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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Search Results for: structure part 1

We are into October and National Novel Writing Month is around the corner (November–NaNoWriMo). Thus, I am running my structure series to help you guys get prepared. Why write 50,000 words if, at the end you have an unpublishable mess? Some of you might have seen these lessons, but a good refresher can’t hurt.

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.

Plotters tend to do better with structure, but even pantsers (those writers who write by the seat of their pants) NEED to understand structure or revisions will be HELL. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya.

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most aspiring writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. We have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded cool. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it. Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. Last week we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). Normal world has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel.

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming weeks.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or WTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

 

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients. Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese. But, on some intuitive level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

NOTE: If you have won an edit from me and haven’t heard back, PLEASE resend to my assistant Gigi Salem (if you haven’t already). Likely, the wormhole (spam folder) ate your submission. I do look for them, but sometimes they slip by. Just send your pages to Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com and I will get you hooked up.

Winner’s Circle:

GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (6500 words) OR a blog diagnostic. Diane Henders

Monthly Winner of 15 Pages (3250 words) of Edit Joylse Barnett

Weekly Winner of Five Pages (1250 words) Ramblingsfromtheleft

All winners, send your words in a Word document to my assistant Gigi at Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Want a way to stand out from all the other writers clamoring to get an agent’s attention? Want to be a best-selling author with stories that endure the tests of time? Learn all you can about the craft, particularly novel structure. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy. Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya. Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most aspiring writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. You have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded cool. Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it. Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. Back in September we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). Normal world has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel. That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming weeks.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or WTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important. 

 

 

 

 

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients. Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

 

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese. But, on some intuitive level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza. Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share?

Happy writing!

Until next time…

And the winner of a signed copy of my book is….insert drumroll here…..ANNE BRENNAN!

Now the shameless self-promo. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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.

Why?

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.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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?

No problemo. 

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.

#AskMeHowIKnow

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.

#SnoozeFest

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.

Try Again

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.

How about:

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?

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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.

#SuxToBeYouMaximus

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!)

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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.

Intriguing MC

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.

The End.

#LifeIsSuffering

Casting is Essential

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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).

Clear TARGET/GOAL

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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.

Stakes

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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?”

Ticking Clock

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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.

Diagnostic

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.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

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

REGISTER HERE

 

 

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Time is one of many tools we authors can use when crafting a story. This said, bending time takes training and skill because it’s one of the toughest techniques to pull off well. Even those who bend time masterfully will have their fair share of critics because most audiences are accustomed to linear structure.

This is only natural.

We’ve all teethed on stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. Any story that deviates from this familiar pattern can vex and confuse us.

This is why movies like Memento tend to divide into two camps: those who loved it and those who couldn’t make it through thirty minutes.

Time Has a Proper Order

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Humans take time for granted, which is why time is one of those things that will wig people out when someone starts tinkering with it. Remember this because we can twist the audience’s assumptions to our advantage (especially in certain genres).

Bending time can disorient and confuse readers, but that isn’t always a good thing.

Most audiences enjoy the traditional Aristotelian three-act structure (which is why the lion’s share of novels are written in linear time). Aristotelian structure has been around over a thousand years for good reason. It’s endured simply because it’s a story structure that reflects time as sane humans experience it.

Time is hardwired into our brains. Our world reflects linear structure.

Morning–>noon–>night. We are born–>we live–>we die.

When old age manifests where childhood should be, something is clearly WRONG (progeria) and has disturbed the natural order.

Time & the Flashback

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever I’ve blogged about flashbacks being bad, inevitably commenters list a dozen books or movies where the writer (allegedly) used flashbacks all the time and it was super successful.

Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about 😛 .

First, I’d like to point out that, while we can learn from film, we must be careful mimicking movies in our work. Movies are visual, whereas writing is completely abstract. We’re creating people and worlds using combinations of 26 letters (and roughly four of those are pretty useless).

No one wants to play Scrabble and get Q.

Movies get a smidge more leeway because the audience can SEE changes in people, places and time and are less likely to suffer a brain cramp. Alas, even in screenwriting, flashbacks are a sign of lazy/amateurish writing for a couple of reasons.

First, most information can be relayed real-time. If I have a character who is OCD (As Good as It Gets), I don’t need to go back and explain WHY the character is trapped with a psychological disorder.

There is no need to hop into a literary DeLorean and go EXPLAIN. Audiences are smart and get that Melvin Udall has OCD by how he behaves.

That’s the whole show don’t tell thing at work.

In the original film version of Silence of the Lambs , director Jonathan Demme toyed with using a flashback for the tense moment when Hannibal Lecter demands Agent Starling part with her most traumatic memory in return for the key to locating Buffalo Bill.

