Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: how to plot

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

Now that we’ve discussed the Big Boss Trouble Maker who creates the core story problem in need of resolution, we’re going to tackle…endings. When we authors know our story ending ahead of time, we gain major creative advantage.

What is this madness? How can I know the END?

Calm down. I’ve been there, too. Which is why I’m here to walk you through and help this puzzling concept make total sense.

*hands paper bag*

If you’ve followed this series on structure, you already know why the BBT is so critical. The BBT creates the external problem that launches everything to come, the problem to be resolved (ending).

No Darth Vader and Luke likely remains a moisture farmer on Tatooine. Unless there’s a major external problem—Darth Vader and a Death Star—Luke can/will never become a Jedi.

No WWI pilot crashing through the veil hiding Themiscyra? Amazons continue doing Amazon stuff. Without the pilot, and the massive threat beyond the bubble (pre-Nazis), there is no external force burdening Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, to make a tough moral choice.

Remain hidden in Amazon Safe Space and hope for the best, or step into the fray? No external problem and Wonder Woman can never exist.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension
Okay so maybe not exactly Thucydides. Plato and Napoleon Bonaparte get some credit, too.

A protagonist cannot become a hero/heroine without triumphing over a big problem, despite all we (as Author God) will throw at them. Once we know the problem, it’s far easier to have a sense of the ending.

If we’ve crafted the core problem in need of resolution, we should have a fairly solid idea how and where the story wraps up. Granted, we may not end our novel precisely the way we first envision, but that’s okay. A general idea is totally cool. When we begin writing our story, the ending we have only needs to be close enough for government work.

This loose boundary is what will fire up the muse for endings that are ‘surprising yet inevitable‘, as the great playwright David Mamet likes to say.

Surprising, Yet Inevitable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

I believe the greatest compliment any story can earn is the surprising yet inevitable ending. When we craft a story, ideally the reader will finish and say two things.

I never saw that coming and How did I NOT see that coming?

If we do a bit of work on the front end, and are vastly familiar with our core problem, then this offers us (writers) a myriad of ways to mess with the readers’ heads.

How? We know what they will expect. Why? Because (logically) we’d expect it, too. So, we don’t do THAT.

This is when the reader settles in for that smooth right turn he’d anticipated…and then we zing left across four lanes and take that weird left exit and U-Turn (for bonus smart@$$ points). Meanwhile, the reader screams and hangs on for life, simultaneously hating and loving us.

The reader is stunned, breathless, and maybe indignant.

Ah, but if he’d paid closer attention, he would’ve noticed we (the author) did put on our story blinker and it wasn’t signaling right 😉 . Yet, we had so much distraction in play, the reader missed the blinker signaling LEFT and hidden in plain sight.

Not to give an excuse for sloppy writing, but a story problem that gut-hooks can compensate for a lot of weakness. Conversely, no solid story problem and no one cares how pretty the prose is. Why? Because the reader longs for a bookmark much more than she longs to know the ending.

Case in Point

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

Recently I listened to an audiobook, a psychological thriller (legacy published). Overall, the novel was dreadful. I about choked on the purple prose, and if we made this author’s word echoes into a drinking game? Alcohol poisoning by Chapter Five. Why did I press on? Because the story PROBLEM hooked me.

I knew I had the mystery solved as in who did what, but couldn’t quite nail the HOW. I pushed on through the swamp of overwriting because I had to know the ending…which was surprising and inevitable.

Granted, don’t know if I’ll ever read another work by this writer, but alas, the author did the job. The writer created a compelling story problem. So compelling, I was willing to gut through the slow pace, the protagonist who was too dumb to live, and absurdly detailed descriptions of…everything.

Why? Because I had to KNOW the ENDING. And, the ending made me happy, so we’re cool.

Problems Reveal Endings

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

If we know an evil necromancer is taking over Middle Earth, and the ONLY way to ultimately destroy Sauron is to melt a special ring in one specific volcano? Care to make a bet where and how that story should reasonably END? Likely the ending somewhere close to Mt. Doom. (The Lord of the Rings).

When a self-absorbed teenager wishes away her baby brother to a Goblin King—who takes baby brother—and the only way to get him back is to solve the Labyrinth? Again, care to hazard an ending? Labyrinth solved and baby brother safe (The Labyrinth).

