Fatal Flaws: Why Your Story is Falling Apart & How to Fix It
Recently I blogged about the log-line, how it’s an incredible diagnostic tool for spotting flaws in a story idea. The brilliance of the log-line is the simplicity. As an editor/writing coach, I can zero in on a story’s every strength and spot every flaw with a single glance at the log-line.
How? Because the log-line is a prototype (a scaled-down model) of the final product.
Think about car designers. When they have some fabulous idea for the next car of the future, what do they build first? A prototype. It’s far easier and cheaper to see and fix problems when the car is small enough to fit on a table.
If a company sinks tens of thousands of dollars into a finished snazzy full-sized car, there’s a far greater level of commitment to keep going even when there’s that niggling sensation something isn’t quite right.
Because those involved in the project have already invested a lot of time and money. They also get too attached. Perhaps they fall in love with the color, the hand-stitched leather seats, and the pop-up digital displays.
In short, they become emotionally attached at the wrong point in the process.
There’s a heightened temptation to ignore problems and pray it will sort itself out. It’s much easier to start (and keep) throwing good money after bad. Sink more time into a disaster.
Same when it comes to building a skyscraper, office complex, condo community, etc. The first step beyond the concept and blueprint is to construct a scaled version (even if this is a virtual/digital model in 2018).
When developers and investors can see the final product—albeit miniaturized—everything changes. This abstract idea becomes concrete and flaws stand out waving red flags.
Is the complex too close to a highway and the walls aren’t thick enough to meet code for sound-proofing? Can the building(s) be accessed easily from the highway?
Or, is the exit nine miles farther down making anyone who lives or works there have to double back and wend their way through a confusing maze of neighborhoods?
Is the art-deco-meets-minimalism idea something that seemed edgy and cool on paper? But, now that one can SEE the buildings, it looks more like a state prison had a baby with an insane asylum? These are things a builder/investor needs to know before they’re millions in the hole and the buildings are half-built.
Same with novels.
Problem With Pantsing
Lack of a clear prototype can create major problems when writing a novel. This is where we can run into trouble pantsing a novel (writing by the seat of our pants).
Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, feel free to write any way you see fit. Yet, I will say pure pantsing is almost always a sentence for revision hell if you don’t at least start with a log-line. More often than not, there will be much tearing apart and starting over (refer to image above)…and drinking.
***Authors who are very good at pantsing with no preparation usually either a) began as plotters/outliners and know structure so intuitively they can plot by feel or b) have written and finished so many books they can write a sound structure by feel.
Either way, the pure pantster who doesn’t need a bazillion revisions is usually a highly experienced author…or an alien.
And my vote is alien.
Meet the PLOTser
Anyway, outlines aren’t for everyone. I don’t like them either and refer to myself as a plotser. I’ve learned to start with a log-line and get that as solid as possible. THEN, I work out the major landmark points and once this is all accomplished, THEN I write.
The guideposts keep me focused on where I’m headed (eventually), but also allow some freedom for my imagination to play as well.
Sometimes on my way to a turning point I’ve pre-planned my subconscious will come up with something even cooler. BUT since I know the overall gist of where I’m heading?
Log-lines can keep us on track. They can also make sure we actually have a story before we’ve invested tens of thousands of words into something that can’t be fixed without rewriting the entire manuscript.
I can’t count the number of clients I get who believe they have a finished novel, but what they really have is 80,000-100,000 words. Just because we have a lot of words doesn’t mean we have a novel.
A log-line prevents this reaction.
Often when I talk about log-lines I get samples like these (I am making these up, btw):
Despite being emotionally damaged, a highly trained warrior must fight for his people.
Oh-kay. Fight who? What? Why? This ‘log-line’ is actually a warning label: This ‘story’ contains random fight scenes with liberal amounts of tedious, self-indulgent navel-gazing.
That and if he’s a highly trained warrior, then fighting is what he already does well. So…all righty then.
A defiant prince travels to a forbidden moon against interstellar regulations and must explain to the High Council why he defied the rules.
So a defiant prince is being—wait for it—defiant. All right.
He breaks the rules and goes to a moon deemed off-limits. Yet, if we made this log-line into a movie, would we sit on the edge of our seats chomping popcorn breathlessly waiting for the ending?
Must explain to the High Council WHY he defied the rules.
Perhaps it is me, but Alien C-Span doesn’t seem terribly exciting.
Assuming the writers haven’t already committed 100,000 words to each of these stories, we can easily see how a good log-line might help.
EXAMPLE 1: Despite being emotionally damaged, a highly trained warrior must fight for his people.
This is a statement, not a story.
Instead, how about…?
