Does Your Story Have A Central Conflict?

Every good story needs a central conflict. While every writer from novice to master could tell you as much, not all of them are applying the concept. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some examples and non-examples:

Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: If the protagonist is not successful, a corrupt leader will come to power and bring misery.

Science Fiction: An emerging technology threatens the delicate balance of power and the protagonist must make sure the right people come out on top.

Romance: The protagonist is interested in a long-term relationship with a girl who isn’t ready to settle down.

Thriller: The protagonist discovers a plot to release a chemical weapon in the Boston subway system and he must find a way to stop it.

Non-Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: The protagonist wants to learn magic but it’s difficult.

Science Fiction: The protagonist keeps getting attacked by space pirates and has to battle his way to safety.

Romance: The protagonist realizes his ex-girlfriend is in the same restaurant while he’s on a date with his new girlfriend.

Thriller: The hero is tied up and must solve a riddle to free himself before a bomb goes off.

 

Notice the difference? The non-examples do show conflict, but it’s not central. And there’s not really anything wrong with the non-examples; in fact, you should aim to include as much conflict as you can in your story. But the real key is this: every story needs a backbone of dramatic conflict.

If you’re working on something right now and the central conflict isn’t becoming clear to you, be afraid. The gradual unfolding of your central conflict is the stage that your story plays out in front of. It provides context and relevance to the episodic moments of tension, and those moments of tension should ultimately build toward the central conflict, even if it’s only a step at a time. It’s all tied up together like a big, tense hairball. Maybe not the best simile, but you get the point.

Every scene in your story needs to have goals, and one of the most important goals is building toward your central conflict. 

So take a look at what you’re working on now. Leave a comment describing your central conflict. If you can’t figure out what that conflict is, go back to the drawing board and figure out what it should be.

 

 
photo credit: Hunt Peck via photopin (license)

I’m Changing My Philosophy

In the spirit of this update, let me begin this post with a TLDR: I’m going to keep my posts shorter and more to the point going forward.

If you’re interested in why, let me explain. I had traditionally aimed for about 1000 words or more and tried to pack as much information as I could into each post so that it could be a resource for writers. But I think while I work on my own novel (and subsequently getting some proof out to the world that I know what I’m talking about) I’m going to focus on a more “short and sweet approach”. Why? Because you don’t have to put as much trust in someone to read a brief article that gets straight to the point. When you see a wall of text, you’re forced to ask whether you trust the writer enough to commit to reading said wall.

And that’s that.  I hope you’ll continue to stick with me as I make some changes

Self-Publishing With Amazon and Kindle-Unlimited

Before I get into specifics, keep in mind that Amazon changes the rules of the game often and drastically, but as of December 2015, the strategies below are proven and effective.

A few months back, I wrote an article on self-publishing that was based on researching Amazon’s resources.  I had the good fortune to speak one-on-one this week with an author who is currently finding success in the self-publishing world. Aya Morningstar writes romance, which is one of the most lucrative genres at the moment. If you’re interested in reading, or just researching her work to see what’s working in the current market, you can find her books here.

Aya’s first foray into self-publishing was a short story and novella, which showed her that she had a lot to learn about the process. She published 20 erotica shorts (6-9k words) under her second pen name. Within two months, she was making around $3000 a month. However, the changes to Kindle Unlimited rolled out shortly after, cutting into her profits.

Currently, she’s transitioning into writing novel-length books with her third and current pen name, as authors of erotica shorts were hit hardest by the Kindle Unlimited changes (which now pays authors based on pages read versus rentals).

Aya was kind enough to share some of what she has learned about the industry.

First Thing’s First

Before I go any further, it’s worth emphasizing the point I made in my original article on self-publishing: if you self-publish your book without the proper preparation, you are gambling, and the odds are not good. 

The authors finding success in the self-publishing world are not necessarily the best writers. You could write the next Harry Potter, but if you handle it wrong, you’ll end up in deep in the millions on the rankings list. Traditional publishers will also turn their nose up at your second-hand book. The truth is, without an understanding of the process, many authors will make mistakes that bury their books without even knowing what went wrong.