When a daughter loses her mother before she has a chance to reconcile and forgive, that’s a bad situation. But when she’s offered a chance to board a boat to China to meet her long lost half-sisters—the twins her mother ‘abandoned’ and the blade daughter often used to slice mom—how should the story END? Disembarking a boat in China to meet the long lost twins, fulfilling her dead mother’s dream (Joy Luck Club).

When a prince in Denmark’s father dies, that is a problem. It’s also a problem when he returns home to his mom who’s married his Uncle Claudius before Dad’s body is even cold in the ground. Oh, and uncle has also declared himself king—despite Hamlet being next in line. It takes no genius to figure out, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Also doesn’t take a ghost to put two and two together. Seems fairly clear King Uncle-Dad Claudius offed his brother to take his place.

And y’all thought your family was jacked up…

Thus, how should the story end? By Claudius in some way paying for his crime and someone other than Claudius crowned king. And, since Shakespeare wrote it, everyone dies. BUT, we do know the ending. Claudius will pay dearly and will not be king.

Ending with Intention vs. Formulaic Writing

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

I can hear all the howls of complaint. Kristen, but I don’t want to be crammed into formulaic writing. Having a story ending that is surprising and inevitable is not ‘formulaic.’ Great drama has an ending.

The ending to a story is as integral as scales on a lizard. When a ‘lizard’ has fur instead of scales, it ain’t a lizard. Don’t know what the heck it actually is, but reptile pretty much ruled out.

When ‘stories’ have no clear ending, we call those soap operas.

Note: Still unsure if Stefano actually dead.

Formulaic is when we write some paint-by-numbers story where nothing is shocking. We (readers) are never fooled or mislead. When and if the audience reaches the ending of a novel, play or movie and have managed to predict everything as if by telepathy? THAT is formulaic writing.

Formulaic writing abounds more now than ever because quantity has taken over quality.

Emerging writers rush to ‘write a novel’ without taking time to train and learn to ‘craft a story.’ Publishing and the movie industry are pushing the next thing and the next and the next.

The entertainment business model has shifted because the digital age has opened up distribution and drastically lowered production costs. Now, the business model is to make a little money off a lot of crappy stories instead of make bank off something truly remarkable.

This is a major reason I’ve all but given up on most Hollywood movies. Their endings inevitably make me want to throw things.

The Cage that Frees the Muse

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension
Recreation of Kristen’s playpen.

Structure erects boundaries and parameters. Many new writers wail that structure (I.e. conceptualizing endings ahead of time) wrecks creativity. Yet, I believe quite the opposite.

Ever put a toddler in a playpen then gotten distracted? Trust me, they get REAL creative. Study any super-max prison and one thing you’re guaranteed to witness? Mad creativity, boundless imagination.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this series, I don’t care how any writer constructs the story so long as the end result is solid. It doesn’t matter if we outline in detail, write by the seat of our pants, or work out the story in jazz hands while channelling Liberace.

Plotter, pantser, or plotser? That’s process, which is personal. But all processes will work far better with a solid understanding of what the story must eventually accomplish. Having the problem and a notion of the ending, makes this way simpler.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

If I know my goal is to drive from Dallas, Texas to California (ending) then this automatically rules out thousands of roads. I-20 East is a dumb plan unless my goal is to circumnavigate the globe.

Ah, but then my goal (ending) actually is to get to California from Dallas, TX by circumnavigating the globe. This ALSO rules out thousands of routes. In this case. I-20 West not a good place to start, since it is too direct for my goal of having to circumnavigate the globe to reach California (ending).

***Or it’s proof I’m using Apple maps.

Use the Ending to Torture Readers

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension

If we don’t even know where WE are going, this craters imagination. When we’re unsure how the story will (likely) end, it’s impossible for us to misdirect readers. We lose that amazing capacity to mess with the audience’s head. Readers love books that defy expectations, that ‘fool’ them and make them suffer.

Readers relish a challenge, and look to US (authors) to present them a challenge worthy of their money and 12-15 hours of their most precious possession—TIME.

Endings also insert necessary context for dramatic tension. If we give the audience no sense of how the story should/will end, then there is no way for them to discern a setback, and thus, worry.

As an author, if I crash a plane of soccer players on a mountain in the Andes, where they’re forced to eat their dead teammates to survive, that’s morbidity. Interesting in a gruesome way, and a problem, but not yet a story.