EXAMPLE 1A : A once-revered general, betrayed by his emperor, disgraced and sold into slavery must use all his skills to earn fame in the gladiatorial ring for a chance to destroy the ruler who killed his men and butchered his family (Gladiator).
Then there was:
EXAMPLE 2: A defiant prince travels to a forbidden moon against interstellar regulations and must explain to the High Council why he defied the rules.
EXAMPLE 2A: A sheltered prince left in the desert to die must lead an untrained and disorganized rebellion on a campaign to overthrow an oppressive godlike regime that controls space-time. (Dune)
What Makes the Difference?
Example 1 flounders because it’s incomplete. Sure, an emotionally damaged warrior fighting is interesting but what’s the rest of the story? Without a core problem, antagonist, goal, stakes and ticking clock we have a statement…not a prototype for a full story.
Anyone who’s watched Gladiator knows Maximus is a highly-trained warrior and ALSO very emotionally damaged. The actual log-line for the movie from the IMDB is: A former Roman General sets out to exact vengeance against the corrupt emperor who murdered his family and sent him into slavery.
In one log-line, we have someone perfectly trained to do the job (Maximus) of taking out the emperor. Ah, problem is that despite all his advanced military training…he’s been betrayed, his reputation smeared, and he’s a slave.
Thus, there are a lot of barriers preventing the perfect warrior from accomplishing the goal using his standard approach. The writer (God) had to strip his reputation, his men, his family, and his freedom so we’d have an interesting story.
If the writers didn’t strip away almost every advantage that made Maximus a target to begin with, the movie would’ve looked like this:
A skilled fighter gathers his loyal legions, tells them the new plan and they all march on Rome and flush the crap emperor.
Sounds like a movie I want to lov—sleep through.
Same with our other log-line, Example 2.
No one wants to invest 12-15 hours reading a novel that ends with the equivalent of an alien congressional hearing. Ah, but change a few things and we have something… spicier 😉 .
Instead of casting an MC who’s immediately all-powerful and perfect for the job, Frank Herbert made his MC more of ‘the least likely to succeed’ type of guy.
Sure, young Paul Atreides has had some hand-to-hand training in the palace via Jean Luc Picard (Gurney Halleck) and mind-power lessons from Mom. Despite this, though, he’s more of a ‘play on my Caladan iPad’ kind of leader than a ‘sand in my shorts and ride the worms’ messiah-type.
Which is why the story is still AMAZING decades later.
Stories Have RULES
(If we break them, be sneaky or readers scream FOUL!)
One of the major reasons the log-line is so helpful is we can easily see if our story idea has all the necessary ingredients: an intriguing MC, an active goal (CORE story problem with a CLEAR GOAL), stakes, and a ticking clock.
The most common mistakes I see are that writers will a) offer a name only or b) give us only some uninteresting qualitative descriptor.
I shall demonstrate…
Joe must free the ship’s crew who are trapped in cryosleep if he hopes to defeat the alien threat and find the wormhole back to Earth.
All right. Sort of cool, but who the heck is Joe and why should I CARE?
Hint: I don’t.
The captain must free his ship’s crew who are trapped in cryosleep if he hopes to defeat the alien threat and find the wormhole back to Earth.
Better. It’s a neat story idea but weak. Big frigging deal. He frees his crew. Um, he’s the captain. Kind of his JOB.
How about, this instead:
When the captain of an interstellar prison transport’s systems are crippled in an alien attack, locking the crew and the most violent prisoners in the galaxy in cryosleep, he must choose between risking everyone’s life to repair the ship and defeat the alien threat or do nothing, thereby consigning the innocent and the guilty to certain death.
Yes, the log-line is long. I said try to get it into A sentence. Never said it couldn’t be a LONG sentence. But look at the difference. The first one with Joe is a bad situation and we don’t know Joe from Adam.
The second example tells us (Joe) is a ship captain, but he is simply doing his JOB. Not terribly interesting. It is ONLY when we toss in a painful and impossible choice that we have ourselves a fabulous story problem.
Obviously one can glean the alien attack disabled the captain’s ability to selectively wake only the crew. Thus, it becomes the lesser of evils.
A person who is duty-bound to protect the ship and crew has two options and they both seriously suck. One makes a fantastic story with a zillion moral implications…and the other is a French film.
They all DIE.
Casting is Essential
Many new writers are uncomfortable with flaws and want characters to be larger than life and perfect. Larger than life is okay but perfect=BORING.
Do any of these stories sound interesting?
A brilliant surgeon finds a way to repair his destroyed hands.
An undefeated hockey team wins the gold medal in the Olympics.
