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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: scene and sequel

Need some adverbs taken out?
Trust me. I be an expert….

One of my favorite parts of blogging is I get to hang out with you guys. I love your comments and REALLY LOVE when you share your stories. I read every one of them, and the only reason I don’t reply to all comments is because some of you subscribe to be messaged when there is a new comment…

…and I don’t want to blow up your e-mail with “((HUGS)) You are so awesome! I forget my purse ALL the time!”

I never run out of ideas because the world is a very interesting place. Writing is a complex topic and social media for writers is ever-evolving (along with the publishing paradigm).

I do try to mix this blog up with different content, some informational and some just fun. Keeps me fresh and you from being bored. Besides I am far too crazy creative to wear an expert suit all the time. I have to wear digital panty hose and they chafe :D.

But I want to try something different, today. I generally choose the topics. Ever so often one of you might ask something in the comments and that gives me an idea for a blog. I can keep just blogging about the things I find important or interesting, but I’d like to ask you guys what you’d like me to blog about. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • What do you want to know about fiction?
  • Plotting?
  • Character?
  • How do you hook in the beginning of your book?
  • When do we need a prologue?
  • POV?
  • More dialogue (maybe from me or another expert)?
  • Tips for self-editing?
  • How to find a good editor? What’s the difference between a line-editor and content-editor? What is reasonable to pay for these services?
  • How do we choose what genre to write?
  • How do you write YA?
  • How do you get started writing for children?
  • World-building? (for fantasy, sci-fi, etc.)
  • Differences and expectations in genres?
  • How do you create romantic tension? Write love scenes?
  • What are the fundamentals of good romance?
  • Scene and sequel structure?
  • Generating conflict and tension?
  • How to write a strong female character and make her likable, too?
  • What are elements of great heroes?
  • What are the must-have resources for writers?
  • Why is it a bad idea to put Band-Aids in your hair?
  • If you are brand new, where do you start? How do you begin that first novel?
  • How do you get ideas for stories?
  • How to do research?
  • Want to know about non-fiction?
  • How do you choose a topic?
  • Write a proposal?
  • Land an agent without using chloroform?
  • How do you choose an agent? What questions do you ask?
  • When is it time to fire an agent?
  • How do you pitch?
  • Create a log-line/elevator pitch?
  • How do you get blurbs for your book without using blackmail?
  • Which type of publishing might be a good fit for you?
  • Choose a conference?
  • Speak Pig Latin like a pro?
  • Do you want to explore psychological profiles for crime writing?
  • Forensics?
  • Want to write about the military or guns in your book and sound like you know what the heck you are talking about? Revolvers DO NOT have a safety, btw. Also, it is a MAGAZINE, not a CLIP. And if we call it a MAGAZINE CLIP, it makes us sound double-stupid.
  • Want to know more about author brand?
  • How to handle a pen name with social media?
  • How to use a pen name and ACTUALLY protect your real identity?
  • Internet safety. How do we stay safe in cyberspace?
  • How to use Twitter and NOT be a spamming @$$clown?
  • More about blogging? Where to start? What to talk about?
  • How to deal with haters and trolls without becoming one, too?
  • How to balance social media and writing? It can be done. No whining.
  • Want to know more about Smashwords? What does it do?
  • CreateSpace? How to use it?
  • Why it’s a bad idea to let your husband have a remote control helicopter AND access to Post-It Notes?
  • Want to learn tips for productivity?
  • Time-management?
  • Learning self-discipline? I was once a lazy sot, so if I can do it, ANYONE CAN.
  • Balance family, work and writing without going crazy…ok craziER. Y’all are writers, so you know we all start out crazy. Little disclaimer there.
  • Learning social intelligence?
  • Having a fabulous social media presence WITHOUT changing your personality (unless you’re a jerk). Shy introverts don’t need a personality transplant. You are awesome. Be YOU.
  • How to teach your child Jedi skills by age three?
  • How to deal with family/friends who doesn’t get why you want to be a writer and who are kinda jerks to you?
  • How to put down boundaries in a world with no borders?
  • How to be an expert on ghosts? What exactly IS a K-2 meter and why are all paranormal investigators named “Darryl” and wear a mullet?

These are just some of the topics I could think of. Most I can blog about, but I also am connected to other, more knowledgeable writers who are always happy to lend a hand (as y’all saw with Les Edgerton’s series). I am not ashamed to admit I don’t know stuff (like WTH IS a K-2 meter and why do all these regular people all seem to have them in their kitchen drawers like a flashlight?).