That’s a lot of gloom and doom, but there is hope.

Recency

Amazon rankings are the lifeblood of your book. High rankings are the most valuable advertising your book can get. The higher your ranking, the more visibility, the more sales, the more reviews, and so on. So how do you get a great ranking and keep it?

The first insider trick is the “30-day cliff”. For example, suppose a book needs to sell 20 copies a day to remain at rank #2,000. On day 31, those 20 sales are worth less, and the book’s ranking will start to sink. Amazon wants to bias their rankings toward newer work, or else books like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games would be crowding the top 10 for the next twenty years.

If you haven’t already mentally jumped ahead, consider what that means for you as an author. If you were thinking “the sooner the better”, and just planned to throw your book on Amazon and figure the marketing thing out as you went along, well, think again. The absolute best chance your book has for success is a carefully thought-out launch plan. It is extremely unlikely for your book to climb back up to visibility after the 30-day cliff on its own.

 

Taking Advantage of Recency

One useful bit of knowledge about Amazon’s ranking system is that it doesn’t care how much you price your book for. For shorter works like romance novellas, many authors choose either the $0.99 or $2.99 price point. The $0.99 price is a great idea for the first 30 days, as it will boost sales (which boosts ranking). However, the royalties from a $0.99 sale are not impressive, so the wise option is to offer your book on Kindle Unlimited for free.

The percentage authors earn on each sale is based on the price. For example, a $0.99 book does not earn 1/3 as much as a $2.99 book—it earns 1/6 as much.

Kindle Unlimited pays authors based on how many pages of their books were read. The change hit writers of short fiction hardest, as the potential for earnings and rank decrease with page count (pages read also boost ranking). At $.099, the fees from Kindle Unlimited can account for a vast majority of your earnings.

After 30 days, many authors then change the price to $2.99. This can prove to be a very profitable cycle. If they push out a new book after 30 days, readers will be drawn in by the low price. Some of those readers will look at the back catalog, which will slowly fill up with $2.99 books. Essentially, once you establish a back catalog, your new books are mostly advertising tools to bring readers in to your existing work. On her old pen name, Aya Morningstar even offers a book that is always free to hook readers and get them interested in her other work.

The last piece of advice on rankings is to make your new book free for a weekend and make a huge advertising push. This puts your book temporarily in the free books chart as well, which is much easier to rise to a high ranking. And remember: rank is visibility, and visibility is key. 

Advertising

Many self-published authors squirm at the word. They don’t think they have that kind of money, or that the risk is too big. First of all, put it in perspective. You could potentially reach dozens of people who exactly fit the demographic of your intended audience for the cost of a coffee. However, there are places where your dollars are well spent and many where they are not. Do your research before deciding to spend your money with an advertiser, as more of them are wasting your money than not. If you’re not judicious in your search, you could spend more money than you earn.

One paid advertisement option is Facebook. Facebook paid ads allow you to choose who your ad will appear to based on an almost limitless set of characteristics (finally, a reason to be glad they are creating extensive personality profiles on all of us!).  You only pay if the person clicks your link. The amount you pay is capped at a number of your choosing per day. The cost per click depends on how likely the individual was to click your link: if they were extremely unlikely, they cost more. If they are extremely likely, they cost very little. While it does sound great, the truth is that Facebook advertising is extremely complicated to master. So enter at your own risk, and accept that it’s going to be a learning process.

When To Advertise

According to Aya, one of the most effective times to advertise is during a promotional period where your book is set to free (as long as it’s on Kindle Unlimited). Authors of all genres can use a service on Fiverr for $10 to $30 to help with this process. Another effective technique is to tweet a picture of your book’s cover announcing that it’s free and then find ways to get users with 1-2k followers to re-tweet your post. Just keep in mind that if you’re on a budget, your dollars will do the most work during a free promotional period.

