the past, which means they have already happened and the world didn’t end so who cares? It becomes a Watch out for that glacier! No rising stakes and no pressing danger. Watch out for the glacier! It’s moving at an inch a year, but watch out!

Conflict drives stories. My best advice? Journals are for self-actualization. Leave self-actualization for therapy. Want a gut-wrenching plot? Stick to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy ;).

Stories can have a journal/letters, but they MUST ALSO have a main conflict and the journal/letters are merely a tool that drives the present conflict…which is your plot. The journal isn’t the plot. Neither are the letters. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had conflict happening real-time. Yes, the novel contained each girl’s experience with the pants, but each girl’s story was a separate plot joined in one large plot and happening real-time. Each girl was facing a different challenge and had to mature in a different way, but the group of girls (the group is actually the protagonist) had to learn to mature while finding a way to hold on to childhood friendship.

Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood. The Ya-Ya Journal was critical for the daughter and mother (present-day) to repair the rift in their relationship. So there was a present-day problem that the journal solved, and basically you have a Fried Green Tomatoes. Two parallel plot lines and the present-day plot relies on past-time events to drive forward momentum in the present. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook was the same thing. Two parallel love stories, but both had a plot arc. The love story told in the notebook drives the present-day love story in the nursing home.

Same with secrets. The secret must have something to do with the present-day story or it is just a contrivance. The secret can be a part of the story, but generally doesn’t work as the entire story. Linda Castillo executes this brilliantly in her novel Sworn to Silence. Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, grew up Amish, but made a choice to live in the world with the English. She is the Chief of Police in a small Ohio community of both Amish and English, and she acts as a cultural bridge. When a serial killer begins butchering women, Kate leads the investigation, but a secret from her past holds clues to catching the present-day killer. Kate’s secret drives the forward momentum of the present-day plot, and adds mind-bending tension.

Is my story primal?

Beneath the empires and spaceships and unicorns, is your main plot driven by a basic human desire/need? Here is a list of some best-selling novels I’ve recently read to illustrate my point.

Michael Crichton’s Prey—Survival. Save/protect loved ones.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic ParkDon’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.

Lee Child’s Killing FloorVengeance. Protect loved ones.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Don’t die. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Cormac McCarthy The RoadSurvive. Protect loved ones.

Linda Castillo Sworn to Silence—Fear of death. Survive. Protect loved ones.

Jennifer Chiaverini The Aloha Quilt—Love. Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Bob Mayer & Jennifer Crusie’s Wild Ride—Sex. Protect loved ones. Survival.

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island—Survival. Vengeance. Protect loved ones.

Stephenie Meyer TwilightSex. Protect loved ones. Don’t get eaten.

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic RiverVengeance.

Okay, so as you can see, I read a lot of genres. But most great books can be boiled down to a very simple driving force. New writers very frequently rush into the writing with no idea of the story they are trying to tell. I know. I’ve been there. And since deep-down we know we do not have a core goal that is simple and primal, we try to compensate by making things more and more complicated. That’s why so many writers have a panic attack about the agent pitch session. We are forced to boil down our plot to the primal core…and we can’t because there isn’t one. So we ramble and blather and try to fit 400 pages of world-building complications into our pitch while trying not to throw up in our shoes (Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt).

Being complicated is like trying to use Bond-O putty to fix your plot. Won’t work. Strip that baby down and look at the bare bones. Simple. Primal. This is why gimmicks are a sticky wicket. Gimmicks make stories complicated instead of complex. Stay away. Remember that there are no new plots. So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own? The award-winning novel A Thousand Acres is King Lear on an Iowa farm. In my pov, Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires (and I am not alone in this assessment). Instead of trying to totally revinvent story and plot as we understand it, why not take a book you love so much the pages are falling out of it, and see if you can use the premise in a new and exciting way?

Utilizing another author’s plot is not plagiarism. It’s smart. Remember…the number of plots is finite. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. Heck, I did! We believe we have to come up with a story never told before or risk being accused of plagiarism. Not so. Plagiarism is when someone takes the execution of another author’s plot and tries to hide that by only changing surface elements. So if I wrote a book called Evening about girl who moves from Texas to Northern California to fall in love with a vampire who merely glimmers in sunlight…. See the point? Actually a great way to come up with story ideas is to go to the IMDB and look at log-lines, then ask yourself how could you tell that story differently?

A timid romance author must travel to South America and join forces with a handsome opportunist to rescue her sister who’s been kidnapped by treasure-hunting thieves. (Romancing the Stone).

A shy librarian must travel to South Texas and join forces with a handsome biker to rescue her brother who has been kidnapped by desperate drug-dealers. (Kristen’s Made-Up Story).

See how you can take a story that has already been done and make it something amazing and new?

So what are some problems you guys are facing when it comes to plot? Do you have any resources to share? Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration? Share. I love hearing from you guys. Lets me know I haven’t given you a massive coronary and killed you off, :D. I appreciate your loyalty to this series.

Happy writing! Until next time….

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  1. I completely LOVED this….New Fan… 🙂

  2. Another great post, Kristen. You crack me up. Wish I could put it into practice, but I gotta go stand glacier watch now.

    1. Bwa ha ha ha ha–Watch out! It’s coming! It’s going to crush you (in a hundred years), but watch out!

  3. You haven’t scared me out yet! LOL. I really enjoyed this series and thought my first draft is done, it still helps tremendously with the editing process.

    You’re absolutely right about not reinventing the wheel. It’s all about telling that particular “wheel” in a new, refreshing way. A problem I had was that I would get discouraged when my novel was compared to something else and yes, we new writers want to have something brand spanking new! But then I realized (with the help of an awesome group of peers) that the way I told the plot line was different and that’s where my uniqueness came through. So you’re right about not reinventing the wheel. It’s all about how you tell your readers aboutg that particular “wheel” that makes you stand out from everyone else.

    1. Actually that is a strength and will help your pitch. If you can say, “My book is ‘Taming the Shrew’ but set in modern day Austin, TX and the shrew is a powerhouse VP of a software company.” That is a pretty good hook to at least ground the agent in the premise of the story and become curious to see if you can pull it off in the writing without being ham-fisted. It gets a foot in the door.

      Happy you are sticking around, 😀 and thanks for the comment.

      1. That’s true! I didn’t think about it that way! Awesome advice!

  4. My problem when I was starting (about 2 years ago) is that I had this heroine and she had every power. Then, she tries to go on a journey and it just got too complicated because her boyfriend gets kidnapped by the bad guys and she is the messiah to save everybody. After many tries, I finally learned to boil down the plot (at least I hope so since this is my nth unpublished novel).

    My plot got simpler as I wrote more but at the same time I added more human elements in the story. Right now, I’m learning on how to make my characters not-so-perfect. I’m almost there but I still need practice. It just goes to show that practice results in improvement.

    1. I hear ya. My heroine was a super-spy who was uber-perfect…and utterly boring. I think we have to grow and mature as writers to feel confident enough to have flawed characters. Kudos to you for keeping at it! You will get there. Just keep going and growing. :D. Thank you for always taking the time to comment, it is really appreciated.

    • Marwa Elnaggar on December 6, 2010 at 7:32 pm
    • Reply

    Still alive. But barely. Seriously, Kristen, this series rocks! I think I love this one the best, or maybe last week’s, or maybe…? I love ’em all! Will you be talking more about gimmicks? I’d love to read more about how some literary devices can be used well, and how the same devices can just be gimmicks and flop.

    • kate macnicol on December 6, 2010 at 7:42 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Kristen,

    I’ve been revising my manuscript and everyday I ask myself, “What is the story really about?” Yesterday it would have taken me more than a few minutes to tell you. OOOH, the complications.

    Primal, simple, there are no new plots… suddenly it all made perfect sense. Wow! You helped me find my log-line. It’s great to have a tightly focused target to shoot for as I rewrite and revise.

    I’m new to the blog so I’ll be sure and check back with the rest of the series. Thanks!

    Happy writing!

    Kate (who… , doesn’t have a website or any social media but who is reading your book and working on her tactical goals:)

    1. I will be starting a blog series on Wednesday…about blogging! So being a newbie can be a great thing. I hope I can get you started the right way, :D. Thanks for stopping by and I am really happy I could help!

  5. Great post. Love the suggestion of looking at loglines on IMDB for ideas–great idea! I am reminded of “Clueless,” which is just “Emma” retold in Beverly Hills. Or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which is just Homer’s “Odyssey” in the Great Depression. The best plots are timeless, which is why they work over and over again.

    Interesting tha you mention “The Sixth Sense,” too. At the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland this year, Larry Brooks talked about that one as being a gimmick that could only work once. I actually thought “Signs” and “The Happening” were better stories. At least there was a strong struggle/conflict and a primal need in those ones.


  6. I just love your posts, Kristen. They’re so helpful, I’ve come to really look forward to them. I get what you’re saying. It makes perfect sense. It’s why agents are always saying they’re looking for a new twist on an old story.

