The Secret to Mastering Plot–Getting Primal

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. 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. Chemistry has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird or complicated or it falls apart. If you doubt this assertion, read the discussion about the Star Wars disaster um, prequels here.

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.

There are all kinds of 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 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—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’s 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? NYTBSA Bob Mayer frequently points out in his workshops that 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! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of June, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

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

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June Week 3’s Winner is Anne Mhairi Simpson. Please send your 1250 word Word doc to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

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  1. There is some great advice here. I’ve had an idea for a story for a while but have been struggling with finding a plot that works. I honestly think that I’ve paralysed myself into believing I need to create a completely original plot for it to be worth writing, but you’ve reminded me that this isn’t the case. Thanks for this post.

  2. Great post, as always. I wish I’d read this when I first started writing my novel, lol. My plot centered around my stalker’s obsession and brilliant escape, but I wasn’t sure of much else when I started writing. I had to go back to the drawing board several times in order to get everything worked out and to be certain that it all makes sense.

    I’m still trying to find the perfect logline, but I know that my story boils down to Survival. There are a lot of other subplots, like the MC’s secret and her falling in love with the co-protag, but in the end it all comes down to getting away from her stalker.

    And a very cool idea about how to get plot lines – that’s something I would have never considered!

    Thanks for breaking things down in such an interesting way. And one thing about Shyamalan: the Sixth Sense was brilliant, but I enjoyed Signs as well. It didn’t have a trick ending really, but I thought the redemption theme was well executed.

  3. Thanks for this post, Kristen. I often get really upset because I feel like it has all been done before. How the heck am I supposed to write a novel? I start, get part way through and then bail. That “doubt monster” creeps in and sabotages me. Ugh.

    But I still have hope!


  4. This was a great post. I am always wanting to be different and new and original, but you’re right. It’s all been done. I bought a book that was recommended by Angela Knight called Twenty Master Plots and How To Build Them by Ronald Tobias. It’s been a great help in breaking down plots and motivations and reasons why. And reading your post helps as well because I look at so many books that are popular and wonder why… it’s because they’re simple. I think some of us fight against simple and done, but if we make it our own it would be new in voice and new in execution because we’re now telling it.


    • qtpiepg13 on June 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm
    • Reply

    Well, I’m one of those shiny new writers you spoke of, I still carry that new wordsmith smell. I think your post was really helpful in making me reevaluate the troubles I am having with plot in my novel. I have a log line at the moment, but I think I am missing the real primal urges you spoke of. Thanks for the killer primal insight!

  5. Wow! Great post. Sometimes in the frenzy of creativity, it’s so easy to get lost. And lost means getting stuck. And getting stuck means pulling my hair out.

    I don’t look good bald.

    A great reminder to strip it back to the basics. Let the bare bones hang out. Primal? Oh, yeah. I’m all over the primal! lol

  6. Interesting stuff. I’m curious to know if plots based around journals and letters are the same as a story told in the first person. I’ve been trying to work out whether I should change my novel from first person – the main character telling the story of what has happened, to third person perspective.

    This isn’t my first attempt at writing a novel and I don’t want it to be appear amateurish. I love the story and the characters but can’t get my head around the best perspective. It’s as primal as I can get, survival and protecting loved ones in a very real and physical way.

    Like Shea MacLeod, I’m doing my share of hair pulling over this one problem!

    1. I have found that journals and letters are frequently the writer’s way of 1) emotionally distancing from conflict 2) are often used as contrived information dump 3) provide an “easy” way out for the protag to find vital clues. Clues are conveniently delivered via a journal or letters as opposed to the writer plotting in such a way that the protag must actually do some work to unravel the problem. Even best-selling novels that revolved around a journal didn’t really use the journal as anything more than an introduction to help the reader shift time and place. The story was still plotted real-time.

      I think whether we use first person or third person makes little difference. It boils down to our writing preference. Ya-Ya Sisterhood I think used both. Vivi was 1st person and Sidda Lee was third, if I remember correctly.

  7. I had a bit of a panic when I realized my plot was not unique- then hubby reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth were he says there are like 5 or 6- I can’t remember the number- of stories out there, and we tell them over and over again. Mine plot- teen girl awakens to new powers, unknown family, and mystical destiny- how many times has that been told!

  8. Great post. I’ve heard people say what you said a dozen times, and today was the first time I had a lightbulb moment. Keep on rockin’, Kristen, you’re made of the awesome.

  9. Wow…Wish I had seen your blogs when I started this degree…

    my main problem when I start my scripts is I don’t tend to plan – before I did this degree I focused on plot so much that I neglected my characters – I’d come up with a good story but my characters were never consistant. Looking back now I look on my old stuff and think “did I really really write that?”

    I like flashbacks – but are they popular? I’ve seen critics (Talking about a show I also watch a lot of) complain that theres been too many flashbacks … I know that too many will get annoying…is it wiser to use minimal flashbacks or none at all? Does it depend on the plot and if it’s neccesary?.

    1. Flashbacks are a tool of a weak or new writer. I strongly advise against them. Get a copy of Save the Cat as soon as possible. Screenplays have no room for error. Novels at least get a tad of leeway but movies get zilch.

  10. This is just what I needed to read today. I came to the conclusion late last night that the first goal I had for my heroine was indeed the correct one. I had avoided it because it seemed to parallel a couple of other writers’ novels a bit too closely. Really it’s the only similarity. It works so well for her in this book, I don’t think it’s the problem that I thought it was.

  11. Yes, you’ve scared me to death, but you’ve also inspired me! That’s a great idea about looking at IMDB to check out the log lines. I’ve heard it said many times that every story has already been told, there is nothing new. Our job isn’t to reinvent the wheel but to take that wheel and put it on our own car.
    Thanks, Kristen.

    • EllieAnn on June 27, 2011 at 2:40 pm
    • Reply

    Awesome analogy of the periodic table & plots, “everything in the universe is made up of some combination of these elements.” That’s gonna stick in my head. =)
    I must disagree about Shyamalan’s “gimmicks” sucking. He tells a darn good story. Unbreakable is one of my favorite movies. It’s true that you start to look for the “twist,” and it’s true he’s created some horrible movies, but I still respect his storytelling a whole lot, and just because the “gimmick” won’t work for him every time doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have used it in the first place. There is some honor in that, don’t you think?
    Love your “primal” story examples. It’s such a good point! Great story advice.

    1. I loved Unbreakable too but it was slaughtered by the critics. I think he has had a harder time being the box-office draw namely because the gimmick worked so well in the first movie. The Sixth Sense will remain part of movie legend, but it is a bad template to follow. When working with new writers many of them get so scope-locked on the twist ending they forget to tell a great story.

  12. This is an interesting post, partly because I agree with you that plots should be kept simple. Complexities leave readers baffled and wondering why they should care. Straightforward plots, an author accepting that story originality is difficult to pull off and often not giving a good return on invested effort, those are the best things for a reader. Because then the author focuses, like you said, on telling a good story.

    The other thing that comes to mind is that my novel is about a man who remembers past lives. There are several times when a memory comes to him, as he realises the connections between the events in previous lifetimes and the mystery he’s currently solving. They’re linked, but I hope they don’t seem like typical, dull flashbacks.

  13. Love how you drop “Chemistry” into your posts all the time. Thanks for the advice.

  14. Excellent info! Love your tip of looking at log-lines and reworking them to create your own story. I need to figure out my next project while my first reader is reading the one I just wrapped up. And I really needed that primal remember…thank you!

  15. That was a long, but interesting post. I am a fan of gimmickry when in retrospect the progression from start to finish is logical and realistic. I don’t like when some outrageous concept is thrown in at the end in a way we could have never seen it coming. I’d prefer to be surprised by the surprising conclusion was right there throughout the story and I just wasn’t looking. Like a good performance of a magic trick part of the effectiveness is the result of masterful misdirection and skillful presentation.

    Tossing It Out

  16. You make things so accessible! Love the chemistry analogy — it’s all stuff I know (somewhere) yet so easy to forget in the heat of the shiny-new-don’t know-jack!

    I wrote a whole YA paranormal w/o a primal desire except for the secondary character…who was a ghost. A whole book! Didn’t even know who/what the male lead was — an angel! A demony type? AND I pitched it at RWA.

    I don’t know what I was thinking.

    Now, the book I’m writing: protagonist wants Vengeance for her parents’ death. This didn’t come through on the first pass of brainstorming. A different post of yours made me realise I needed more AND I needed to be able to boil it down into a sentence (or two)

    1. Look up similar movies and see what the log-line is. How sis they tell the story? That will help you be able to formulate the high concept…and high concept sells, btw ;).

  17. Hey, I would read that book about the South Texas/kidnapped brother/biker. Romancing the Hawg?
    I love the idea of taking the loglines from IMDB. Might go play with that right now.

    This is really, really good stuff. Will RT!

    1. Ditto that! Not only is the IMDB thing an excellent idea, that was the exact log line I loved the most. Not that I’m going to write about it mind, but if someone else did I’d totally buy it. lol

    2. That is a really neat technique and I learned it from Bob Mayer. If you get a chance to take his workshops, it will be THE best money you ever spend.

    3. Try movie trailers from Youtube as well. They show the key elements and it is easy to spot where they succeed in conveying the story and where they fail.

  18. Wow, I won!! Awesome!!

    So, yeah, I was reading through, comparing all the crappity to my previous attempts, going yep, yep, yep. I’m currently trying to wean someone off flashbacks – need to show him this post! Happily I can boil my most recent novel and my WIP down into one line. Which now I’m regretting saying because I’m going to be sending you the first 1250 words of one of them. EEK.

    Seriously, great post. I used to want to make everything really complicated, so that reader would get to the last page and gasp “Oh my!! The serial killer was her brother’s second wife’s cousin!! WHO KNEW???” Now I just keep it simple. Admittedly it makes me feel like a hack, like I have no guts to go for something more complex, but to be honest, I have no idea what else to put in there, so I tell the story, have some general hating, throw in the odd fireball (and dragons) and voila!! The readers seem to like it… *considers upcoming release date and bites fingernails*

  19. Very interesting post! I’ve written several novels, but my most recent one was a bit of a flop. I think I’ve been trying to be too “unique,” and my story got muddied and complicated. The first novel that I ever finished was much more powerful, despite my rough, beginner writing style. It must be because I had those “primal” elements in hand when I wrote it: Survival and protecting loved ones. I sort of lost touch with that in my latest book, and it shows, unfortunately.

    As a side-note, when you mentioned the periodic table of elements, it reminded me of this quirky-but-cool poster:

  20. Again, I leave everything to you as master of knowledge. So interesting to hear you break all this down. I’ve spend far too many years reading nonfiction to come anywhere close to all these books you break down. I did figure out one though. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I really enjoyed) is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen with zombies. I totally figured that out myself.

  21. This post is making me rethink the short story I’m working on. Maybe I just need to go deeper with it, since it seems to be about self-actualization in a lot of ways. . .

  22. Thank you!

    You make me feel so smart for believing the same. Plots and cake don’t change much. The frosting job has to be original.


  23. Actually, this is kind of liberating! As a mystery writer, it’s easy to over-focus on the tricks and red-herrings. There’s a lot of pressure to be NEW, and keep the reader from guessing. But the goals and drives of the characters are universal, and the rest isn’t what we hang the story upon.


  24. Outstanding post–RT, forwarded, posted, liked and more. Oh, and I did the “journal” thing in first novel attempts (they’re moldering somewhere in an East KY landfill). And several times I’ve analyzed books from fav authors, actually mapped the plot points to see how they did it. Very helpful–and Bob Mayer’s logline tip you’ve mentioned is brilliant!

  25. Kristen, I have one question about flashblacks. I’ve cut most of mine out, but since my MC has a traumatic experience in the beginning of the story (which we get to see most of) is one or two flashbacks of the event all right? It’s not really back story but more of a way to show her trauma.

  26. IMdb is a great resource for learning to boil things down. It is easy to see what works and what doesn’t. Janice Hardy recently added a new dimension to this thought by suggesting using movie trailers from Youtube to do the same. By seeing what elements are included we, as writers, can gain a sense of the key elements to include (or not include in the case of trailers that don’t work).

    Excellent post, Kristen!

  27. One the things I love most about reading experienced writer’s blogs is the moment I realize, “Hey, I’m doing it right!” Keeping the plot primal and complex is something I won’t forget and I am doing in my WIP, but will have to fix in my short story. Thanks for another great post, Kristen!

  28. Character is a huge part of why I’d like a story, and I think that’s where you build the uniqueness of your writing. Put intriguing people in a situation with a typical plot line and it becomes something special. Mixing plots can make things interesting too.

    Like starting with a cheesecake plot, adding a banana creme pie plot, and pouring some carmel and rum characters over the top. If you did that, I’d seriously stalk you to get your unique bananas foster story. Ok, now I’m hungry.

    Heck, my favorite genre of urban fantasy has probably two plots. A (vampire, werewolf, demon) hunter has to hunt something a bit too powerful. A (schoolgirl, psychic, newly turned werewolf) has someone nasty move into their territory.

  29. I’m so glad to hear you describe a group (in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) as a protagonist. My current novel has a sort-of-main character, but I believe the group that she causes to exist is really the MC.

  30. None of my plots has ever been fully formed, hence the fact that I have yet to complete a novel. My WIP’s are lining up. I head out the gate with half an idea and run with it willy-nilly. I know plot is my problem but thanks for hitting the refresh button for me.

