Unsnagging Your Plot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

What is a plot snag?

It’s like when you’re walking along admiring some rose bushes and your coat gets impaled by a thorn. Forward motion halted. You have to stop, go back, and unloose your coat.

Only thing is, when you’re writing a book, you may not so easily identify what has snagged you. All you know is that you’re stuck.

A plot snag is not to be confused with writer’s block or a loss of enthusiasm for a project. Those are separate issues, which can be addressed in their own way.

What we’re talking about here is a point where you don’t know what to write next. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or a plotter or a ’tweener. The best laid plans o’ mice and writers often go awry.

Let’s say you’re writing a thriller and you’ve got your hero backed into a corner. A literal corner, in an abandoned warehouse where killers are searching for him.

You don’t know how your character is going to get out of it.

Snag.

Now, maybe you’ve got an outline, and know your plot’s direction, but this little conundrum has come up and you don’t know what to do about it. What you do know is that he’s going to somehow get in the back of a truck heading for Phoenix.

The question now is how to get him there. Try the following:

  1. Make a list

Brainstorm possible ways to get out. Go crazy. List six, seven, eight or more. Make your imagination work. You’ll get the answer. And if you need to plant something in the plot to justify this option (remember how Q always gave Bond the gadgets early in Act 1?) go back and plant.

  1. Do some shadow story

The shadow story is what’s going on “off screen.” It’s what the other characters are doing when they are not in the scene you’re writing. What did you think? That they were all in their dressing rooms sipping Coke, waiting to be called ?

Brainstorm some of the possible actions going on, and one of them might offer something a character in the scene can do to unsnag things.

Going back to our warehouse, maybe one of the assassins is really a secret ally, and engineers our hero’s escape. Why? Because we did some shadow story where the villain discovers there’s a traitor in his camp! Now we can adjust our outline and plans accordingly.

  1. Skip ahead

If you’re stuck but anxious to get on with the writing, skip ahead and write a future scene. Let your subconscious work on the snag. Keep up your writing momentum. Tomorrow or the next day you can come back to fill in the gap.

  1. Write a blazing first draft

It’s possible to whip through a first draft and avoid snags. You must write like a house afire, skipping plot “non-essentials” as you do.

And what is the purpose of this blazing method? Four things:

  • To discover what your book is about
  • To know if you have the major parts of the plot working.
  • To save you time by avoiding endless rabbit trails (are you listening, pantsers?)
  • To identify places where you can fill in material for which you now know the purpose.

Here are some suggestions for a blazing first draft:

Skip transitions

Instead of filling in the information that gets a character from one scene to another, leave a marker in that spot (like *** or &&&) and move on to the next scene. Concentrate on the action and dialogue.

Some writers put in a text reminder in ALL CAPS. For example:

“You’ll never make it in time,” Wally said.

“Just watch me,” Sam said.

SAM GETS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF MANHATTAN, BUT IT ISN’T EASY.

“I’m here,” Sam said, fighting for breath.

“Sorry,” the deli manager said. “I had to give your sandwich to somebody else.”

Skip descriptions

Don’t pause for descriptions. Fill those in upon revision. One benefit of this method is that you’ll know the overall tone of your novel and how each scene contributes. You can then tailor your descriptions with more efficiency. You can, for example, plant a symbol to foreshadow what’s coming later.

Skip deep emotional beats

Emotional beats heat up a plot and get us bonded to a character. It’s an important part of the craft, and the deeper the emotion the more attention must be paid to it on the page.

For blazing draft purposes, when you get to such a moment in your story, jot a note, e.g.,

SAM SHOWS HIS ANGER

            or

SHOW SAM’S EMOTION HERE

When you revise, you fill those in as needed.

Pro tip: When you go back to revisit emotional moments, look around for a more original emotion than you first envision. Sure, maybe anger is what you need, but what if you brainstormed other possibilities? Like elation or remorse? Perhaps one of these other emotions can conflict with the anger, so that you have that great beat called inner conflict. (Another tip: For brainstorming different emotions and techniques for showing them on the page, consult The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)

So how have you handled your own plot snags? Have you ever blazed through a first draft to discover and solidify your plot?

