Creating Plots for Page Turners–Robert Dugoni’s Lecture at PNWA Writer’s Conference

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how can i become a best selling novelist ?

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I’m at the PNWA Writer’s Conference, and this morning’s lecture is being given by Robert Dugoni, the best-selling author. As I sit through his lesson, I’m going to blog about what he’s saying to all the writers here. These are my notes:

Dugoni was a journalist, writing for the L.A. Times before he wrote novels. He began to educate himself about HOW to write a novel, even though he already had journalistic experience. It’s important to learn as you go.

LESSON:

1. You control the writing, so if you’re getting bogged down in the writing, it’s your own fault.

2. Say someone hands you a violin and says, “Here, play this.” If you’d never played a violin before, your music would sound like dying cats. But if you take the time to learn how to play, then you might eventually play beautifully. Writing is the same way. Your first novel might not be perfect, but it can be perfected with practice and learning.

3. What is our primary function as novelists? We’re supposed to entertain!

  • Yeah, by reading your books, your fans may learn something, but that’s not what’s important.
  • Readers don’t want to be preached to.
  • When you stop entertaining, you start doing other things that are problematic to the story.

Who are the entertainers? The CHARACTERS; not YOU. You should be invisible. Everything should come through the characters, not you.

If you stick to entertaining through characters, rather than preaching, then you’ll move that much closer to becoming published.

AUTHOR INTRUSION:

You want to write about the death penalty? Write The Green Mile. That’s how you create a story that makes a difference without abusing the readers.

Imagine if you were the reader, stuck on a plane with a crappy book that lectures you about the author’s point of view. How awful would that be?

Research is another anvil that pulls you under. How much of your research should actually go into the book? About 5 to 10%. That’s all. The other 90% gives you conviction, helps you formulate characters, and creates ideas for the author. So be judicious about letting research bleed into the story.

Watch out for overblown prose.

Sometimes every character starts to sound the same, when you’re interjecting yourself into the story. In this case, every character starts to sound like YOU. That’s not good.

The author is tempted to create a biographical backstory for each character, which is fine in your spiral notebook, but in the typed manuscript, it’s not helpful at all. With flashbacks, they must work. If the don’t work, they’re just backstory and must, therefore, be cut. Why do most flashbacks by inexperienced writers stop the story? 

  1. They drop the tension.
  2. They go on too long.
  3. They take over the story.
  4. Flashbacks work better if they’re a whole new scene, not thoughts in a character’s head, which are really the author intruding into the story, making a flashback.
  5. A flashback should take place in the time in which it really happened.  Otherwise, it’s author intrusion.

If you can avoid author intrusion in the first 50 pages, you’ll have a much better chance of getting published.

PROBLEMS WITH FIRST NOVELS:

Your secondary characters become well-developed, but your protagonist is too bland.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a journey. Almost every story has the same general structure. What makes them unique? Characters and setting.

  • The theme of Jaws was obsession. Where did it take place? The ocean. Who was the protagonist? Brody.
  • What’s the theme of Moby Dick? Obsession. Who’s the protagonist? Captain Ahab. Where did it take place? The ocean.

(Dugoni recommended a book called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.)

THE PHYSICAL JOURNEY

Plot develops out of the protagonist’s physical journey. A character in motion is fun because it takes a person out of their routine. They meet new people, they chat (i.e. dialog), and they learn something through their adventures.

JOURNEYS OF THE HEART

Motivation = the reason why the character chooses to take on a physical journey. We empathize with the protagonist, but a GOOD book is about a character who’s an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things.  Why does Dorothy endure all that stuff in Wizard of Oz? Because she wants to go home. She endures a ton of unpleasant events–a witch and her winged monkeys, facing a lion (who turns out to be cowardly), etc. all because she wants to go home. That’s what motivates her.

WHAT CAN MOTIVATE PEOPLE?

  • love
  • greed
  • jealousy
  • fear
  • revenge
  • power
  • curiosity
  • survival
  • ambition
  • etc…

Really good books have an excellent journey with a character who’s really motivated. The worst stories are ones in which the journey and/or the motivation is weak or over-dramatic. (Example given: Cowboys and Aliens, the movie.)

NOTE: –At this point, Dugoni had us write down our character’s physical journey and motivations.–

A character’s motivation may change throughout the course of a novel, but the basic premise is the motivation that you’re going to pitch to an agent. This is the conflict that you’re going to use in your query letter, explaining to the agent what’s going to get the ball rolling in your plot.

How do you know that you’ve got a high-concept motivating your protagonist? Ask, “So what? What happens if the character fails?” If your answer is, “Nothing…” then you don’t have a high-concept motivation.

TRADITIONAL STORY STRUCTURE–BEGINNING

What does a good beginning have? It establishes tone, pacing, voice, point of view, and conflict. It introduces the protagonist. Who are we going to spend the next 300 pages with? If the answer to that question is intriguing, then the reader will continue on.

  • Who is your character?
  • What is he?
  • What does he want?
  • What stands in his way?

CREATING EMPATHY FOR YOUR CHARACTER

How do you create empathy for a character?

