Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: plotting tips

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To do my job well, I do a tremendous amount of reading. Additionally, I make it a point to make sure I read different genres so I get a sense of what writers do well (or not so well) regardless of the type of story.

I’ve been inhaling Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series as of late and I got ahead of my credits so I decided instead to take advantage of Audible’s Daily Deal. It was a suspense from a legacy published author. The book had almost a thousand reviews and almost all of them four and five stars. So I figured, why not?

Take a chance.

Shoot. Me. Now.

That was me.
That was me.

The book was absolutely awful. I won’t say which book because I won’t do that to another author. I have a personal rule. If I can’t give a book 4 stars or more I just shut up. Three would be the minimum. Since this one was a solid TWO? Yeah, just shutting up.

And FYI, I was beginning to think I was being too hard on the book but then went and looked at the handful of bad reviews and they complained about the same things…so I had NOT lost my mind.

Anyway…

I kept listening, thinking, “Seriously, this has GOT to get better.” It didn’t. So instead of just complaining about the hours I wasted getting dragged through this awful book, I figured I could harvest it for some lessons about what mistakes we can avoid.

Mistake #1—Protagonist Too Dumb To Live

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Our protagonist doesn’t need to be likable. There are all kinds of examples of this in literature and movies. Often anti-heroes are pretty despicable folks. We simply need a way to emotionally connect with this character, to empathize. Often this is done by making a character’s goal empathetic (I.e. Breaking Bad) even if the means are ugly, or by juxtaposing this character against a greater evil (I.e. Pulp Fiction).

This said, our protagonist doesn’t need to be likable, but we as readers have to respect them. When characters are too dumb to live, it doesn’t matter how good or noble the cause we don’t care.

In the book I was reading the protagonist was in a bad crash and is suffering from amnesia. She awakens to realize someone close to her has been brutally murdered and she is the #1 suspect.

Over the course of this plot that moved with the momentum of frozen maple syrup, this character “remembers” that her sister who has been taking care of her on their isolated farm since the accident…is actually a violent sociopath.

She is assaulted with visions of this sibling very literally torturing her growing up (including one scene where the sister kills a cat slowly and makes her watch). Though she hasn’t remembered everything, any person with one eye and half sense, might at least come to the reasonable conclusion that perhaps the sister murdered this loved one and is now framing her.

Everyone but the protagonist apparently.

What does she do? She decides to return back to the isolated farm unarmed without telling anyone (even the cops) to confront her sister about her memories.

WHYYYYY?
WHYYYYY?

I get that characters should not be predictable. But they should NOT do stupid stuff simply because we need to move them to a certain “place.” Because devoid of any threat (I’m holding your best friend hostage and you better come alone. No guns and no cops) it just made this character a Class A Moron.

If her sister didn’t kill her, I wanted to.

Mistake #2—Protagonist is Passive

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The protagonists needs to be proactive, meaning actively going after a goal. This is one of the reasons passive goals really don’t work in fiction. It also needs to be something the character earns.  Frankly, I knew better than to pick up an amnesia book, but in light of the rave reviews I second-guessed myself.

The protagonist needed to solve the mystery using outside clues that had nothing to do with the missing memories. But the entire book was really just her getting snippets or memory back then reacting…until she got enough memories back and then it all was clear.

That’s cheating. She didn’t earn any kind of a victory. It was all a matter of “remembering” of regaining something she already possessed.

Passive goals will make fiction fizzle. It’s like “containing communism.” Didn’t work in Vietnam or Korea and won’t work in our story.

Any plot that involves “protecting,” “evading,” “avoiding” or “remembering” is usually at the very least half-baked. These are all passive goals. “Maintaining” is not a story-worthy verb.

Mistake #3—Cheating at the End (Twisting is NOT Cheating)

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We all love a good twist. Part of why I LOVE the Bosch books is they are tough to figure out and always serve up excellent surprises. Same with Dean Koontz. Twists are wonderful and we need to work to get good at writing them. No reader likes a book she can accurately (and easily) predict.

This does NOT mean we get weird.

There was another book I read recently form a MAJOR author who is a household name. This author did a fantastic job of creating a serial killer that I found truly terrifying, which is a tough thing to do since I’ve been rather desensitized over the years. I recall even telling my mother how AMAZING this villain was.

So I’m cooking along and this killer is always, I MEAN ALWAYS ahead of the FBI. Then we get to the ending and the author serves up the twist total BS bait and switch…

“ARE YOU FRIGGING KIDDING ME?”

See, thing was, this author gave no clues to the “twist” (meaning it doesn’t count as a twist). We need clues and hints along the way. We as readers need some slim chance we might figure it out.

The author just suddenly banking hard left? I call foul.

We can’t have a novel end with a twist that absolves us of writing a great ending. “And just as the dragon closed in, she woke up. It was all a DREAM!” It’s a variation of deus ex machina and it pisses us off.

Real twists, great twists evolve organically from the plot and the facts given along the way. There is no strange deviation no one could have seen.

Real twists? The good ones? The reason they kind of sucker punch us is we go, “Ah, hell! I thought that was weird then blew it off,” “Oh, why didn’t I see that?,” “It was right there all along.”

Endings are tough to write well, but so are beginnings and middles 😛 . We should strive for a twist, but if we can’t make it work with what we’ve already supplied to the reader? HUGE RISK.

Twists are like plants. They only grow from seeds we already planted.

Anyway, there are other bugaboos that might make a reader want to punch a story in the face, but if we can avoid these big no-nos then were are going to be doing pretty well.

What are your thoughts? What are some things that make you stop reading? What characters make you just want to scream? Do you feel the same about twist cheating?

I love hearing from you!

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

You missed….
You missed….

This past weekend, I indulged a little and we went to TWO movies. First, date night with Hubby. We saw Maleficient and it was AWESOME. Sunday, we wanted to take The Spawn to X-Men, but there wasn’t a convenient showing so we settled for the new Spiderman movie, or as I like to call it…The Movie That Would NOT END.

No spoiler alerts here other than save your money and go see Maleficient. The Spiderman movie was dreadful. I kept checking my watch.

The only saving grace is that Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey were really likable people. But the movie dragged on…and on…and yes, ON.

Characters are important. I don’t buy into the notion of character-driven or plot-driven stories. We need both. No one cares about the plot if we don’t care about the people. Conversely, we can care about the people, but PLOT is the crucible that drives change. A hero is only as strong as the problem he faces.

One can see that Spiderman 2 was in trouble simply by looking at the log-line from the IMDB:

Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of super villains against him, impacting his life.

What’s the GOAL? Where’s the ticking clock? What’s the hero supposed to accomplish? This log-line does an excellent job of telling precisely what this movie is about. Nothing, oh and everything. “Impacting his life?” Really?

O_o

The log-line tells us exactly what to expect. Instead of genuine dramatic tension, we’re served bad situation after bad situation to the point of tedium. Running a gauntlet is NOT interesting. It’s CGI indulgence.

Even The Spawn (Age FOUR) fell asleep.

Additionally, the movie revolved around Parker keeping Gwen safe. This is a passive goal. It’s like “containing Communism.” Doesn’t work and just drags on.

Back to the Log-Line 

Basically, we should be able to tell someone (an agent) what our story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies. In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels. Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a bad retread. We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

Let’s look at components of a great log-line:

Great log-lines are short and clear. I cannot tell you how many writers I talk to and I ask, “What’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here’s a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

Elements of a Great Log-Line

A good log-line is ironic. Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. You can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

A vengeful fairy is driven to curse an infant princess, only to discover that the child may be the one person who can restore peace to their troubled land.

This is the log-line for Maleficient. It’s rich with emotion, complication and irony. In the protagonist’s anger she creates the story problem. How can she heal the kingdoms? We also get a glimpse of the character arc (vengeance to forgiveness?) and the goal (break the curse).

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the final product will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

****This is what I teach you how to do in my Antagonist Class. At the Gold Level, we work one-on-one until you have the one sentence DOWN and then plot from there, which is WAY easier with a solid log-line. Use WANA15 for $15 off.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early.

Is your log-line on target?
Is your log-line on target?

I’ve seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers. Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

The best way to learn how to write log-lines is to go look at the IMDB. Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described. You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing. Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes.

Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes).

For this literary folks, here is a log-line for The Road.

In a post-apocalyptic Earth where every living thing but humans has died, a Man (protagonist) must travel cross-country with his son to the ocean (active goal) while battling organized, militant group of cannibals who hunt people (antagonist) and yet must still protect their sacred humanity in the face of certain death by starvation (stakes).

Plot Goal: Make it to the ocean Character Goal: If they resort to eating people they fail.

So here’s an exercise. See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park. Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

What are your thoughts? Have you nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to get your story into one sentence? Have you used this log-line technique and discovered you had to change it and make it stronger? Did it save you needless revision?

I LOVE hearing from you!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help with branding, blogging and social media, please check out my latest book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

My Antagonist Class is coming up. At the Gold Level, we work one-on-one until you have the one sentence DOWN and then plot from there. The beauty of this class is once you’ve been through this process, it will make you a faster, better leaner plotter in the future and will save SO MUCH rewrite. Use WANA15 for $15 off.

If you think you might need some professional help, I have my First Five Pages Class coming up. Use WANA15 for $15 off. Also there is a GOLD level. This is NOT line-edit. This is ripping apart your first pages and then SHOWING you how to fix the problems not only in the beginning of your book but throughout.

The Road
The Road

On Monday, we talked about a major way writers can ramp up the tension in their novels. How do we do this? We externalize (or, in Corbett’s words “exteriorize”). Stuff in a character’s head has no outward consequences, thus making it impossible to generate dramatic tension.

The Road—Talk is Cheap

Many writers try to skirt externalization, because they “say” they want to write “literary works.” Yet, even in literary fiction, externalization is critical. Why?

Because 99 times out of a 100, when someone tells me their writing is “literary” this is actually code for “pages and pages of self-indulgent mind-vomit.” Hey, I’ve been guilty, too. Don’t feel badly. If we aren’t making mistakes we aren’t doing anything interesting.

Thinking does not literature make. Many writers don’t like externalizing because, as humans, we have been conditioned to shy away from conflict at all costs. Great fiction writers must do the exact opposite and generate as much (outward and inward) conflict as possible. Even “literary” writers don’t get a pass.

I have two Post-It Notes on my computer. One reads GO FOR THE GUTS and the other is THROW A ROCK IN ITThe second the characters get a breather? RUIN IT.

In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Award-Winning book The Road, we see a similar situation to Would You Rather? (discussed Monday). It’s one thing to say we will never give up our humanity, that we will never resort to the animal state…but what about when that is tested? How long can The Man go without food? How long can he watch his son go without food before he compromises?

These tough existential questions are what drive the tension of the book because the big questions are placed into context so they can be tested—a regular guy and his boy in a world that has gone horribly wrong. Yes, there is some internalization, but the outside characters and circumstances force that existential question out of the character’s mind and into reality.

Make Them Commit 

It is not enough for The Man to think about how society has gone to hell in a hand basket and he isn’t like them (those who’ve resorted to cannibalism to survive). He and The Boy have to be placed in situations that externally test this conviction. How will we (the reader) know the characters have succeeded? They will make it to the ocean without eating other humans or die trying.

Simple.

An Exercise:

Think about whatever it is that your character is battling, then externalize this. If the person is a drug addict, don’t go on and on with backstory of cocaine binges or drag us into backstory about his abusive father. Show his buddies stopping by in a limo full of hot babes with high-dollar cocaine to offer. Make him CHOOSE and MAKE HIM SQUIRM. Give him a problem, stakes and a real opportunity to fail and face BIG CONSEQUENCES.

TORTURE YOUR CHARACTERS—IT IS GOOD FOR THEM!!!

Give him a story problem with REAL stakes. Make him scream!

If your character is shy, force her to speak in public. If your character is a sex addict, have his coworkers demand he join them at a strip club for a bachelor party. If your character is a control freak (Marlin in Finding Nemo) pair him with an ally that will make him nearly break from stress (like Dori, another fish with short-term memory issues).

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some of the movies or books you like? Why do you like them? How did they torture their characters?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, 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 novelor 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 May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!