The NYC ballet company’s most disciplined and committed ballerina lands the part of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake.
Zzzzzzzzzzz. Let’s try again.
After the world’s most brilliant (and narcissistic) surgeon destroys his life, reputation, and hands, he must beg for help from those he’s openly mocked, but the cure comes with a cost and a crusade (Dr. Strange).
The worst hockey team to ever hit the ice must set aside their ego and all they believe they know about hockey to beat the seemingly invincible Russian squad in the 1980 Olympics (Miracle).
The NYC ballet’s most committed and disciplined ballerina must lose control of everything, including her mind and reality, in order to land the part of both the White Swan and Black Swan in Swan Lake (Black Swan).
Look at your story’s log-line and it should have an active goal. The MC can’t simply be flung along like flotsam by bad situations for the entire story. Sure MCs get tossed into the Life Vit-A-Mix, but by Act Two they start pushing back so they can be reborn as full-fledged heroes in Act Three.
Heroes eventually fight back and WIN.
When pondering your log-line, can you picture a film you wouldn’t dare get up for a bathroom break lest you miss how the story ENDS?
If there is a logical place to take that bathroom break anywhere in your story, TRY HARDER.
What is at stake? What is the MC willing to risk, lose, give up for that which is BETTER? Life, reputation, sanity? What happens if your MC fails?
If Dr. Strange is unwilling to let go of what he believes he knows (his certainty) and humble himself, he’s doomed to life as a has-been surgeon with a shattered reputation and twisted hands. His life is a cautionary tale against hubris.
The only way to avoid this fate is to humble himself. Once he humbles himself, he realizes there are far larger battles than whether he’ll make it on a magazine cover. If he fails, the world is doomed.
In Miracle, if the team keeps training the way they always have, then they will again shame their entire country during the Cold War (when morale is crucial). The U.S. Hockey team is at a pivotal point: continue to be synonymous with LOSER or humble themselves and take a chance at being a MIRACLE.
Nina Sayers’ almost superhuman self-control is what makes her one of the best dancers in the world, but unless she lets GO of control she’ll never be THE best. She will never dance her dream role. Yet, everything comes at a price. Failure will cost her career and potential legacy…but success might just cost her sanity and her life.
The only question left to be answered is, “Will it all be worth it?”
Our characters shouldn’t have forever to do what needs to be done. Paul Atreides must lead the Fremen to victory before the Guild arrives with enough force to possibly put down the rebellion.
In Miracle, the team has until the 1980 Olympic games. Nina only has until the Swan Lake roles are finalized (ballerinas have a very short shelf life).
Notice how ALL these components ratchet tension and keep audiences riveted (turning pages). Can the unlikely, ill-equipped MC do what needs to be done in time? If the MC fails, what is lost?
***Hint: It better be BIG.
Back to our prototype. I hope you can now see how every part of the log-line is critical to the story working as a whole. We can look at each component and see if we can do better.
Conversely, if a story is flagging, this is a great diagnostic to help us work on the parts that are actually BROKEN.
How might we make it harder on the MC? Can we make the problem bigger, messier, seemingly unbeatable? Is it feasible to condense the timeline? How can we up the stakes? What MORE can we place in jeopardy?
Remember stakes ideally should be internal and external. What does it mean personally for the MC to win/fail? How will the outer world reflect winning versus failing? As far as this part of the log-line, go big or go home.
Readers are parting with very limited free time so we need to make our stories a good use of that time. No one wants to invest twelve to fifteen hours in a novel where, if the MC fails, he just tries again next year.
I LOVE hearing from you!
Does this break down help? Maybe make the idea of using a log-line more appealing? Can you see how, if one component is faulty, it impacts the entire story?
If you’ve been struggling to write a query or synopsis, try starting with the log-line. It might a) make the job easier or b) reveal what needs to be repaired before you query.
I know this is a detailed blog, but I DO have a class NEXT THURSDAY on how to write query letters and the dreaded SYNOPSIS (and recording of class is free with purchase).
The FIRST TEN sign-ups get ME repairing, polishing their log-lines for FREE.
This class can be a game-changer for an author’s career. Even if we land an agent, trust me, they’ll ask for a synopsis for the next book and next.
Also, if we become skilled at writing synopses, we can write at a much faster pace. So, I hope y’all will join me 😀 .
Otherwise, what are your THOUGHTS? I reward those who share *group hug*
What do you WIN? For the month of SEPTEMBER, for 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, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Upcoming Classes for September
Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS
Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 20th 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST
You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.
Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?
***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.
Good question. We will cover that and more!
But sometimes the query is not enough.
Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.
This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.
So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!
Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell
Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST