Someone Has Already Done It; Let Them Help You
You’ve got your kernel idea; your conflict lock and you’ve done your research. Before you begin to write your book, you should find a novel similar to what you plan to write that is already published. I guarantee you there is something out there that’s similar. Then you should sit down with your razor sharp brain and slice it apart to see all the pieces. Then put them together again to see how they all fit.
You have to ask yourself a number of questions:
- What was the original idea the author started with? How close is it to mine?
- How did the author translate that idea into a story? What twist did the author put on the original idea? What’s my twist? How am I different from this author’s work?
- What is the theme/intent to this story? What is mine going to be?
- Why did the author begin where he or she did? Will a similar opening work for me?
- Why did the author choose the perspective/point of view he or she did? What will mine be?
- What scope did he or she place on the story? What bookends? Can I have similar bookends?
- What is the pacing of the story? How much time did it cover?
- How did the author bring the story to a conclusion? What was the climactic scene? What is mine going to be?
- What did the author do that you liked?
- What did the author do that you didn’t like?
- What didn’t the author put in the book that you might have? Why didn’t the author put that in?
- What was in the book that you feel could have been left out? How would the story change if it were left out?
- What were the subplots? How did they connect with the main plot? Did all the subplots get resolved?
- Why did the author pick the settings he or she did?
These are questions you are going to face in your own manuscript. If you can understand how someone who successfully wrote the same type of book answered them, you greatly improve your ability to answer them.
One thing you can do is take an Excel spreadsheet. Each row in the sheet is a scene in the book you are dissecting. The first column is a brief summary of the action of that scene. The next column is the purpose of that scene. Do this for the entire book. Then delete the first column. Focus on the purpose column. You add a column to the right of purpose and label that your actions. You now have an outline for your book that will not plagiarize the other book.
Here’s another interesting exercise to do. Take a book that was made into a film and compare the two. For example, The Great Santini by Pat Conroy. If you read the book, then watch the movie, you will notice several subplots are missing from the movie version that are in the book. How did the screenwriter do this yet maintain the original idea and story of the book? Did these subplots add or take away from the book?
I was talking to producer Dan Curtis (Winds of War) and he told me how he works on taking a novel and turning it into a screenplay. First he breaks the novel down into a list of one or two sentence summaries of every major scene or action. Then he writes the screenplay off that list. Then he breaks the screenplay down into a list of one or two sentence summaries and sees how that compares to the one he did for the novel.
Use the narrative structure to lay out the structure of the novels you read. What is the hook, your initiating event? What are the progressive complications/escalating conflict? What is the choice the protagonist has to make in the moment of crisis? How is it made? How is the main plot resolved in the climactic scene? How do the subplots support the main plot?
It is essential that you be well read in the area in which you wish to write. The more you read, the more you will get imprinted in your conscious and subconscious brain the style and manner in which those types of stories are written, which will aid you greatly in writing your own.
I’ve sat down with best-sellers and breakout novels and broken them down on a spreadsheet scene by scene to study the structure. Many authors I’ve talked to have done something similar in order to learn.
A question you should ask yourself after dissecting a book like what you want to write is this: How is my book going to be different? What is my unique twist? Every idea has been done—it is in the development of your story off that idea that you have to bring your originality.
What book or movie do you think you should ‘dissect’ for your work in progress or a story you’re thinking of writing?
Primary research is related to specifics of the story you are going to tell.
Secondary research goes on all the time and should be second nature to a writer—it’s called living and being tuned in to the world. You should be observing things around you all the time. You should also be well read. Many times your ideas come out of research in the first place.
I had a demolition’s man on my Special Forces team and whenever we went anywhere he was always looking at things around him and figuring out how he would blow them up. Every dam we passed, power line, bridge, etc. he was estimating how many charges it would take and where he would place them. As a writer you should be always thinking like that—how you would write things you see, describe people you observe? How would you show what you observe without telling?
The number one thing a writer must do is write. I would say the number two thing is read. Read for information and read for style. Read for format. Reading books like the type you want to write is probably the best possible research you can do. Reading is research.
Every Book You Read, You Should Be Taking It Apart In Two Ways
- Overall narrative structure
- Scene by scene plot/character development.
When I get stalled writing, I’ll turn my seat and look at the wall behind me that is filled with bookcases. I’ll look at titles of the books there, remembering the stories, and it will both inspire me and also give me ways around problems I’m facing in my current manuscript. Remember, as a writer, you are not alone if you have books.