Honestly, if I don’t know about a topic,  I will just abduct recruit another expert who does know…and then promise to free them in exchange for a guest post. I have a creepy panel van AND a very impressive and intimidating NERF battle-ax. So here’s your chance to tell me what you want to talk about. What do you need help with? The floor is yours…

I LOVE hearing from you guys! Now you get to ask me questions AND it counts for the contest. How COOL IS THAT?

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

Today I wanted to take some time to talk about the antagonist. Why? Well, not only is the antagonist THE most important character, but he is the most misunderstood as well. In fact, that is part of the reason I am teaching a class about understanding the antagonist at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this next month. I hope you guys will sign up ASAP. This conference has a history of selling out. It is a FABULOUS conference and the keynote this year is a dear friend of mine, NYTBSA James Rollins. Not only is Jim an amazing author, but he is probably one of the finest people I’ve ever met.

But back to the antagonist…

Whenever I blog about the antagonist, I generally get one of the following:

“Well, my character is the antagonist. She is her own worst enemy.”

“What if my antagonist is nature?”

“But my antagonist is a belief system.”

Most of the time, comments like these are a red flag to me that the writer doesn’t truly understand the role of the story antagonist, or what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. And this is okay, because I believe the antagonist is not only the most vital role, but it is also the most difficult to understand.

He is His Own Worst Enemy

Just to be clear, virtually all protagonists, at the beginning of the story are their own worst enemies. That is called character arc. If properly plotted, all protagonists would fail if pitted against the story antagonist in Act One.

Luke would never have bested Darth if the showdown would have happened on Tattoine, minutes after his aunt and uncle were murdered. Luke was his own worst enemy. He was angry, grieving, reckless and untrained. If a protag starts out with his act together, then this is called boring fiction. The protagonist needs room to grow into the hero.  It is the growth that makes great stories.

The Engine of the Story

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum. Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead.

The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Antagonists generate genuine drama. No antagonist, and we get the crazy, unpredictable cousin of drama known as melodrama.

Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Not All Antagonists are Villains

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

Today we are going to talk about the two primary types of antagonists. There is the scene antagonist and there is the overall story antagonist, or what I like to call The Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT). Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I decided to make things simple.

The Scene Antagonist

The scene antagonist is fairly simple. In every scene there needs to be a character that offers some form of opposition. Think of your novel as a machine. Each character is a cog that moves the machine and creates momentum. How do cogs move? Another cog must move the opposite direction. A cog with no opposition is a spinning, useless part incapable of providing any forward momentum.

If we are trapped in a theme park that has been overrun by dinosaurs, some member of the party will want to fight and some will want to flee and likely everyone will argue about the precise way to fight or flee.

There will always be a character who wants something different than the protagonist. Whatever this character wants stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. Each scene goal is like a subgoal to solving the overall story problem. Thus, when the protag is kept from completing subgoals, the overall goal is, by extension, in jeopardy. This jeopardy is what makes readers tense.

Why is this important?

When editing, we must make sure we can look at every scene and say what the goal of that scene is. Then, ask ourselves, “Who is standing in the way?” Characters thinking and pondering does not a scene make. That is called a sequel. To learn more about scene and sequel, I highly recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure. 

One bad situation after another is not conflict. It is wash, rinse, repeat. This is the stuff of bad action movies, not great page-turning fiction.

The scene antagonist is vital, but the most important type of antagonist is what I like to call the BBT—-or, Big Boss Troublemaker. For long-time followers of this blog, we have talked about the BBT before. So this will be a refresher. We never get so good that we can’t use a dose of the basics.

As we’d already discussed, every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but no BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the overall story problem that must be solved by the end of Act III. This is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle. 

In Finding Nemo, the Big Boss Troublemaker was Darla the Fish-Killer. Though we only see Darla a few minutes out of the entire movie, it is her agenda that creates the problem. If Darla wanted a kitten for her birthday, little Nemo would have been safe at home. It is also Darla’s propensity to kill her fish that creates the ticking clock in the race to save Nemo.

The Stronger Your BBT, the Better

In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.

One of the biggest problems I have with new writers is they shy away from conflict. New writers tend to water down the opposition. This is natural. As humans, we really don’t like a lot of conflict…unless you happen to be a regular on the Jerry Springer Show.

It is natural to not like conflict, but good fiction is the path of greatest resistance. The bigger the problem, the better the challenge and thus the greater the hero. When we begin our story, the best stories are when we look at the opposition and ask, “How can the protag ever defeat this thing?’

A fantastic example of this. Go watch the movie, The Darkest Hour. I spent over 2/3 of the movie wondering how on earth humans would survive, let alone have a fighting chance. This movie was terrifying, not because of a lot of blood and gore, but rather because the opposition was so overwhelming it seemed there was no hope of winning. I’ll warn you that the movie is frightening, so those who dare can check out the trailer here. The trailer alone is enough to show what I’m talking about.