***The time when young Clarice tries in vain to rescue one of the lambs from being slaughtered.

But Demme was too good of a director and Jodi Foster to great an actor. He knew the flashback would wreck the effect and so he nixed it and, instead allowed Foster to show just how incredible a performer she really was (which explains the Academy Award).

Because the story remained in the present, the memory was far more visceral. It intensified the story to nerve-shredding proportions.

Flashback FAIL

In most stories we don’t need to use flashbacks. In many new works I see the writer just about piques my interest, then slams on the brakes, throws it in reverse and takes me back to EXPLAIN WHY.

I have a mantra:

Resist the urge to explain.

Frequently, new writers jump back in time because they’re doing a good job at creating tension. Feeling the tension they’ve generated, they seek reprieve and so they explain. The problem with this is that they are killing the very element (tension) that will keep readers turning pages until 3 a.m.

Explanations are the antidote for tension.

What do we do when our kid acts up? We EXPLAIN. Sorry, he didn’t have a nap today. This serves to allay our own anxiety and relax the bystanders gathered round staring at us.

Explaining might work in life, but for fiction it spells D-E-A-T-H.

If the love interest in our novel is maddeningly evasive?  Leave it alone. Readers will keep reading to see if they find out/figure out what the heck his deal is.

If we go back and explain, “He has intimacy issues because his parents were murdered by a Mary Kay lady on bath salts,” we’ve just handed the reader a great place for a bookmark.

Hmm, question answered. I’ll get back to this later.

Let Them Wait

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Great writers keep layering on more and more questions that either are a) partially answered b) not answered until toward the end c) some not answered at all.

We can put some humdinger questions in a WIP and refuse to answer them. Seriously. Great writers are sadists. We’re ONLY required to fully answer the core story problem for THAT particular book.

Other than that? We writers are not required to tie everything up neatly with a bow. The best stories leave a smidge of unfinished business. Loose ends generate passion and conversations that linger long after readers have turned the final page.

***Additionally, if we want to write a series, it’s a good idea to NOT answer everything.

Tana French’s incredible book In The Woods does this brilliantly. She does her duty and answers the core mystery: Who killed the Knocknaree girl and why? But, there’s a lot more about Knocknaree’s dark past she withholds (likely so we’d read the rest of the series or because she is a brilliant author, a.k.a. heartless psychopath).

Readers long for catharsis—release—and the longer we (authors) can delay the reader getting what he/she wants, the better.

Flashback Apoplexy

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Flashbacks generally are a sign of weak writing. Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, we can go back and forth in time so just be patient.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m a HUGE fan of horror and I love, love, love American Horror Story, particularly Season Four Freak Show. Elsa Mars is one of the most beautifully conflicted villains I’ve ever encountered.

She’s layered, complex, and unpredictable. Every character and storyline is pure heart-wrenching genius.

Then, in Season Five, Jessica Lange left the show and they substituted her with Lady Gaga *face palm*. For me, this is like serving me Tofurkey when I’m used a Thanksgiving turkey a la Martha Stewart. I mean no disrespect to Lady Gaga, but she’s a performer not an actor. ‘

I’m certain they cast her because she’s a huge name (draw) but she didn’t have the acting abilities to take center stage, which is why Season Five (Hotel) and Season Six (Roanoke) are painful to watch.

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Season Five is like being trapped in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick. Just about get going forward then REVERSE. The series keeps going backwards to explain to the point that watching became more chore than fun.

In Season Six, AHS tried something different. It takes the form of a television show interviewing survivors and what happened is “reenacted.”

The HUGE problem with this is that no matter how many monsters, how much gore, how depraved the story gets, there is NO DRAMATIC TENSION. Why? Because of flashbacks. We know the people lived or they wouldn’t be sitting there being interviewed.

How can we worry about characters we KNOW are going to make it out alive? We can’t.

Time as a Literary Device

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

All this said, time CAN be used as a literary device. Progressing linearly isn’t always ideal, especially for certain genres. One surefire way to throw readers off is to mess with their sense of time. Non-linear structure is fantastic for mysteries, psychological thrillers, horror, and suspense.

If we choose to distort time, however, there needs to be a good reason for doing so. Let’s explore a handful of reasons…

Unreliable Narrator: Non-Linear Timeline

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever we open a book (or start a movie) we’re programmed to trust the MC, that what he or she is relaying is truth. Non-linear plotting can use this human propensity to trust until given reason NOT to trust for advantage. Vanilla Sky, Black Swan, Shutter Island, and Fight Club are all superlative examples of twisting truth and trust.

Yet, notice the reason time is fractured in these stories.