Although the medium is different, the dramatic concept is basically the same. Another key to watching film is that a screenwriter must absolutely show not tell. Watch how they get ideas and emotions across strictly through showing. Also, focus on the camera work—the point of view the director chooses to tell the story. Where is the camera location for each shot? When is there a cut? When does the camera move in on a character and move out? Why? How is light used? Shadow? Tone? Colors?
In many cases, research helps you construct the story after you have your initial idea. Research is not just looking outward for information, it’s also looking inward. Make sure you know the real reason you are writing the story you’ve decided to. Whatever you feel about the story is going to bleed out onto the page.
Research your setting (place & time). There is nothing equal to actually standing in a place and getting the feel for it. I call it ‘walking the terrain.’
You can never have enough information. Even while writing I look for more information about the topic I am writing about. All my books have started from the Kernel idea and then the story developed out of the research I did on that idea and related areas.
One question people ask is how factual their stories should be? Where is the line between realistically portraying something and making things up? That’s a difficult question to answer. My science fiction books are only science fiction in that I give a different explanation for things that actually exist. It is a fact that there are large statues on Easter Island. The fiction in my Area 51 series comes in when I give my own explanation for why those statues were made.
Writing historical fiction, I’d better have my dates correct. And the historical characters in the right place at the right time doing the thing they did. However, no one knows what these people really said in most cases, unless it was specifically recorded, such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
If you are writing a mystery you can’t be too far off base with your police procedural information, although the focus should be on character, not technique. One of the most successful detective series of all-time, Inspector Morse, didn’t rely on forensics or car chases, but rather on the human interaction among the characters.
I think many people are lulled by the inaccuracies portrayed in movies. Books have to be more accurate for several reasons; one is that the average reader is more on the ball than the average moviegoer; second, you can slide something by in a couple of seconds of film but the reader can linger over and reread a paragraph again and again. A reader can also turn back from page 320 to check page 45 where you mentioned the same thing and compare the two.
The Internet is useful in gathering information as there is a web page about practically everything. I had a scene in one of my Area 51 books where a character is attacked by piranha while crossing a river in South America. Having personally never been attacked by piranha, I searched the web and found several pages devoted to the creatures.
Another strength of the Internet is networking. There is every possible organization out there with a web site and then there are places like Facebook and Twitter. I’m not getting into those in detail, because there are other books out there for that.
Old Fashioned Books
I still use books a lot for research. While the Internet can get your specific information it also has flaws. First, you have to have an idea what you’re looking for. Second, the Internet often doesn’t give you interesting details you can only find in a book. Third, the Internet sometimes can’t give you a ‘feel’ for a topic. Reading U.S. Grant’s Memoirs and then several biographies about him gave me insight into his character I could have never gotten from finding facts on the Internet.
Some Examples Where Research Using A Book Adds To Story
- I was writing a book titled Area 51 The Sphinx. Therefore I did a lot of research on the Great Sphinx. In a thick tome I was wading my way through there was one sentence that caught my attention. It said that Sir Richard Francis Burton, a man who’d always fascinated me, visited the Great Sphinx in 1855. The opening scene of the novel ended up being this visit. Then, as I researched Burton, I learned that upon his death, his wife burned a manuscript over his body. A large part of the book became a chase in the present day to discover a copy of the manuscript and decrypt the secrets it contained.
- Years ago, I was wandering the library and saw a book titled: Japan’s Secret War. I picked it up and was quite intrigued at the author’s premise that the Japanese actually developed a working atomic bomb and detonated it in Manchuria in the waning days of World War II. As a fiction writer, this was a premise I could run with and I took it one step further: what if there were a second bomb, and it was taken by submarine to San Francisco at the end of the war and left at the base of the Golden Gate bridge? I ended up with Shadow Warriors: The Gate.
- I was researching Vikings because one of my Atlantis books has half the storyline set in the year 1,000 AD. In one book I read about an interesting character named Corpse-Loddin, whose career was to sail out in the spring and recover the bodies of Vikings who were trapped the previous winter by ice and killed. He would boil the bodies down, strap them to the side of his boat and sail back home to sell the bodies to their families for proper burial. I found him such a bizarre character that I knew he had to be in my story. I liked him so much, I bring him back in Time Patrol: Black Tuesday.
Research helps begin the framework of story.
If you look in the front of many books, you will find a list of acknowledgments where the author thanks those who helped with the book. For a mystery this might include a police department, the forensics department, the coroner, etc. etc. This is primary research and can be very useful.