  31. Kristin, you’ve mentioned Blake Snyder’s ‘Save The Cat!’ several times. I found a copy of ‘Save The Cat! Goes To The Movies’ at the library the other day. He subtitled his book ‘the screenwriter’s guide to every story ever told’. I’ve only read the first 30 or 40 pages but already learned a lot about plot, genre and story structure. It’s interesting to see how Alien and Fatal Attraction are really the same story as are Ocean’s Eleven, Saving Private Ryan and Bad News Bears (but different from Alien). I can’t wait to see how he rationalizes Gladiator with The Lion King but I suspect Avatar will also fit in there.

  32. Just ordered Save The Cat! Thanks for recommendation. I’ve blogged (coming out Thurs) linking to your blog and your two books and off to tweet now! You’re the best!

  33. Ha! I’m belly-laughing about trapped in a car with teenagers learning to drive a stick-shift. That hits way too close to home!

    You gave some great inspiration! And I love Anne R. Allen’s title for your South Texas story!

  34. So much wisdom here. Although funny you should mention letters and journals. I’m reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society right now. It’s completely told in letters. Very interesting. I’m highly intrigued by it.

    1. Letters and journals work well if done properly, but they cannot be a substitute for plot. It is really hard to nail these tactics.When they work well they are awesome but most of the time…meh.

  35. Interesting take on plot. I kind of miss the good ole days when novels were plotted though because I think too many books these days are about characters just living their lives and doing nothing. I dislike those kinds of novels (Twilight is an example…characters just living with their super-powers and once you have super-powers…you gotta have something to fight).

    I don’t think that’s plot. Plus it’s interesting that you include George R.R. Martin in with Tolkien. Tolkien has a plot whereas George R.R. Martin (I would argue) does in fact have no plot and is only telling a soap opera. No plot, no protagonist, no antagonist…just point-of-view characters per chapter that are caught up in their own soap opera and see the world in exactly the way they want to see it. This is interesting…even fascinating in places…but living the life of Tirrion Lannister does not a plot make.

  36. The analogy of flashbacks being like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift was hilarious! 🙂

  37. Shyamalan has said that a common misperception of him is that all his movies have twist endings. He claims all his movies are spiritual and all have an emotional perspective. I have seen most of his movies and I like them, I think he is a master storyteller, and he has made a lot of money even after the Sixth Sense. As to the movie critics, well, what do they know? I applauded how Shyamalan had the guts to include an obnoxious critic in his film Lady in the Water and then kill him, LOL!

    With regards to there not being any new plots, well, to whom? Yes, there are people who have cataloged all possible plots in a general way and they claim there is nothing new. But we don’t write for those people. The average person that buys the books is not aware of ALL the possible plots and is not bored to read variations on an old plot. I think that when most writers claim they have come up with a new plot, what they mean is not necessarily that it is “new” in an absolute way, but rather that it is unusual for what is “out there” at that moment.

    When I write I think in terms of punchlines. What is remarkable about a story? What makes it interesting or unique? What is going to leave the reader saying, “Wow!” If I don’t have this clear in my head I don’t write it. These punchlines I consider the bare bones of the story. How much meat you put around them is up to you, but I agree that too much fat is not good.

  38. Great Post. I have just recently finished reading Bob Mayer’s Toolkit, where he talks about this point in detail. My first novel is wandering around, unpublishable in its current state because I didn’t have the one-line ‘idea’ BEFORE I started. My new book, one line concept is down (and I love it) and it’s primal! YAY! Now I just have to work out a way to make my very unlikeable protag, likeable.

  39. So primal a caveman can understand it? Great post!

    Mine: Survive. Protect loved ones. Win. 🙂

  40. Dead on as always, Kristen. I started a new WIP this very week, and I’m proud to say I pass the caveman test! The motivation? Find Murderer. Protect loved ones. (Because if protagonist fails at A, B is assured.) Oh…and he has two days to do it.

  41. I just realized that I’ve written three novels that are literally about the protagonist’s search for missing family members or close friends. Hmm. Well, at least it’s primal…

  42. I find it comforting that there are no new plots. Takes some of the pressure off. 😀 I wonder if anyone can tell me a movie or book that fits my plotline…so I can check it out for research purposes. LOL

    Here’s my (rough) logline: A young woman discovers a possessed mirror which offers her everything she’s every dreamed of but she must break the mirror’s spell over her in order to stop it’s evil from escaping and destroying the world.

    It’s long, I know. I’m working on tightening it up.

