Overnight, I realized one way to craft emotionally scarred heroes, and bitter antagonists & villains.
The explanation — an authentic backstory — was right in front of me.
(No, I’m not talking about my husband, though he can be a curmudgeon — but a thoroughly lovable one — at times.)
Instead, it’s a cousin.
Through no fault of his own, my cousin has been rejected by his immediate family.
Now, it’s heartbreaking to watch him in free-fall. He’s changing from a thoroughly cheerful guy to a wounded man with a bitter edge.
I’ve done everything I can to intervene. Worse, it’s the second time he’s had to deal with this issue.
The first time, he understood the dynamics, and the social pressures placed on his immediate family. It was a different era.
This time…? It’s not so easy to reconcile. I’m still hoping for a happier outcome.
Meanwhile, I can see how his dilemma fits perfectly in historical fiction. In a less enlightened time, my cousin’s “sin” was enough reason to act as if he’d never been born.
I’m keeping this generic, for privacy. You can probably think of a variety of issues that fit, from “secret baby” (the person is one, or had one) to gender identification, and from learning disabilities (in a family with high academic standards) to rejection of the family’s harsh religious beliefs.
Here’s how it can work in a story:
To a stranger, the handsome young man (or woman) might seem to “have it all.”
But, he may also have a secret. The evidence is well-concealed. He doesn’t talk about it, and no one knows (or clearly remembers) his family.
His hidden anguish drives him to push people away, or even treat others cruelly.
But, to him — perhaps like the family that rejected him — it may seem like “self-preservation.”
In other words, in his (or her) mind, he’s still the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for himself, and perhaps for those around him. (His motto might be: “Life is hard. Learn that early.”)
As an author, that gives you a LOT to work with.
Today, I’m revising a romance novel that stopped making sense. One of the lead characters had devolved into a cookie-cutter “angry young man.” The more I wrote, the less I liked him.
Now, with these overnight insights, I know exactly how to give him an authentic (and perhaps poignant) backstory. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping that solves the plotting issue.
And, I’m still hoping for the best for my cousin. It’s not too late for a happy ending to that story, too.
In real life, many people want to meet someone… and it’s love at first sight. Everything is perfect, and continues so, through courtship, engagement, and marriage. And, we want to live happily ever after.
Many of us grew up believing that most romances followed that exact path. And, when ours didn’t… we turned to romance novels.
They affirm that, somehow, we too will find our “other half,” or our “split apart” person, or Prince Charming.
Or, in a not-quite-perfect relationship, romance stories help us reconnect with what charmed us when we first fell in love with the partner we’ve chosen.
And then there’s reality’s darker side. 40 to 50 percent of all American marriages end in divorce. The statistics are similar in the EU and in the UK.
Tip: If you want a long-lasting marriage, Chile may be a good destination; their divorce rate is around 3%. (The trade-off…? Chile seems to rank 47th out of 69 countries, in terms of quality of life. However, I’m not convinced that’s a reliable stat.)
So, in most of the world, romance stories, novellas, and novels have a steady, eager audience. (No matter what genre you write in, a romantic story arc can increase your book’s popularity.)
But… a story that’s just “meet > love at first sight > courtship > marriage > happily ever after” would fill about 1,000 words (or less) before it was a snooze.
One huge trick to writing successful romances is getting the story right. From the outset, readers need to feel fairly certain that everything will lead to “happily ever after” (aka, HEA) or at least “happily for now” (HFN).
They just don’t want to get there too quickly. They want to savor the delicious tension of a growing, intense romance.
And, they want a story that’s believable. If they can’t imagine themselves as half of the romantic couple… well, it’s just more of the disappointment — feeling “left out” — that they’re coping with, in real life.
Mind maps can work
You can take your hero & heroine, and mind map every possible way things can go wrong, and then go right for the HEA (or HFN).
That could be a complex mind map. Possibly the size of an entire wall, to accommodate all the lines & arrows.
And, even then, you might get lost in the details. (I know that I would. I’ve tried this and got overwhelmed in minutes.)