Aya Morningstar Take On Advertising

I use BKnights, one[other] proven romance website that charges $15, and the re-tweet strategy during my free promo. This got me 2,000 downloads yesterday, which sent my book to top 100 in the entire Amazon free store (and #4 in shapeshifters). This means that anyone browsing the free charts in romance is likely going to see my book and can grab it for free. My ARCs [advanced readers who ensure the book has reviews ready at the time of release] were late, so I only have 9 reviews, but they are all five stars. So people see a free book at a high ranking with good reviews and grab it. Now when I switch the book over to paid, I have some real visibility. Also, over 2,000 people have my book and likely around 100 of them are going to click my mailing list sign-up link. This makes my next release more successful.

Beta-Readers

Another factor involved in Amazon rankings is reviews. Throwing your book on Amazon   ..   and hoping for reviews is risky. By the time people read your book and get around to reviewing it, you’ll be nearing the end of your thirty day boost—and that’s if anyone chooses to buy a book with no reviews. The wiser option is to give away free copies of your book in exchange for honest reviews. You can find beta readers on the writing subreddit of Reddit, writing forums, writing communities like Scribophile, Goodreads from friends and family, etc. If you’ve already published or are publishing, you can also add a ARC-list sign up link to your book. Your only task here is to convince someone to read your book and bother going online to write a review for it.

Just make sure you are clear with your beta readers that you expect an honest review.

Cover Art

Your book’s cover matters, and you should not make it yourself. It doesn’t really matter if you’re artsy. The fact of the matter is that like everything else, book covers are an art in and of themselves. The pros know what catches the eye and what doesn’t. You might be able to grab a freelancer for as little as $30 to $50, or if you’re more invested in your project you could check out a site like this that offers packages from $99 to $379. I stumbled upon that particular link on reddit’s writing subreddit, but there are plenty of cover designers for everyone’s taste and budget.

Blurbs

Your book’s blurb is also extremely important. You can do everything within your power to bring people to your book. But for many, the blurb is the selling point. It’s your chance to intrigue the reader and convince them to buy your book. Keep in mind that blurbs are an art, and the best practices vary from genre to genre. Take the time to look at books in your genre and analyze their blurbs. It also would be wisest to study the blurbs of breakout authors who are currently finding success with their first work in your genre. Authors who have established their names often get away with writing weak blurbs.

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are another critical element to building your audience. While these will not benefit sales for your first release, they will begin paying dividends each time you release new work. You can use a website like Mailchimp and set up a free sign-up for your mailing list. Also, take steps to ensure that your mailing list link is attractive. A simple, “click here to sign up for my mailing list”, is going to gain far fewer subscribers than a more appealing approach. For example, Aya Morningstar recommends writing a short story or offering a free story from your back catalog to your mailing list subscribers. Consider taking time to make a well-formatted image above your mailing list link as well

Aya prefers to put her books out on Wednesday or Tuesday, which gives her advanced readers time to post reviews and time for her to set the book to free. On Friday, she sends out her newsletter (which includes custom-artwork and is nicely formatted) to her mailing list. Her newsletter lets subscribers know the book is out and free for a limited time. She also books her paid ads on Friday. The end-result is an attack from all angles. It’s also a process that builds in effectiveness with each subsequent release.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get caught up in the writing part of being a writer. Go figure. But if this article has done nothing else, I hope it has at least proved that in the self-publishing realm, writing only one element of the process. It is very much a symbiotic relationship.

If you self-publish and have found any tips or tricks that I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments. If you found this article helpful, consider subscribing to get an email when I post new content (and only when I post new content – I promise).

 

Writing Fantasy – The Story Isn’t About Your Setting

If you’re like most writers drawn to fantasy, you can get lost in your setting. Maybe the most fun part about writing is dreaming up the cool places and cultures that will be featured in your world. That’s fine. But don’t make the mistake of letting the setting take the center stage. Make no mistake about it, your setting is the backdrop to the drama that unfolds, no matter how compelling the world is. Or if you want to put it another way, your setting is the flavor of the ice cream; it’s important, but no one wants to chug a bottle of vanilla extract (let’s pretend no one wants to guzzle chocolate syrup either, even though I can’t promise I wouldn’t—or haven’t, for that matter).