***This is why survival alone is not a story.

Ah, but what if when the blizzard clears, off in the distance there’s what appears to be an abandoned ranger station or hunting lodge? Something to use as shelter, but that might also have provisions (beyond that center half-back) and a radio? Or flares? Some way to signal for help.

NOW we have a story because there’s something resembling an ending. Every setback that prevents the surviving soccer players from reaching THAT station makes us worry. Avalanches, blizzards, injures, hypothermia, frostbite all evolve from ‘bad situations’ to ‘dramatic setbacks.’

There are also CHOICES to be made.

Stay at the crash site or move? Staying increases odds rescuers will find our unfortunate group. But, the plane is unstable, could crash down the mountain. Also, the region is so remote, who knows when help will come?

Oh, but trek for that thingy that seems to be an old ranger station and what if it isn’t? What if it’s a hallucination? A mirage? The Unibomber’s old time-share, equipped with nothing more than rage and a typewriter?

Now, characters can FIGHT. They fight each other, fight with themselves, fight against nature and fight to LIVE and to WIN! And this, my friends, is now a story 😉 .

À la fin…

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, ending, novel structure, dramatic writing, novel structure, how to write a novel, how to plot, story endings, David Mamet, dramatic tension, ennui cat

Ennui Cat says nothing matters and life is futile, and he’s judging your book…and you.

Mostly you.

In the end, mastering structure unleashes imagination, provides opportunities to create mad twists, turns and endings that leave readers breathless. By gauging an ‘idea’ for our ending, we make plotting simpler.

Some added bonuses?

We’re far less likely to write ourselves into a corner unable to figure a way out. Also, since the structure is sound, revisions will be more pleasant…and less like water boarding while getting a root canal.

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. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 15th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Were you like me and when some ‘expert’ told you to write from the ending you were all SAY WHAT? Are you INSANE? Does it make a bit more sense now?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

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).

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

GET READY TO ROAR: THE BUSINESS OF THE WRITING BUSINESS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, March 1st, 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

AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER: SELF-PUBLISHING FOR PROFESSIONALS

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $99.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 2nd, 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.

EVEN MORE CLASSES…

Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.

Last time, we talked about the core antagonist or as I like to call it, the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT is responsible for creating the core story problem in need of being solved and we will continue our discussion on the BBT and different types of antagonists later.

But before we do that, I want to talk about a symptom of a novel with no BBT. Sort of like a doctor might take blood pressure or check off a list of symptoms before cracking open your chest to diagnose a bum ticker.

As an expert on plot, one clear symptom of a novel with no plot (or the fatally flawed manuscript), is the story will break out in little darlings. The more the severe the outbreak? The sicker the manuscript. Some cases are even fatal. Nothing to do but pull the plug and harvest for clever dialogue.

Why is this?

When we fail to have a core story problem, deep down we sense something is missing and so we put our best work into buttressing weaknesses. We spend hours on scenes of lavish description, or sections of super witty dialogue, or crazy twists and turns and a surprise ending that only makes sense if we use jazz hands and flannelgrams to explain them.

Because there is no simple CORE problem, we must invent contrived backstory, interstellar empires and black magic conspiracies to explain the, frankly, unexplainable. And, since we put a LOT of brainpower into this? Pulling us off these clever bits of our story is like trying to deprogram a family member from a New Mexico cult.

We’ve partaken of our own Kool-Aid and dammit, we like it!

Yet, the problem with a mass outbreak of little darlings is that, if we don’t spot them and then kill them dead? The novel has no chance of being saved because the little darlings are often the very thing keeping it sick.

What’s a Little Darling?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Niki Sublime

Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”

Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian Google Doc where they would come back as really bad novels.

…oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. They can also look like “never before thought of ideas” and “wicked twist endings that put Shyamalan to shame.”

To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Why are little darlings so dangerous?

Because th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go. Here are three BIG reasons your little darlings need to die.

#1 We Risk Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. The characters’ agendas, secrets and insecurities collide.

As my awesome friend and talented author/writing teacher Les Edgerton mentioned a while back in his lesson about dialogue, subtext is vital. It’s more than what’s said. This can only happen when 3-D characters meet with real baggage that gets in the way of solving a CORE STORY PROBLEM.