What most romance writers want is a good, simple plan or template they can use, over & over again. Change the hero, change the heroine, change the setting (and perhaps the time period), and follow the formula.
Result…? A story that’s fun to write, and happy readers who’ll buy every story you write. And they’ll recommend your books to their friends.
The good news is: someone has put together a series of formulas for you.
Rough Start Romance (a report)
Generally, I rave about Britt Malka’s reports for writers. She has a knack for reverse engineering stories and plot elements that work.
Britt sent me this report as a review copy. If she hadn’t, I would have bought it. It’s that good.
In Britt’s “Rough Start Romance” report, she delivers one of her best romance analyses so far.
It’s 26 pages and I think it’s close to essential reading if you’re struggling with a romance plot, or romantic elements in your suspense, cozy mystery, or other genre fiction.
She’s combed through book reviews, reader forums, and blurbs of successful romances, and she’s broken them down into readers’ likes and hates.
And then, she grouped them logically into possible story arcs. Even better, this report is loaded with details, pros and cons, and suggested ways to avoid disastrous plot elements.
For example, Britt opens by analyzing the differences between a one-sided interest and a “hate at first meet” romance.
And then, she breaks them down into how to write each kind, with lots of options. (Like: should your hero be the one who’s interested, but your heroine isn’t, or vice versa? Which is more appealing to most readers, and what are the challenges for writers?)
For one-sided interest stories, she explains a variety of ways to develop the romance, whether you’re writing sizzling and sexy stories, or light romantic comedies.
For “hate at first meet” romances, Britt has figured out several ways that premise can works well. She also explains the deal-breakers… the things that will ruin that kind of story, and result in toxic reviews.
And, throughout this report, Britt includes story ideas, side-character suggestions, body language and speech mannerisms to give your story more depth (and credibility), and a lot more.
My advice: If you want to make romance writing easier, get this report
This report isn’t inexpensive. But, in my opinion, it’s a must-own for any writer who’s struggling to create credible romance plots.
It’s especially useful for new romance authors, who hit writer’s block somewhere around the first third of the book. (Not that I speak from experience, mind you. Ahem.)
Her tips also work for “short reads” stories, as well as epic-length novels.
“Rough Start Romance” clearly explains how to keep your readers engaged (no pun intended) from the first page to the last, with no major stumbles — but lots of juicy, what-will-happen-next tension — from meet to marriage.
*In the interest of writing unbiased reviews, I don’t use affiliate links for reports and products like this. So, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this report. My review is written from the heart (no pun intended), and I truly believe this is one of Britt’s best reports, so far.
The following is edited from PMs I’d exchanged with a first-time fiction writer. Much of this probably isn’t new for anyone regularly reading my blog, but it may provide others with some fresh insights.
Here’s the backstory: Earlier this week, I’d read a friend’s wife’s historical novel. She’d published it in Kindle herself. I was impressed by her writing skills.
As we swapped messages, she asked if I write outlines for my books.
1. Use the Hemingway Editor on the first five or so pages, to make the “look inside” easier (meaning: simpler phrasing) to read.
After readers have read more of your book, and they’re used to your writing “voice,” readability and sentence lengths are less important.
However, for marketing, your text needs to be super-simple for readers to get into. Even on the Amazon sales page, you want readers to be caught up in the story from the very start.
I have the Hemingway Editor on my desktop, but you can use it, free, at the website. http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ <— Just highlight their sample text, remove it, and paste in part of your opening. (The software was originally called the “Hemingway App,” and a lot of long-time writers — including me — still call it that.)
2. [She had published using her real name.] Add a co-author name — one you make up — that will be your future pen name, and republish your book.
So, at Amazon (etc.), the authors (two names on the cover) will be your real name, with a second, co-author name you choose, as well.
(I like to find interesting names in my family tree, from the era I’m writing in, and select one as my pen name. Sometimes, book sales will improve with a pen name that’s related to the genre or time period you’re writing about.)
