I read a TON of fiction no only for pleasure, but for work. I’ve been blessed to help countless writers diagnose what’s going wrong in their fiction. The good news is that Occam’s Razor applies even to fiction that is fizzling…meaning sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.
Often we think we need to invent a story never told, or create some mind-blowing twist-ending never before witnessed. But, while those are cool things to strive for, they aren’t necessary and can even backfire.
Truth is, there are only so many plots and if we get too weird, then readers have no basis for comparison and it’s such a mental jump that the story won’t resonate. I use my blue steak example.
Steak is wonderful and there are countless creative ways to prepare it, but if we get too weird for the sake of being different, it will make the reader lose her appetite.
Twist-endings can have the same effect. Recently, I read a thriller by a mega-author and the book had me positively entranced. The author had created one of the most frightening killers I’d ever seen. I am an avid fan of Discovery ID and read countless true crime works and probably own every profiling book out there. To create a killer that rattled me? Pretty big deal.
So I am inhaling this book and then the ending?
I would have tossed the book across the room, except I was listening to it on my phone and really didn’t want to buy a new phone. The author actually would have had a way better ending had he not tried to be clever. I wasn’t buying the twist and it ticked me off more than a little.
When I think of some of my favorite fiction, I think of what they do well. I dog-ear and color my books. I actively study what writers do well and when a story goes sideways, I go back and try to diagnose what went wrong where so I can learn (and pass this on to you guys).
Thus, today I want to share three simple things you can check for if you have a plot that just seems to be flatter than a week-old Coke.
There MUST Be an Active Goal
Whenever I teach my log-line class, this is one of the things I am looking for when a writer is describing his work. Getting a writer to articulate what her story is about in ONE sentence is highly useful, especially when diagnosing a problem. One of my all-time favorite plotting books is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Brooks breaks plots into three elements.
In Act One the protagonist is usually in the dark. Something life-altering has happened but the protagonist is kind of swinging blindly or avoiding conflict altogether (Running). Act Two, the protagonist becomes aware there is a problem and begins pushing back (Warrior). Then we have the false victory and darkest moment and then the protagonist undergoes a transformation.
Act Three is when the protagonist transforms. Anyone else would have said, “Screw it” and gone home, but the protagonist presses on to solve the core story problem (Hero).
Often when I see log-lines that involve passive goals like “avoid” or “evade” or “hide” that is only part of the story. There is an incomplete plot. No protagonist can rise to become a hero by avoidance. Any plot that simply involves a character trying to stay away from something is only partway there.
While it is completely okay to begin with a passive goal, the story cannot remain there.
The protagonist must face the life-altering force (antagonist) in order to rise to become a hero. Even in literary fiction, the protagonist must face the existential enemy and come out on top.
For instance, in The Road the enemy is man’s animal nature. When faced with imminent death which will triumph? Humanity or baseness? If the Man and Boy reach the ocean by snacking on other humans, they fail.
Unlike a genre fiction, there is no Big Boss Battle with a terrorist organization, a mad scientist, a serial killer or monster. And yes, in literary fiction the antagonist can be more of an intangible, but that doesn’t mean there is no showdown. There has to be or there is no transformation/triumph and transformation/triumph is the entire point of fiction.
What will happen if your protagonist fails? The bigger the stakes and the consequences, the better the story. This is true in life and more so in fiction (since fiction is the bouillon of life).
Case in Point
I’m a huge fan of horror. When the remake of Poltergeist came out I couldn’t wait for it to come to video (since I prefer watching movies at home). What really surprised me was that Poltergeist was such a cool story to remake and yet? The movie got terrible reviews. I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to be biased, but two stars?
So I watched the movie and yeah…it sucked. I wasn’t quite certain why so I rented the original Poltergeist to compare. Maybe I was just being biased?
The problem with the second Poltergeist had to do with the stakes and the consequences. See, in the original, the Freeling family is living the American Dream. They have an amazing house in a new tract home development, a development that offered many luxuries to a more working class section of society.
Steve Freeling is passionate about his development and his enthusiasm shows in his sales numbers. In fact, his bosses are SO impressed that he is offered a prime spot in the next phase of building, on a hill overlooking the development where he currently resides.
Diane Freeling is a stay-at-home mom with fantastic kids and life is not only good, it is simply getting better and better.
Until the poltergeists start disrupting their lives.
The story is so disturbing simply because this is a really likable family living a dream that becomes a nightmare. When they find out their home is built on a cemetery and no one bothered moving the bodies, it is a profound violation.
Contrast this with the new-and-not-so-improved remake.
The Griffin family isn’t living a dream at all. Eric Griffin was laid off. He’s desperate and erratic. They didn’t buy a dream home, they bought the only house they could afford because they’re broke and all their credit cards are maxed out. Eric and Amy (unlike the Freelings) are already teetering on divorce in the beginning of the story.
Thus, what the poltergeists disrupt was already cracked and failing anyway. Since there was no ideal marriage, perfect family and American Dream on the line?
To find out the crappy house you moved into only because you could afford it is built on an old cemetery is not nearly as disruptive as realizing all your hopes, dreams and future are tainted.
Plot Stakes and Personal Stakes Are Bound Together
Also remember that there are two lines of stakes—plot and character. Both act as cogs, one turning the other. The protagonist should be arcing and that personal arc is critical for confronting the problem and winning.
In Winter’s Bone there is the land that is at stake, but Rhee is also risking her personal identity. In the beginning, she is loyal to the patriarchal family structure. She keeps her head down and avoids confrontation. But the plot problem puts her in the crosshairs of choosing the larger family structure with the nuclear family. She must defy the unwritten laws of the hillbilly culture in order to save her mother and siblings.
She is not only gambling her own life to find what happened to her father, she is risking the lives of her own immediate family. Her very self-identity and where she fits is on the line.
Stakes and consequences are ultimately tethered to urgency. In genre fiction, this is a bit more straight-forward. In The Black Echo Harry Bosch must uncover who killed tunnel rat and Vietnam buddy Meadows before the second heist is completed and the killers disappear forever.
In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly must find proof her father is dead before the bondsman takes the family land and renders them all homeless.
Even if the antagonist is not so flesh-and-blood (I.e. addiction) there needs to be some kind of a ticking clock. The protagonist doesn’t just have forever to get sober. There is some outside pressure that gives a timeline and if the protagonist doesn’t meet the timeline, she fails.
The shorter the timeline, the greater the tension. If loan sharks tell you you have the next ten years to come up with $10,000 that sucks, but is doable. But what if they give you three days?
Combine the Three for MAX Effect
Notice how all three of these elements dovetail into one another. In order to have stakes or a timeline, there has to be an ACTIVE goal. Then once you find that active goal, make the stakes as high as you can…then try harder. Remember that risk and reward are joined at the hip.
The more the reader is aware of what is at stake, the tighter we can wind the tension. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
If the reader knows that Mount Doom is the destination and that Middle Earth will be plunged into darkness and despair if the Ring of Power is not destroyed…then every misstep, every mistake, every setback is enough to shred our nerves.
Additionally when you (the writer) are aware of the ultimate goal and the stakes and consequences, then it is far easier for you to generate dramatic tension instead of simply inserting bad situations.
Go over your plot and if it isn’t where you want it to be, try using these three elements as a checklist. Is the goal active? Do you only have a partially formed plot? Are the stakes high enough? Could they be bigger? Can you up the timeline and make the protagonist (and the reader) sweat?
I LOVE hearing from you guys!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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 novel.
Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist
All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.
This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.
Beyond craft and to the business of our business?