Ah, structure. We are discussing the fundamentals of story. No skeleton and our story is a puddle of primordial adverb ooze. In Part One, we talked about the micro scale of fiction the scene and the sequel, cause and effect. In Part Two, we panned out for the BIG picture, Aristotelian Three-Act Structure.
Today? We talk about the essential ingredient for ALL fiction. Just like carbon is the ONE key ingredient for all LIFE, conflict is the key ingredient for ALL stories. No conflict? No story.
If you want to self-publish or indie publish, I would assume most of you want to be successfully published, regardless the format or distributor. To be considered “successfully published” we have to sell a lot of books. To sell a lot of books, we must connect with readers. That is what this series is about. Structure is how readers connect to stories. The stronger the structure, the better the story.
Let’s get started.
Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Yes, we can break rules, but we must understand them first. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist.
I am not going to use that term in the traditional way because I think it can be confusing. Every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but I am getting ahead of myself. Today we are going to start with the Big Boss Troublemaker. No BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.
The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the hero’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the story problem that must be resolved by the end of your tale. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle. In Star Wars, the BBT was the Emperor. It is his agenda that causes the inciting incident and it is he who must be faced in the final battle or the movie ain’t over.
In the beginning of The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick is running from bounty hunters. Due to the nature of the story, it begins right in the action. Who is the antagonist? In that scene it is the bounty hunter.
Riddick’s goal—remain free
Bounty Hunter’s goal—capture wanted criminal Riddick
Their goals are in conflict. The bounty hunter is the antagonist in the scene, but he isn’t the Big Boss Troublemaker.
Lord Marshal actually was the party responsible for bounty on Riddick’s head (via the Elementals). The Lord Marshal was also responsible for the extinction of Riddick’s home world in an effort to kill the Furyan male who was prophesied to bring his end. Who is fighting in the Big Boss Battle?
Riddick and the BBT, Lord Marshal.
The stronger your BBT, the better. In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.
The Big Boss Troublemaker doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a storm, like in The Perfect Storm or disease, like in Steel Magnolias.
Remember high school literature?
Man against man.
Man against nature.
Man against himself.
The first one is pretty simple, but the next two? This is where things get tricky when the BBT is not corporeal. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism. Thus, your story likely will lend itself more to a character battle (which will require a proxy). What is it about your protagonist that will change when pitted against nature or the worst parts of himself?
In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely a catalyst that brought forth the real BBT…pride, manifested in the ship’s captain who acts as the proxy. In the end, the men lose. They believe that their skill will be able to triumph over the storm, and they are wrong, which is probably why I really didn’t care for the book or the movie, but that is just me.
In Steel Magnolias the BBT is disease/death, manifested in the proxy of the daughter Shelby. Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite having diabetes (Inciting Incident) is what changes the mother M’Lynn forever. What must change about M’Lynn? She is a control freak who must learn to embrace life for all its ugliness. She cannot beat death, or can she?
We see M’Lynn in the beginning of the movie fluttering over her daughter’s wedding, controlling everything and tending to the flowers and the broken glasses (symbol). When Shelby dies, M’Lynn is once again trying to control everything, tending the flowers and the broken things—her husband and sons. She falls apart after the funeral.
M’Lynn has let go of control and the arc is complete. In the Big Boss Battle, the BBT is defeated. How? Shelby is dead. The BBT is defeated in that there is resurrection.
Diabetes and death have been defeated. Shelby lives on in the son she left behind, a grandson that M’Lynn would never have had if she’d gotten her way in the beginning and been permitted to control Shelby’s life. (Note that this entire movie is bookended by Easter).
In the movie Footloose the BBT is religious fundamentalism, which is represented by the town preacher and father of the protag’s love interest. Kevin Bacon wants to dance, BBT wants no dancing. The town preacher is responsible for the story problem. How can a dancing city boy hold a dance in a town ruled by religious fundamentalism?
Your BBT is the entire reason for your story.
No Emperor and there is no Star Wars. No Lord Marshal and Riddick would be off doing what Riddick likes to do when he isn’t killing things. If everyone agreed the storm was too big to mess with, then there would have been no Perfect Storm. If Shelby didn’t have diabetes, then there would be no challenge and, thus no story. In Footloose, if the town had been Catholic there wouldn’t be an issue.
So, once you have your Big Boss Troublemaker, you will have emissaries of the BBT. Depending on the type of story, usually the BBT will have a chain of command. Some will be actual characters. The Emperor had Darth and Darth had Storm Troopers that he could send out to cause massive inconvenience to others. They all trace back to the original BBT, though. The BBT is the core of the story and must be defeated by the end of the story. Everything leads to destroying the BBT.
So we have Big Boss Troublemaker.
We have the BBT’s emissaries.
Ah, but EVERY scene has an antagonist. What is the antagonist? The antagonist is whoever is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving her goal. Allies, more often than not, will serve as scene antagonists generating the necessary conflict required to drive the story forward.
In Romancing the Stone who is the Big Boss Troublemaker? The BBT is the crooked inspector. Who are the emissaries of the inspector? The two thieving brothers who have kidnapped romance author Joan Wilder’s sister (the crooked inspector is using them as unwitting pawns to get the map and get the jewel). What is the goal? The jewel. What is the final battle? When the inspector and one of the thieves are fed to the alligators in an act of poetic justice, and the younger brother is taken to jail.
Who is the antagonist? That changes, but Jack (the love interest) often serves the antagonist’s role. Joan wants to just give the map to the thieves in exchange for her sister. Jack wants to use the map to find the jewel. CONFLICT.
Some Pretty Hard and Fast BBT Rules—Break these Rules at Your Own Risk
Rule #1—BBT (or a proxy of the BBT) MUST be introduced in Act I. No leading us on for 50 pages before we get an introduction. BBT is responsible for Inciting Incident.
Granted, we don’t have to be ham-fisted. In the book, Divergence, we are introduced to the Erudites and Jeanine Matthews in a very subtle way. Tris’ father is an Abnegation leader complaining at the dinner table about an Erudite leader who’s making his job running the government difficult and then the story moves on and focuses in on Tris’ defection to the Dauntless faction.
Though Jeanine is responsible for the story problem in need of defeating, we don’t get that in flashing lights. We see only extensions of her agenda for almost half the book (movie).
Rule #2—In romance, the love interest CANNOT be the BBT. He or she can wear the antagonist’s hat, but he or she CANNOT be the BBT. Why? Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Also, in romance, even though guy and girl might not get along in the beginning, they do come together as a team for the final showdown against the BBT. If we deviate from this, we no longer have romance and now have general fiction or women’s fiction.
Pizza has rules and so does romance. I am sure there are exceptions, but it defies the code of great love stories and often leads to a very unsatisfactory ending. Audiences have tastes that we are wise to appreciate. If we want to write romance, then there is a fairly strict code that guy and gal end up together in the end. It’s the whole point of reading romance, so we can believe love conquers all. If our romance mimics life too much, then there is no escape and that defeats the entire purpose of reading romance.
Yes there are exceptions. I am here to help you guys grasp the overall rules. Once we understand the rules, then we can break them.
Rule #3—BBT MUST be defeated in your book. Period.
There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. No. Sorry. Try again.
In a series, the protagonist in every book MUST DEFEAT the BBT responsible for the story problem. We must treat that book as a stand-alone. If we were hit by an ice cream truck and never wrote another, the problem of our last book would be resolved.
We will talk more about this on another blog, because series are a whole other ballgame. I will give you a nugget to hold you over, though. Think back to what we talked about earlier. BBTs have emissaries sent to do their evil deeds. Treat each emissary as your BBT in each book (only you don’t have to tell the reader unless you want to). Each BBT is a necessary step to complete in the overall defeat of the series’ MAIN BBT.