Since little darlings are often birthed from a flimsy plot (or no plot), the writer is left to manufacture conflict (melodrama). This weakness often manifests in pointless fight scenes, chase scenes, flashbacks or hospital/funeral scenes that seem to go nowhere.

Zzzzzzzzzz.

We are creating bad situations, not authentic dramatic tension.

#2 We Mistake Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. I teach at a lot of conferences, and in between my sessions, I like to talk new and hopeful writers. I often ask them what their books are about and the conversation generally sounds a bit like this:

Me: What’s your book about?

Writer: Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a demon, but a nice demon because in my world some of the demons actually were half human mage which makes them not evil. Anyway he’s a demon, well half-demon, and actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…

Me: Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

Writer: *blank stare*

Me: What is her goal?

Writer: Um. To find out who she is?

Me: No, what does she need to do? What bad thing must she stop?

Writer: Someone is stalking her.

Me: *looks for closest bar*

Most new novels don’t have a singular core story problem. As mentioned earlier, it’s my opinion that new writers, deep down, know they’re missing the backbone to their story—A CORE STORY PROBLEM IN NEED OF RESOLUTION. Without a core story problem, conflict is impossible to generate, and the close counterfeit “melodrama” will slither in and take its place.

I believe when we are new writers, we sense our mistake on a subconscious level, and that is why our plots grow more and more and more complicated.

When we fail to have a core story problem, often we resort to trying to fix the structural issue with Bond-o putty and duct tape and then hoping it will fly. How do I know this?

I used to own stock in Plot Bond-o.

“Complicated” is Not Conflict

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complicated. We frequently get too complicated when we are trying to BS our way through something we don’t understand and pray no one notices.

Um, they will. Trust me.

Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we add more players trying to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

“Complicated” is the child of confusion, whereas “complexity” is the offspring of simplicity.

I can prove this. Let’s take one of the most complex stories of the 20th century. Yes, yes, you know where I am going. Lord of the Rings. Simple story. I can give it to you in ONE sentence.

A race of naive and innocent homebodies must travel across a dangerous world to drop an evil ring in a specific volcano before a power-hungry necromancer takes over the world and casts all they love in darkness and despair.

The CORE of that complex story is two Hobbits tossing a ring in a volcano. Everything else supports that singular simple idea.

The difference between complex and complicated is this. With a complex plot we can say what the story is about in one sentence. When the story is complicated? Trying to unravel our plot is about as easy as unravelling the Gordian Knot.

#3 We Fail to Spot/Correct Weaknesses

We fall so in love with our fun characters, our witty dialogue, our amazing inter-stellar conspiracy that we never finish. We can’t finish.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.59.35 AM
You’ve rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.

Since we aren’t being honest about why the book isn’t working, we aren’t doing the hard work that would make the story publishable and we end up making a bad mess even worse.

In the end, be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. Make the hard decisions, then kill them dead and bury your pets little darlings for real.

So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies? If you need help looking at your own plot with honest eyes, I have never met a plot I couldn’t fix and am an expert at assisted suicide for Little Darlings, so email me at kristen at wana intl dot com if you need help. I would also strongly recommend my Hooked—Your First Five Pages class below because you get me shredding through your novel’s intro. I can spot every problem in a novel in 20 pages or less. So save some time and get my help. There is no shame in needing outside eyes.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And 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. 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).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

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Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 April 13th, 2017

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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

Last time we talked about paradigms, and how paradigms are what make the difference between a flat one-dimensional character background and a fully dimensional creation. The paradigm is the meaning of the background, the character’s interpretation of their own experiences.

The context.

We all know there is an inherent X factor to humans. Theologians, scientists, geneticists, sociologists, psychiatrists and self-help gurus have all been trying to unravel that X factor probably since humans had enough free time to get existential. The nature-nurture argument is still alive and well with no clear answers.

The paradigm represents this X factor.

One person gets mugged and becomes agoraphobic. Another becomes a black belt. And yet another brushes it off and is just more careful and maybe carries pepper spray. Humans are all vastly different, and this provides the wide pallet of color from which the skilled writer can then create.

In the last post, we referred to the paradigm as a set of lenses. Experience, birth order, genetics, etc. all serve to grind the lenses the character wears. As also mentioned in the last post, the protagonist wears these lenses but only we—Author God—know these lenses are flawed and in need of replacing.

