The Single Largest Cause of Writer's Block–Might Not Be What You Believe

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Today, I’d like to talk about the single greatest reason for writer’s block (aside from laziness and fear, but we can chat about those another time). I spent years as an editor, and I believe I’m a pretty good one. I’ve taken stories that were train wrecks and helped the author create a best-seller. Just ask Piper Bayard about Firelands, LOL.

I had a unique ability to pull apart a story and locate what wasn’t working and why. Then I could guide that writer to the best book possible (without altering that writer’s voice). Editing is a skill, but it’s a different skill from creating. For instance, a person who restores historical houses isn’t necessarily someone who can draw a blueprint and build a new house. The restorer looks to the bones of the house and fixes what’s already standing to help create what the owner envisions.

Same with editing. There is less creating and more reverse-engineering.

When I initially began writing fiction, I was shocked how terrible I was at it. Oh, page to page, the writing was lovely. But as a whole? I kept creating mess after mess, a blob with no internal structure that made sense. To make matters worse, I would hit about 30-40, 000 words an hit a WALL. I was paralyzed with no idea how the story should progress.

This, then led to editing and reediting the beginning until I was just ready to throw myself in traffic.

I was blocked.

Was it the wrong story? Was the idea flawed? Oh, let me try something new. 

Writing can feel a little like THIS...

Writing can feel a little like THIS…

Yet, time after time the same thing happened. I’d hit the exact same spot and paralysis would set in. I kept reading craft books and yet, nothing clicked. I’d start some new writing teacher’s program and again. STUCK. I’d hear things like, “Write your ending first” and it just made me want to punch the person who said it.

How is this even possible? Write the ending. RIGHT. After I take my pet unicorn for a ride.

Then I took NYT best-selling author Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer class. We spent two days doing what he calls a “conflict lock.” I still didn’t get it. Bob kept asking me what kind of protagonist I wanted. Who was she? I had her in mind and yet…the plot ideas would end up so complicated even I didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about.

After some time, I am sure Bob was probably ready to hairlip me. I know I was ready to hairlip myself.

In frustration, Bob finally said the words that changed everything, “Okay, Kristen. Stop talking to me or I will call the cops.”


Bob said, “Forget the protagonist. Let’s start with the antagonist. Who is he and what does he want?”

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Everything changed, and I finally saw what I was doing wrong. I was creating my hero with no problem. I had to begin with the story problem first or plotting would be next to impossible. Why? I had no idea what the hell my protagonist was trying to SOLVE!

I also was carrying around misguided ideas of what an antagonist was.

She is her OWN worst enemy.


Um, yeah…no.

This set me a on a new course. I stopped writing fiction altogether and threw everything I had into studying antagonists. I read stacks of novels, this time paying attention to the antagonists. I read psychological journals, profiling books, and tore apart every movie I watched (my husband has banned me from speaking during movies). I reverse engineered everything until I understood antagonists from every angle possible.

When most of us start out as baby writers, we only think of antagonists as villains. Buffalo Bill. Easy. But what if we don’t want to write about serial killers? And even if we DO want to write about serial killers, we can’t put the killer in every scene. A villain alone isn’t enough.

Don't make me toss you in my well....

Don’t make me toss you in my well….

High body count is still, as Les Edgerton would put it, a bad situation not conflict. Car chases and gun battles are not dramatic tension and can quickly become tedious in movies and books.

As I began to speak at more and more conferences, I saw how far-reaching this problem was. When I’d ask a writer to give me her pitch, I’d get something like this:

Well, it’s about a girl who is half-fairy and in high school, but she doesn’t know she has magic and, wait. Let me back up… Her mom fell in love with a vampire but then her mom had an affair with an evil fae and now their kingdom is in ruin because of werewolves and my character needs to find herself. She keeps having these dreams and there are these journals left by her aunt who was only 1/8 fae….

Kill…me…now *looks for closest wine bar*.

I started to realize what I had done to poor Bob (and I sent a letter of apology and a thank you for not slapping me). But it showed me something critical. Most new writers are backing into the story the wrong way.

With no clear antagonist, it is impossible to know the core story problem in need of resolution by Act Three. It’s impossible to plot (even good pantsers still have to know the story problem). It’s impossible to generate dramatic tension and what we are left with is melodrama….and a great way of getting STUCK at 30,000 words and wanting to kill ourselves and give up being novelists.

As an editor I knew when these elements were missing, but couldn’t articulate my instincts. I had to train and study and read until I got it.