(Book I) BBT–> (Book II) BIGGER BBT–> (Book III) HOLY MOLY! AN EVEN BIGGER BBT!!!!
Lord of the Rings
Defeat Uruk-Hai–> Defeat Sauruman–> Defeat Sauron
Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. Structure is tough, and hopefully this series is breaking it down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.
I want to hear your comments. Who are your favorite BBTs of all time? Do you still have questions or other topics you would like me to explore? Do you have any books or techniques you would like to share?
Exercise I–Watch your favorite movies. Who was the BBT? Who were the emissaries? How was the BBT’s agenda introduced?
Exercise II–Recall your favorite books. Again. Who was the BBT? Who were the emissaries of the BBT? How was the BBT’s agenda introduced?
Exercise III–For the literary folk. Who was the protagonist? What internal flaw was the protag forced to confront? How was it manifested (BBT)? Was the character flaw defeated? How was the BBT defeated?
In Steel Magnolias the character flaw (need to control) is defeated when Shelby dies. M’Lynn lets go of control. Diabetes/Death (the BBT), however, is defeated with life. Shelby will live on through her son.
Yeah, it’s a brain-bender but great exercise for our story-telling muscles.
I do want to hear from you guys! What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? I LOVE hearing from you.
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Thank you. That was one of the best explanations of structure I’ve read. It had me thinking about my WIP and check marking your points.
A great explanation. Thanks. I find it harder to write regarding an internal flaw.
BBT’s are pretty easy when they are concrete, like the Uruk Hai and Sauron. But character traits are much harder to get. How do you know when you are hitting the reader over the head “Controlling M’Lynn needed to control . . .” and when you are so subtle the reader didn’t grasp control was an issue at all?
Finally starting to understand the BBT when it’s not a character, but a disease. I will now watch the movie Steel Magnolias to get a better understanding of the flaw and the conflict. Wow…the emissaries could be many different characters along the way….and the BBT must be in every scene! Wow. Learned so much in this post.
No, the BBT doesn’t have to be in every scene. They must be introduced at the beginning (so they don’t come out of nowhere in chapter 55 and your reader is saying “who the ***** is this guy?”). Every scene must have a goal and conflict through an antagonist of some kind. Sometimes that will be the BBT, sometimes it’s something else. For example, Harry Potter’s BBT is Voldemort, but in each scene he isn’t fighting the BBT. His goal might be survive potions class and the antagonist in the scene may be Snape, or Malfoy. An incident happens that causes potions class to be a failure and now Harry is in detention. Voldemort is introduced in the very first of the 7 novels.
There is conflict in every single scene.
Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.
Allow me to be the LOTR geek who points this out: It’s Saruman lol. I couldn’t resist. You seem to only make mistakes when you’re on cold medicine or something. Your post does bring out the subtleties I hadn’t consciously noticed. For me, Sauron was always the BBT, and the treaty were just obstacles. Maybe it’s just a matter of terminology. Of course, in the books, Saruman wasn’t truly defeated till the hobbits returned to the Shire and ran him and Wormtongue out. I was always a little disappointed this wasn’t in the movies. Seems to me some of the best BBTs have very little screen time till the end. We never truly meet Sauron, Palpatine schmoozes as the savior of the Republic in the prequels, and Jeanine felt distant for much of that movie. And yet, in the end, they each turn into the worst enemy the protag faces.
Thanks for the catch! How did that extra “a” sneak in there? Anyway, often the BBT doesn’t have a lot of screen time. In “Finding Nemo” Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT and yet we see very little of her. But, it is HER agenda that creates the problem, stakes and ticking clock.
we are our own worst enemy. We are the protagonist. For every Sherlock there has to be a Moriorty. The greater the Sherlock the greator the adversary. The really bad guy must be the last to go. And then there is the trick ending. In the Shootist Wayne is not killed by the three bad guys but by the bartender. And he is thankful for otherwise he must commit suicide.