The protagonist believes he is seeing clearly. The plot problem is what eventually shows how wrong the protagonist is.

Now when we simply look at the protagonist—because it is HER story—we know the core plot problem we create must be directly related to shattering HER particular paradigm. If the plot doesn’t do this? It’s going to fizzle, because there simply won’t be any conflict. The paradigm reveals the pain point, the critical node and perfect place for us to strike.

If the character is family-centered, we go after the family. Job-centered? Go for the job. Relationship-centered? A break-up is on the horizon.

Y’all get the gist.

We need to smash what the protagonist believes is important and reveal what really is important. Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how this works. I’m going to use different genres so you guys get a better feel for what I am talking about.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Frodo is achievement-centered. He believes The Shire is holding him back. It is too prosaic, too mundane. No, he is called to adventure and wants to see the world and experience dragons and orcs and look for treasure. He has a romanticized notion that what is outside The Shire is far more important than The Shire.

This means we need to give him a plot problem that 1) gets him out of The Shire (give him what he believes he wants) 2) exposes that all this adventure he has been dreaming about is seriously NOT as wonderful as he’d imagined 3) place The Shire and all he took for granted in genuine danger of being lost for good.

In the beginning of our tale, Frodo cannot wait to leave The Shire. In the middle (Book Two) all he wants to do is return to The Shire and by the end (Book Three) he is willing to die to save the very place he took for granted. His lenses of All Outside the Shire is Super Awesome have been shattered and replaced.

The Minority Report

John Anderton not only heads Pre-Crime, he is a bonafide acolyte of a system that uses the Pre-Cogs to see a crime before it ever happens. With Pre-Crime the murder rate in D.C. has dropped to almost zero, and with less-than-subtle encouragement from his mentor? John firmly believes that Pre-Crime is the answer to human sin, that if it had only been around a few years earlier, he would never have lost his son.

John drinks the Pre-Crime Kool-Aid.

He honestly believes there really is no such thing as free will, that humans don’t have the ability to choose. That what the Pre-Cogs see is set. He is all about the job, because his job is changing the world and making it “safe.”

John is job-centered. His entire identity is wrapped up in Pre-Crime.

So, knowing this, the screenwriters (tasked with adapting the Philip K. Dick version for film) understood precisely where to strike. They knew to hit John Anderton right in the job, right in his belief in the infallibility of Pre-Crime. How did they do this?

They red-balled him (a red-ball is a warning of premeditated murder).

John believes that the Pre-Cogs are infallible. But how is he supposed to murder a man he has never even met? By the end of our tale, the man who believed enough in Pre-Crime to lead the charge to take it national, is now the one who destroys it. By the end he can finally see the wreckage of his life.

Before, when he had the job-centered lenses, he was driven by the career, fueled by drugs and haunted by his guilt. In all of this he’d pushed away his wife, destroyed his marriage and haloed countless potentially innocent people who very well might have made a different decision in the seconds before…just as he had.

With new lenses, he can finally SEE his flawed world and set it right. Tear down Pre-Crime, free those jailed under it, let go and mourn his son, and reunite with his estranged wife.

Big, Little Lies

I touched on Liane Moriatry’s Big, Little Lies last time. The story actually blends the threads of three major characters but for the sake of brevity? We will continue to pick on Madeline. As I mentioned last time, Madeline has a family-centered paradigm. Her entire worth and how she sees herself and her world is caught up in her ability to be a mother.

More accurately, how much her daughters need her.

In the beginning of the story we get that Madeline is losing her grip. Her youngest daughter Chloe is finally in grade school and is becoming more and more independent. To make matters worse, Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, who abandoned her and the older daughter Abigail years before is back with a new (and far younger) wife, Bonnie. He also has a new daughter Skye, who’s enrolled in the same school (and same class) as Chloe.

Madeline already feels her identity grip slipping in the beginning, so what did Moriarty do? She stomped on Madeline’s fingers and dropped her off the ledge. If her entire being rests on her children needing her, what will she do when Abigail bonds with her “replacement” Bonnie? When her daughter decides to leave the mother who stood by her for the man who abandoned them both?

The story problem forces Madeline to learn the old adage, If you love something, let it go and trust that her daughter will return. Trust is not Madeline’s strong suit for obvious reasons (namely abandonment). But Madeline is going to have to learn to forgive and to trust in order to be reunited with her older daughter.