The point is to intimate or even emulate madness. We begin trusting the MC but this trust erodes until we’re sucked into the chaos, our bearings lost, internal compass needle spinning and unable to find True North.

Past is Key to Present: Parallel Timeline

Sometimes the story shifts back and forth from past to present. Like train tracks running parallel they flow side-by-side until finally the past timeline converges with the present to solve the core story problem at hand.

We see this in Stephen King’s speculative fiction story The Green Mile. The story opens with elderly Paul Edgecomb in a retirement facility and establishes Paul’s present reality. THEN we go back in time to Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1930s when young Paul Edgecomb worked as a prison guard in charge of Death Row.

Though we spend much of our time in the 1930s, we’re not going back in time for no reason. What happened decades ago on The Green Mile is essential for revealing a mystery in the present timeline at the retirement home.

A lot of literary works use the parallel timeline (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan). Parallel timelines are also employed in general fiction.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood uses parallel timelines to resolve a feud between mother and daughter. Sidda (daughter) must understand the past from her mother’s (Vivi’s) POV in order to forgive her and heal the relationship.

Memory LIES…or Does It?

Mysteries employ this tactic as well, though many authors tend to dribble the past throughout but in the form of memories, dreams, fragments of recollections the MC doesn’t fully trust. A good example of this is James Patterson’s The Murder House.

Can We Trust Our Senses?

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Ultimately, when we deviate from traditional linear timelines, we’re jarring the readers sense of what she believes she knows. By going back and forth (I.e. In the Woods) we can throw readers off figuring everything out too easily and we make them work for the resolutions they crave.

This said, jumping back and forth willy-nilly is a good way to simply tick readers off. Even when non-linear timelines are executed with mastery, there will always be certain people who will hate it.

I remember walking out of Vanilla Sky feeling like I’d just had a spiritual experience, but the people around me were irate because “that stupid movie was just too confusing.”

There are probably more people who hated Pulp Fiction than those who loved Pulp Fiction. BUT, those who LOVED Pulp Fiction did so with such passion it’s now an iconic movie.

We can’t please everyone. In the Woods was one of those books that made me weep and think, “What am I DOING? I can’t WRITE! Whaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Yet, go check out the one and two-star reviews from readers who “grew bored” or “got confused.”

Whenever we authors play with time, just accept that some people will hate it. But, since no one ever wrote a book that pleased everyone?

Relax.

Caveat Auctor

I want to put a warning in here. Just because we are zipping back and forth in time doesn’t mean our structure is sound. Employing time as a literary device is tricky because we can lose readers very easily.

Many editors loathe ‘flashbacks’ with the power of a thousand suns, but here is a post regarding WHY.

Frequently, if a writer is going backwards and forwards in time, it is more a symptom of major story problems than an indicator of genius. The above post explains how flashbacks can be symptomatic of a flawed or nonexistent plot.

***For those who’d like training in advanced plotting, I recommend the class I’m teaching tomorrow, Beyond Planet X. USA Today best-selling author Cait Reynolds and I are doing a Speculative Fiction Saturday with three classes in a row (World-Building, Character, and Advanced Plotting). The XXXFiles Bundle is the best value. Three classes for the price of two (SIX hours of training) and recordings are FREE with purchase. 

If you want to mess with your reader’s heads, then do it with style 😉 . I’m excited to teach this much more advanced material and hope you guys will join me!

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some of your favorite movies or books that used time to mess with your head? Which ones did you hate? Why?

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).

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent all last weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

Again, for the value, I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Upcoming Classes for September


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

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


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 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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Yesterday we talked about great stories and why the world craves them and needs more of them. It’s easy to assert the world needs more great stories, but how do we go about writing them? Glad you asked.

Great stories that endure for generations are not the result of whim, accident or even a lot of ‘rising and grinding.’ There’s an end vision, a planning phase, and a way to make sure all the parts come together to create what was originally imagined (or perhaps something that surpassed all hope).

This is true of all enduring structures. Can you imagine the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Mayan temples, or the Nazca Lines being the result of whim? Hey, lets go pile some stones and chip away at a cliff and see what happens?

Um…no.

Great stories possess an inherent architectural design unique to building with words. In fact, the more vast and complex a story we desire to write, the more structure skills matter.

Mastering how stories are fundamentally put together will increase our odds of crafting a story readers love.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Narrative structure is fundamental, especially for any writer who longs to craft great stories that can withstand the test of time and Goodreads trolls 😛 .

Structure, sadly, is probably one of the most overlooked topics even though it’s the most critical.

Why? Because structure is for the reader. The further an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect and resonate.

When structure is missing, incomplete, or flawed, the easier it is for readers to become confused, frustrated and finally give up. Structure isn’t simply for function, but for beauty as well (refer to jacked up Ikea fail above).