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Characters Are Not Just Eyes

If you’ve ever poked around writing forums or read unpublished fantasy writing, you’ve seen characters that are little more than a pair of eyes to show readers the world. Unless you’re extremely brave or simply don’t care if your work gets published, your story should take place within the setting. I’ll say it one more time for the stubborn among you: Setting is not story! This mistake can manifest in somewhat subtle ways. The simplest test to make sure you’re using setting properly is to ask if it is doing more than one job for your story. Let me give two examples:

“Brynn crossed the main street of Acretia. Above him, a tower of polished black stones thrust upward and into the clouds. Beyond the tower, and taller still, was the southern wall of the city, which bent inward to form a half-dome that cast its shadow over half of the southern district.”

So let’s say I really like the details above and want to include them in my book. I would ask myself some questions about these few lines:

  1. Do they move the plot forward? Not really.
  2. Do they reveal character? Not really.
  3. Do they demonstrate theme? Not really.
  4. Do they build subtext? Not really.
  5. Do they show writing voice? Maybe, but not really.
  6. Does it sound like I’m trying too hard? Maybe the part about thrusting upward into the clouds.
  7. Are they interesting? A little bit.
  8. What would I lose if I cut them from the story completely? *This would depend. If, for example, the domed shape of the wall became relevant later, it might be worth keeping. Or, for example, the tower of black stones could be referenced and then readers would remember having seen it. Otherwise, if this was just for flavor, then I would say no.

Okay. That’s a lot of questions. Should you literally write these out and run every two or three lines of description in your story through them? No. But you should get the general idea that these questions are striving toward and apply it to your writing. Essentially, how many ways can I make this detail about setting rich—and I don’t mean more descriptive, I mean more dense. Density is the key! The more purposes you can pack into a single line, the better.

Alright. If I really wanted to keep those details, I could try to make them more enriching to the story and address as many questions as possible like this:

“Brynn had to shove several beggars to cross the main street of Acretia. His father had told him tales of the city, but they had been just that: tales. The “towering pillar of shadow” was actually a crooked pile of dirty bricks no larger than a Varox. The “scantily dressed women” were things of questionable gender that he would rather have seen veiled in tokars. And the “impenetrable dome” was a lone patch of wall standing at the far end of town with a slight lean to it. No, Brynn thought, If Gurvus could be stopped, it was not going to be here.”

Maybe I got a little carried away. I also ended up changing the details that I originally liked in a way that felt more interesting. But that’s actually the point of questioning your details. Even if you don’t think these particular details are interesting, you can see that my attempt to make them more rich did do something interesting. It made my goal of “describe what he sees” transition into what now describes something about the character (he’s the type of guy to shove beggars) and he’s preoccupied with finding a way to stop someone named Gurvus. It moves the plot forward (whatever is going on with the army shows that he’s actually examining how well the city will stand up to an attack). I also showed his evaluation of the city through the lens of his father’s words, which provides some background on character. Theme and subtext are only hinted at slightly with the beggars and Brynn’s dismissal of them, but if we knew Brynn’s social class, those moments could show theme and subtext more strongly.  And finally, I changed the descriptions a little because I caught myself trying to sound too writerly when describing the tower before. By taking a different angle, I was able to describe the scene in straight-forward language that was more efficient.

And that’s the key. Efficiency.

Final Thoughts

So  if you haven’t already decided to, take a magnifying glass to your story. Look at the moments where you convey setting. And ask yourself if they are at least doing two jobs. In an ideal world, no sentence in your entire 100,000 word novel should be there for one reason only. When you realize how much actually needs to fit in those 100,000 words, it suddenly starts seeming like a limitation instead of a goal. You’ll also realize the need for efficiency. As a reader, efficient writing is like biting into a very satisfying and filling steak. The texture is just right, the flavors are just right, it’s warm, it’s juicy, and it smells great. Single-purpose writing is like snacking on unsalted crackers. They are dry and take a lot of work to chew, and you can eat them all day and still feel hungry (okay maybe you can’t, but I can. I have a big appetite).