She needs to lose the family-centered glasses and realize she is a person in her own right and that her identity cannot rest on her children’s need because that has led to control and not love.

I am hoping you are seeing the depth that the paradigm offers as well as how it is almost a witching stick for finding the perfect story for your character. By adding the paradigm, plot almost magically reveals itself. Next time we are going to take the idea of paradigms even further to show how this is going to generate page-turning conflict throughout and keep your readers up so late they will curse your name but secretly love you for all that missed sleep.

What are your thoughts? Can you use this idea of paradigms to see your favorite books and movies in a whole new light?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And 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. 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).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

 

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Many emerging writers come to me when they find they are struggling with their WIP. I always begin with the same question, “What is your story about?” Often, I get this response, “Well, my story isn’t plot-driven. It is a character-driven story.”

Translation?

I have no plot…and please stop asking me because it makes me want to drink heavily.

There really is no such thing as a purely character-driven story. Character and plot are like two keyed cogs. One drives the other. The plot pushes the protagonist to grow and as the character grows, this in turn drives the plot.

For instance, in The Lord of the Rings the plot problem (Toss evil ring in a volcano before power-hungry necromancer takes over Middle Earth) is what forces the Hobbits to leave The Shire. Ah, but once they leave, how they respond to escalating threats determines plot.

For instance, they are barely out of The Shire when Merry and Pippin nearly get them all captured/killed by The Black Rider because they are running from an angry pitchfork-wielding farmer.

That is an ok place to begin, but what if they all remained the same reckless naive Hobbits they were in that scene? Their decisions would impact the story and they would fail.

To succeed, they must grow.

Granted, though we do have two cogs, depending on genre, this will impact the SIZE of each cog. In a Jack Reacher thriller? The plot cog is larger (but the character cog is still there). Similarly, in a literary fiction, this will reverse. In Cormac McCarty’s The Road there is still a plot objective (Make it to the ocean) but the character cog is larger because reaching the goal is far less important than HOW they reach the goal. If Man and Boy stop to snack on people? They fail. The torch of humanity is extinguished.

Thus, a literary work (character-driven story) might work like this…

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-41-49-am

For genre fiction, it would reverse and, depending on the story and the style, the relative size of the cogs will change accordingly. Yet there will always be two cogs.

Regardless of genre, once we have an idea of what our story is about and have set the stage for the dramatic events that will unfold, we must remember that fiction is about PROBLEMS. Plain and simple. Furthermore, it is about PEOPLE who have problems. But not simply ANY problems. Very specific problems, which we will talk about in a sec 😉 .

I will say that plot is very important. Our characters are only as strong as the crucible. Ultimately, all stories are about people. We might not recall every detail of a plot, but we DO remember characters. Ah, but here’s the sticky wicket. WHY do we remember characters? Because of plot. Stories are more than about people.

Great stories are people overcoming great odds.

If we’re missing emotional connection between the audience and our characters, our story loses critical wattage. What are some ways we can help form that connection? Today…

The Wound

Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Maybe your character is a control-freak. Perhaps he avoids. Maybe she is battling an addiction or is a loner or is a people-pleaser. Maybe he is a user or a manipulator.

My question is WHY?

Yes, genetics will have a role in forging our personality, but genes do not a good story make. Having a character be a certain way simply because we need them to be or act that way will work, but so will a heart with damaged valves.

Wounds drive how we perceive our world, what we believe we want, and how we will (or won’t) interact with others. This is critical for generating story tension and character arc.

I used the meme of Dr. House and his motto, Everybody lies. Yet, part of why that character was so successful is that we know something happened somewhere in the past that gave House that core belief.

This belief is what made him a superlative doctor, but it also hobbled every single relationship he ever had. We wonder about the wound because in every episode?

We see that wound in action.

Wounds are the NOTCH That Engages the GEAR

Back to my gear metaphor, but let’s expand it a bit. Think of plot like gears on a bicycle. So long as the gears are engaged and moving forward we have story momentum. Character is like the chain winding around those gears.

Some of you might be old enough to remember riding a ten-speed with the old shifters. You had to practice shifting gears to get the chain to engage a larger or smaller gear and if you didn’t get it right? The pedals spun and the bike just made weird noises. That’s because the chain has to be able to meet with the teeth of the gear via a space or a hole…or it won’t work.