(For more on fast writing, see this detailed blog post by Janice Hardy.)

12+

How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The plot doctor is in.

I see the waiting room today is full of pantsers. They have that lost look in their eyes that usually appears in the middle of their first drafts.

One comes up to me and says, “Doc, I was having so much fun! I was writing along, letting the characters take me wherever they wanted to go. Now I’m forty thousand words in, and I’m frozen. I don’t know what to write next! Every choice seems like a rabbit hole! Help me, Doc, please!”

“Of course,” I say. “Just have a seat and—”

“Is there any hope?”

“Who’s your plot doctor, huh? Now just wait a moment and all will be well.”

There are plotters here, too. One approaches slowly, as if fearing recognition. He whispers, “Doc, I can’t figure out what went wrong. I had the whole thing mapped out and the pieces were falling into place. But the middle is sagging. Not enough oomph. What can I do, Doc?”

“Well, let me tell you—”

“Not so loud, Doc. I don’t want these pantsers giving me the raspberry …”

I’ve treated many such cases over the years. A cursory examination of the patient usually calls for three things: a shot, a couple of pills, and preventive measures.

1. The Shot

The first step is a shot of the potent “mirror moment” drug. I’ve seen immediate improvement to the eyes (which sparkle) and the mouth (which smiles or shouts Yesss!) after an injection.

The mirror moment gives the writer a new and powerful insight into what their novel is really all about. That illumination shines both backward (to the beginning) and forward (to the ending), stimulating new scene ideas and added character depth.

2. The Pills

Now I give the writer a couple of pills, with the following instructions: take the first one and see if that clears things up. Give it a few days to work. If, however, the symptoms persist, pop the second.

The Best Move Pill 

Step away from your manuscript. Go find a quiet spot or your favorite coffeehouse table, and use a pad and pen (I find this an aid to creativity).

Write down the names of every major and minor-recurring character in your novel.

Now, dedicate a page to each of these characters, answering the following question: Considering what this character wants out of the story, what is the best possible move he or she can make RIGHT NOW?

Please note that most of your characters will be “offscreen” at any given moment in your manuscript. That’s okay. They are not inert. They are in the process of planning, conspiring, sneaking, escaping, suffering … they are all doing or experiencing something. (When characters are offscreen, I call their activities “the shadow story.”)

This exercise will give you lots of plot material, scene ideas, and possible twists. See how it goes. After some time has passed if there is still significant sag, you have this:

The Guy With a Gun Pill

Raymond Chandler once wryly noted, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Of course it does not have to be a literal man with a gun. It can be any character introduced in some surprising fashion. We’re not talking about a one-off character in a scene, but a recurring character who will add complications to the protagonist’s life.

When you place a new character in your story, you immediately inherit all of that character’s backstory, agendas, secrets, shadow story and so on. Additional scenes arise organically. As you create the new character, ponder a few questions:

  1. What can this character do to make life more difficult for my Lead?
  2. Can this character bear a secret that will upset my Lead’s applecart?
  3. Do they still make applecarts?
  4. Is there a hidden relationship this character can have with another in my cast?
  5. What is this character’s agenda?
  6. How far is this character willing to do to gain his objective?
  7. How can I give this character an even stronger motive?

Writers who dutifully take their medicine usually contact me in a few weeks to report being in the pink again. They have pep in their step and a twinkle in their eye, along with a few other clichés.

I am happy to hear it, but then I advise one further measure.

3. Preventive Medicine

If you want your heart to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthier (and I never even went to med school!). Have you heard of Burger King’s new offering, the Rodeo Burger? It’s described as “two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb. of beef, topped with three half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun.”

I’m so there!

(Yeah, maybe once every three years.)

Anyway, I try to make my heart happy. It takes some discipline (e.g., steamed broccoli) and some hard work (e.g., actually eating the steamed broccoli).

Writing is no different. So if you’re a pantser, don’t be afraid of work and study. Get over the fear that any planning beforehand is stifling to your creativity. It’s not. You need to learn that surprises happen in the planning, too.

You plotters can continue to shore up your foundations with a growing knowledge of powerful story beats, which will allow you to leave a planned route for another choice. You can do that because you’ll know the next beat to write toward. You won’t be lost; you’ll be enjoying the trip!

