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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing strong fiction

Image via the movie 28 Days by Columbia Pictures.
Image via the movie 28 Days by Columbia Pictures.

Creating a core story problem is essential for any kind of fiction. Dimensional characters should have an inner want, a desire. The story problem is what shoves them out of that comfort zone and dares the character to try and maybe even fail.

There is a great quote in David Corbett’s The Art of Character:

One of Constantin Stanislavski’s key innovations was recognizing the central role of desire in our depiction of the human condition. The fundamental truth to characterization, he asserted, is that characters want something, and the deeper the want, the more compelling the drama. Desire is the crucible that forges character because it intrinsically creates conflict.

It is not enough for a protagonist to sit and think about how she really needs to be a better team player, to have a home, to find love, to overcome addiction, to fit in.

SHOW IT

This can be easier when the plot problem is clearer. In murder mysteries, the goal is to find the killer. In thrillers? Locate the terrorists and stop the bomb. But what about the more existential stuff? This is where a lot of writers can get lost and end up navel-gazing instead of writing great fiction.

Man Against Himself

Your antagonist will often represent the shadow side of the nature your protagonist wants to overcome. If she is an alcoholic, then her old boozing best friend, her alcoholic family, or her heavy drinking coworkers are all antagonists (either scene antagonists or the core antagonist—Big Boss Troublemaker—responsible for the core story problem in need of resolution by Act III).

The BBT creates the story problem. In 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but a PROXY—a judge who’s job is to punish drunk drivers—sentences the protagonist Gwen Cummings to rehab (creating story problem). If Gwen doesn’t complete rehab (ticking clock), she goes to jail (stakes). Yet, though the judge creates the problem and the stakes, he’s not seen more than a couple times.

The real force of tension her being placed in a position where she must choose between the hard-partying boyfriend, Jasper (who represents ALCOHOLISM), who wants his girlfriend to go back to being fun (drinking) versus counselor Eddie Boone (represents SOBRIETY) who offers her the path to a sober life and authentic love. Drinking and Jasper allow her to numb the demons, whereas Boone forces her to face the real reason she drinks and challenges her to a sober life.

BUT…if Gwen hadn’t gotten busted for DUI (story problem), her demons could have remained happily trapped inside her as she partied with Jasper. The STORY PROBLEM forces the internal demons to the surface and grants Gwen opportunity to succeed or fail.

Without being sentences to rehab, Gwen could remain in pain, drinking the demons into silence.
Without being sentenced to rehab, Gwen could remain in pain, drinking the demons into silence.

In your current WIP? Is there a CORE STORY PROBLEM in need of resolution? Can your protagonist fail? What are the stakes? What are the consequences?

Man Against Nature

No, we are not interested in a 70,000 word book about bad weather. Nature is often the backdrop, the catalyst that drives the interior flaws to the surface for the character(s) to succeed or fail. Often Man Against Nature will also be a Man Against Man (The Perfect Storm) often coupled with Man Against Himself (Left for Dead–My Journey Home from Everest).

Man Against Society

Again, what issue are you (the writer) wanting to tackle? If it’s how blacks are treated in Southern white society of the 1960s? Create a protagonist caught in the middle of this dilemma (The Help), and an antagonist who represents all this protagonist is fighting against.

Celia Foote (antagonist) represents the repression the protagonist is battling.
Celia Foote (antagonist) represents the repression the protagonist is battling.

An aspiring (female) author, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, decides to write a book about the struggles of the African American women who rear and care for so many of the wealthy white children. This story forces the protagonist onto a battlefield where she will be forced to choose sides and answer these tough questions as stakes grow steadily higher.

In Footloose, the BBT was religious fundamentalism that forbade dancing, represented by the town preacher (and father of the love interest).

Writers can tackle major societal issues. It’s what we do and how we’ve been changing the world for centuries. Yet, to really connect with a reader, it’s a good idea to focus that issue in the manifestation of something tangible. Fascism is evil, yet hard to wrap our heads around. Ah, but fascism represented by Adolf Hitler? THAT places fascism in context and focuses our emotions and repulsion.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Did this clear up some of your struggles? Or are you more confused than ever? What are some of your favorite books or movies that addressed deep human issues, and how did they do it?

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!

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Image via Flikr Creative Commons, contributed by Ano Lobb.

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

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

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

What is your character’s true story problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love hearing from you!

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your 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!

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Original image via Jenny Downing Flikr Creative Commons

This week, we’ve talked a lot about some fundamental errors that can weaken the writing. Most all of us make one or more of these errors, especially when we’re new. Hey, that’s called “being NEW.” No one is born with the natural ability to write brilliant, perfect novels coded into their DNA. It takes time and practice, so give yourself permission to make mistakes…then learn, suck it up and back to work.

It writes the words or it gets the hose *pets fluffy white dog*

Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags agents (and even readers) see in those first five pages.

Red Flag #1

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision

Don’t even get me started about Jar Jar Binks.

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies (good ones, NOT the SW prequels). If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals.

Only name them if you plan on getting us attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Just (as I mentioned on Monday) don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

Red Flag #2

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Lola leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Fabio. She needed her twist-ties and lucky purple rabbit’s foot if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Sweat ran into her eyes as she reached out for Malfio’s hand. They only had minutes before Juliette would be back and then it would all be over for Katy, Skipper and Mitzi.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

We don’t care. We (the readers) aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. On this blog, we’ve discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure (or might be trying to “reinvent it”).

Thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Red Flag #3

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts? Time for Revision

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Red Flag #4

Too much Physiology? Time for Revision

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more. Get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.

Red Flag #5

Too Many Evil Adverbs? REVISE!

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing and help you more easily spot what and where revision is needed.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. Hooked by Les Edgerton. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Buy these and study them.

You will thank me later.

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you!

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

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your 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 March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!