Faces of a Fatally Flawed Manuscript
Last time, we talked about the core antagonist or as I like to call it, the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT is responsible for creating the core story problem in need of being solved and we will continue our discussion on the BBT and different types of antagonists later.
But before we do that, I want to talk about a symptom of a novel with no BBT. Sort of like a doctor might take blood pressure or check off a list of symptoms before cracking open your chest to diagnose a bum ticker.
As an expert on plot, one clear symptom of a novel with no plot (or the fatally flawed manuscript), is the story will break out in little darlings. The more the severe the outbreak? The sicker the manuscript. Some cases are even fatal. Nothing to do but pull the plug and harvest for clever dialogue.
Why is this?
When we fail to have a core story problem, deep down we sense something is missing and so we put our best work into buttressing weaknesses. We spend hours on scenes of lavish description, or sections of super witty dialogue, or crazy twists and turns and a surprise ending that only makes sense if we use jazz hands and flannelgrams to explain them.
Because there is no simple CORE problem, we must invent contrived backstory, interstellar empires and black magic conspiracies to explain the, frankly, unexplainable. And, since we put a LOT of brainpower into this? Pulling us off these clever bits of our story is like trying to deprogram a family member from a New Mexico cult.
We’ve partaken of our own Kool-Aid and dammit, we like it!
Yet, the problem with a mass outbreak of little darlings is that, if we don’t spot them and then kill them dead? The novel has no chance of being saved because the little darlings are often the very thing keeping it sick.
What’s a Little Darling?
Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”
Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian Google Doc where they would come back as really bad novels.
…oops, I digress.
Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. They can also look like “never before thought of ideas” and “wicked twist endings that put Shyamalan to shame.”
To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Why are little darlings so dangerous?
Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.
Let me explain why it is important to let go. Here are three BIG reasons your little darlings need to die.
#1 We Risk Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.
As my awesome friend and talented author/writing teacher Les Edgerton mentioned a while back in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.
Since little darlings are often birthed from a flimsy plot (or no plot), the writer is left to manufacture conflict (melodrama). This weakness often manifests in pointless fight scenes, chase scenes, flashbacks or hospital/funeral scenes that seem to go nowhere.
We are creating bad situations, not authentic dramatic tension.
#2 We Mistake Complexity for Conflict
Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:
Me: What’s your book about?
Writer: Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a demon, but a nice demon because in my world some of the demons actually were half human mage which makes them not evil. Anyway he’s a demon, well half-demon, and actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…
Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?
Writer: *blank stare*
Me: What is her goal?
Writer: Um. To find out who she is?
Me: No, what does she need to do? What bad thing must she stop?
Writer: Someone is stalking her.
Me: *looks for closest bar*
Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. As mentioned earlier, it’s my opinion that new writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.
I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a subconscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.
When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping it will fly. How do I know this?
I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o.
“Complicated” is Not Conflict
Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to BS our way through something we don’t understand and pray no one notices.
Um, they will. Trust me.
Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.
“Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.
I can prove this. Let’s take one of the most complex stories of the 20th century. Yes, yes, you know where I am going. Lord of the Rings. Simple story. I can give it to you in ONE sentence.
A race of naive and innocent homebodies must travel across a dangerous world to drop an evil ring in a specific volcano before a power-hungry necromancer takes over the world and casts all they love in darkness and despair.
The CORE of that complex story is two Hobbits tossing a ring in a volcano. Everything else supports that singular simple idea.
The difference between complex and complicated is this. With a complex plot we can say what the story is about in one sentence. When the story is complicated? Trying to unravel our plot is about as easy as unravelling the Gordian Knot.
#3 We Fail to Spot/Correct Weaknesses
We fall so in love with our fun characters, our witty dialogue, our amazing inter-stellar conspiracy that we never finish. We can’t finish.
Since we aren’t being honest about why the book isn’t working, we aren’t doing the hard work that would make the story publishable and we end up making a bad mess even worse.
In the end, be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your
pets little darlings for real.
So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies? If you need help looking at your own plot with honest eyes, I have never met a plot I couldn’t fix and am an expert at assisted suicide for Little Darlings, so email me at kristen at wana intl dot com if you need help. I would also strongly recommend my Hooked—Your First Five Pages class below because you get me shredding through your novel’s intro. I can spot every problem in a novel in 20 pages or less. So save some time and get my help. There is no shame in needing outside eyes.
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