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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: generating story tension

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Image via the award-winning show “House.”

Back in the Spring we started talking about ways to create multi-dimensional characters.¬†Then I probably saw something shiny and, in case you are wondering? NO, I can’t catch the red dot. But I don’t give up easily ūüėÄ .

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible.¬†

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we¬†want¬†others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Gears of War T-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at¬†The Joy Luck Club¬†the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

How could she just LEAVE those babies?
How could she just LEAVE those babies?
Image via IMDB “The Joy Luck Club”

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She¬†wants¬†others to¬†think¬†she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of¬†House¬†and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In¬†Winter’s Bone¬†Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Seeking the truth is painful...
Seeking the truth is painful…
Image via “Winter’s Bone”

I’m working on a fiction series and nearly finished with Book Two of three. But in Book One, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had¬†nothing¬†to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts and loves, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such. 

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write it out for you…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of¬†my latest social media/branding book¬†Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.¬†

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Bad decisions make GREAT fiction. I know it’s tough to not write about fully evolved/self-actualized characters, but those guys are B-O-R-I-N-G. We like to watch people grow, probably so we might glean some hint of how to grow, ourselves. The more messed up a character is? The more INTERESTING they become.

Come on! You know it.

If you were at a restaurant and had a choice of where to eavesdrop, would it be the couple talking about their plans for the week as a team baking cookies for the school? Or would it be the nasty breakup on Table 6?

If we don’t have conflict, the story falls flat. Everything comes¬†too easily¬†and that is a formula for a Snooze-Fest. I am SO HUMBLED and honored to be friends with THE LEGEND Les Edgerton. In his mind? NOTHING comes easily. Even if your protagonist just wants directions, she should get, “What? Do I look like Google Maps?” in response.

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker and log-lines. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end.

The CORE ANTAGONIST (what I call the BBT) is responsible for creating the problem that 1) disrupts the protagonist’s life 2) forces change and growth 3) is in need of clear resolution by the end. No core problem and there is no clean way to end the book.

Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive. THIS is the point when the protagonist has CHANGED enough to become a HERO.

Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting (and a solid core problem). One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Via the Mel Brooks classic "Blazing Saddles"
Via the Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles”

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence used to be quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up O_o.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter ‚Äúc‚ÄĚ backwards. It is a heavy-handed¬†attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, car chases and rapes are justifiable conflict,¬†if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it‚Äôs contrived and awkward.

The Many Faces of the Antagonist

There is ONE BBT. Sauron, Buffalo Bill, VIKI, Loki, Darla the Fish-Killer all create the core story problems the protagonists must resolve. Ah, but along the way, there should be conflict in EVERY scene. Conflict often will come from multiple directions. There will be the long-range conflict (I.e. drop evil ring into volcano in Mordor) and short-range conflict, which is very often generated by allies (run from angry pitch-fork-wielding-farmer because Merry and Pippin stole veggies).

The antagonist role can shift. It can be friends, family, coworkers, but these guys are not the CORE antagonist.

From the film, "I, Robot."
From the film, “I, Robot.”

For instance, in I, Robot, VIKI (the computer controlling all the robots) is the Big Boss Troublemaker. Yet, who generates much of the conflict? ALLIES who are acting as antagonists.

Whether it’s the protagonist’s grandmother, “Look, I won an evil robot in the lottery! See how well he handles a KNIFE? We’ve been cooking ALL DAY! Whee!” or his boss “What robots tried to kill you? The tunnel was clean and you’re imagining things. Gimme your badge,” poor Spooner CANNOT get a break.

The more the robots try to kill him, the more his allies protest and create roadblocks, generating conflict.

Even in literary works, there has to be¬†external¬†conflict. A book of navel-gazing is not literary. It’s navel-gazing. In the Pulitzer-Winning book and later Oscar-Winning movie¬†The Hours¬†each story is a manifestation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel¬†Mrs. Dalloway.¬†And, if you watch the movie or read the book, it’s WAY better if you’ve actually¬†read¬†Mrs. Dalloway.¬†

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, "The Hours"
From the Oscar Award Winning Film, “The Hours”

Clarissa wants to help her former lover-friend who is ravaged by AIDS, but he refuses help and torments her by calling her Mrs. Dalloway (who was a woman searching for meaning). Mrs. Dalloway arranges the flowers and flitters around planning parties, but deep down believes she’s a non-entity.

Clarissa is the same. She has become what she fears and those around her only reinforce this insecurity.¬†Clarissa can’t connect to her lover, her friend or her daughter and there are roadblocks at every turn.

One way we can ensure we have conflict is to use the Blake Snyder method. In each scene, ask “Protagonist wants X, but then….” Someone or something should stand in the way, and it is better if it’s¬†someone.¬†Remember all good characters have baggage and issues like real people. This is what will make your cast more than talking heads. I know it is counterintuitive, but this is why writing is HARD. Humans avoid conflict, but great writers dive straight for it.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What books or movies ratcheted the tension so high you thought your nerves might just snap?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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. 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).

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book¬†Rise of the Machines‚ÄĒHuman Authors in a Digital World.

Image via Pixar's movie "Finding Nemo"
Image via Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo”

Storytelling is in our blood, it binds us together as humans. On some intuitive level, everyone understands narrative structure, even little kids. All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. Ever try to skip parts of a story with a toddler? Even they can sense on a gut level that something is wrong if we miss a fundamental part of the story.

Thus, often when I am teaching new writers how to understand narrative structure, I use children’s movies. Frequently the narrative structure is far clearer, as well as the Jungian archetypes that are present in all great fiction.¬†Additionally, all fiction can be boiled down to cause, effect, cause, effect, cause, effect. But, beyond that, novels are broken into scenes and sequels. For those who missed this post, I highly recommend you¬†go here.

So how do we know when to cut a scene?

How do we knew when to begin and end chapters? How do we know what to trash and what to keep? Structure and conflict are like two gears.

Gears cannot turn unless there is another key wheel turning the opposite direction. No opposition, no power, no momentum. Same with a story.

All scenes have action. Action is more than a car chase or a bomb being diffused. Action does not mean a ‚Äúbad situation.‚ÄĚ All stories must have one main story goal, a core problem that must be resolved for the story to end.

Find Nemo.

I love studying children’s movies because they make it very easy to see and understand fundamental story structure.

In the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, what is the story goal for Marlin (the Clown fish father and protagonist)? Find his only son. How do we know when the movie is over? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited and safe at home, right?

Who is the Big Boss Troublemaker in Finding Nemo? The BBT is the character responsible for the story problem (the CORE antagonist). The BBT is Darla the Fish-Killer, who we, the viewer, don’t even see until Act II. Darla is the horrid little niece of a dentist who likes to go diving. The dentist (Minion) collects little Nemo from the ocean as a birthday gift, beginning the adventure of a lifetime for Marlin and Nemo.

In Normal World, Nemo and Marlin live in a sea anemone. Overprotective father Marlin finally allows little Nemo to go off school (pun intended), even though everything in his life revolves around keeping his son safe. This decision to let Nemo go to school is the inciting incident. If Nemo never went to school then he would never have been taken by the diver dentist.

The turning point into Act One is when Nemo is taken. That gives the clear story goal and the journey of the story is clear‚ÄĒFinding Nemo.

Today we are only going to look at scene antagonists who drive the action.

Obviously Marlin will not find Nemo right away. That would make for very boring fiction. No, there are a series of sub-goals that must be met to find his son.

Marlin takes off after the boat, but then fails to catch up.

He loses the boat and all seems lost, when he runs into another fish, Dori, who says she knows which way the boat went. Marlin follows, renewed in the chase and hopeful he will find Nemo, but then his new ally turns on him wanting to fight. She is unaware why Marlin is following her. Marlin soon realizes the only link to finding his son is a fish ally who suffers short-term memory loss.

Great.

We, the audience, think the journey is over, but then she tells him she does remember where the boat went. Marlin wants to go after his son, but then Bruce the Great White interrupts.

At first Marlin and Dori look doomed, but then Bruce collects them to join him in the Fish are Friends Not Food meeting (think shark AA‚ÄĒFish Anonymous). So instead of Marlin being able to continue on his journey, he must stop to attend this Shark FA meeting.

He has to play along lest he get eaten and not be able to continue his journey. To make matters worse, the FA meetings are held in a sunken sub that is surrounded by mines. So we have outside obstacles‚ÄĒmines‚ÄĒand character obstacles‚ÄĒthe Great White addict needing a Fish Friend for his meeting.

Marlin wants to look for his son. Bruce wants a fish friend to attend his FA meeting. This is what Bob Mayer teaches as a conflict lock. Please check out Bob’s books if you want to learn more.

At this point, Bruce is not Marlin’s enemy, but see how he is the antagonist? Bruce’s wants are in direct conflict with Marlin’s. Only one party can get his way. Marlin is held back from achieving his goal.

Through a fun series of events, Bruce ends up losing it and going after Marlin and Dori with the fervor of any addict as his shark buddies try to keep him from totally ‚Äúfalling off the wagon.‚ÄĚ Marlin and Dori swim for their lives and while running, Marlin spots the diver‚Äôs mask (The diver dentist who took Nemo dropped his mask). The journey, otherwise, would have ended, but a wild twist of fate has renewed the search.

They have a clue and apparently Dori, the Forgetful Fish Ally that Marlin was going to dump at the first opportunity, can READ. He needs her.  But they must escape Bruce and get the mask.

They escape Bruce by detonating all the underwater mines, but then both Marlin and Dori are knocked unconscious. They awaken and realize that they are pinned under the sub, which is now sitting precariously off an undersea trench. The mask and only clue to finding Nemo is wrapped around Dori. As they try to look at the mask, the sub starts to slide and they lose the mask.

Scene goal. Marlin wants to get the clue, but then the submarine sends them fleeing for their lives. Just as they grasp for the mask, it drops down into the deep.

See how Marlin is progressively worse off as the story progresses? He seems farther away from finding his son, when in reality these are the necessary steps to FIND Nemo.

All looks as if it is lost. Marlin goes to give up, but his unlikely ally encourages him to go on and swim down in the deep to find the mask. Marlin has a chance to give up. He could at this point go home and give his son up for lost, but that would make a seriously sucky story. Marlin is a control freak who is ruled by his fears. He has to learn to be the master of his fears in order to rescue his son. Hemust press on in order to find Nemo. He swims down into the abyss as all good heroes should.

Marlin WANTS to find the mask, but then he and Dori soon realize it is nothing but blackness and they cannot see to find the mask. All seems lost. Ah, but then they spot a pretty light in the darkness…which turns out to be an angler fish that wants to eat them both.

Marlin wants to find the clue (mask).

Angler fish wants dinner.

Do you see how every break the protagonist gets comes with a new test? This is why it is so critical for us to at least start out with our story’s log-line. What is our story about? Learn more about log-lines (BIG story goal), here.

If the screenwriters didn’t know that the overall goal was for a neurotic fish father to swim to Sydney, Australia to rescue his son from a dentist’s fish tank before Darla the Fish-Killer’s birthday…this would have been a booger to plot. In ways it still is. How do we get Marlin from the Great Barrier Reef to a dentist’s office in Sydney? This is where setting sub-goals (scenes) makes life easier. When we know the ending, the main goal then it is far easier to plot the course.

Each scene needs a key wheel‚ÄĒan antagonist‚ÄĒto¬†provide the opposition that will¬†drive forward momentum.

Bruce the Great White and fish-addict¬†in recovery is not Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT), but he does keep Marlin from his journey‚Ķfinding Nemo, so he IS an antagonist. In retrospect, Bruce‚Äôs intervention was fortuitous in that they never would have been in the area of the ocean where the one clue‚ÄĒthe mask‚ÄĒwas dropped.

Every scene needs an antagonist. Scenes MUST have conflict. No conflict? Not story. No forward momentum. We must always take a good hard look at our scenes and ask the tough questions. Ask, ‚ÄúWhat is it my protagonist wants? Who is in the way?‚ÄĚ

If no one is in the way, then who can we¬†put¬†in the way?¬†Conflict can even be as simple as allies disagreeing about a course of action‚ÄĒchase after bad guys or call the police and play it safe? Will the Elves take the Ring of Power to Mount Doom or will the Dwarves?

If everything is happening easily and all our characters are getting along? That’s a formula to bore a reader. Scenes where we have our protag thinking? That isn’t a scene, that’s a sequel. If a character is thinking, it better relate to something that just happened (a scene) and what to do next (next scene).

A ‚Äúscene‚ÄĚ that has characters talking about other characters is contrived information dump,¬†not¬†a scene. We can offload information in dialogue, but that cannot be the only purpose. Scenes are sub-goals‚ÄĒaction¬†blocks‚ÄĒthat lead to solving the final problem.

I have a class coming up in a couple weeks, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

Does this clear things up that might be a little murky? What are some of your favorite movies that demonstrate these same story tactics?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, 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).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book,¬†Rise of the Machines‚ÄďHuman Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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Image via Flikr Creative Commons, contributed by Ano Lobb.

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story.¬†Minority Report¬†has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In¬†The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In¬†Winter’s Bone¬†“Is blood really thicker than water?” In¬†Mystic River¬†“What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads¬†GO FOR THE GUTS.¬†

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek¬†resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. 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 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).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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Our Novel. Rest in Peace….
Image via Debbie Johansson WANA Commons

Yesterday, we discussed the often confused Man verses Self by using the movie Flight. All good Men versus Self stories still have an outside antagonist that generates the story problem in need of resolution by Act III. No outside antagonist? No story problem? Then the novel quickly devolves into pages of navel-gazing.

Literary Fiction Doesn’t Give us a Pass from Plotting

Look to all the top literary fiction and all of them have an outside antagonist that generates tension, conflict and change. The only difference in literary fiction is that the character arc usually takes a higher precedence than the plot arc.

The plot and story problems are there, but they’re purpose is to force internal change.

Some Examples…

In¬†Brave New World, protagonist Bernard Marx doesn’t fit the mold he was engineered to fill. The society around him lacks meaning and he travels to the reservations (of the “uncivilized” American Indians) for answers. There is a lot of push-back from the society he’s questioning, namely The Director of Hatcheries, and that generates the tension and stakes.

In Catch 22 protagonist Yossarian is creative in his efforts to save his tail from dying in war. The problem? The antagonist, Colonel Cathart, keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly in order to complete their service.

Even literary fiction involves some outside force that is causing the contemplation, depression, rebellion, etc. Whether it is the decline of the aristocracy and rise of the middle class as in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or implosion of society, and humans-turned-cannibals in Cormac McCarthy’s Pultizer-winning¬†The Road, we must always have an outside pressure and antagonists to drive the story momentum.

Though I will say Proust is from another time (not to mention absurdly self-indulgent), and modern audiences would probably want to pelt him with Angry Birds.

The Case of Commercial Fiction

Most of us, however, write commercial fiction. Thus, the antagonist tends to be a little less on the existential side. Here are five main problems that I regularly see in new writing, regarding the antagonist(s).

#1 No Core Antagonist (No BBT)—This will create, what I call, “the soap opera effect.” Since there is no core story problem, no Big Boss Troublemaker, each scene is just melodrama. Since there is no clear BBT to be defeated, there’s no way to ratchet the tension.

#2 Antagonist is a Caricature—Always remember that the bad guy is the good guy in his own story. One of the best examples of this is in the movie¬†Law Abiding Citizen.¬†The antagonist is a husband whose wife and daughter were brutally raped then butchered and he was left for dead. A flawed justice system basically gave one of the killers a slap on the wrist and now this grieving husband and father wants revenge/justice. It is really hard not to root for “the bad guy” in this movie because we so empathize.

Antagonists who just want to kill or rule the world get boring quickly. Leave the mustache-twirlers to the cartoons.

#3 Antagonist is Weak—The goal of your antagonist should always present BIG stakes for the protagonist. If the goals aren’t strong enough, your story will suffer. What will it¬†cost¬†your protagonist if he/she fails? This is one of the reasons novels based off diaries of something that’s already happened can be weak.

Yes, but they hold the key to her mother’s killer.

All right, but that killer (or people willing to cover the killer’s identity at any cost) better still be alive and the protagonist must be in imminent danger. The diary better be the key to saving her skin and there needs to be more than just a journal. There need to be antagonists standing in her way. When events and bad stuff are in the past? No stakes. Curiosity alone is lousy fuel for stories.

#4 Not Enough Scene Antagonists—Your story needs a core antagonist, yes. But most of the conflict will actually come from allies, love interests and threshold guardians. In¬†Finding Nemo,¬†Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT) creates the story problem, the abduction of Nemo. She also provides the stakes because she’s known for shaking her fish to death. BUT, we only see her a couple times in the movie. Dori, the fish with memory issues, provides a lion’s share of the conflict that ups the tension, delays the mission and forces Marlin (a control-freak) to change and learn to trust. For more on this, here’s my post.

#5 No Scene Antagonist—Every scene¬†must have an antagonist¬†(dramatic tension). If we have a scene where two characters are simply talking about a third? Info dump, not fiction. Refer to David Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of The Unit:

THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA. ~Mamet

What are your questions, thoughts? Who are some of the best antagonists? Why did you love them? What made them multi-dimensional? What problems are you having?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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 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).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!