The BBT doesn’t have to be terrifying, but he/she/it must be powerful. Think of Rocky. If his big fight was against the band nerd from three flats down, it would make for a lousy story/movie.

What About When the BBT is Not a Person? 

The Big Boss Troublemaker doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a storm, like in The Perfect Storm or alcoholism, like in 28 Days or an ideology (religious fundamentalism) like in Footloose.

Remember high school literature?

Man against man.

Man against nature.

Man against himself.

Ah, but this is where writers can get into trouble. Just because the BBT is not a person, does not mean the BBT will not work through a person. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why proxies are often so helpful.

For instance, in the 1984 movie Footloose, religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is the BBT but religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is represented by the town’s Bible-thumping minister (who also happens to be the father of the love-interest). Talk about conflict!

We will talk more about this next week.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

What are some of your all-time favorite BBTs? What made them so awesome? What are your biggest problems with the antagonist? What do you find confusing? What books or resources helped you? Any recommendations?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

Note–I’ve been having technical problems lately and am in the middle of rebuilding my web site. Also, my toddler has had an allergic reaction to something and he is home sick, which is slowing me down.

Thus, I am a tad behind and there were so many comments last week I need a bit more time, so I will announce on Wednesday. Thanks for your patience!

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

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 a few months ago, 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 “bad situation.” 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 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—Finding 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—Fish 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—mines—and character obstacles—the 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 “falling off the wagon.” Marlin and Dori swim for their lives and while running, Marlin spots the diver’s 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—an antagonist—to 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…finding Nemo, so he IS an antagonist. In retrospect, Bruce’s intervention was fortuitous in that they never would have been in the area of the ocean where the one clue—the mask—was 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, “What is it my protagonist wants? Who is in the way?” 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—chase 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 “scene” 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—action blocks—that lead to solving the final problem.

I highly recommend reading Bob’s books for more about understanding antagonists and conflict. Then, watch movies and practice. Break apart movies. Who is the BBT? Who are the antagonists for each scene? What purpose does the antagonist serve other than standing in the way of the goal? We will talk more about this next week. I know these are lessons we’ve had before, but a good refresher never hurt anyone.

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

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

Note: I had a rough weekend. My son had an accident and was injured pretty badly. Will announce winner later this week. Sorry for the delay.

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

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

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

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

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

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

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

Location, location, location.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

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

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

Until next time…

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

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

As we discussed in last week’s blog, there is a lot more to being a writer than sitting down and pounding out word count. Make no mistake, sitting your tuchus in the chair and getting your work finished is of utmost importance, but those words need to be quality or then you are back to wasting your time. There are other activities we as writers can do to make our story-telling muscles stronger. The fastest and easiest way is to watch movies.

Today, I am going to talk about a critical element missing in many of today’s movies. This is an element that is as vital to good fiction as oxygen is for brain function. It is easier for me to point out in movies for a number of reasons. First, it is easier for you to go watch a movie and see my point than it is for you to make time for another 400 page book. Also, writers are delicate and I am not going to be responsible for a tragic OD of chocolate and pink Peeps. I figure those in the movies make good money, so my little critique has been properly compensated.

So what is this missing element?

Angst (generally found in conflict).

We need angst. The reader/audience needs to be on the edge of their seat from the inciting incident. That is what turns pages. Lose angst and you have just provided a place for a nice fat bookmark because we are no longer worried.

We will use movies as an example.

I just recently watched the remake of Alice in Wonderland. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it. Now I think there was no one better that Tim Burton to make this movie, and Johnny Depp was born to be Hatter. Yet, despite the mind-blowing imagery and world-building, the movie, to me, fell flat. I felt as if I was slugging through scene after scene after scene. I was mildly entertained by what widget or gizmo would greet me around the bend…but I was never worried. Alice could take off right into the lair of her enemy, and no one seemed overly concerned.

Nothing was clearly at stake. Alice didn’t have to face the weakest parts of herself in order to be triumphant at the end. Her only change was to…make up her own mind? Ok.

See, there was no clear vision of what would happen if the Red Queen won. We all kind of got the idea that life was miserable, but it didn’t seem, in fairness, all that bad. And it didn’t appear as if it would get that much worse. Heck, the White Queen apparently just had to move to a different castle, and the only downer was that her old gardens got toasted by the Jabberwocky and she lost some of her favorite help. Bummer.

And the choice presented to Alice made her utterly unlikable if the choice had been made clear. Fight the Jabberwocky—or—scamper off like a coward and save your own skin (but everyone dies and there is no way home). So effectively there was no real choice that would have afforded genuine conflict, thus creating angst. There were no other champions (according to the Oracle), so therefore, no real choice.