Ah, the waiting room is clear. My work here is done. The doctor is out.

Do you often feel a sag in the middle of your manuscript? How have you solved that problem in the past?

12+

Your Characters Must Earn Their Way Out of Trouble

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My treadmill movie the other day was Fast Five.

I don’t like to think too much when I exercise.
Fast Five free online
The movie, part of the wildly successful franchise, has two opening set pieces. In the first, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is rescued from a prison bus by his car-driving cohorts, led by Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). The three of them end up hiding out in Rio de Janeiro.

In the second set piece, Dom and his team set out to steal three cars off a moving train (why bother with a mere car dealership?) They need to pull this off without anybody on the train (including engineers, conductors, several DEA agents, and passengers with window seats) realizing that an off-road, tricked-out tow truck is tracking alongside as two guys use blow torches to peel off a large section of train car.

In other words, mindless fun.

There’s some betrayal, some fighting, some shots fired, one explosion, and naturally O’Conner ends up dangling from the side of the train just as it is approaching a steel bridge that will shave off the distressed con like Tom Selleck’s morning stubble.

Never fear, though. Dom is in a car! O’Conner manages to jump onto the back of the car right before the bridge … and right before Dom and car and O’Conner drive off the cliff.

They fall a couple hundred feet, splashing into a conveniently placed lake.

Unfortunately, as they come up for air, they are met by half a dozen local drug thugs with machine guns.

So far, so good (plot wise). They have gotten into trouble, then out of trouble, and immediately into more trouble.

We cut to a scene in a Rio warehouse, where Dom and O’Conner are hanging by their wrists, shackled by heavy chains.

The super villain, backed by his armed-to-the-teeth crew, informs our two heroes that he knows Dom’s sister is in possession of one of the stolen cars, and he wants to know where it is. If they will tell him, he’ll let them go.

Naturally, our leads swear, scoff, and glare.

Now, what does any super villain worth his salt do in such a situation? Begin the torture, of course. Get them to talk!

Right?

Wrong! Instead, the super villain says he can locate the sister himself, and quietly walks out with all but two of this thugs.

So now we have our two leads, hanging like sides of beef, under the watchful eye of a duo of armed goons.

What’s any goon worth his salt going to do? Use our heroes for target practice.

Right?

Wrong! One of the goons, without his weapon at the ready, walks right up to O’Conner so the latter can kick said goon right in the chest

But that won’t do anything, will it? After all, the two heroes are still in chains. All the thug has to do is brush himself off and restore order.

Right?

Wrong!

For it is here that Dom breaks his chains.

All he does, without any leverage whatsoever, using only his magnificent deltoids, is thrust his arms outward. His wrist manacles snap, and the chains break. This is so Dom can immediately head butt the other thug, who has pulled out his gun.

Meanwhile, O’Conner is able to wrap his legs around the first thug’s neck.

The sequence, from the super-villain walkout to the subduing of the twin (and, apparently, too-stupid-to-live) armed goons takes about ten seconds.

Over the whir of the treadmill I shouted, “Come on, man! You can’t just do that!”

Nevertheless, I kept on watching, for all that took place before the appearance Mr. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the largest federal agent known to man.

Which leads, shortly thereafter, to two more of my favorite “Come on, man!” movie thriller tropes:

a) The locked, heavy-steel door that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson smashes open with one kick.

b) Our heroes running across the tin roofs of Rio, chased by a dozen machine-gun-wielding agents, as bullets spray around their heads and legs, taking out windows and bricks and laundry, but never one single bullet hitting any of them anywhere.

This is where I ended my workout.

Those of us who write in the thriller, crime, mystery and suspense genres cannot get away with this. We cannot allow our readers to Come-on-man us.

Which means we cannot get our characters out of trouble by pure coincidence, Deus ex machina, or the temporary suspension of the laws of physics.

They have to earn their way out.

What do I mean?

A good novel is about a character’s life-and-death struggle (physical, professional, or psychological). The character, in meeting the challenges, must demonstrate strength of will. It is through the exercise of this strength that the character transforms (or, in the case of a tragedy) fails to transform.