    Thanks for breaking it down and inspiring me. I’ve had an idea how to do this, and you’ve just motivated me. 🙂

    • Brooke on December 7, 2010 at 4:10 pm
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    Hi Kristen! I read your blog all the time and love all the advice you give! Its funny that you mentioned the 6th sense today because I wanted to email you this question, which is kind of along those lines:
    I’m a newer writer trying to figure out the best POV. I’m writing a fictional murder mystery. It is a pretty complex plot that I’m planning on revealing though three books. I have written a lot (over 150,000) words that have helped come up with the overall plot- I guess I’m a ‘blank page’ writer.
    Anyway, I want the books to be very character driven, and I feel like I need to use multiple POV’- I think three or four characters will need to be viewpoint characters.
    My question stems from my desire to have one of these main characters be the one who is committing the murders, which would not be revealed until book 3. I know this is typically frowned upon, but the killer has altruistic motives for committing the crimes, and part of his characterization is his fear that someone will find out what he’s doing, so he’s very clever about the sides of his personality he shows to people. The readers will be sympathetic to him and love him. He will be offered redemption at the end. I wanted the readers to be able to go back through on a second read and wonder why they didn’t figure it out before.
    I know in 3rd person limited you can only show what one character sees or thinks… but can you choose to ONLY let the reader in on PARTS of what he is thinking? An unreliable narrator for that particular character?
    I could write his character from 3rd person cinema, so you only see what he does and don’t get inside his head, but Im afraid that this will distance him from the readers, and I want them to love him and be sympathetic with the impossible situation he is in.
    I have been writing in 3rd person omniscient because its so complex, but from everything I’ve been reading lately, everyone says this distances the readers too much, can be too complicated and is not good for a new writer.
    I really value your opinion. Thanks in advance!! LOVE YOUR BLOG!!!

    1. Okay. Good news and bad news. Good news is you are a prolific writer. Bad news is that you cannot string a story over three books. I recommend you go read my blog about the Big Boss Troublemaker. The problem that creates the inciting incident (the murder) must be solved by the end of the book. Now, if you want to do a trilogy then in the next book we find out that such and such might have fired the gun, but he was hired by an even badder dude, etc etc. Read the blog.

      Too many POVs waters down how much we care. It is confusing. Right now I am reading “Timeline” by Crichton and if I wasn’t so Scottish (we taught the Jews about thrift) I would have quit reading. He has so many characters I cannot keep up. I never spend enough time in one head to feel vested and care. Murder-mysteries are by nature plot-driven. “Solve the murder.” Now they can have deeper characters but literary fiction is all about fulfilling an internal arc. Mysteries are about finding a killer and we really don’t care if his motives are altruistic or not he needs to go to jail. Now the fact that he is altruistic in his motives will make him a better antag, but be careful you aren’t just watering him down.

      My recommendation is that you get your one log-line. What is this story about? Then replot where the murder is solved by the end of book one. If you want a trilogy, then cut that 150,000 into three books and replot with satisfatory resolutions and one main overarching plot. Think Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Each movie was a stand-alone story, but all three put together were still 3-act stucture of a larger story. Read James Scott Bell’s “Plot and Structure” and he gives a template for plotting series.

      I am really happy that you enjoy the blog and I hope this answer helped. 😀

    • J.A. Paul on December 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm
    • Reply

    I loved this series, Kristen. Can’t wait for the next one either. Oh, and I am currently reading your book which has me motivated. As McGriff says, this series is helping me edit and revise on my, I don’t know, 5th or 6th draft. Something like that. Thanks again.

  7. Just ordered you book. I facebook and blog. But, I believe your book will help me even more to be a successful writer. Thanks again for all your great words each week. Keep it coming!

    1. You are welcome and thanks for getting my book :D. It really will save you a lot of time and focus your efforts so you still have time to write tht novel. I am really glad these blogs are helping you!

    • Kevin C. Carpenter on December 8, 2010 at 11:44 pm
    • Reply

    “Guess how I know this? Yes, I was visited by the Bright Idea Fairy too. Shoot her. Now. Double-tap. It’s for the best.”

    I just about lost it completely in the coffee shop over this line. Not only do you provide such wonderful insight on writing, but in a very entertaining fashion. Brilliant!

    • Virginia Ripple on December 9, 2010 at 3:31 pm
    • Reply

    This makes me wonder what my creative writing professor was trying to accomplish because he didn’t teach us any of this. Thanks for taking the time to give us the basics our teachers neglected to pass along.

  8. “Can’t get too weird” – try telling that to Terry Pratchett ;D

    1. Terry Pratchett’s plots aren’t weird. Granted he’s got some outlandish settings, but if we’re talking about structure, Pratchett is a master of the game, with generally very standard, well established conventions. And they are awesome.
      The truth is, Pratchett creates almost nothing new of his own. Everything in his stories is borrowed from somewhere else in the fantasy fiction world. He just takes those fantasy conventions and puts them into a far more cynical world, and uses the unexpected juxtaposition to create something unique and wonderful.

  1. […] Simply Primitive: keep the plot simple by using Maslow’s hierarchy, the lower on the pyramid the better. […]

  2. […] want to catch all of them and start at the beginning:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part […]

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