  43. Love this blog, Kristen. Just plotting my next novel, so I needed the reminder.

    I always thought that readers who figured out that the lastest book is another plot, reworked were SO clever! Now maybe I know how to spot it! But use one? shudders…I have issues enough with feeling like an imposter – if I stole – er – borrowed a plot, I’d never convince myself I can do it!

  44. Backtracking on my reading this week, but so glad I read all of yours! What a great list of books to study plot arcs. I joined a book club not long ago and I’ve been really liking dissecting the plot points. I think now that I have a better idea what I like and what to look for I’m hoping it will make my own construction easier. Thanks for more great titles!

  45. Having deja vu on the first two-thirds as I read this. After a year of writing, I learned that the old plot works but I need to add a twist to it so that it doesn’t look like I just borrowed it from someone. Also, Steal This Plot: A writer’s guide to structure and plagiarism expands this idea. This was when I learned that I need to stick to the basics and add my twist into it. It’s easier this way, too, and we have a better structure to follow.

  46. Oh, Kristen, you’ve been such a big help over these past few weeks. I learned I didn’t have to explain EVERY LITTLE THING in the story, even though I coud; I learned how to avoid plot problems (I didn’t care for the Star Wars prequels either); and now I’m not afraid to look for a similar plot structure in order to solve one BIG problem at the end of the story. Hat’s off to you.

  47. As a ‘pantser-turned-plotter, I really appreciate your great insight on the importance of sticking with the basics. Thanks.

  48. Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires.


    One of the easiest ways you can tell you are dealing with an inexperienced writer is that they can’t explain their story to you. If you push them on it, they get frustrated, and will often yell at you that you don’t understand the artistic mind. When you point out that you are earning money as a writer and they aren’t, they will remind you that you are writing non-fiction, and that NON-FICTION IS DIFFERENT SO WOULD YOU PLEASE JUST GO AWAY.

    It doesn’t matter that I write fiction as well, because I haven’t sold any of it yet.

    I am however willing to listen, and I’m also willing to bet that I’m going to sell something before they do, because I am willing to listen. It is rather sad that so many talented people would rather lock themselves into a closet to write, rather than go out and meet people at Kristen’s virtual party, and try to learn something.

    Thank you for another wonderful lesson Kristen. Thank you very much.


    1. Too many people (I was guilty) think they already know how to write…so they just take off and type out their tome and, at the end of the day we have a mess only we understand…barely. Many new writers are insecure and don’t want to admit that they really don’t know what they are doing. Why? Because society at large thinks that writing a novel is easy, that the only hard part os finishing. Wrong! Thus because there is a public perception that what we do is easy, newer writers think that there is something wrong if they need help. Anyway, this is why I blog about writing. I had to learn all of this stuff the hard way. Boiling down to one sentence log-lines will help A LOT. Thanks Wayne for the great comment. And hey *shrugs* if they want to hang out in the artistic closet, that’s less competition LOL.

      1. Good insight Kristin. I read that and thought it was so true of photographers as well. I re-read it substituting ‘photographer’ for ‘writer’ and it is so true. People think that all I need to do is push the shutter button. How difficult can hat be?

  49. Your comment about flashbacks makes me think of a scene in the film “Funny Farm,” where the wife reads Chevy Chase’s novel and finds herself weeping that in the first few pages alone he’d had a “flashback, a flash forward, and a flash sideways.”

    Interestingly, I’d read writing advice recently that suggested you should always start a book at its most exciting, pinnacle scene…implying most of the entire story for every story should be flashback. Felt that seemed like an incredibly bad idea then; am certain it’s an incredibly bad idea now. 🙂

  50. Everyone should be required to read this blog before they start writing a story.

  51. I’ve never met that fake idea fairy, thank goodness. I recall hearing that there are only 150 sitcom story ideas, too. Likewise, movie plots keep getting recycled and on and on. I agree with your periodic table of elements analogy. It would explain why new ideas are so ill-received: like the newer, triple-digit elements, they’re radioactive. Oh, poor mutant thing, so new and different under the sun that people have no idea how to feed and care for you.

  52. I love “Save the Cat” and learned a lot from reading it, like asking myself, “is my story primal?” (The trick now is putting it into practice). BTW: Love your picture of the Zulus!

    • Mike on March 1, 2015 at 10:56 am
    • Reply

    I want to be a novelist one day, but, for past three years, I’ve written only short stories. (I usually average three to four per month.)

    In my opinion, starting with short fiction allows one to master the fundamentals of storytelling. A novel is a large endeavor…

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