To create genuine tension Alice required two choices equally appealing. Then the audience would sit on the edge of their seats hoping that Alice would choose to fight the Jabberwocky because it is the right thing for our heroine to do.

This was done brilliantly in The Return of the King.

Other heroes could have taken the ring to the fires of Mt. Doom. Thus, for Frodo to choose to finish the mission was one of ultimate sacrifice. Samwise could have taken the ring for his friend, but Frodo will not let him because he doesn’t desire the ring to poison more souls than it already had. This makes Frodo truly self-sacrificing.

We, the audience, witness the perils ahead and wonder how little Frodo and Samwise will make it to Mt. Doom in the first place. They are in constant peril physically and emotionally. We see the effects of the ring taking a deepening hold and wonder at every turn if Frodo will give in to the darkest parts of himself. Thus, as an audience, we not only worry that Frodo will not make it to Mt. Doom literally–he and his crew must make it past the Black Gates then face off against orcs and giant spiders all the while evading detection by the ever-watchful Eye of Sauron–but we also worry whether Frodo can make it there emotionally and psychologically.

Will the ring poison him too much before they can reach the fires of Mt. Doom? Can Samwise’s love and friendship conquer the greed and lust of the ring? We see the mounting pressure in the faces of our Hobbit friends as they struggle with physical injury, starvation, and stress…all against a ticking clock.

Then, the camera cuts to the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring. They are fortified at Gondor, terrified and staring at potential extinction. We see the stress has aged even the spry Merry and Pippin and witness the morale steadily eroding as they keep their eyes fixed on Mt. Doom for some sliver of a sign that the ring has been destroyed. We, the audience, twitch in our seats even though, logically, we know the little Hobbits must eventually win or we would have heard of the tomato-throwing mobs at movies around the country.

Yet, we still worry. Will Frodo destroy the ring before it is too late?

Alice? She had no affect through the entire movie. First, she spent far too long believing she was dreaming. But once she realized she was in another entirely different world, she never freaked out or demonstrated any signs of fear, which killed her authenticity. She was never really worried or concerned through the entire movie, and everything had a way of working out just peachy with very little effort on her part. When placed in situations that could have been fodder for great conflict, a nice contrived coincidence was there to bail out little Alice. Victory came too easily and defeat didn’t have a high enough price tag. Thus, aside from brilliant Depp and amazing special effects, I was bored.

What is a shame is that, had some adjustments been made in the story, this movie could have been another Return of the King. I feel the screenwriters forgot about story-telling and became more concerned with world-building.  Fiction writers face the same challenge.

To create riveting fiction we must put our characters in real danger continuously. They just about solve one problem only to realize they opened a door to a new and even worse problem. At the beginning they must fail because they are flawed. This flaw will be fired out by trial and tribulation by the end of the book. Our characters must be continually presented with two roads. One road ends the story and the other keeps our hero going toward the goal. But, the choices must be real choices.

In The Return of the King Frodo had numerous opportunities to hand over the ring to others who seemed more qualified to use it to defeat Sauron or take it to Mt. Doom. No one would have blamed the injured feeble little hobbit for handing the evil ring to another healthy Hobbit (Samwise) or a wizard (Gandalf) or a human fighter (Aragorn). Boromir even makes a good argument for using the ring to defeat Sauron. Our hobbit friend is in pretty bad shape at the time. He could have given into the logic very easily, but it is through character and the intervention of his allies that he makes the right choice…the choice that leads to his potential destruction.

Your big battle at the end must be something your hero/heroine could potentially lose. And the higher the stakes, the better the victory and the more angst you will create.

Those supporting your protagonist must also be genuinely worried as we see in The Return of the King. Alice’s allies didn’t show enough true worry that she would not be their champion and free them from the Red Queen.

Conflict creates angst which fuels the forward momentum of a story. World-building, setting, and description are all ancillary. I know it is hard to throw rocks at the characters you love. You, their Creator, desire to protect them. Don’t. The audience/reader needs to care about your characters in order to be vested in your story and root for your heroes. For truly great stories that stand the test of critics and time, your hero/heroine needs a tangible goal and a battle that could mean the end.

Exercise: Think of movies that you love.

  • Why did you love them?
  • How did the screenwriters create conflict?
  • How was the scene-and-sequel presented?
  • What are some ways you could use that in your own story?

 

Happy writing! Until next time…

Need more ways to grow in your craft?

As always, I recommend Bob Mayer’s  Novel Writer’s Toolkit for great writing instruction. Also recommend his warrior Writer Workshops for teaching the business and mindset of the professional author.

I also recommend author Jody Hedlund’s  blog and Candace Havens’ on-line workshops.