Elements of a Great Story

I often find it easy to explain why I don’t like a story. Predictable plot. Annoying characters. Premise as interesting as sticky paint. You would think I would also find it easy to identify why I do like a story, but I don’t. My recommendations usually sound something like, “Oh, it’s really good. It’s about X and there’s this thing, and the middle was so surprising.” Yeah, helpful. And people wonder why I don’t write reviews on Goodreads!

Of course, as someone who tries to write great stories, I thought it was important that I learn to identify what makes me like a story. And so, in the Holly Bodger tradition, I bring you a list:

1. A premise that interests me.
The important part about this line is the “me”. I do not like snakes. I do not like flying or daredevil things that involve heights. So, if your story is about a girl who para-glides to the top of a cliff so she can find a new breed of snake, someone might love it but that someone will not be me. It does not matter how great the character is or how twisty the plot is. I cannot enjoy this story.

2. A flawed main character I can relate to
I do not aspire to be the main character in a story. Yes, there are many people who read for this reason, but I read because I want to relate to the main character and I cannot relate to someone who is perfect or who has the perfect life except for one tiny thing. I want flaws. Flaws make me feel like I could be the main character.

3. A goal with no clear path to it
I’m a plotter but this isn’t just a plot thing. I really need to feel, right from the first act, that the main character wants something. I cannot stand stories about characters just wandering through life, waiting to see what happens. Just as important as the goal is the fact that there can’t be an obvious path leading to it. Everyone knows that there is a 95% likelihood that the main character is going to reach his/her goal. The beauty of the story is in the how. I think this may be one of the reasons I like romantic sub-plots. Realistic romance is not predictable.

4. Stakes that are greater than “I”
I don’t mind stories where the main character’s goal is self-serving, but I prefer ones where it’s not. These kinds of goals make it harder for the main character to just walk away. They also show that they’re not just thinking about their own wants constantly. Characters who think about their own wants get on my nerves a little and I don’t like to devote 8 hours of my life to someone who is getting on my nerves.

5. An antagonist I sympathize with
Anyone can create a big bad wolf but what’s the point? The real evils in life don’t come in black and white. Antagonists need as many shades of grey as protagonists. I love an antagonist who is doing a bad thing for a good reason. You know you can’t support these characters but there is a small part of you that wants to put them in a time machine and take them back to when they used to be good. That means there’s a small part of you that wants them to win and that is tension.

6. Accuracy in detail
This is a big one for me. I can be totally loving a story but if the author makes factual mistakes, it feels like they’re saying that they didn’t bother to do research because their readers are too stupid to know the difference. And guess what? Most people don’t like being called stupid.

What about you? What makes you think a story is great?

Books That Make Me Laugh

I hate January. I hate cold. I hate snow. I hate cold snow even more. I don’t care if I’m Canadian and I should be used to it by now. I’m not. So there.

Because I hate this month more than brussel sprouts, I like to find things that make me happy, even for a few hours, and there is nothing that makes me happier than a book that makes me laugh. My favourites are:

1. Bridget Jones’s Diary
2. Angela’s Ashes
3. Knocked Up
4. Will Grayson, Will Grayson
5. Go the F*%k to Sleep
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
7. Dear Mr. Blueberry
8. Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood
9. Confessions of Georgia Nicholson (series)
10. The Help

If you have any favourites that I haven’t listed here, please post them in the comments. We’ve had like 10 inches of snow since yesterday and I need to giggle at something other than people falling over on the ice. Uh, not that I would do that…

A Book Obsession

Many of you have seen the commercial merchandising chaos of such books as Twilight or Harry Potter. I’m here to tell you about one almost as big that many of you don’t know about: Anne of Green Gables. Anne of Green Gables was written by Lucy Maud Montgomery who grew up in the small town of Cavendish, which is in Canada’s smallest province, PEI. Having grown up in Canada (1000 miles away from Cavendish) I read all of the Anne of Green Gables books as a kid. I watched the Anne of Green Gables movies. I dressed up as Anne of Green Gables. I had Anne of Green Gables dolls. Okay, I also wrote an Anne of Green Gables spoof. Even so, my obsession is nothing like what you would see if you went to Cavendish, PEI (pictures below taken last month, my 3rd visit to Cavendish):

Lucy’s Home

This is the sign marking Lucy’s homestead. If you turn here, you get to the Lucy Bookstore and then to Lucy’s house itself.