Post an example of either some really rich setting sentences you’ve written, or some really shallow setting sentences in the comments.  We all write both of them, so there’s no shame in it. It’s actually easier to learn from the non-examples most of the time too. And as usual, if you enjoyed this please consider subscribing (the only emails you’ll ever get are when I post a new article) or sharing the article.

 

 

If Your Story Is Missing This, It’s Not Complete

It’s easy to get caught up in writing advice. You’ve probably read quotes from authors romanticizing the process by saying things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Is that going to change your story? Is it going to be the single piece of information that turns you into a best-selling author? Probably not. Most big name authors don’t like to talk about story structure. That’s because a lot of them have felt their way toward the correct structure through trial and error, talent, or persistence. What if I told you that you can skip the process and jump straight to the information that even most of the pros don’t know they are relying on? You can. It’s out there for you to grab. In fact, a quarter of it is right in this article.

So what is this thing I speak of that no story can live without? It’s a first plot point. If your story does not have a first plot point, it will not succeed.

If your first impulse to hearing the word “structure” is to cringe and throw your ink-well and quill across the room, just take a deep breath and hear me out. Structure scares many writers because they see it as a threat to their creativity. But structure is the backbone of your creativity. At least, it needs to be if you want to have your work read (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day). It’s the secret to successful If you were an architect and wanted to build a beautiful cathedral, you would need several types of knowledge and creativity. You might need the talent to carve intricate stonework, put together stained glass windows, and choose furnishings that enhance the atmosphere. All of that is great, but if you don’t know anything about basic engineering, you’ll at best build a shaky cathedral that might collapse at any moment, and at worst have a pile of beautiful artwork sitting atop a misshapen mass of stones and rubble.

Going into a story with the belief that your talent and love of storytelling is enough is no different. When done well, structure is invisible. That means the reader will only notice your characters, your concept, your voice, your theme, and your plot. Using accepted structure in no way compromises yourself as a writer.

Can I address every element of structure in one blog post? Technically yes, because this post could be as long as I want it to be. But for the sake of clarity, no. So for today, I’m going to focus on the first and most critical element of structure. It may not be pretty, and it may not be fun to think about, but it is absolutely essential that you understand the basics of structure if you want to be a storyteller.

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The First Plot Point

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in or what your style is as an author, there’s a critical point in your novel where you must place a specific moment: that moment is the first plot point. according to Larry Brooks (who, by the way, is the wizard of all things structure and taught me everything I know), the ideal placement of the first plot point is between 20 to 25% of the way through your story. You can read books all day and watch every movie there is without consciously realizing the need for a first plot point, but once you see it, you’ll notice it every time. If you’re a reader, you learned a long time ago that it’s unwise to give up on books before about the 60-70 page mark. Ever wondered why? It’s because the first plot point makes or breaks a book. 

I’ll get into more detail on the first plot point at the end of this article, but it’s not a solo act. A successful first plot point requires preparation.

Getting There Smoothly

If you don’t want readers to feel like they have to suffer through the first 20-25% of your book, don’t worry. There are structural tools to help liven up part one. If you’re an unknown name, you can’t expect readers to trust that you know what you’re doing and slog through the first 25% of your book without any reward. So get to know the tools at your disposal and use them well.

The first tool is a hook. There are several ways to hook readers, but many writers are surprisingly bad at identifying them. Here’s something many writers hate to hear: your voice as a writer is not going to hook a reader. You may grab some initial interest with your writing voice, but just like the most delicious pesto sauce imaginable, it can’t be served alone. So how do you write a good hook then?

Show the reader something that raises a question—and make sure they want the answer. For example, a man might kiss his daughters goodnight and appear to be the model father in all ways imaginable. But he might then go down into the basement where he has a woman bound and gagged. This raises questions. If he loves his daughters, as he appears to, why is he risking their safety? Why is he risking his freedom? Why is he doing this in his house? Is he only pretending to love his daughters, and if so, why? I could go on, but you get the idea. In simple terms, the more questions you can raise that compel readers to demand answers, the better.