However, one problem I have found though in talking to experts about their particular field is they are usually more concerned with “getting it right” than telling a story. As a novelist, telling a story is your priority. You have to listen carefully to the expert and sift through the mounds of information they are shoveling your way and pick the nuggets of gold that you can use to make your story sparkle.
My recommendation if you have to write about something you are unfamiliar with, is to “cheat”. Find another fiction book that writes about the same subject and see how that author did it. I asked bestselling author Lee Child how he did his research on the military since he didn’t have a military background. He said that he read Nelson DeMille and Tom Clancy a lot. Yes, being former military, I sometimes find glaring inaccuracies in his books, but overall, the story and character allow one to pass by those.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons you need to read a lot and watch a lot of film is to add to your toolkit of techniques and information. Every now and then I read or see something that really strikes me as being different and I write it down and file it away my drawer of ideas. You should do the same thing when researching material for your book.
What are your favorite ways to research? Any unique experiences you’d like to share?
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After we write down the original/kernel idea at the Write on the River workshop, we then spend considerable time filling out the Conflict Box on whiteboard. Filling out this simple diagram answers so many questions for your story. (June is full– next available slots 12-13 September).
The Kernel Idea starts your creative process. Conflict is the fuel that keeps your story going. Conflict reveals your characters’ true natures and draws the reader closer. It gives the reader a reason to keep turning the page. Without conflict, your idea cannot be translated into story.
Every scene in your book must have conflict. Conflict keeps a story going and reveals much about your characters. Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. There are 3 levels of conflict for your characters:
- inner (inside the character). In many cases inner conflict occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character’s circumstances, you can develop internal conflict.
- personal (between characters)
- universal/societal (characters versus fate/God/the system)
You have to consider what your main character faces on each of these levels.
There are five major sources of conflict for people (although you can probably come up with more):
Keep these sources of conflict in mind when developing your characters.
Remember all characters have an agenda/goals they want to achieve. That gives them a driving force, even if it is a passive or negative one. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively or subtly. Or they could not pursue their goals, which also says something about them.
What is Conflict?
- A serious disagreement or argument
- A prolonged armed struggle
- An incompatibility between two opinions, principles or interests
- (v) be incompatible or at variance, clash
The Basic Story Dynamic Is:
- The Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .
- The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse)…
- Because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .
- Goals (the external things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing)
- Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with: smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different
- Must seem real; flawed, layered, have a blind spot
- Must have a unique voice
- Must be in trouble, undeserved if possible, but usually not random
- Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred
- Must have a strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal
- We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist
- We must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly
- The protagonist’s blind spot can be the fatal flaw, but at least brings about the moment of crisis
- The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene
CONFLICT EXERCISE: What does your protagonist want most?
- Drives the story
- You have one for one main story line
- Does not have to be the hero/heroine or even good
- If she fails, what is the result (stakes)
- Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, defeating the …
- Must be someone the reader respects (fears): smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different
- Must seem real; flawed, layered, have a blind spot
- Must have a unique voice
- Must be in trouble
- Must be introduced as soon as possible, even if by proxy
- Must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal
CONFLICT EXERCISE: What does your antagonist want most?
- You have one
- Drives the plot initially
- You must do the antagonist’s plan and it should be very good
- If removed, the plot collapses
- Should be a single person so the conflict is personal
- Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, fighting the protagonist because . . .
Their Goals Conflict
- The reader must believe both will lose everything if they don’t defeat the other
- Their goals are difficult to achieve because of external barriers, primarily each other
- Their goals are layered, usually in three ways . . .
- External: The concrete object or event the character needs
- Internal: The identity/value the character is trying to achieve via pursuing the external goal
- Relationship/communal: The connections the character wants to gain or destroy while in pursuit of the external goal
- People want to achieve their goals because of their . . .
- The reason your character needs his or her goal
- Everyone has an agenda
- Every character has a primary motivator; Frankl’s One Thing
- Some motivations stem from key events in a character’s life
More On Motivation
- The reader must believe that your characters believe all will be lost if they don’t achieve their goal.
- Motivations, like goals, come in layers that are peeled away as the story escalates in conflict and the character is under more and more pressure.
- The motivational layers are all present in the beginning of the story, but the character is often not conscious of the layers.
- Thus the motivation and goals shift as the story goes on and we peel away layers…
- What do you want? In the beginning of Don’t Look Down, my hero JT Wilder steps off a helicopter. He’s a Green Beret on leave, coming to a movie set to advise the lead actor on how to play a Green Beret. Being a guy, what’s Wilder consciously thinking? I’m going to get paid and since there are actresses here, maybe I’ll get laid.