The Souvenirs

I didn’t take photos of all of these but Cavendish is filled with Anne of Green Gables souvenir shops and even the shops that are supposed to sell things like, oh, food, still have an Anne of Green Gables souvenir section. For example, there are no less than 20 different kinds of Anne dolls:






And then there are these Anne hats EVERYWHERE and if you are really mean, you can make your son wear one:









Then, if you actually go to Avonlea, the real Anne obsession begins. You see the school house:






The food and drinks (yes, those are Anne potato chips!):

And then there are the actors, wandering around Avonlea, never wavering from character and often spontaneously breaking into scenes from the book:






Imagine, if you can, what it would be like if someone did this to YOUR book?

Hold the presses…

This news deserves a blog post of its own. Drum roll please…

Donald Maass is now on Twitter!

You can follow him @ www.twitter.com/DonMaass. This is a MUCH better way to follow him than say, oh I don’t know, hiding in the bushes outside of his house. Not that I would know. *cough*

Come Here Often?

I may be dating myself (not literally…I am married after all!) but I’ve never forgotten the skit from Saturday Night Live called The Roxbury Guys. If you haven’t seen it, imagine these guys on the left lurking in the corner of every bar in America. Imagine them running their slimy little hands along your shoulder as they speak the words, “Come here often?”

Yeah, I shivered just writing that. The point of this sketch (in addition to making me howl on the floor in laughter every time I saw a guy like this in a bar) was to show how NOT to woo a woman.

Now she might be mortified to learn this, but  when I was reading Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, a line from it made me think of these guys. The line was this:

“Wooing a reader involves a certain amount of courtship, though one of the greatest mistakes a writer can make is to behave like the literary equivalent of a suitor who comes on too strong.”

The point is that you cannot start your book with the assumption that the reader likes or trusts you or your main characters. You need to prove yourself first. Show that you’re nice. Trustworthy. Do the literary equivalent of buying them a martini before you try to feel them up on the dance floor.

Something to keep this in mind when you’re writing in the future. Don’t be those guys; be this one:

More from Blake Snyder: Stasis = Death

First of all, I need to thank the wonderful people at Blake Snyder Enterprises for sending me a copy of  Save the Cat! STRIKES BACK, the third book in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat series. It probably won’t come as a shock that I dropped everything so I could start reading it, and although I’m only halfway through, my brain is already exploding. There is also a large stain on my kitchen floor but let’s ignore that for now.

The first chapter of STRIKES BACK is about loglines, but I’m not going to tell you what Snyder says on this subject. He has an AWESOME formula for creating loglines, but you need to read Save the Cat if you want to use it easily. If you don’t, you can read my previous 47 posts on the subject. Har har har.

What I want to talk about today is a new beat Snyder introduces in this book. It falls between the Setup and the Catalyst and is what he calls Stasis = Death.

Stasis=Death is the moment before the inciting incident when the reader realizes that the main character cannot continue as is. He cannot live the life he is living in the manner he is living it. If he does, he will fade into a miserable existence and will die with seventeen cats and a bird named Tom. Note that I said the reader realizes this and not the main character. Although Snyder doesn’t make this point, I think it’s important. The main character is not supposed to know he is doomed in the setup. He can be miserable. Heck, he can be REALLY miserable. But until he enters the new situation, he cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. If he does, your inciting incident will come off less like a bus hitting him and more like a bus arriving as scheduled.

In my next post, I’ll talk about Snyder’s Transformation Machine. It will BLOW YOUR MIND. Or, if your mind is already blown, it will cause it to rock in a manner similar to one caused by a train passing at a gentle pace.

A note of encouragement

A good writer tells you a story. A great writer puts you in one.

I’ve done something like 45 crits in the last week, which got me thinking about why I can relate to some main characters and not to others. I read for the experience. I want to BE the main character of the book. That’s why I love writers who make me feel like I am IN THEIR NOVEL. Not on the outside looking in. IN! I had this feeling when I read Kody Keplinger’s The Duff. I was not reading about Bianca. I WAS Bianca.

But here’s the thing: there are some experiences I don’t want to have. For example, since I’ve had children, I CANNOT read or watch anything that involves a child being hurt. Is this because these things don’t happen? No. Is it because I am in denial about them happening? Heck no. It’s because, I don’t want to be the person it happens to. Not for 500 pages. Not for 5.