Reblogged this on jean's writing and commented:
This is one post I will read over and over, I’ll save it for my cliff notes file, I’ll refer to it again and again. Why? Because Kristen Lamb keeps the conflict in story structure simple.
In Anatomy of a best selling story 3, Kristen explains story structure in such simple terms even I understand.
No Conflict? No Story. Thanks Kristen, I learn something from your blog every week.
Thanks for this Kristen! I have found it particularly interesting creating my BBT as in my psychologist thriller novel, my BBT may not have always been a BBT! This is one thing I love about the psychological thriller over your bog standard thriller. People change and so do their mind sets. I’m hoping my book will have people believing that anyone can become a BBT if their past and present affects their way of thinking in the right, or wrong, situation. Thanks for the post as always! Mark
Reblogged this on Christina Anne Hawthorne and commented:
“Conflict” says it all, but read on for the details…
Who is the BBT in Casablanca? Is it Major Strasser?
On one level, the Major is a stand-in for the Nazi regime. However, the ultimate victory in Casablanca is Rick’s return to the Battle of Good and Evil. So I would say the BBT in Casablanca is Rick’s bitterness/apathy, and the defeat of the Major is his transformation that allows ultimate victory=return to his true self.
Ever since reading your posts on antagonists, I don’t start writing until I’ve outlined a strong antag, his backstory, his motives, everything. I’m currently tinkering with a Sherlock in Space kind of story, and I don’t quite have the crime/perp/motive pinned down yet. I still have to pin down my antagonist. The fun thing about aliens is that they make great villains, but even aliens still need motive.
I’m really enjoying this series. I may have been doing things right by accident. My corporate bad guy had a proxy at a lower level during much of my story. It’s so wonderful to see this put into simple terms. It makes it all concrete somehow.
Reblogged this on S.A. Klopfenstein and commented:
I am going to just keep re-posting these, because they have got some great advice!
Great breakdown, Kristen! One of my favorite BBTs is Voldemort from the HP series. He has a lot of emissaries over the books, sometimes even iterations of himself, but we always knew the Big Boss Battle would come in the end.
Great post, and great series! I am looking forward to the post on the BBT in the series. Loved the teaser, and am getting so much out of this series. Thanks!
I had one of those little aha moments while reading this. I’m approaching the denouement of my WIP, but it’s given me trouble. This line gave me the breakthrough: “even though guy and girl might not get along in the beginning, they do come together as a team for the final showdown against the BBT.”
My heroine’s goal is revenge against an evil-but-injured policewoman from another world, and the hero is an RCMP officer assigned to guard her while she recuperates. Your blog made me realize I need to get them on the same side, fighting the BBT, which is easily done.
Excellent tips, Kristen! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Reblogged this on thegraceofironclothing.
Great series of blogs, Kristen. I’m having a few issues with my latest romance and I think it’s because I haven’t settled on my BBT yet. I’m off to do a bit more brainstorming before I write some more words.
Many thanks for this – Intuitively I have managed most points in my work – but great to have it set out and explained.
Thanks for this. One of the things I love about really enjoyable long-arc TV series is the way they have episodic antagonists that lead to a larger story with a BBT who is defeated at the end of the season, yet maintain a through-line of essential character conflict that keeps them going over time. Right now I’m thinking of Dr. Who (Bad Wolf, The Silence) and Chuck (Fulcrum, the Ring, Volkov).
Great article! You make some very good points and explain it very well. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Steel Magnolias (try when I was a kid) but I never thought about it in the way you explained.
I love these posts on structure and love even more to find out that so far I’m hitting them all. And now that you mention it, there are some great books that I just can’t finish, even though the writing is great, and I see now that it’s due to flaws in structure.