- What do you really want? However, Wilder is pretty much alone in the world. He’s left his A-Team and is in a teaching position at Fort Bragg. So on a deeper level he’s looking for a relationship.
- No, what do you REALLY need? But he’s needs more than just one person. He was part of a team. What he needs is a relationship with community.
All these wants and needs were present in Wilder’s brain when he got off that chopper. However, the latter two were subconscious. As we hit each turning point in the novel and the pressure grows greater, the surface wants are peeled away until we end up at the need. The last scene of the book is Wilder flying off into the setting sun on a helicopter (mirroring opening scene) except now he’s got the relationship, Lucy, sitting next to him and the helicopter is full of people who have grown into a community. Contrast that with the opening scene where he gets off the chopper alone.
CONFLICT EXERCISE: What is stopping your protagonist from getting what he/she wants most? What is stopping your antagonist from getting what he/she wants most?
The Central Story Question
- Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal?
- When the reader asks that question, the story begins.
- When the reader gets the answer, the story is over.
- The Green Berets: Chasing the Lost: Will Wilder discover who killed Rachel and solve the murder and the drug trafficking?
- Area 51: Will Turcotte uncover the truth about Area 51 and save Earth?
- This question leads us to the…
The Conflict Box
The Conflict Box is used to visually diagram your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals and conflict. During Write on the Rivr we spend a lot of time figuring out the one sentence Kernel Idea first. Then we move on to the conflict box as a way of laying out the core conflict and story for the novel.
You can have conflict because
- Protagonist and antagonist want the same thing.
- Protagonist and antagonist want different things, but achieving one goal causes conflict with the other’s goal.
The Conflict Box
The core conflict based on goals that brings the protagonist and antagonist into direct opposition in a struggle that neither can walk away from. A key to filling out the conflict box is to look at each box separately and fill them in one by one. The goal box must have a concrete, external goal in it. Don’t confuse goal with motivation. The conflict is what’s stopping the character from getting that thing.
Here is a video showing the Conflict Box
Can you fill out your conflict box?
Theme and intent can be interchangeable. Intent is a term I’ve taken from screenwriters. It took me almost ten years of writing and fifteen manuscripts to realize the critical importance of having an intent to my stories, beyond simply being entertaining and having that intent in my conscious mind.
Some in the business of screenwriting say you should be able to state your intent in three words.
- Love conquers all
- Honesty defeats greed
- Honor versus loyalty
There are others who say you need to be able to state it in one word:
What Is My Intent?
What do you want readers to walk away with emotionally when they finish reading your story? This is a question many authors don’t ask themselves and it’s one of the most important questions because it’s the readers whom you need to keep coming back for more. When you consider intent, consider your readers first.
Filmmakers have to think about what they want the viewer to feel when they walk out of the theater. This is one reason there are so few negative endings in films. That’s not to say you can’t have a dark ending. It’s more to point out that you need to be aware of the effect of a dark ending.
I’ve seen some excellent films where the ending was dark and bleak—and often most realistic—but most of those films were not box office blockbusters. The original screenplay for Pretty Woman was called Five Thousand Dollars. And the Richard Gere character drives away at the end. Realistic, yes. Would it have succeeded as much as the rewrite?
I’m not saying you have to have happy endings and make your reader happy. I’m saying you have to know what feeling you want the reader to experience and make sure you deliver. Larry McMurtry is a master writer and most of his stories have rather bleak endings.
I think that the more negative the intent, the better you have to be as a writer to keep the reader involved. To take readers on a dark and relatively unhappy journey, you have to be very good to keep them in the boat.
- What do you feel? Why are you writing this book?
- What do you want readers to feel? Do you want them to feel one way or another? Or do you prefer to make it more nebulous where readers could argue about the book’s message and intent?
- You always have an intent. Make sure you know it consciously.
- Positive versus negative. Your call, but negative is a harder sell to readers.
- Beware of lecturing. It’s called info-dumping. Also, if you take a stand on some matter, realize you run the chance of alienating 50% of your readers. In some instances this is a good thing as it could bring you attention.
- Resolution–the payoff to the reader. Intent peaks in the last scene in the book.
The more a reader feels about a book, the more he will get into it. Feeling comes out of the three aspects of a novel:
If you know and, more importantly, have a good feel for each of these three before you begin writing, you increase the quality of your work.
Do you know what your intent is?
Also, I have two slots left for the 27-28 June Write on the River workshop. Drop me a line if interested and I can offer you a discount.