The point of my post is this: when someone says they don’t like your story, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Yes, maybe you wrote a book about a hot dog and it IS bad. But maybe not. If someone doesn’t like your story, maybe it’s fantastic. Maybe your writing is SO good that it makes the reader feel like they ARE the main character. But maybe, just maybe, not everyone wants to be your main character. If so, don’t take it personally. There is someone out there who wants to read a book about your main character and you will find them one day.


And now, back to my book about the hot dog…

I Get By With a Little Help From…

For me, writing is a learning process that never ends. I read blogs and books about writing, and occasionally, I attend courses on writing. And, of course, I practice by writing, deleting and writing again. But for me, I don’t think anything is as helpful as reading the writing of others. I am one of those people who just learns by example. If I can see it, I can do it. Okay, not always. But this is not the time to discuss what happened after I watched Cirque du Soleil on TV.

I love so many writers that it’s hard to narrow down this list, but here are the current ones I go to when I need help for…

Dialogue: Rosemary Clement-Moore
Detail: JK Rowling
Humour: Frank McCourt or Louise Rennison
Tension: Suzanne Collins
POV: Marissa de los Santos
Feelings: Kody Keplinger
Chapter Openings: Ally Carter
Romantic Arcs: Jane Austen
Mystery Arcs: Agatha Christie

Help me out. What writers do you go to and for what?

Act Three, According to Snyder

According to Snyder’s book, Save the Cat, the third act of a story should have the following:

  1. Break Into Three: At the end of Act Two, everything went wrong for the main character. In this section, everything needs to turn. The main character needs to have that “ah-ha” moment where he (or another character) discovers the way to reach the goal. Once he has figured it out, he needs to act on it.
  2. Finale: The main character has met his goal. This is where you wrap up all of the plot lines. Does the boy get the girl? Do they live happily ever after? If you put “the six things that need fixing” in the setup, this is where you show them fixed.
  3. Final Scene: This beat probably makes more sense on screen, but the idea is that you give one final image of the main character. In Snyder’s opinion, this should be the opposite of the opening image.

This brings us to the end of the posts on the 15 story beats, according to Blake Snyder. Keep in mind that this is only one chapter out of his book Save the Cat. The book has a ton of other great tips, such as Save the Cat, Pope in the Pool… BUY IT! And that, my friends, brings us to the end of this infomercial.

In my next post, I’ll discuss scene writing.

Act Two, Part Two…According to Snyder

According to Snyder’s book, Save the Cat, the second part of Act Two should contain the following sections or “beats”:

1. Bad Guys Close In – This is when everything goes wrong for the main character. The antagonist “closes in” on getting his own goal which means the main character sees that his hope from the beginning of Act Two was false. This one was a real eye-opener for me. I knew that things were supposed to go wrong for the main character (leading up to the Black Moment) but I’d honestly never considered that it should all happen at once. But now that I have implemented this, it makes a lot of sense. One other thing I learned (which has nothing to do with Snyder) is what I will call The Bad Guy Waterfall. This means that, if you have 3 plot lines, you need to make them turn in the correct order. Take this as an example:

Bob goes to his car to find it has no gas. Bob calls the store and finds out they close in 5 minutes. Bob needs milk.

All three of these things are problems for Bob, but when written in the above order, they don’t create an “All is Lost” feeling. Let’s try to switch them using the waterfall method:

Bob needs milk. Bob calls the store and finds out they close in 5 minutes. Bob goes to his car to find it has no gas.

Now, we have the feeling that all is lost for Bob. Keep this in mind when you write your Bad Guys Close In chapters. They will only lead to #2 if done in the right order.

2. All is Lost – This is the moment when the main character thinks it’s over. He can’t see any possible way to reach his goal. Others often refer to this as “The Black Moment”.

3. Dark Night of the Soul – I’d never heard of this one before (or I’d heard of it but it was included as part of #2). To Snyder, this is an extra final insight into the main character’s despair. Snyder likes to use a technique he calls “the whiff of death” here.

These three sections bring an end to Act Two. In my next post, I will discuss Act Three. I will also remind you to BUY THIS BOOK. Am I annoying you yet? No? I will try harder.