When you say BBT must be defeated, that doesn’t necessarily mean dead right? He can be defeated to lick his wounds and come back even stronger. (in a series) You’re giving me great ideas for my future books, thanks! 😀
Hey, Kristin, here’s a series of posts I would love for you to tackle someday: I read blogs of authors/editors who will take the first page or maybe chapter of a popular book – usually one that has sold a gazillion copies (i.e., Twilight, Fifty Shades, etc.) – and they will critique it or redline it. Then they will give commentary usually something like… “this first chapter is awful – I mean, yeah, it sold a billion copies, but it’s AWFUL!” What they don’t go on to tell us, is WHY if it’s so awful, and they redlined the daylights out of it in their critique, did it sell so well? Why do these “awful” and lacking-a-good-editor books go on to resonate with people so much they sold so well?
Would love to you do something like that! Thanks!
Allow me one corollary to #3, the bad guy must be defeated. Agreed. But he/she/it doesn’t have to die.
Nope, just defeated. In fact, if you look at say, Batman… Joker had all kinds of bad plans. Joker, himself, might not be defeated, but his PLAN was derailed.
UGH!! Last week kill the luck dragon, this week clarify my BBT, does it ever end?
Reblogged this on Nancy Segovia and commented:
Better get your ducks in a row folks, in other words make sure your primary antagonist is clear from the beginning
One of my favorites is “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. I viewed time as the BBT. I won’t give any spoilers in case your reader’s haven’t read it yet. However, I think I can safely say: The book ends with a definite wrap-up, but I love the idea that the BBT can be defeated by itself. The very notion of time travel leaves us with the hope that the characters will have possibilities in their futures…or would that be their pasts?
Hmm, isn’t this a little inconsistent, though? Or maybe I’m confused. If the BBT *must* the catalyst for the inciting event, Uruk-Hai simply can’t be the BBT for FotR. They really don’t appear until halfway through the story (if I recall correctly); the first half the characters are mostly dealing with the Ringwraiths. And really it’s Sauron who is the catalyst for everything else. Are the rules a little different with a massive trilogy that has smaller BBT’s and works up to the biggest ones?
I finally have a BBT for the first book of my trilogy, after many drafts with no real BBT at all until Book 3 – ahhhhh, it’s so good to have him. 😛
The BBT is Sauron. Everyone else, Wrong Wraiths, goblins, Sauraman, the Uruk-Hai are there to carry out Sauron’s agenda. Make sense?
Thank you for these three articles. I’ve learned more in one hour than I have in the past year and a half working with ‘experts’ who have been paid very well, but offered no serious critiques to grow my craft. Anyone who is serious about perfecting the art of storytelling definitely will need to take story structure seriously and at least plot out the primary ideas/scenes so the story continues to flow.
Reblogged this on 10 Minutes Past Coffee and commented:
The third installment in Kristen Lamb’s Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story and this time it’s all about your antagonist and all the obstacles and opposition your main character will encounter! Good stuff here: introduce your bad guy (or his/her minions) from the beginning; even if you are writing a series, make sure to get the antagonist at least hinted at from the get-go.
Thanks so much for this. I always learn so much from reading your blogs. I did not know about the BBT and the difference between that character and an antagonist. Interesting.
This is an excellent description of how to create winning antagonists/protagonists. Thankyou.
In the Popular Fiction class I took, the instructor always said there must be tension on every page.
This post helped me get unstuck from my current sticky spot.
I had no idea why my book was, well, so awful. I realized I don’t have a clearly defined BBT in my own mind, much less in the book. I have a few good emissaries, but the overall arc was missing.
Thanks so much!
Reblogged this on Writing Fantasy Is Fun! and commented:
I think this is why I was stalled. I don’t have a clue about my BBT (see Kristen’s post for an explanation).
Well, back to the writing board. Hopefully I will have some more excerpts for you soon!
I’m having trouble with putting this into practice – working on a mystery where everyone is an antagonist at different times, but the BBT isn’t unmasked until the climax.
But YOU the author know who the BBT is. And he/she is who is unmasked/defeated in Act III.
