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 NOTcomplicated. 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 Park—Don’t get eaten. Protect loved ones.
Lee Child’s Killing Floor—Vengeance. Protect loved ones.
Suzanne Collins Hunger Games—Don’t die. Survive. Protect loved ones.
Cormac McCarthy The Road—Survive. 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 MeyerTwilight—Sex. Protect loved ones. Don’t get eaten.
Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River—Vengeance.
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.
I do want to hear from you guys!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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 October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Andy Hollowman. Congratulations! Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!
I love your idea of scouring the books we already love for plot ideas to make shiny and new in our own way. I’ve committed virtually all the beginning-writer-sins you mention at some point or another. Thanks for this series. Even for seasoned writers, it’s helpful!
I committed ALL of the offending sins. That’s why I have compassion for you guys, LOL. In all seriousness, I had a lot of trouble with structure and that was why I set out studying it and why I wrote this series, I knew I was not alone…hmmmm, a theme here, maybe?
You learn something new every day. There were some plot lists in your link that I hadn’t seen before 😀 Great advice about making the story’s core to be something primal. Maslow’s hierarchy is a good tool to keep in mind. IMDB is another good resource. As is TV Tropes. But that place is addictive so watch out.
Another great post! Your example of M. Night Shyamalan was brilliant. It helped show the pitfalls of gimmicks better than anything I have ever read before. I’m also so glad that you pointed out that all plots have been done before. It is so freeing to have that acknowledged. So, thank you!
I am seriously loving this series. It has taught me so much and let me know that there are some things that I am actually doing right, which is a nice thing to know for someone as green as me 😉
I love this post! The first novel I attempted is one of those that I would try to sum up and end up with 5 paragraphs instead of one line. I could not tell you what it was about without a long painful description. Sure, I finished it, but even I knew it was lame. I’ve since decided to scrap all but the core idea and start again and this will definitely help. At the core, I know now, is survival. It helps so much to have that clear in my head!
Great advice. I love Captain Caveman too. I have the Notebook to read next, can’t wait. I have been guilty of the complicated plot a few times. Hubby always complains they are too complicated. Bookmarking this for sure!
How do you give this stuff away for free!? This is the best ‘class’ I’ve seen on plot, thank you~
I enjoy teaching it and the more I teach it the stronger my skills get. I also love giving you guys the tools you need to be successful. I know when I was learning how to do this stuff, most of the resources were over my head and didn’t break it down into a basic way that I could grasp, so I am teaching the way I would have liked to have been taught. So happy you are enjoying the series. Thank you!
Hi, Kristen! I was definitely in sherpa/Himalayan territory before you took away my glitter-glue stick, lol. Hey, you’re going to give that back, right? 😉
BTW, I was thinking of you when I put together a post today on MacGuffins: http://kbowenmysteries.com/?p=1733
Are you pro- or anti-MacGuffin?
Yeah…about the glitter and glue stick. They went missing…very uh mysteriously. Long and short. Don’e expect to see them for a while :D. I have no problem with MacGuffins if they are plotted correctly. But it needs to be an actual part of the plot, not Bond-O for failure to plot correctly.
THANK YOU! I have been harboring a secret desire to re-cast one of my favorite novels with a new slant, but I thought it was against some kind of author code of ethics or something. Apparently not. Now, I have permission to begin in earnest. Yahoo!
Hi Kirsten, glad to have found your blog and enjoyed this post about plotting or over-plotting! Lots of good advice, very helpful for newbie writers and even older ones too!
You had me shaking in my boots there for a minute. Thankfully I’m not as bad off as I thought =). Thanks for clarifying things for us newbies. I’m actually wondering now whether or not I should even mention that my book is a fairytale sequal. I could leave that part off and people may not even notice. Or not =)
Great post – made me pin down my underlying prinicipal and it’s definitely protect loved ones. Nice to know I’m in good company. I’m off to tweet this!
I really like the idea about looking at log lines and seeing how I can do them differently. I have a story idea that needs more conflict so I think I will go look for a similar plot for ideas. Thanks!
Wow, what an amazing post…it’s so “meaty” I am going to have to go back and re-read it a couple of times…and take notes. Thanks so much for putting it up, well done!