Looking back at all those-half-finished novels, I now know how to fix them because I know what was missing to begin with. The novel I’m revising right now (that I easily finished) is actually one of those works that made it to 40,000 words then *insert sounds of squealing breaks here*.

The antagonist is the beating heart of the story. He/She/It creates the crisis and the crucible that forces our protagonist to become a hero. If we don’t know the endgame, we have no idea how to insert roadblocks, create misdirection, setbacks, or drama. So if you keep getting stuck? It might not be you are lazy or fearful (I wasn’t either). It might be your foundation (the antagonist/core story problem) either isn’t there or it’s weak and unable to support the bulk of 65-100,000 words.

I am offering an on-line class on antagonists next Friday. Use the code WANA15 for 15% off, and the class is recorded if you can’t make the actual window. But, if you want other resources you can read on your own (check out of the library), some great references are:

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

Hooked by Les Edgerton

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches by Jessica Morrell

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD

The DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition)

Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas, the father of modern profiling

Take one of Bob Mayer’s workshops or Les Edgerton or even James Scott Bell. They are fabulous teachers.

Yet, if you are stuck, take heart. You might not be lazy or scared, you might just need some foundation repair :D. Good news is most stories can be fixed, just might take a lot of elbow grease. Yet, once you are finally headed in the right direction? That’s when the magic can happen.

What are your thoughts? What other books would you add to my list? Have you gotten stuck?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.


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  1. Whenever I start conceiving a story pitch for my next article, I think in terms of characters, scenes and action, without which there is no story worth reading. I also need to know my story’s headline and how to sell it in one sentence. Until I have that much clarity, it’s not time to pitch.

    My next pitch? “The Oligarchs’ Toybox.”

  2. Wow! Perfect timing! Are you hiding in my laptop or something? I wrote two chapters of my first foray into fiction (say that three times real fast…) and had to stop (my mentor insisted). She forced me to go back and plot out the whole thing. She said the first or second time I write a novel, particularly a murder mystery, I need to have an idea of the melody the book will make. Beyond a shadowy figure of a bad guy who’s been slowly coming into focus, I hadn’t figured out exactly who my protagonist was. I’m going to have a fun weekend working on this now! Thanks, Kristen!

  3. O my stars….you have hit my nail on the head. 40000 words and waiting…it’s time to go to work on my antag. Thanks, Kristen!

  4. Kristen,
    I know exactly what you mean about getting stuck. I am there right now. I have made every excuse under the sun why I am not moving forward. I need to revise the first chapters. I must figure out how to mix in a backstory slowly without creating an entire chapter that stops the forward motion in its tracks, I’ve got company, I have to work my day job . . . You name it, I’ve made the excuse. And everyone one of them are real, but that is NOT why I’m not writing. I’m stuck at 40K words. I’m going to read and re-read this article until I get it and do the reference work you suggested. (more delays in writing – THAT I can do). Then, I AM going to get back to write. I AM, I promise.

    • Christine Benson on July 19, 2013 at 11:01 am
    • Reply

    THANK YOU!!! That’s exactly where I have stopped. I keep saying, “Oh, I need to reread so I know where I was going with this… Blah blah blah”
    You are exactly right! I have a rough antagonist in my head, but until I write her out, I’m not getting any further! And she’s gonna be a nasty, racist old bird. I think that’s why I’ve avoided her, she makes me uncomfortable. But, I know if I flesh her out, this book will basically finish itself. I have been on this precipice for too long! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  5. WHAT an awesome post! I am so excited to look over my work now with this in mind. Definitely going to check out the books you recommended as well. Thanks so much, Kristen.

  6. Great post, Kristen!

    When I’m in the development stage, I start with character, not plot. Oh, I may know the gist of the crime that needs to be solved, but I concentrate on the main characters, including the antagonist. Especially the antagonist! I do just as detailed a character analysis of the antagonist as I do the protags.

    And also agreed: the protags have got to be flawed, with their own internal conflicts apart from what’s going on with the plot. The plot’s gotta force them to confront themselves.

    Bob is the best. I know him from a long ways back (through the now defunct Maui Writers Conference). He knows his s**t for sure! And, he’s a nice guy.

    • White Lily on July 19, 2013 at 11:13 am
    • Reply

    Hahah… Oh, yes, do I know this one. I realize I have antagonists in a wide variety. Some half-gods and their dedicated priesthood are in the background, but right at the front is my hero’s half-brother who thinks he should rule instead of hero’s mother … and the nice thing is that he’s right. He’s just not sure and have no proof (yet). Hero is clueless to why his half-brother wants to kill him, of course….

  7. I’ve had the exact same problem as you, Kristen! I created heroes to do great deeds, but they had no villain to vanquish and there was no plot. Recently I hit the jackpot. I found you could use Tarot cards to help with your writing. I’ve been using my cards as a method of getting into my villain’s mind: what’s his motivation, what’s his story, what’s his weakness, what’s his strength, what kind of person would it take to stop him? The cards don’t give details, but they are great at creating outlines, which you can fill as the story evolves. And thanks for listing those books! (Also, I’m just commenting as there’s just no WIP yet for me to justify entering your contest.)

    • Jennifer Cole on July 19, 2013 at 11:17 am
    • Reply

    Seriously Kristen! Seriously! This is a godsend! I’ve been fiddling with a serial killer novel for like a month or two but even though I had my good guy to square off with the serial killer, I didn’t have my serial killer down pat. It would be good to develop the problem first and then see how to fix the problem and go from there. Oh my gosh! Thank you.

    Whenever I get it written and published, I’m so going to put you in the acknowledgements. Thank you! Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2013 15:27:37 +0000 To:

  8. Possibly the single most useful post on novel writing I’ve ever been lucky enough to come across… thank you! *takes WiP* *turns it backwards* *looks at it again* NOW it all makes sense! 🙂

  9. We must have been plotting the same books. What’s your record for glazing over an agent’s eyes?

  10. You are the funniest writer I follow. I love your writing. And it doesn’t hurt that I agree with you.

    • Debbie on July 19, 2013 at 11:27 am
    • Reply

    Yes, I’m stuck in my current wip. Its lit fic and has a Waiting For Godot feel about it. I actually stopped writing and read this play just to try and break past the block. I think it’s fear that I’m over-simplifying a complex issue. I think you may have nailed it though. I need to engage the character and thus the reader in conflict. You’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.

    And yes, my pitch for the first ms is a mess. I understand the antagonist and can write the pitch as though he were the main character but that is misleading. I can’t make it interesting from the main characters perspective though. To me it sounds dull and well, dull.

  11. I recently read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (which you recommended in one of your books) and boy, I sure wish I’d read it before I wrote my first novel. It took me 6 weeks to write that book and 2 years of (major) revisions to get it right. Thank you, Kristen, for all you do for writers! I wouldn’t be the writer I am becoming without you!

    1. I always recommend him when I blog about plotting. He ROCKS.

  12. Arghh!! This post was clearly written exclusively for me, bogged down at 55,000 words into my third historical romance. I can’t even open the file because I’m so stuck. I’d rather do my family’s laundry, put ointment on the dog’s butt rash, give my deaf cat her antibiotics at great risk to my facial features, pull weeds in the current 100 degree heat–anything but face my stuck story. Help! I will open it, however, and check under the saloons and in the riverboat, under the heroine’s skirts and in the hero’s boots to see if I can come up with a suitable antagonist. HELP ME, Obiwan, I mean Kristen, you’re my only hope.

    1. Take the class. That’s what we are going to do. Pull apart stories and fix your antags.

  13. Words of truth sprinkled with humor. Like a spoon full of sugar to get the medicine down. The nice thing about historical. Fiction is you know the ending the challenge is to make everyone’s motives clear & entertaining. Different slant on same issue.

  14. I totally hit that point in the ms I’m rewriting (well re-plotting) now. Except my main character didn’t match her voice, and though I loved (loving and loathing are actually a very close description) my villain, I didn’t get what she was after. Until one day I realized my main character was a different age (thus the rewrite). Suddenly, I knew exactly what my villain was after, and the pieces are falling into place more easily. Now I’m excited and I am charting out the journey before the big rewrite.

    Also, I am banned from speaking during movies for a similar but also annoying habit. We were doing a marathon of the Hannibal series, and I was watching that scene where they walk in to see him in prison for the first time, and noticed the most beautiful stone stairs in the background, and said so. Thus the ban. It’s a hazard when you bring (intern) architects to the movies…

  15. I have 2 current projects – 34k words on one, 56k words on the other – and both are blocked solid. I’ve been putting it down to laziness [and there is an element of that tbh] but I think the antagonists warrant another look too. Thanks for this post and for the encouragement to take a sideways look.

  16. Wow and I thought all my procrastinating was just that..procrastination. It totally makes sense now. I need to work on the bad demon and figure out what makes her so bad ass that my girl won’t escape too easily. Oh and I haven’t forgotten your earlier advice “Let the bodies hit the floor”. Always a pleasure.