The thriller writer gets his characters into deep trouble. Backs them into corners, as they say. The characters must get themselves out because of their own logical efforts. Breaking chains just ‘cuz is not a logical effort.

This does not mean, I hasten to add, that another character cannot show up to rescue your hero. But—and here’s the key—the circumstances for that rescue must be set up by the character beforehand

If your character is in physical peril, he can earn his way out by: a) exercising some physical prowess that has been set up in the beginning and conforms to reality; b) use some gadget he’s been hiding, also set up in the beginning (this was the function of Q in the James Bond movies); c) another character with whom the hero has had contact before. Often this is an enemy that turns ally, because of some act of kindness or moral persuasion. Thus, at the end of Casablanca, Louis lets Rick off the hook for killing Major Strasser. Why? Because he’s observed Rick’s increasingly heroic behavior and decided, finally, to show some spine against the Nazis.

The other kind of peril is the need to solve a mystery. This is, of course, the sine-qua-non of the classic mystery involving a sleuth. But it can also be a subplot in a thriller, or any other plot for that matter

In this case, the character earns the solution by an exercise of the mind. Miss Marple has her powers of observation and knowledge of the human condition. Holmes has his power of deduction. Bosch has the doggedness of his detective training. Castle uses his knowledge of fiction technique.

Thus, the mystery is solved when the final piece of the puzzle clicks into place in the sleuth’s mind. This is what my friend Tom Sawyer, former show runner for Murder, She Wrote, calls “the penny drop.” It’s that last little thing that happens, seemingly small (like a penny dropping on the floor) that the sleuth puts together with all the other cogitations to this point, to finally solve the whole thing. As Tom explains it in his excelent Fiction Writing Demystified:

As with other such devices it’s important, even if the penny drop is prompted for the protagonist by some lucky accident or coincidence, that most of the other elements of the equation are earned — the result of his or her doing.

So … never get your characters out of trouble without some sort of set-up that justifies the escape. You can have this figured out beforehand (plotters!) or you can get into a corner and then go back and figure out how to set up the escape (pantsers!)

Just remember what it says in the good book (of fiction writing): Thy hero shalt not escape by delts alone. 

What about you? Ever backed your hero into an inescapable corner? What did you do about it? 

10+

Why Plot is Essential to Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Rhett-Butler-Scarlett-O-Hara-scarlett-ohara-and-rhett-butler-6948455-316-392If you ever find yourself among a group of writers, writing teachers, agents or editors; and said group is waxing verbose on the craft of fiction; and the subject of what fiction is or should be rumbles into the discussion, you are likely to hear things like:

All fiction is character-driven.

It’s characters that make the book.

Readers care about characters, not plot. 

Don’t talk to me about plot. I want to hear about the characters!

Such comments are usually followed by nods, murmured That’s rights or I so agrees, but almost never a healthy and hearty harrumph.

So, here is my contribution to the discussion: Harrumph!

Now that I have your attention, let me be clear about a couple of items before I continue.

First, we all agree that the best books, the most memorable novels, are a combination of terrific characters and intriguing plot developments.

Second, we all know there are different approaches to writing the novel. There are those who begin with a character and just start writing. Ray Bradbury was perhaps the most famous proponent of this method. He said he liked to let a character go running off as he followed the “footprints in the snow.” He would eventually look back and try to find the pattern in the prints.

Other writers like to begin with a strong What if, a plot idea, then people it with memorable characters. I would put Stephen King in this category. His character work is tremendous. Perhaps that is his greatest strength. But no one would say King ignores plot. He does avoid outlining the plot. But that’s more about method.

I’m not talking about method.

What I am proposing is that no successful novel is ever “just” about characters. In fact, no dynamic character can even exist without plot.

Why not? Because true character is only revealed in crisis.

Without crisis, a character can wear a mask. Plot rips off the mask and forces the character to transform––or resist transforming.

Now, what is meant by a so-called character-driven novel is that it’s more concerned with the inner life and emotions and growth of a character. Whereas a plot-driven novel is more about action and twists and turns (though the best of these weave in great character work, too). There is some sort of indefinable demarcation point where one can start to talk about a novel being one or the other. Somewhere between Annie Proulx and James Patterson is that line. Look for it if you dare.