Character functions similarly. We can have the gears (plot) and the chain (character) but if there is no notch (wound) that allows them to ever mesh and create tension? The story has no momentum and just makes weird sounds while we fruitlessly spin literary pedals.

Wounds are the sweet spot, that hole, that allows plot and character to merge into dramatic momentum.

Some writers start with characters and others start with plot. It doesn’t matter so long as you let either be forged with “the wound” in mind. If you have a mental snippet of a rebellious renegade bad@$$ heroine and want to put her in a story, then think of a plot situation that will make her utterly miserable. She can’t grow if she’s comfortable.

Maybe instead of chasing bad guys, she is forced to become the caretaker for her three young nephews after her sister dies. This PLOT is going to force her to be vulnerable, maybe have a softer side, and lighten up. Now, character (chain) and plot (gears) are linked.

Same if we go the opposite direction.

Maybe you have a great idea for a story. You want to take down a mob boss. Who can you cast that will be the most uncomfortable and thus grow the most? A former hit man who’s given up killing because he promised his wife before she died? An agoraphobic ex-cop who can’t leave her house? A sweet, naive soccer mom who believes that Bedazzling makes everything way more AWESOME?

Genre will dictate some of the casting, but note if we cast someone who would reach our story goal with relative ease, we risk having a one-dimensional talking head. We also diminish tension because remember, readers LOVE seemingly unbeatable odds. So, if we cast a highly decorated detective to take down our mob boss, make sure there is something about him (a wound) that puts the odds against him.

Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.

Often, new writers will default to wounds like rape or death or some big tragedy to create the wound. To be clear, I am not saying these aren’t viable wounds, but never underestimate the “smaller” and more relatable emotional injuries. The more a reader can empathize with one or more characters, the deeper that connection becomes.

Not everyone has lost their family to a sudden alien invasion— 😉 — but they can empathize with maybe never living up to expectations, being bullied, or not fitting in. LOTR rests on a small band of Hobbits who believe they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity, the eldest trying to hold the world together, or the baby who “got away with murder” and “was handed everything.” Never underestimate family dynamics as sources for realistic and powerful psychic wounds.

Wounds Will Distort Happiness

Wounds generate illusions. Because I grew up poor and lived hand-to-mouth all through college, I “believed” that money and financial security would make me happy. At 27, I made more money than any person in their 20s should make…and I was miserable. I was eaten alive with emptiness. I’d achieved all that should have filled that hole—the college degree, the premium job and premium pay. And yet?

I was the person stranded in a desert gulping sand I believed was water from an oasis.

Am I "there" yet?
Am I “there” yet?

Character arc comes when a protagonist is placed in a problem strong enough to challenge the illusion and break it. The protagonist believes X=happiness/fulfillment. It is only through the story problem that the protagonist rises to become a hero, a person capable of realizing they were wrong and that they’d been coveting a shill at the expense of the gold.

Thus, when creating characters, keep the wound at the forefront of your mind.

How does it affect what he/she believes about their own identity? What do they believe will make them happy? What is it that you (Author God) know that’s really what will make them happy? What needs to change for that character to lose the blinders? What is the perfect problem (plot) to force the protagonist to see the hard truth of the unhealed wound?

What are your thoughts? Writing can be healing and therapeutic. Have you ever siphoned from your own hurt-reservoir to deepen your characters? Can you think of how even small hurts can become super-sized? What are some ways you’ve witnessed wounds driving people in wrong directions toward false happiness? Have you been there, done that and earned the t-shirt?

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, 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).

November’s winner of my 20 page critique is Nancy Segovia. THANK YOU for being such an awesome supporter of this blog and its guests. Please send your 5000 word Word document (double-spaced, Times New Roman Font 12 point) to kristen@wana intl dot com.

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Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

As mentioned in a previous post, one of my all-time favorite series is True Detective. There is a line that’s repeated in the series and it is SO perfect for our purposes today.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

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. 

Plot is the push that drives the change. Without the plot problem, the protagonist is never forced to face weakness and can comfortably remain unchanged. Plot forces the protagonist to face the worst self in order to eventually unveil the best self.

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 Batman 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. Most of us have secrets we keep even from ourselves 😉 .

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).

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.

I’m working on a fiction series and currently outlining Book 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?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, 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