Right – it’s just having her be behind it all (while present) without showing her hand. After 23 years of reading mysteries, I finally find out it’s not as easy to write one!
What you describe as the only type of series is a specific type of series. It’s an episodic series. Some readers like them. Some don’t. i specifically avoid episodic series, where each book gives a nice tidy little ending with the proxy BBT defeated. There are many many successful series that do not follow this formula. Ever heard of Diana Gabaldon or Robert Jordan? No neat little packages at the ends of those monster books. Robert Jordan is an example of why it isn’t a great idea to do a straight series (non-episodic) for too many books. You die before you’re done and a lot of your readers will be very upset.
I still prefer The Wheel of Time to The Hunger Games precisely over this issue, regardless of Robert Jordan’s untimely death. The Hunger Games does not inspire me to read the next book because the tension is over at the end of each book. I skimmed the last two books in order to understand the public discussion about it, but it was uninspiring to an avid series reader. With THG you know that the BBT will rise again in the first chapter of the next book in a contrived manner, but it’s adolescent. If you’re writing YA, then it may be closer to a hard and fast rule… Although, wait…. David Eddings was my favorite author as a teen and his series didn’t do a very good job this episodic thing either.
That is NOT to say that straight series don’t need book closure. There should be a plot arc with a climactic action and a wrapping up of a thematic part of the story. There has to be a good reason to stop the book there. You can’t just write a really really long story and then divide it up into three books because your publisher (or your own marketing sense) says it will look better that way… Well, you shouldn’t, even if that is what Tolkien did. But it isn’t really recommended.
You cover real plot staples that have been clearly set down for hundreds of years and then resort to harping on the fashionable episodic series thing. Yes, it’s very popular thing to parrot now and episodic series have always been popular, hence Sherlock Holmes. But it’s only in the past ten years that straight series have been so reviled by a few self-described experts in the field. And straight series continue to be popular with readers as well. I’d be quite happy to be doing as well as Diana Gabaldon.
Well, and that is why I said I was only touching on series. Series actually needs its own post because you are correct, the example I gave is only one type. But, I gave it because it illustrates what I am talking about regarding the BBT.
Love how you clarify things for me. Writing first draft or rewriting/editing, keeping the BBT in mind for the scene, the chapter, the overall story is so important. Another thing to add to my list of things to be looking for when I write/edit.
Such an excellent post! I’m going to have to keep in mind that my first book needs to have a BBT defeated at the end, even if it isn’t my overall BBT.
Reblogged this on writersback and commented:
So helpful, Kristen. BBT must be defeated in each book; even in a series and therefore, a series must have more than one BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Makes great sense to me. Thank you, Kristen. Loved your comments about conflict in each scene.
Reblogged this on scribblings007.
I have 2 random thoughts/questions about my favourite movie and also my favourite book series.
1. Who is the BBT in Gladiator? Commodus isn’t introduced until after the first scene and its aftermath and isn’t revealed as an antagonist until he kills Marcus Aurelius (or at least until MA tells Maximus he will be leader over Commodus at which point it is implied). The beginning of the movie introduces Maximus the farmer vs Maximus the servant of Rome. Which is sort of the main conflict.
I feel link the Empire of Rome itself is the real BBT because it created Maximus having a duty to Rome, created slavery, created Commodus having entitlement to power/power/, created corruption, etc. With Commodus being a proxy, but it seems too messy. Any thoughts?
2. A song of ice and fire. I assume this falls outside of a normal structure being a series. But how does the BBT-emissary thing work here? We are introduced to the others/white walkers in the prologue and they look to be the eventual BBT. But how did they create the smaller antagonists in any way? How can Cersei or Tywin or Ramsay be emissaries of the white walkers when the white walkers haven’t been around for 1000 years and have nothing to do with them? The only possibility is there is a BBT above the white walkers responsible for all of this but then they have never been revealed. Basically how can we reconcile this series with the BBT rules?