We can also talk about the challenge to a character being rather “quiet.” Take a Jan Karon book. Father Tim is not running from armed assassins. But he does face the task of restoring a nativity scene in time for Christmas. If he didn’t have that challenge (with the pressure of time, pastoral duties, and lack of artistic skills) we would have a picture of a nice Episcopal priest who would overstay his welcome after thirty or forty pages. Instead, we have Shepherds Abiding.

If you still feel that voice within you protesting that it’s “all about character,” let me offer you this thought experiment. Let’s imagine we are reading a novel about an antebellum girl who has mesmerizing green eyes and likes to flirt with the local boys.

Let’s call her, oh, Scarlett.

We meet her on the front porch of her large Southern home chatting with the Tarleton twins. “I just can’t decide which of you is the more handsome,” she says. “And remember, I want to eat barbecue with you!”

Ten pages later we are at an estate called Twelve Oaks. Big barbecue going on. Scarlett goes around flirting with the men. She also asks one of her friends who that man is who is giving her the eye.

“Which one?” her friend says.

“That one,” says Scarlett. “The one who looks like Clark Gable.”

“Oh, that’s Rhett Butler from Charleston. Stay away from him.”

“I certainly will,” says Scarlett. (The character of Rhett Butler never appears again.)

Scarlett then finds Ashley Wilkes and coaxes him into the library.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” Ashley says. “Let’s get married.”

So they do.

One hundred pages later, Scarlett says, “I really do love you, Ashley.”

Ashley says, “I love you, Scarlett. Isn’t it grand how wonderful our life is?”

At which point a reader who has been very patient tosses the book across the room and says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

What’s missing? Challenge. Threat. Plot! In the first few pages Scarlett should find out Ashley is engaged to another woman! And then she should confront him, and slap him, and then break a vase over the head of that scalawag who looks like Clark Gable! Oh yes, and then a little something called the Civil War needs to break out.

These developments rip off Scarlett’s genteel mask and begin to show us what she’s really made of.

That is what makes a novel.

Yes, yes, you must create a character the readers bond with and care about. But guess what’s the best way to do that? No, it’s not backstory. Or a quirky way of talking. It’s by disturbing their ordinary world.

Which is a function of plot.

So don’t tell me that character is more important than plot. It’s actually the other way around. Thus:

  1. If you like to conceive of a character first, don’t do it in a vacuum. Imagine that character reacting to crisis. Play within the movie theater of your mind, creating various scenes of great tension, even if you never use them in the novel. Why? Because this exercise will begin to reveal who your character really is.
  1. Disturb your character on the opening page. It can be anything that is out of the ordinary, doesn’t quite fit, portends trouble. Even in literary fiction. A woman wakes up and her husband isn’t in their bed (Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott). Readers bond with characters experiencing immediate disquiet, confusion, confrontation, trouble.
  1. Act first, explain later. The temptation for the character-leaning writer is to spend too many early pages giving us backstory and exposition. Pare that down so the story can get moving. I like to advise three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, used all at once or spread around. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages. Try this as an experiment and see how your openings flow.
  1. If you’re writing along and start to get lost, and wonder what the heck your plot actually is, brainstorm what may be the most important plot beat of all, the mirror moment. Once you know that, you can ratchet up everything else in the novel to reflect it.

Do these things and guess what? You’ll be a plotter! Don’t hide your face in shame! Wear that badge proudly!

Super Plotter

14+

Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.56.26 AM

Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.

Or

“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.

***(COUGH)GoPeyton(COUGH)***

Has your writing been penalty free lately?

10+

Your Novel’s Greatest Danger

Bored catA TV show is about to be cancelled. Not exactly headline worthy, I know. Happens all the time. Only this time it was a series I was trying to get into, mainly because I’ve liked the lead actor in the past.

The ratings were okay for the opener, but have gradually declined. I am one of those decliners. After four episodes I stopped watching.

The show has a unique setting, a cast of beautiful people, and an ongoing criminal investigation. What went wrong?

I’ll tell you what went wrong: I just did not care about any of the characters. 

I didn’t care who was trying to cheat whom. I didn’t care who was hopping into who’s bed. I didn’t care who made money, lost money, was rich or poor or desperate or in love.

On the surface––and this must have impressed the network suits––the show had “everything.” Glam, glitz, beefcake, cheesecake, a star. But after four hour-long episodes there was not a single character I bonded with.

Which, dear writer, is the greatest danger to your own novel.

You simply must connect reader and character, and right out of the gate, too.

How? By knowing that this is all a function of two essential dynamics, which are … wait for it … plot and character.

Wow, earth shattering!

Ah, but so often missed because one is often emphasized at the expense of the other.

Character alone won’t do it. If it did, maybe I’d be able to get through more than twenty pages of A Confederacy of Dunces (I’ve tried three times and never made it).

Plot alone doesn’t do it, because events have to matter to a character who matters to the reader.

Now, there are lots of techniques professional fiction writers utilize to make a character someone we care about. In my 27 Fiction Writing Blunders I have no less than five chapters attacking the problem from different angles.

But today, I want to suggest a single, powerful question you should ask about all your main characters.

You need to set yourself up for this, because it’s a question not to be tossed out lightly.

So find a comfy spot. I like to use a corner table at my local coffee palace.

Have a notepad ready.

Spend ten minutes thinking about anything except your novel. Observe people, read some news or a blog, or watch “Charlie Bit Me” a couple of times.

Next, turn yourself (as much as possible) into a fully objective reader who is considering buying your book.

Here comes the question:

If I were at a party and someone told me about this character, what she’s like and what has happened to her, would I want to spend two hours listening to her tell me her story?  

Be merciless in your answer. Write down the exact reasons you would want to hear more. If you don’t come up with good ones, you’ve got work to do.

If someone described to me a selfish, flirty Southern belle, I wouldn’t want to spend two seconds with her. But when I hear that she is the only one in her family with the grit and guts to save her home during and after the Civil War, I think I’d want to hear more.

If someone tells me about an unsure FBI trainee, who came from poor circumstances, I’m mildly interested. But make her the only person in the entire bureau who can get the most devious, intelligent, and malevolent murderer in the annals of crime to talk, then I’m down for the whole story.

PIs are a dime a dozen. But if it’s Philip Marlowe narrating, I want that two hours just to listen to how he describes all the twists and turns.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.

You have your assignment. Would you, as a perfect stranger, feel compelled to listen to the story your main character wants to tell?

If not, make it so.

If so, make it more so!

And then the greatest danger to your novel will be no more.

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Story and Structure in Love

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back in November, TKZ commenter Dale Ivan Smith talked about a major challenge he faced.
Here’s the key paragraph:
 
The big challenge … is not taking forever on the pre-writing and outlining. How do you impose deadlines on yourself for outlining and still create a solid, damn good novel outline? My fear of drafting a bad story has to a big extent been replaced with the fear of outlining a bad one 😉
 
I answered him, in part, this way:
 
Dale, you’ve asked a great question. I think it really comes down to fear. 
 
There’s an easier and better way to find story, IMO: it’s to play BEFORE you write. Play on the monkey bars built of structural signposts. You actually can be more creative this way because you’re not drafting. Thus, it’s much faster, too. 
 
You can also play in the actual writing. But you’ll be playing a game that readers can make sense of. 
 
It’s the best of both worlds. Freedom AND focus, and a lot less frustration. The people who’ve been writing to me about Write Your Novel From the Middle have been having epiphanies on this. Which is cool. I’ll have more to say on writing this way in the months ahead. 
 
This “best of both worlds” combines the playfulness and creativity of the pantser with the beautiful form of the plotter, all with that most important person in mind—the reader! 
 
If you want to sell books and not just feel good about your writing, you need more than pure freedom and more than mere outlining. 
 
You need a guide, a map, a blueprint, but one that is flexible and freeing, not cold and ruthless. 
 
Which is why I’ve written a new book called Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story.
Story LOVES structure, because structure translates story into a form that enables reader connection…and those are the stories that sell.
 
And don’t let’s confuse structure with outlining, which causes pantsers to break out in the cold sweats. This is a common error. Any writer of any temperament can utilize structure principles, even if your approach is the seat-of-the-pants variety. To be aware of structure is not the same thing as writing a 40 page, single-spaced outline. Which is a perfectly legit thing to do. Just ask James Patterson. Or many fine writers of the past. 
 
But outlining is not a requirement. Which is one reason I wrote this book. It’s for any type of writer because it stresses the idea of “signpost scenes.” There are fourteen signposts scenes, or beats, in Super Structure. It’s culled from the best and most popular novels and screenplays of the past, as well as my own research and development of writing principles over the last 25 years. 
 
The material in this book greatly expands upon the chapter on structure in Write Your Novel From the Middle. Super Structure can be considered a companion to that book, but it also stands alone in its treatment of the elements of a solid and pleasing plot. 
 
Recently, the longtime literary editor for Playboy, Alice K. Turner, went to her final review at age 75. Her obituary in the New York Times talked about how she championed literary fiction for 20 years there, bringing a measure of respectability, ahem, between the folds. And she truly did, publishing some of the best writers of our time and discovering new talent.
 
I love what she said about her preference for a solid, well-structured plot: “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.” 
 
Super Structure will tell you where story elements belong. Then you are free to do what you like, experiment all you want.
 
But when your story isn’t working, and you don’t know why, Super Structure will be there to help you find out! It is very friendly that way. Say hello to it today. 
 
 
 
 
 
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Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

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Ten Lessons from Plot & Structure

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

May I pop some champagne?
This past week marked the 10th anniversary of Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books). I’m extremely gratified that the book has helped so many writers, because I needed such help when I was starting out. As I explain in the introduction:
I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of The Big Lie.
           
In my twenties I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t you’ll never get it.
           
My first writing efforts didn’t have it. I thought I was doomed. Outside of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, I didn’t get any encouragement at all.
           
In college, I took a writing course taught by Raymond Carver. I looked at the stuff he wrote; I looked at my stuff.
           
It wasn’t the same.
           
Because writing can’t be taught.
           
I started to believe it. I figured I didn’t have it and never would.
           
So I did other stuff. Like go to law school. Like join a law firm. Like give up my dream.
           
But the itch to write would not go away.
           
At age 34, I read an interview with a lawyer who’d had a novel published. And what he said hit me in my lengthy briefs. He said he’d had an accident and was almost killed. In the hospital, given a second chance at life, he decided the one thing he wanted was to be a writer. And he would write and write, even if he never got published, because that was what he wanted.
           
Well, I wanted it too.
           
But The Big Lie was still there, hovering around my brain, mocking me.
           
Especially when I began to study the craft.
           
I went out and bought my first book on fiction writing. It was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel. I also bought Syd Field’s book on screenwriting because anyone living in Los Angeles who has opposable thumbs is required to write a screenplay.
           
And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.
Eventually I was published. Then I started to teach what I’d learned. I wrote some articles for Writer’s Digest magazine that led to

my becoming the fiction columnist, and then to the appearance of Plot & Structure in October of 2004.

When there were no ebooks.
Imagine that.
Looking back at the last ten years, I would emphasize the following lessons from Plot & Structure:
1. You can learn the craft of writing fiction that sells.
2. Structure is what enables your story to connect with readers.
3. Don’t just write what you know. Write who you are.
4. Every scene has a purpose, and that purpose can and should be structured for the greatest effect.
5. If you know what effect you want to create, you can learn the techniques for making it happen.
6. Plots will drag unless the protagonist is forced, before the 20% mark, through a “doorway of no return.” This was my biggest contribution to structure studies. It explains how and why a story takes off –– or starts to drag.
7. There are only so many plot patterns. The magic happens when an author puts his unique style, imagination and feeling into the pattern.
8. Compelling fiction is always about death –– physical, professional, or psychological.
9. Act first, explain later. Start with a character in motion, doing something, wanting something. Readers will wait a long time for backstory and exposition if a character is moving.
10. Develop a vision for yourself as a writer. Make it something that excites you. Turn that into a mission. Live your dream.
My great thanks to Writer’s Digest Books and all who have been so complimentary over the years. Your messages, comments, emails and tweets mean the world to me.
Let’s keep the knockout fiction flowing…like champagne!

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