That way, people who know you (in real life) can find this book, but your fans will start following your pen name… and you keep most of your privacy.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of setting up boundaries, early, to protect your privacy and your family’s. Trust me on this. Please. Fans can be a little overzealous. Sometimes in scary ways.
3. Add a subtitle, saying what the book is about. Tell people the time period, and what the genre is. For example, I’m working on Regency romances right now, so my titles (with subtitles) will be something like “The Dangerous Duke – A Regency Romance.”
4. If you can, hire someone to design a professional-looking book cover. The right book cover will pay for itself, quickly.
You can hire her at the lowest price and get something pretty good, but I give her about $35 and she creates something amazing for me. In addition, I can use the cover on my Kindle (etc.) books, as well as my printed (CreateSpace) books.
And, any graphics she uses… you can be certain they’re legal to use. (I can’t say that about all Fiverr cover designers.)
Those are the basics, as far as I’m concerned. You can follow-up with more professional marketing, including help from Fiverr book marketer, bknights, and some well-targeted Facebook ads.
A good book deserves the best marketing you can give it. Of course, your marketing efforts shouldn’t compromise your time (or budget) for actually producing books.
Nevertheless, if you’re publishing books at all, they should be good books and have enough marketing to be discovered by hungry readers in your sub-genre.
It’s especially easy to find story beats if you watch movies from the late 1990s through the present day.
These are the steps I use:
I select a movie with a theme that appeals to me as a general plot premise.
If I haven’t seen the movie before, or if I haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll sit down and watch the movie from start to finish. Sometimes, I take notes about important moments in the plot, as they occur.
After that, I figure the length of the movie, in minutes. (Usually, this includes the opening titles and closing credits, but your results may vary.)
I divide that in half. That tells me — usually within two or three minutes on either side — where the story’s Midpoint is.
I divide each of those sections into three exactly equal (in minutes) parts. The first “break” in the pre-Midpoint section is the First Plot Point, and it’s usually within three minutes of that break.
At the second break, you’ll usually find the First Pinch Point. That’s the twist in the plot, and it’s followed by the Midpoint.
After that, the breaks will be at the Second Pinch Point (another twist to increase story tension) and the Second Plot Point (a somewhat dramatic change)… and then you’re at the Resolution, followed by the closing credits.
In most modern, American-made films, you can practically set your watch by those points. I’m not kidding.
However, the big variable is whether you’re counting from when the movie starts to when the screen goes dark, OR if you’re counting from when the opening titles conclude, to when the closing credits start.
From what I’ve seen so far, at least 80% of the time, you can safely measure from the moment the film starts to when the closing credits conclude.
Example: While You Were Sleeping
The movie, While You Were Sleeping, is 1:42 long, which means 102 minutes.
I’ve seen it many times in the past, so I just skipped ahead to see the story beats.
First, I fast-forwarded to the halfway point, at 51 minutes. Bingo. It’s where Jack & Lucy slip on the ice and nearly kiss. That’s the Midpoint. No doubt about it.
Going back to find the First Plot Point, I can argue that the First Plot Point is at the 14-minutes point, where Elsie needs her nitroglycerin and Lucy finds out she “saved the whole family.” (No pressure, right…?)
However, the First Plot Point is probably right where it should be, around the 17-minutes mark, where Lucy can’t sleep and confesses everything to Peter (in a coma), and Saul overhears her. A lot of the remaining plot is based on Lucy’s assumption that Saul will tell the family the truth.
At the 34-minutes mark…? Joe Jr. tells Jack that he’s “dating” Lucy (with a rude gesture to make his point clear), and Jack really starts suspecting that Lucy is conning everyone.
After that, I already know the Midpoint is at the 51-minutes mark, so I keep fast-forwarding.
At the 68-minutes mark, Peter wakes up and doesn’t recognize Lucy. (Ouch!) That’s the Second Pinch Point.
And then, at the 86-minutes mark, Peter proposes to Lucy and she accepts. That’s the final big change (Second Plot Point) before the Resolution.
Except that the proposal is about a minute late (which I can forgive), this is a movie that fits the pattern, perfectly.
I haven’t built a generic plot from this, yet. Nevertheless, I used some of those beats in a recent story. They were heavily mixed with beats from another film, and from a TV series.
That’s because I rarely use a single generic plot (based on a recent movie) for my stories.
… And that leads us to the topic of originality.
Copyrights, Intellectual Property (IP), and Story Beats
First of all, the disclaimer: though my MIT years involved lots of legal work involving copyright and plagiarism, and weekly consultations with copyright lawyers (to be sure I was getting everything right), I’m an editor and writer, not an attorney.
So, the following is not legal advice; it’s just my understanding of it. Double-check everything, if you have any questions at all.
With that in mind, I think the most important point is: No one can copyright an idea. If someone’s general (not specific) idea seems like a great premise — a brilliant start to a story concept — you may be able to use it in your own, very different story context.
(Keep reading. I’ll explain.)
Copyright law falls within the larger topic of intellectual property. However, when writers talk about “intellectual property” (aka, IP), we usually mean property (an actual thing, like a book or a movie or a game) that results from original creative thought.
(Tip: Don’t think about blatantly copying anything from Harry Potter books. However, you may find a different popular “world” you can safely write about, at Kindle Worlds.)
Of course, public domain movies and stories are fair game. Just be certain they’re actually in the public domain. (For example, some rights to Peter Pan are still protected in the United States and some other countries.)
From Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella, to TV series like Once Upon a Time to Grimm, old stories and tropes can be revised for success. (Even Disney’s hit, Frozen, was based on one of The Snow Queen stories.)
And then there are mashups, like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
However, I don’t advocate closely copying any existing story or film plot. Not unless you want your readers to get to page three and say, “Wait. I already know how this will end. It’s the same as the [fill in the blank] story.”
Morphing Generic Story Beats
For fun (and possibly profit), I like to take story beats, like those in America’s Sweethearts, and distill them down to a series of plot points that are plain-vanilla and very generic. In many cases, those general plots could match any of a dozen films, and perhaps more.
Then, I make some changes… big changes. They could be shifting the time period. Or, I might switch genders, so the female role in the film is the male in my story, and vice versa.
Or, more often, I do a mashup of my generic story beats.
I’m not unique. For example, I can see a mix of The Ugly Duckling and (even more obvious) Cinderella in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. That’s the tip of the iceberg. There are even quizzes that mashup movie plots.
My point is: If you’re going to use this movie approach to plotting, it’s a good idea to start with the most generic story beats possible. Make sure you’re using conceptual points, not anything that points to one — and only one — movie. Then mix two or three sets of them.
Use the general premise from one, the First Plot Point from another, and a twist (Second Pinch Point) from a third.
(If you’re writing genre romance, the Midpoint is often the kiss or near-kiss, so you don’t need to “borrow” that from anything. It’s a classic romance trope.)
This can save a lot of time, and result in a great, timeless plot that you can use over and over again, in several different novels.
I hope that’s helpful. And, if you don’t want to sit through a bunch of movies with a calculator, pen, and pad of paper, remember that you can get story beats — as “beat sheets” — from Blake Snyder’s site.
If you have any questions, let me know. I can’t give legal advice, but I’m happy to explain how I work with story beats in my own books.
I’m working with a premise that’s very loosely based on the 2001 movie, “America’s Sweethearts.” To simplify the plotting, I created a quick story beats summary, I took the key transitional moments (as I saw them) in the movie… and then I made them generic.
I’m sure I’ll use this as a template for several books.
Please don’t share these links. (And, I may delete this article in a few days.) I’d rather not see a bazillion books that are more-or-less the same story, over & over again.
(Yes, many successful genre fiction stories are the same few stories, told different ways. I just don’t want this particular story/theme to show up in a dozen-or-so books in the same sub-genre I’m writing in, all at the same time.)
Also, if you haven’t seen the movie (which I recommend to romance writers), my PDFs contain spoilers. The film is on Netflix right now, so you may want to watch it, first. It’s a romantic comedy with some suggestive jokes, but no nudity.