So much great info here. I’ve had to argue with every editing client I ever had about flashbacks. Newbies LOVE them. From now on, I’m going to use this quote “this makes the reader feel as if she is trapped in the car with a teenager learning to drive a stick-shift.” LOL. Thanks. Another brilliant post on the toughest aspect of writing novels.
Love, love, love your posts! Especially the part about not reinventing the wheel. Whew, that saved me a lot of time 😀
I love your “is it primal” question and the fact that you read so many genres… And this line is a keeper quote: “Pizza has rules. Plot has rules. Can’t get too weird.” 🙂
Thanks for another terrific post, Kristen!
Every time I read a new post on your blog, some pages seem to fall out of my novel. And I am so glad that they do. I think I have finally figured out why I never seem to be satisfied with my own writing.
Fantastic post on keeping it simple. I laughed out loud since in brainstorming for one of my ideas, I thought of a secret past…and a journal…OMG. 🙂 I’ll definitely have to evaluate it against your dead-on criteria and if it doesn’t meet it, it’ll get scrapped.
I also love the idea of taking a fav book, tearing it apart, and making it my own with new twists and turns. As a first time, newbie, the plotting etc can seem overwhelming. I think this would be a more gentle entry.
I came across a post one time about how Avatar was actually spinoff from Pocahontas – very cool – and sums up your point nicely: http://cdn.inquisitr.com/wp-content/2010/01/pocahontas-avatar.jpg
Thanks again Kristen for the FAB lessons!
Another post brimming over with information. “So why not take a story you really love, look at the plot, then make it your own?” For years, I have wanted to rewrite “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea after all? I don’t have time now, but perhaps I should file it away for some time in the future. Thanks for giving us such valuable advice. If we put all this into practice, we should become great authors. Yes? No?
Kristen, I am so thrilled to have found your site, this piece is on time, looking forward to the next one. augie
One story I never get tired of seeing reinterpreted is Seven Samurai. There are plenty of tributes out there for it. Kurosawa also adapted King Lear.
I hadn’t thought about digging to the primal conflicts. In working on a synopsis for my first novel, I kept getting bogged down into the details, clues, and twists. But you’re right. The base conflicts are where I need to start, and where I need to stay. Thanks for the direction!
This is a hard one to swallow but probably true. I need to kill the idea fairy.
Your series is so so helpful, Kristen. As a newbie novelist, learning to full scale outline, I made it far harder than it needed to be. Just like in short stories, my characters need a clear sense of what is driving them. Your primal desire examples hit this home for me. Whew. Now I won’t have people wandering around for hundreds of pages.
I never, never get tired of your posts, and what makes me supremely happy is that more often than not I’m not just interested in what you have to say, but blown away by it!!
I’ve said this before, but you have a real talent for taking something that might seem complicated if mentioned by another blogger, and boiling it down to its most basic elements. Using movies we all know and love helps make things so clear.
Pulp Fiction, freaking brilliant flick, and the way you used it as an exapmle of how to craft sympathetic characters was just as inspired.
Love these posts!! Thank you!
Have a fantastic week,
Oh my freakin’ funny. Well, it’s good to know that I’m following in solid footsteps with the whole “protect the loved ones” thing. Sometimes, my based in the real world story seems so simple when I know people are creating entire other worlds with ghosts and dragons and people with funked out names. Thank you for making me believe in my story, and that it is all in the telling of the story.
Hmmm… M. Night Shyamalan is still a sore spot for me. He ruined The Last Airbender! That’s my brother and I’s favorite nicktoons! We don’t need likeable heroes/heroines that much. That’s the difference between DC comics and Marvel. Superman doesn’t have any weakness except for Kryptonite. Otherwise, he’s perfect. On the other hand, Spiderman is geeky like the rest of us. He’s also having a hard time talking to the girl about his feelings.
“You do not have to revinvent plot as we understand it to tell a darn good story.”
:::sighs with relief:::
Yeah, my plot is one of the oldest in the book. Thanks for the encouragement. And I’m with #7 Courtney above – how DO you give this stuff away for free?
Thank you, anyway!
Everything I’ve read about plotting told me that there were a finite number of basic plot structures. The problem I have is that I set the reader in a hallway with a lot of doors. I give him a gentle shove and let him open the doors he wants. I know this is bad. I can’t give it up. A strong rewrite will bail me out. Thanks for the insight.
Ohmygosh you make me laugh so hard! Marcia Richards just posted about laughing today ~ that it’s super good for us and if you laugh for 15 minutes you burn 50 calories. I think I just burned off my dinner, I was laughing so hard!
Shoot her. Now. Double-tap.
It’s so funny because, well, I might have made all these mistakes at one point in my writing journey. Where were you five years ago!?! Well, I have you now so it’s all good.
Thanks again. You rock.
Very informative!! Thanks for teaching the building blocks!!
Every time I come here to your blog I find something so helpful to writers. Will send a link to a new writer I am helping, as I think this explanation of plot is one of the best I’ve read. And you always make the lessons so much fun. Thanks….
“Have I scared the socks off you or offered you new inspiration?”
I was well into my novel for NaNoWriMo and stuck because of being “too cute and clever.” I was freaking out about my word count. Today you explained this concept of there being only so many plots so succinctly that I am relieved and newly inspired. To heck with word count. Get the right direction going moving forward and I won’t have to do hundreds of rewrites. Thanks for saving me hours of useless wheel spinning.
I offer this in rebuttal….
Have you ever read a book and thought, “if the character did this or if the dialogue was this, then the book would be even better….”
The point is, just because so many plots have been done doesn’t mean they can’t be done better. We’re trying to make art, right? Right?
Moral ambiquity is it’s own plot. Most writers don’t do it well. Ever read a Johnathon Franzen book? No one is likable and few characters are even sympathetic, but he makes them so interesting that you want to get inside of them.
I just think that you can write better by breaking some rules and creating new ones. Jack Kerouac and his buddies did that in the 50s.
Just because the fundamentals are the same doesn’t mean we need to be formulaic. Think Jimi Hendrix. He broke all kinds of musical rules, but he was still using the same fundamentals. Notes don’t change. The are E,G,B,D,F and F,A,C, E, sharp or flat, only so many keys. Same with writing. The fundamentals are the core and they are rather simple. How you put them together is when it becomes art.
Okay Kristen, you’ve scared me. But at least you did it with humor. Is that really possible?
Well back to my #WANA1011 class before you zap me in the A$$! So much to learn. So little time.
I have nightmares now. Blogging, tweeting. Tweeting, blogging. And I’ve developed a strange affection for wordpress, although it might cause a divorce between my husband and I.
I have to go now. It’s time to post another blog. (neck flinching, eye twitching)
The primal discussion has got me thinking of interesting things. I especially like the description of Jurassic Park (I’m an action reader, and I like monsters), and I like how everything is broken down into it’s simplest forms. A lot of craft books get too much into theory and not much into how. Thanks for the good info!
I was getting worried half-way through your post and had to pull out pen and paper and get that ONE line down. Whew!
Then when I read the part about taking an old story and giving it a rewrite, I breathed a sigh of relief. That is actually what I am doing. It’s an old tale that has been done by the Grimm brothers (King Thrushbeard) and Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew). If it has worked before, then I have hope!
I laughed when I read the part about agent pitching sessions. God, those used to twist me in knots. My solution was not to do them anymore, but I like yours better. Get your one line and let them ask questions if they’re interested. You don’t get any time in the group sessions anyway as there’s always one poor soul who blathers for 5 minutes (due to this same issue)!
I’m loving this series, Kristen.
“Twilight is Jane Eyre with vampires” – LOL! I love that! Honestly, I haven’t read either book but I know I *should* read Jane Eyre. Maybe now I will just to test that opinion… it is collecting dust on my bookshelf after all.
Thanks for another great plot on writing and plot structure. You boil down the essentials in a clear and direct manner, with just a pinch (ok, handful) of humor. I don’t write but I want to be an editor in the future so your advice/this series is very informative. It’s good to get a balanced author-editor perspective. Publishers don’t know what readers want (hence their struggle and slow decline) and I believe it’s an editors job to work with authors to bridge the two. From my understanding, editors are spending less time on book development and real editing. Authors and readers suffer when sales and marketing teams drive publishing decisions. My two cents, anyways.
Looking forward to future posts!
Great post. I heartily agree. So, in hopes that you read ALL comments to your blog, I’ll sum up the story arc of my soon-to-be-self-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. Okay, just the first part, which I like to tell myself stands alone as a novella.
Story arc in three parts: Boy, MC, loves the Girl Next Door, but she knows being seen with him is social suicide. Roving gang kidnaps her, MC goes to rescue her (RESCUE/QUEST plot); MC finds GND unhurt because gang has been brutally murdered; they return home to find MC’s parents murdered by same assailant; MC goes for REVENGE. He succeeds, but unwittingly brings new adversaries to light and has to run away (ESCAPE plot).
What do you think?
I think since you let us read the first part of this on your blog and now I’m invested in the book, you need to let me be in your writer’s group so I can find out the rest of the story! Seriously.
That, or get it published tomorrow so I can buy it. ; )
Running away is a lousy plot. I just watched “The Adjustment Bureau” and most of the movie is him running away and it has this neat contrived ending that was less-than-heroic. Avoidance is a poor goal and doesn’t have the makings of a hero. With “The Adjustment Bureau” I was annoyed over the 6 bucks to rent. So there are those stories out there, but they really aren’t that interesting. My opinion? The dead parents are a purple tornado (see Part 2 of the series). I think you are diluting the power of the story with gimmicky “I’m not going to tell you who the ‘real” bad guys are.” Bob Mayer taught me to start with the antagonist FIRST. IF not for the antagonist, there is NO story. No Darth and Death Star, then who cares about Luke? Figure out who the BBT is then it is easier to plot without relying on luck dragons. I also highly recommend Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. I think it your idea starts out interesting, but not understanding the BBT’s agenda is making it fizzle.
I know that since I asked you for your opinion, I shouldn’t argue. But I can’t help it – I’m French.
I can’t agree that escape is a lousy plot. Some great movies are based on the theme. The Great Escape, for one. Books? How about an obscure 200 year old work called The Count of Monte Cristo.
In this novella, the BBT is the killer of the parents, so his parents’ death is not a purple tornado. It’s the crisis that launches the revenge plot.
But you have it too late. Also, is this a “rescue the girlfriend” plot or a revenge plot? I never said you couldn’t do it, I said it is in the wrong spot. In my workshop, there was nothing, per se, wrong with the writer’s purple tornado, it was that he had it in the wrong point in the book. I think you have a book that is trying to do too much. Pick something or it waters it down.
If you truly WANT a revenge plot, then revenge plots end with revenge…not running away like a nancy. In Chronicles of Riddick, he is an unlikely hero, a dark hero, but he doesn’t run away/walk away…he kills Lord Marshall and stops the threat AND gets revenge for LM killing the Furian race.
Not that you won’t have running away, but it still can’t be the plot. Well, it can, it will just likely suck. Readers read books for heroes, not people who run when the heat is on. The “running away” needs to be part of the story, not the plot. And, in “The Great Escape” running away wasn’t the goal; distracting the German army so they couldn’t fight on the front lines was the goal–the escape part was just HOW they provided a distraction. Also, TGE is based off a true story and thus are true events fleshed over narration. But again…running away isn’t the whole objective. Running away is the PLAN.
If you want a revenge plot, then fine, move it forward and it is Turning Point Act One. In Normal World we see ur protag mooning over a girl he can never have. He is busy making goo-goo eyes at her and pisses off a gang member who has his eyes on her too. Boy comes home to dead parents and assumes gang did it in retaliation and that is the Turning Point into the story….not something that pops up close to act three because you need manufactured conflict. I never said it was a bad story. Said it was a good one if you arrange the events in a better narrative order. As it stands you start out with a powerful love story then revenge to top it off with a plan of running away. Bad idea.
A better structure is Act One–hero doesn’t know who attacked. He is running after parents are dead. Turning point Act II, he gets evidence that tells him it really is that gang and he thinks they have swiped girl of his dreams. He collects allies and starts fighting back, but he’s hitting in the darkness. False high point. He has discovered where the gang is and where they are keeping his girl. He can get revenge AND find girlfriend. Darkest moment. Discovers gang in hideout are all dead and girlfriend is no longer there. All seems lost. Rally to the call. It is at this point he recalls all of the clues that told him it was the gang and realizes he was only seeing what he wanted to see. Now, he KNOWS who the BBT is. Turning Point Act III. Gathers resources and what’s left of his nerve and will for the final press to the Big Boss Battle where protag rises to become a hero. Defeats BBT, rescues the girl and has his revenge and the world is restored only better than in the beginning in Normal World.
This is the simple foundation that will resonate on a primal level with readers. If we go switching around the order of things to be cute and different, then it’s like hitting an off-key to the reader, Intuitively we know when music is played on key. We don’t need a music degree to wince at a flat note. When narrative escalation is botched and in the wrong order, we get confused of bored. Thus, I still say if you will merely narrow your focus and rearrange some items, you will get far stronger impact because you will have resonance.
And just because the foundation is simple, doesn’t mean you cannot built something complex (NOT complicated) on top. Heck, in Act One, this guy can have all sorts of people who don’t like him, so all of us are guessing which of these groups took out his parents and why. The story then peels back the layers of falsehood to reveal the truth….and the readers cheer because they have been playing detective in time with your protag.
I’m not sure what you mean by my writer’s group. I don’t really belong to a crit circle (although I wouldn’t mind joining one). But I’m glad that you want to read more.
I’m publishing Part 1 next week as an e-pub; if you like, I’ll send you an advance review copy.
Anyone else on this page interested? Just ask.
THANK YOU KRISTEN!!!! This post just gave me the boost I needed to move forward in the book I’m writing. I was ready to toss it in the furnace with napalm AND C4. I have been inspired more than you could possibly know. The Book (and series) have been rescued. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!
This has really validated what I’ve been realizing from tv shows – you can create endless stories by changing the arena and the context.
The recent movie Bridesmaids as brilliant in that it was the shadow movie focussed on the bridesmaid the bride is leaving behind, so we watch the bride’s rom com of being flashdanced to a more exciting and bigger world, with the bridemaid’s movie overlapping and moving laterally.
make it about the night shift instead of the day shift,
or how Deep Space 9 was like Federation: The Space Station Administration Unit
and Voyager was Star Trek Lost in Space edition.
Pizza has rules! Love it and my son would agree completely.
Have discovered that I am a terrible over plotter and a lover of making things too complicated to the point where I lose the plot entirely. Hence three quarters through I have to stop and think where the hell am I going with this?
The reference to Shyamalan really got me thinking. I think I’ve always thought in terms of the ‘dancing cat on the ceiling’ scene and the desperate need to have THAT moment that everyone will remember and/or talk about. Better to allow such a scene to develop out of the story itself rather than ramming it in there.
Reminds me of Lost, which I loved till they twisted things up so much that for me it collapsed under the weight of its own cleverness.
Thank you Kristen for another very helpful post. 🙂
In lieu of a link back from a blog, I’ve linked to your blog on Twitter – http://twitter.com/#!/Neeky78/status/135717613820063745
Thanks Kristen! This post, and the previous 5 in the series, have been brilliant. Often I read writing tips from experts and they confuse me and fill me with self-doubt. But the check-list you outlined in your posts was clear, actionable and has filled me with confidence that I have a strong foundation worth working on. I’m a big fan of analogies too and love coming up with them!
I’m just now getting caught up with your blog and have a question. Can a driving force be curiosity? A mystery to solve, or does it have to go deeper than that? I’m thinking Dan Brown like stories. Robert Langdon is thrust into a mystery, the solve of which propels him further. I know in the Lost Symbol, he has his friend to save, but I don’t know if that same driving force is present in his other novels. Could loyalty to a friend or idea be a strong motivating force?
Another great post, Kristen :). Shyamalan, however, needs to learn how to structure a story. It’s why Hollywood is hesitant to make another movie with him. See Storyfix.com on story structure, too. Love reading your posts. Keep up the good work!