  17. This is absolutely it!
    I’ve started this book twice and keep getting totally stuck at right about the same spot… Now I know why. There’s just not enough friction to generate enough energy to keep it going to the conclusion!

    1. I’m don’t know how to make a “trackback” (sad, I know). So to be sure you see this:


  18. You. Are. My. Hero. That is all.

    • MichelleBS on July 19, 2013 at 12:07 pm
    • Reply

    And bingo! We have a winner! This is my exact problem with writing. I started one WIP during Nanowrimo back in 2005. It’s STILL speaking to me, but the story fell flat in the middle. I didn’t know what to do with it to get past the 30,000 word mark! I’ve tried taking plotting or story method workshops without finding a solution. I was nearly ready to just quit and burn all my writing.

    • Peggy West on July 19, 2013 at 12:12 pm
    • Reply

    Your article helps with a novel I’m writing in which there’s too much going on with ancillary characters. Get out the delete key.

  19. According to Stann Lee, “A villain without a nickname is like a day without sunshine.”
    ‘Nuff said.
    Slightly relevant, anyway…

  20. The novel that became my “salvage yard” was scrapped at 60k words in exactly the same manner. Screeching halt. Parts of it became the novel that I published, though, it’s bittersweet.

  21. Hi Kristen, I have heard that every scene should have an antagonist and that antagonist can be the protagonist of the whole story. Do you believe that is true?

    1. Yes it’s true. No antag, no conflict. No conflict, no forward momentum. But scenes and sequels are different and the antagonist is a VERY complex role…which is why I created a class. Just remember the antagonist is whoever is standing in the way of what the protagonist wants in that scene. If my goal is to make it to the courthouse to take on a bad guy and my husband wants me to stay home and play with Spawn instead of fighting injustice, IN THAT SCENE my husband would be in the role of antagonist (even though he is an ally :D).

      Why? I want to go to courthouse and fight injustice and Hubby wants me to stay home. CONFLICT.

      Make sense?

      1. Great point!

  22. Hahaha! As I was reading this post, my kids were watching Sesame Street. Elmo was “stuck” writing his story, “Elmo’s Adventure on the Planet G.” He must have read your post too because everytime he got unstuck was because of a new antagonist who came along to move the story. 😉 Hooray Sesame Street – instructing future superstar writers!

  23. LOVE this post!! Love your comparison on a person who restores historical houses and someone who can draw a blueprint and build a new house. That’s so true! And you 100% sold me on your editing talents!!!

    I always make certain that my antagonist has all his POVs in place but your post has def drilled it into my head. I think my next project I am going really focus on the antagonist more. You listed two of my fave books (Plot and Structure and Hooked). Thank you, K!!!!

  24. Gasp! You’re right. Back to half-finished mss under my bed.

  25. Dara Marks’ Inside Story is also a wonderful writing book that explains the transformational arc and its relation to plot in a way I’ve never read before.
    Great post, as always!

    • terencekuch on July 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm
    • Reply

    A problem is figuring out, when planning a novel, how to make it a certain length to meet genre or publisher expectations. I’ve seen a lot of SF and mainstream novels obviously padded, for no good reason other than to avoid the “novella effect,” meaning no sale or, if you’re lucky, very little $$. A fellow writer who was stuck at 65,000 words said “I’ll just add [narrative] detail!” to which I said “Don’t do that. Add subplots and, if that doesn’t do it, as a last-ditch effort, add characters.” The worst option would be to add your favorite five thousand adverbs, a few times each.
    “Hairlip”? Curious: what is that? The Urban Dictionary doesn’t have it listed, There is “harelip,” a disfiguring medical condition, but I don’t think that’s what you meant.

    – TK

    1. Because it’s Southern/Texan. Bust you in the mouth, essentially. 🙂

  26. This is part of the problem with my current WIP. My antagonist isn’t one, but three. And they are nebulous at that. Society, spouse, stranger – and what part of each creates which tension at what time? You have given me much to think about and work on. Thank you!

  27. Reblogged this on Library of Erana.

  28. This was my first blog post to read-where have I been? This is a treasure trove of information for us writers! I have already texted some of my writer friends who I know do not know about you and told them to sign up here. This will be my go to place for information! My debut novel, Crosstown Park, is scheduled for release October 1 and I am writing the sequel and since my topics deal with topical issues of the day, staying on top of the news and making sure all sides of an issue are presented is important. Thanks for the resources to tackle book 2!

  29. This is true for non-fiction writers, as well, but instead of focusing on creating a realistic antagonist, a non-fiction writer needs to focus on creating an accurate avatar—a detailed picture of their ideal reader. It’s not enough to simply identify the problem you’re trying to help your reader solve (my book will help readers “live fully in the Now” or “make a million dollars by Tuesday”) or to create an avatar of your ideal reader’s niche statistics (she’s female, early 30s, with a full-time job, 1.7 kids, and a constantly cranky husband).

    A non-fiction writer needs to take a fictional approach to writing and create a fully fleshed-out and very human avatar who’s struggling to solve the problem the book addresses, and has the scars to prove it. A non-fiction writer needs to consider: What are your avatar’s feelings and fears? How has she tried, and failed, to solve this problem before? What are the questions she’s asking, the assumptions she’s making, and what is she completely blind to? Which walls was she able to scale, and which did she trip over? The more fleshed out your avatar, the more helpful your book will be. You might also have one or two minor avatars (not quite as fully fleshed-out) that illustrate readers who have a different experience with or relationship to the problem your book is helping them solve.

    Kristen, thank you for another wonderful blog post!!


  30. Reblogged this on bodopat.

  31. Thanks for being my pocket therapist. I’ve had this problem recently and the last time you wrote about it, It hit me what was missing.

  32. Ok, I have a question. Does the antagonist always have to be a person, or can it be a situation? My soon to finish editing WIP is about a loving family about to be ripped apart by the surprise announcement of their parent’s divorce at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party. This is not the main plot point, but one of the ones working toward a climax.

    1. But those are people. Allies, love interests, etc. will all play the role of the antagonist at some point. They are different from what I call The Big Boss Troublemaker (who is responsible for the core story problem and who will be defeated at the end). EVERY SCENE needs an antagonist. Scenes are also different than sequels, but we will go over that in the class.

      1. Oh I have a nasty Antagonist that will shock everyone in the story.

  33. I had exactly this lightbulb moment while watching Man Of Steel. My primary antagonist was flat and boring and just plain crap and as a result the drive of the story was the same. If there was any drive at all! It’s a shame, because I’m working on something else at the moment, letting that novel slow cook for a bit, but when I go back to it… I’m going to rip it to shreds, because now I know what needs to be there! Mwa hah ah ha ha haa!

  34. You said the class on Antagonists is next Friday. The date given when signing up is Tuesday, July 23rd. Which is it?

    1. I had to change the date because I was FRIED. It’s Friday the 26th. We had a virus in our system that crashed the main work computer so the change mustn’t have taken. It’s FRIDAY for sure.

    2. BTW, THANK YOU for catching that. We have spent the past three days re-imaging an infected computer and it totally slipped past us that the change didn’t register. SO SORRY for any confusion.

  35. I had the same experience, actually. After literally dozens of drafts and revisions and head-to-wall action, I finally changed the identity of my villain… and suddenly everything clicked into place.

    You know, next Thursday is my birthday… I might take your class as a present to myself…

  36. So it comes back to the old adage…it’s hard to write a book without a story. Nice post. Hahaha!

  37. I really enjoyed this and appreciated the perspective.

    I can definitely identify with your early attempts at fiction – I spent 10 years working on a novel (it was eventually, as I say, rejected by 30 reputable publishing houses). The structure just wasn’t there to support the story, but my individual sentences – those had been polished (and polished and polished) until they positively glowed.

    What you’re saying reminds me of the conventional view of Milton’s characters in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained – that his Lucifer is so much more interesting and rich than his God . . .

    • Yvette Carol on July 19, 2013 at 4:28 pm
    • Reply

    Bob’s Warrior Writer course was life-changing for me as well! I recommend it to every writer I know.

  38. Great timing! I think your post will make me revisit my ideas and rebuild the entire book on my mind, after studying a little more… I heard it is helpful for some writers to have some sort of outline of the whole story drawn and mapped out before even starting, and some people even draw their characters so they can visualize what they created. Have you ever done something like this? Do you find it helpful?

  39. I have this problem, big time! However, I have finally figured out what my antagonist wants and fears, as well as what she needs, and it turns out my hero can help with all of them, if he could learn of them and if she wasn’t trying to kill him. Now the outline is really moving along when before it was stalled out.

  40. I have written to write the ending scene first and work backwards for dealing with writing blocks. It works for me. It helps in writing the middle. During plotting and outlining a novel, I usually have the beginning and The End. If I know the ending, I can fill in the details on how to get it completed. My WIPS on hold are usually because I cannot decide on the ending. Art imitating a future reality or who cares; just write the Hover Dam story. She is probably not allowed to send him E-mail and the post office is being monitored so one can only imagine what the church is doing, probably since JFK then LBJ.

  41. HowEver to write it.

  42. This is a great reminder! I started out in fanfiction where the baddies were just as colorful as the heroes, but in a ying/yang sort of way. I love me some good villains. In my current story my plot started to run dry because I hadn’t written any of the villain’s scenes yet. I went back and sketched them in, and bam, I was off and running again. I love the foil and the counter-foil, and the way it swings the plot.

  43. Oh…* runs to semi-abandoned project with new light in eyes*

  44. I had no antagonist until I read a series of your blog posts sometime last year (the BBT series). Total lightbulb moment for me, too. I revised my book to add an antagonist, and now I’m rewriting again to polish up the secondary antagonists. Your class is good timing for me; seriously tempted.

  45. Great post, as usual. My problem is often creating too many problems and then painting my MC into a corner, or losing sight of the endgame. So, does that mean calling you a Drama Queen is a compliment? 🙂

    1. Problems are great, but there HAS to be the CORE. THAT is what ACT THREE is all about.

  46. “High body count is still, as Les Edgerton would put it, a bad situation not conflict.High body count is still, as Les Edgerton would put it, a bad situation not conflict.” Ummmm…..someone forgot to tell GRR Martin about this, LOL.

    Just kidding. In my own crit group I frequently find the same issue you did. A fine story until the shuddering realization there is not enough antagonist to provide the conflict to carry the story.
    Often the response is “…of course there is an antagonist! It’s Joe Smith and he doesn’t want….” and soon there is a circular attempt at creating something that winds up only being melodrama without a deep enough core to create what the story requires.

    You always put these things so well. I am going to def try to attend your class if only because I would love to actually see you ‘at work’ teaching us how things work.

    Thanks again, hon

  47. I outline precisely to torture the characters into giving me their full story — and assuring it resolves rather than just peters out.

    But even before I write the outline, I jot down notes until whatever it is that originally spurred the imagination has the elements of story. I had not one but two ideas that kept hopping up for over a decade where I had the antagonist, but the details of the protagonist to oppose them would not cohere.

  48. Reblogged this on Seraglio and commented:
    This is good, from Kirsten Lamb. Useful even for literary fiction writers, not just plotters & genre peeps.

  49. I’ve been reading HOOKED by Les Edgerton. Loving it! I’m making a list of the other books for later.

  50. This post clearly articulates why many of the most well-known movie actors have more fun playing villain roles than hero roles.

  51. I suspect I have this problem as well. Thanks for turning it around and presenting it in a way that makes it so obvious. It comes down to physics, in a way: every action having an equal (ish) and opposite reaction.

    I have also always liked the idea that the antagonist is the hero of his/her own story, and try to keep this in mind at all times, but sometimes lose my way a bit…

  52. Kristen, I so agree with this. I have great fun constructing my antagonist’s character because I want them to be complex and interesting people with goals and motivations that are in conflict with my hero’s or heroine’s goals etc. There’s no point having a great hero if he has to defeat a weak villain. I also love going into the backgrounds of my villains and discovering what has made them the way they are. I find they really come alive for me and lead the story in ways I don’t always anticipate. In my sixth novel, one of the villains grabbed me in a way that no other villain had and it became a crisis for me in the end when I had to decide if she lived or died. As I said to my readers, I wondered if there wasn’t some of Ruth Bellamy in every one of us.

    Great post. Love all your others too. It’s wonderful of you to offer other writers the benefit of your skills and experience.

    • Tomi on July 19, 2013 at 11:45 pm
    • Reply

    Great and encouraging post. Thanks for the references. Looking forward to your post on laziness and fear as I suspect it’ll give me a good shaking!

  53. This was a great blog. It hit home. I’m sitting here with various pieces (about 60+ chapters) of a trilogy that is going nowhere because I have too many questions about the antagonist and his motivations.

    • kerriepaterson on July 20, 2013 at 1:31 am
    • Reply

    I think you just hit the nail on the head with my current manuscript. My CP is telling me it needs to be stronger and I can’t have everyone being nice and getting along 🙂 About to sign up for your class – looking forward to it!

  54. Serious Deja vu! I think I learnt this at a writing course many years ago but I don’t think they emphasised it as much as you did here. They said one of the key elements of good fiction is conflict at all levels in the story, from the humble scene to the full novel. The main story-wide conflict must be established early or you risk losing the reader. Logically the goals of both the antogonist and protagonist must be known by the author from the beginning, even if not all is revealed until later. Even if the author doesn’t know immediately and just pantses their way towards the end, they need to get it established before the first rewrite when they can fx everything up.
    Great advice!

  55. Love the idea of writing the bad guy first, then you find the motivation for your good guy. The bad guys are the movers and shakers in the plot and the most interesting. Or they should be! 🙂

    • Lisa Macaione on July 20, 2013 at 8:49 am
    • Reply

    This post helps a lot for a piece I’ve been conceptualizing for a while now. I’m happy to have found your blog, thanks!

  56. I wish I’d found this blog sooner. You had me laughing several times while reading this one.

    I’m currently stuck, actually, but I don’t think it’s because I have antagonist problems. I like my antagonists well rounded, actually. I know where the conflict is, I’ve just hit the middle and can’t seem to write anything to get me from point A to C in a realistic and non-boring fashion. I think my biggest problem in this story is that I’ve written myself into a corner by being too realistic about what my characters (antagonist and all) would do and why, and let that lead me into locking my protagonist up for her own safety and now everything I do to get her out of there feels contrived lol.

    I’d just continue with the story and change the mistake in editing, find some way, any way, to prevent the lock up…except that it’s an experimental “live” process on my blog. Yeah, definitely going to write at least a complete rough draft of the first season before I attempt any new blog series in the future. I think the next few episodes are just going to have to suck as I move the story back on track.

    Nonetheless,I enjoyed the read here very much and still came away with some things to consider more fully in future stories. I have a known problem for finishing what I start, so clarifying my position on well-rounded antagonists that drive the conflict and how while still being realistic people is quite helpful in more actively preventing that from adding to my source of blockages.

    In fact, now that I’m really thinking on it, the problem started as soon as I temporarily removed the antagonist from the story due to rationalizing what would be expected of her and how she would react without breaking character, which led to sending her quite a distance away from the protagonist during a war. See, definitely still helpful, even for those of us who feel we already focus and know quite a bit about our antagonists and the conflict.


      • Chris on July 24, 2013 at 3:14 pm
      • Reply

      Hey, just reading this, I had two thoughts for you. It sounds like your lock-up is your scene antagonist – at least for the moment. If you can make the case for why being locked up is completely wrong for your character and is destroying her, you’ll not only get her out of jail (actual or metaphorical) but also give her a compelling reason to confront the greater story problem instead of running from it.

      Or, if that doesn’t work, you could have the villain threaten someone she loves, someone she can’t protect/save unless she leaves her safe haven.

      Hope this helps!

  57. Fantastic post. You’ve confirmed what I’ve suspected since I completed my first novel. Readers love a bad guy or gal. I know I do. So, I’ve created a marvelous villain for my second novel, and I can’t wait to turn him loose.

    1. LOKI of Marvel’s The Avengers is my vote for best BAD GUY right now. I was expecting the usual destroy the planet and save it and everything is great. But Loki made the movie for me. After the movie I kept wondering and still do, how do I capture someone like Loki to get the result of what I felt while watching the movie – WITH WORDS. I read the Comic Books of Loki in The Mighty Thor, but the movie stuck in my mind. The best scene was when the Hulk smashed Loki like a rag doll. It took me by surprise.

  58. When I read the part about hitting the wall at 40,000 words, my ears perked up. I have a novel that’s at 70,000 words…I love the characters, I love the premise, but it has gone into the weeds and I can’t figure out what to do with it. I think you may have just redirected me.

  59. Since my original comment got lost in cyberspace, I thought I would paste this link to my blog, so the fabulous Ms. Lamb will see that I’m mentioning her and her book on my blog (which is up to 200 followers, almost double since I started implementing advice from the Jedi Master of Social Media).

  60. That was good, and only one editing mistake, “I would hit about 30-40, 000 words an hit a WALL.” (‘an’ wall?)–if I could say as much as well in that length than the writer and only end up with 1 typo, I’d be celebrating! Usually, I find multiples, every time I re-write…and I’ve re-written 15 times, and tempted (but afraid) to go through it; one more time…. Great job! Great insights–thank you.

  61. …er, ah, corrected version of my last comment…that’s embarrassing…I intended for it to read:
    “That was good, and only one editing mistake, “I would hit about 30-40, 000 words an hit a WALL.” (‘an’ wall?)–if I could say as much as well in that length of text and only end up with 1 typo, I’d be celebrating! Usually, I find multiples, every time I re-write…and I’ve re-written 15 times (for example, http://www.ThePeaceMonger.Com), and tempted (but afraid) to go through it; one more time…. Great job! Great insights–thank you.”

  62. Reblogged this on Raven's Nest and commented:
    This excellent post talks about something most writers dread, but identifies a particularly relevant CAUSE. I’m totally guilty of this. Assassins had this problem, which is why I’m in the midst of major revisions.

    Check out the post and leave her a comment! Good feedback deserves good feedback!

  63. An excellent article! This is the kind of help that shows why writers need collaborators and editors. Thanks for taking the time to share this!

  64. Thank you very much for this, Kristen — I have been stuck on a project because, frankly, it bored me. And after reading your article above, I know why: I have no villain. One of the characters in the story has been begging to be the villain, but I didn’t see it until just now. Thanks, again!

  65. GOD that last picture is creepy! *shudder*

  66. This is such a great post -and an eye opener too; just reading this made me realise that where I introduced my antagonist, my muse decided to run away. I couldn’t fathom why as I had written quite steadily up until that point, now I know, I was not ready for my antagonist and its interaction with my protagonist; individually, I know what their sole purposes are, however, having the antagonist manipulate my protagonist was a hard pill to swalow -I have to get comfortable with tht idea and realise how the antagonist can make my protagonist shine. Thank you Kristen, I really needed to read this. 🙂

  67. I attended a conference a couple years ago and was told, “Every antagonist has a reason why they do what they do. No one is a raving psychopath in his own head.” Because of his advice, if I get stuck, I try writing a chapter from the antagonist’s point of view. It usually gets the story rolling again.

  68. Reblogged this on Journey to Writeopia.

  69. Sounds like a really neat idea.

  70. Thanks for this great post Kristen. I usually work out the antagonist half way through the plot but as you suggest it would be much easier and less painful to know who or what it is at the beginning. As a writing teacher I have always tended to gloss over the whole antagonist thing but your post has made me realise it needs to be right up there with the protagonist in terms of the plot coming together a whole lot quicker. Great tip!

  71. I must be progressing. This time I saw the block coming and decided to be proactive. I went back to the beginning and am adding in more conflict. It is taking the story places I did not expect but so far I like it.

  72. Well, you got farther that I seem to. I’m always aware fairly early that I have an antagonist problem and by around 15,000 words I know I’m in trouble.

    Can’t wait for the workshop Friday! I’m sorry you were FRIED, but I’m also glad. I was behind on reading your posts, and I only learned about it today. I signed up IMMEDIATELY because I’m so sure this is going to make a huge difference for me.

  73. I’ve written my book twice and still don’t have it right. I’m taking your class tomorrow night- hopefully I will be able to traipse through the muck in my brain and get it right. Third time’s a charm. 🙂

  74. Love your transparency. And my writing group meets tom’w., to crit chapters of my novel underway. After reading this excellent post, I’m seeing so much can be sharpened! Can’t participate today w/ you, and $’s crazy-tight–but wow, maybe I need to parse budget, to access your insight another time. Thank you so much! 🙂

  75. I went to a book signing a while ago and asked Leif Enger if he knew what his ending was going to be when he started writing Peace Like a River. He said no. This gave me hope.
    I still don’t know the ending of my WIP, but I will now focus more on a more interesting antagonistcore story problem. Thank you Kristen. Time to go walk my unicorn now. 🙂

  76. I’d love to take this and use it in the High School creative writing class I’m developing. May I use what you have here if I leave you credit? =)

    1. Use anything you need. It’s what I am here for :D.

      1. Awesome! Thank you so much!

  77. Yes, I’m stuck at that point in my novel!

  78. This. Is. Brilliant.
    I’d been getting some very nice feedback from agents about my novel, but in the end they all said it wasn’t gripping enough. And this made me realise what it was lacking – a strong antagonist that’s a looming threat from the beginning. There’s character tension, but not as much overall plot tension.

    Thank you!

  79. Oh my word, you just unstuck me! I know what’s wrong with my middle now! The first half and last fourth of the novel are written, but the middle has kicked my butt for four months now. And I know what’s wrong and how to fix it. Happy dance! Thank you times a thousand! Also, posting on my blog.

    • Jamie on October 6, 2014 at 12:54 am
    • Reply

    I am writing a novel, and am feeling stuck at the moment. I think this is the problem! Thanks!

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