P.S. Some of these plot points are similar to story elements in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” Mary Crawford is a lot like “Mary” in my 2nd PDF. I didn’t realize that until I re-read the PDF.
For those who did buy it, here’s what I’m doing with his information.
This is important: You don’t need to buy anything else, to make good use of David’s advice. I’m simply telling you the array of ingredients I’m mixing in my writing, in case you already have any of these, or want to add them. They are not necessary.
First of all, I’m taking David’s advice seriously. He’s not the first person to recommend this kind of approach to publishing, but the way he put his information together… that impressed me. And, he included insights I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
As I said in my review, I’m choosing sub-genres based on Chris Fox’s advice in Write to Market. I’m also consulting the newest advice offered by K-Lytics’ reports.
I have “second opinions” from Neil Bakewell’s videos in the Modelizer course he put together with Ryan Leonard. (I’m pretty sure that’s no longer available, but it may return.)
I’m fairly certain Neil and David draw from some of the same resources, as a lot of their advice — but not all of it — is very similar.
I’ve added suggestions presented by Geoff Shaw (known for his “Kindling” training) in his Udemy course, https://www.udemy.com/how-to-succeed-with-kindle-short-reads/ (Look for coupons for discounted Udemy courses. At the time I wrote this article, you can use GOODRITER30 to get 30% off most Udemy courses.)
If plotting isn’t your strong suit, but you’re good at taking a story idea and seeing how it could have been written differently, I also recommend Geoff Shaw’s Reverse Engineer Riveting Fiction course.
If you struggle with plotting, and — despite Geoff’s great insights — you couldn’t turn Cinderella into anything like Ever After, even if your life depended on it, you may need other plotting tools. (Worst case, you can purchase pre-written plots or hire a freelancer to craft them for you.)
I also like RPG guides. You know, the ones with lots of plot options and you roll the dice to select one. I get mine from Drive-Thru RPG.
If you have plot ideas, but can’t seem to turn them into anything, I like Lynn Johnston‘s advice and courses (the most basic is From Idea to Premise), and her series course comes with some pretty great templates to get you through your book. (The videos for that course…? Take them slowly. They might make your brain explode.)
Or, if you have a bunch of great plans for a story, but have no idea how to put them together, I highly recommend Dan Wells’ class in story structure. (You can watch all of the videos, right here at my website, free.)
Why should you write a series? Well, in addition to what David suggests in his report, take a look at Genre Hobo’s 1/1/5 advice; that may be where many writers learned the basics of what works.
And, if you’re writing books as a career — not simply publishing to get yourself out of the cubicle job, or for other financial reasons — I strongly recommend getting Holly Lisle’s How to Write A Series course… which, as I’m writing this, doesn’t seem to be available. (However, I suggest writing at least three books before committing to writing series for a living. So, you probably don’t need Holly’s info immediately.)
June 2017 update: I no longer recommend Holly’s paid courses. That’s not a reflection on her past courses, especially her early ones. I still like them. However, I’m troubled by her business practices in recent years, and especially now.
As I said at the beginning, David’s information is pretty much everything you need.
Also, from free resources, online, to books you can find in the “how to write stories and books” section of your public library, you don’t need to spend a cent if you need more insights about writing and publishing.
However, for those who wonder what I’m doing… well, now you know.
Moving ahead with David Lee Martin’s brilliant “… Self-Publishing Trenches” advice, I’m ready to take another look at fiction archetypes & tropes.
If I’m going to follow David’s advice to the letter, I need to understand exactly what readers expect in my sub-genre.
This wasn’t on David’s list of recommended reading, but — last night — I skimmed “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne. (Don’t even THINK about buying it in Kindle… this is a massive book you’ll need to read in print.)
While this book seems more geared to screenplays and literary fiction, I’m gleaning enough oh-my-goodness insights (for genre fiction) that it was well worth reading… and the fairly high price tag.
(Authors, if your public library has a copy, get it. Now.)
After seeing the difference between “good enough” fiction templates and truly powerful story beats, I went looking for more insights.
I found them in a series of videos at Shawn Coyne’s StoryGrid.com.
To make it easy for you to see why his information is important — but probably best for experienced writers — I’ve posted them, below. (You can also view them sequentially at his Story Grid Mini-Course page. There, he also shares transcripts, if you’d rather savor the written word.)
In the past few weeks — when I haven’t been moving to a new home and moving all of my websites to new hosting — I’ve been aggressively studying fiction writing, especially plotting.
I tend to write conflict- or plot-driven stories, rather than character-driven stories. So, polishing my plotting skills seems a good place to start.
But, two things surprised me in my recent studies.
The Clone This Course
One was a course that seemed like pure gold. (No, it’s not actually called “Clone This.”)
In fact, I’ve recommended it, and still do for beginning writers and early intermediates. Nevertheless, going through it a second time, a couple of things made me pause.
First, the instructor reminded students that he was teaching us to write books with a shelf life. They’ll achieve popularity and then see a gradual decay in sales.
So, to maintain income, he recommended writing a steady stream of books, as often as once a month or even more.
For new writers, turning out good books at that pace can be daunting.
Don’t let that deter you. In fact, it’s a good way to learn to write… as long as you publish under a pen name you can walk away from, if you later realize those books weren’t so great, after all.
Keep writing, and keep it as simple as you can.
Just keep writing.
The second issue from that course was the plot template he provided.
For many genres, it’s a good (maybe great), solid template.
For others, it would kill your book within the first chapter, unless you’re a skilled writer who can create conflict and suspense from the first line. (And if you are that kind of writer, I’m not sure why you’d be taking that course. Not unless you wanted to turn out some quick, by-the-numbers fiction.)
So, familiarity with the sub-genre you’re writing in (something the course advocates) is essential. And, in a later article, I’ll talk about creating your own templates.
The Jump-Start Your Plot Course
The other surprise was reviewing a course I recommend for brainstorming plot ideas. It’s still an excellent course, but — since taking it — I found at least one more in-depth (and free) resource that may have inspired some of her recommendations.
The problem is, the free (and more detailed) resource could be daunting for anyone not already familiar with plotting, story beats, and so on.
So, the simpler courses are the place to start, if you’re new to fiction, or maybe even an intermediate writer.
Many inexpensive courses and reports are excellent for beginners. They give you a starting point that is likely (but not guaranteed) to help you write a story, novella, or novel that can succeed… at least in the short term.
That writing experience will help you progress along the learning curve so you’re ready for more technical resources.
In addition, if you’re not writing as a career, and you’re only in this for the income, courses like these can be “good enough” information to produce “good enough” books.
So, as I share more advanced resources and insights in upcoming articles, keep this in mind: Sometimes, an entry-level course may be exactly what you need, even if it’s not the ultimate resource or even the best. Think of it as an apprenticeship, when by-the-numbers is the best starting point.
Whether you move forward from those courses depends on:
Your growing confidence as a writer
Your long-term goals, and…
Whether “good enough is good enough.”
In the near future, I’ll talk about resources that can turn your casual writing efforts into a successful career. They’re just not for the faint of heart, or for aspiring authors already overwhelmed by the challenges of writing fiction. And, I wanted to be sure you know that before you leap on what I’ll recommend.
*Brooks – The circus tent plotting graphic worksheet linked at Two More Killer Visual Story Tools. (The 8.5″ x 14″ one prints fine on an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper. It just doesn’t have the extended lines below the tent.)
*Toasted Cheese: 12 Baby Steps to a Complete Story – Good steps, but I don’t agree about asking for feedback. The only opinions that matter are (a) your readers’, and (b) your editor (if you go the traditional publishing route). On the other hand, the explanation of Aristotle’s incline is excellent and brief.
*Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: Midpoint Scene – If you’re like me, middle-of-the-book sag is treacherous. It was my Achilles heel when I was working on romance novels. This article suggests fixes. Mostly, click on her graphic to see a great version of Aristotle’s incline.