There’s often a fine balance at play in the first pages of your book. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. You must create conflict, build character, establish your world, introduce the character’s inner demons, foreshadow the events to come, and maybe introduce a portion of the supporting cast. Not always, but often, a story that begins more slowly packs the biggest punch when it kicks off. Usually that’s because the more of this information that gets packed in before the first plot point, the more compelling it becomes, and including all of this information can slow down the pace.

Inciting Incidents

So your hook is over, and it has probably only been about 7 to 20 pages. You still have around 50 to 60 pages to go until the first plot point. It’s often not enough to just coast your way to the first plot point. There’s a fine balance at play in the first pages. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. The safer option is to use inciting incidents, or moments that foreshadow and or lead toward the first plot point. The first plot point in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is his trip to and arrival at Hogwarts. You may want to argue that it’s when he goes down to get the sorcerer’s stone with Hagrid or when he finds out what Hagrid was actually doing for Dumbledore, and it’s worth side-tracking for a minute to clarify why that’s not the case. Remember that:

  1. The first plot point redefines the hero’s goal or begins them on the path toward the ultimate conclusion of the story.
  2. It occurs between 20 and 25% of the way through the book.

So the Hogwarts Express fits first of all because of it’s location—right at 25% of the way through the book if you don’t count chapter one (and you shouldn’t, because it’s essentially a prologue). Beyond that, his boarding of the train is highly representative of his new mission. Harry’s goal for a while is just to keep his head down and survive. But through the first 25% of the book, he gradually and then rapidly realizes there’s another option. It’s only when he boards the Hogwarts Express that he can really be considered to set out on his journey to be a wizard.

So what is an inciting incident? To put it simply, it’s a moment that hints at the first plot point to come and/or the antagonistic force in your story. Think of these as your doses of excitement. This is how you inject energy and interest into your story while you work your way to the all-important first plot point. If you were writing a thriller where a girl is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, you might have her in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation when she notices a man wearing a hoodie watching her. Maybe he gets up and leaves when she makes eye-contact. That’s it. It takes a few lines, she notices, reacts briefly, and the story marches on. But what you’ve done is charged your story with more tension. You’ve also made sure the first plot point will be even more satisfying when it comes. Do this often!

The First Plot Point

Yes, it’s finally here. Or if you skimmed to this point, here it is. . . immediately. The first plot point! As I said earlier, this is the point where your real story launches. Your character and readers may have thought they knew what the story was, and maybe they were close, but this is the point when it really kicks into gear. If it was a love story, this is the point when the girl realizes her boyfriend is losing interest. If it’s a murder mystery, this is when the detective realizes the latest victim is his daughter. If it’s a crime-thriller, it’s when the duo slips up and has to start running from the cops. If you aren’t gathering it from my examples, it can be highly dramatic (like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix) and waking up in a vat of goo, or it can be subtle but powerful, like in The Hunger Games when Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek, essentially agreeing to play the game within the game, which defines her goal and the story from that point forward.

In The Matrix, you might have thought the story was going to be about fighting these “agents” and trying to kill them, but you weren’t really sure. When Neo takes the red pill, suddenly it becomes clear. The stakes are bigger. It isn’t just about one person fighting some agents, it’s all of humanity fighting for survival. That’s a big shift. In The Hunger Games you might have thought Katniss saying the famous line, “I volunteer as tribute!” was the first plot point. For starters though, it occurs way too early in the story for that. It’s more of a delayed hook and an inciting incident. You might have thought it was when the games began, but the games aren’t the real story. The real story is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. Her alliance with him occurs right at the precise moment it should, and signifies a huge shift in purpose from that moment and onward. The games are an excellent backdrop that are interesting enough in their own right. They could have worked as a story by themselves, which is likely part of the reason the series was so wildly popular.

Final Thoughts

Structure is essential. It’s the figurative foundation upon which you build your story. Neglect the formula, and your foundation will be weak. But the formula is out there, so why waste your effort trying to figure it out on your own? If you don’t believe me, go look at any successful book. You’ll find all of these elements lined neatly where they should be, give or take a few pages, especially among new published authors.

 

If you found this information useful, check out my article on Larry Brooks’: Story Engineering. His book is so helpful that it honestly feels like cheating.