Sadly, too many emerging writers want to get to the ‘fun’ stuff (for them). Pretty prose, descriptions, characters, using new words are great imaginative play. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. Play.

Crafting great stories is work. Too much play and too little planning is the reason many ‘novels’ are Literary Barbie Dream Houses or Literary Holodecks (if you prefer).

While the writer is vested in the ‘story,’ no one else cares because the ‘book’ was written to entertain the creator not the consumer. Hey, I am not judging, for the record….

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics
Representation of Kristen’s First Novel

Story that connects to readers = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile or Amazon purgatory

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most pre-published writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me, agents and readers with their glorious prose.

Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot.

We have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming craft series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Great Stories Possess Intrinsic Order

I get it. Learning story structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school Chemistry.

The funny thing about Chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in Chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the ‘lunch room.’ Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves ‘The Ionics’ thinking it sounded cool.

Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called ‘The Covalents.’  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it.

Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of Chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. All parts serve an important function. Normal World has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. If we fail to understand this, then crafting a great story becomes more accident than intention.

Dunno about y’all, but I prefer odds I can control, thanks.

Great Stories: Back to the BASICS

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure (non-linear structure), turning points, rising action, and darkest moments, etc.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I’m going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Again, prose is not a novel. Just because we can write beautiful sentences doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 60-100,000+ word novel (or a 300,000 + word series).

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, so I can build a house! Uh, probably not. Or, I can build a house, so I can construct a skyscraper! Um…no. Different scale, different skills.

Do they share some basic components? Sure! But a novel (or series) requires a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that the skills to create a great short story are the same for a novel. Or the same for a novel are the same for an epic ten-book space opera.

No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like Chemistry.

Simplicity Births Complexity

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they’re also essential for lotuses, lions, and lemmings. Today we’re going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming posts.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I’m boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be further from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—peach or poodle? Paranormal Romance? Or OMGWTH? 

Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

The Micro Scale of Structure

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics
Same thing can be said for writers…

We’re going to first ZOOM IN and place the novel under a literary electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. Super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (yes, even literary works).

Cause and effect are like a nucleus with orbiting electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

I know that in life random things happen and people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that ‘seed’ needs to be planted ahead of time.

Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book.

We’ll chat more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we’ll discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your ‘chapters’ but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms.

***I know carbon chains also make some dead things, but great stories are living ‘creatures.’ Dead stories are, well, dead and deserve to rot in a slush pile. Ah, but living stories are immortal!

Anyway, carbon chains and various elements from that Periodic Table act like Legos—put together differently, in innumerable ways…but always using the same fundamental blocks.

Assembled in the wrong order—>steaming pile of goo.

***Lest I remind anyone who saw The Fly about that baboon that didn’t quite ‘make it’ through the teleportation pod.

Carbon chains create flowers and ferrets and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries, romances, fantasies and thrillers and all things literary.

Order Matters: Scene & Sequel

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy and read and study).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level.

Meet & Exceed Expectations

On some intuitive level, all readers expect some variation of this structure. When things happen for no reason, or there are actions that should have consequences then don’t? Formula for a book mark.

Readers eventually grow weary and move on, especially these days when humans have the attention span of a crack-addicted spider monkey.

great stories, structure, plot structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, writing craft, writing fiction, plotting basics

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sun-dried tomatoes or feta cheese.

But, on some primal level, a patron will know what to expect when we ‘sell’ them a pizza. They will know that a fried corn tortilla stuffed with shredded bison and a raspberry chutney is NOT pizza…even though it is certainly ‘creative.’

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a ‘pizza.’ Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and Biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so we can BREAK and BASH them!

*evil laugh*

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

***January’s winner is Maria D’Marco. Please send your first twenty pages (5,000 words) double spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font (12 pint) with one-inch margins in a Word doc to kristen at wana intl.com.

CLASSES!

Business of the Writing Business: Ready to ROAR!

Instructor: Kristen Lamb

Price: $55.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Thursday, February 15, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.

There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.

This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?

We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:

  • The Product
  • Agents/Editors
  • Types of Publishing
  • Platform and Brand
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Making Money
  • Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

Self-Publishing for Professionals: Amateur Hour is OVER

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $99.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, February 16, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?

Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.

Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.

Topics include:

  • Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
  • Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
  • Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
  • Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
  • Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
  • Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
  • How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)

Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Oréal says, you’re worth it! Also, a recording of this class is also included with purchase.

The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!

Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.

DOUBLE-TROUBLE BUSINESS BUNDLE

BOTH classes for $129 (Save $25). This bundle is FIVE hours of professional training, plus the recordings, plus Cait’s workbook to guide you through everything from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution and more.