  • Undeserved misfortune — Example given: the character’s child is abducted; anyone would relate to that.
  • Put the character’s life circumstances in jeopardy–Example given: Tom Cruise’s role in Rain Man is tough. How did they create empathy for him? He’s in jeopardy of losing his business.
  • Make the character a nice guy. Readers like nice characters.
  • Make the protagonist funny. That makes people approve of him/her, as long as his/her actions are truly funny. Make him/her say stuff WE wish we had said.
  • Give a character power, making them powerful in a charismatic way. We’re drawn in by people like that.
  • You want to make the character sympathetic without making the character pathetic. A person comes off as pathetic when they don’t care. Everybody has quirks, and a protagonist needs some kind of internal or external struggle that helps us feel for them, no matter what their quirks are.

HOOKING THE READER:

Hooking the reader is grabbing the reader and not letting them go. How do you do that?

  • Your first chapter needs to raise a question that readers long to know the answer to.
  • There needs to be a profoundly interesting character in the first chapter; it doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist, but often it is.
  • What should you avoid? Waking up is not an interesting opening to a book. Even though movies often start this way, books do not.
  • It was popular in the 20th century for books to begin with dialog. That’s a crusty old-fashioned way to open books these days. It just isn’t done in today’s best-sellers.

Why is it important to establish the setting in a book? That way the reader isn’t asking the question, “Where are we?” Readers feel more grounded (less lost) if they know where they are. Nobody likes to feel lost. But don’t create setting in a way that’s old and tired (like looking out a window). Let the main character experience the setting. Anything else is an info dump.

CHECKLIST FOR OPENING SCENES:

  • Write an opening that uses all of your senses.
  • Open with an interesting, thought-provoking opening sentence.
  • Establish the setting and period by using simple details.
  • Introduce an interesting character early on.
  • Give the character a stated scene goal.
  • Have that character enunciate in words or thoughts his scene goal.
  • Give the character obstacles to overcome.
  • Show conflict.
  • Give the reader a physical description of the main character and an approximate age (but don’t have the character look at his/her own reflection–that’s overdone).
  • End with a high point of tension that makes the reader turn the page.
  • Write an interesting final sentence for that first chapter.
  • Avoid having the character coming or going somewhere (on a train or plane or in a car).
  • Avoid giving a lot of exposition or back-story.
  • Resist the urge to explain. Show rather than telling.
  • Only allow three characters in the opening scene.
  • Don’t introduce every new character with a profile the minute they enter.
  • Show the reader the characters’ emotions; don’t tell the audience how they feel.

ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MIDDLE OF YOUR BOOK:

  • What does your character need to achieve?
  • How is he/she going to achieve it?
  • What obstacles will get in his/her way?
  • How will those obstacles teach and/or change your character?

HOW DO YOU WRITE AN ENDING THAT SATISFIES?

  • The ending is where you begin to put the twists and turns in the story.
  • You don’t want the reader to know how the book is going to end until the last five pages.
  • There should not be new characters at the end, but your protagonist and antagonist must collide.
  • Avoid bringing in new forces (like suddenly your character becomes a rock-climber because he/she needs to be able to get out of a cave or whatever).
  • Show how your protagonist has evolved by making him/her the final actor; show how he/she has changed, and because he/she has changed, he/she can accomplish that final task.

FINAL QUESTIONS:

  • Does your character achieve his/her final goal?
  • How does your character overcome his/her obstacles?
  • How has your character changed through overcoming his/her obstacles.
  • Does your novel have emotional resonance for the reader?

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MISTAKES IN WRITING A NOVEL?

Beginning a scene too early and ending a scene too late. Go to the last paragraph of your chapter and ask yourself–what if I cut this last paragraph out? Maybe moved it to the start of the next chapter? Would it make the reader want to turn the page? If so, move that paragraph.

It’s also important to start your novel in the middle of the story–after the action has already begun (en media res). Too-early beginnings start with people driving somewhere, walking down a street, shutting off their alarm clock, making dinner, etc… The first chapter needs to start with action; it needs to end before a character has a reaction to the action.

Backstory and flashbacks stop the story dead. They’re generally more interesting to the writer than to the reader. Watch out for character biographies and info dumps.

Don’t give away the story’s solution too soon. Keep the solution short. Try to work solution info into dialogue or into the action of a story.

Avoid endings that have a doctor in an emergency room, a lawyer in a courtroom, or an expert with explosives. Everybody uses this plot device to wrap up the plot. It’s unoriginal.

A scene should only have one point of view, and 70% of a book should be in the main character’s point of view. Jumping from POV to POV is often a big mistake, because the reader is being asked to suspend disbelief. It’s harder to do if you’re asking them to be in more than one character’s head. How do you show another character’s point of view? Have the main character observe the other character or allow the main character to speculate.

Interior monologue is rarely as interesting as the writer thinks it is. It also stops the story, because the action stops. What are some solution to this?

  1. Keep the story moving with action and dialogue.
  2. Think as if you are writing for a theater production being acted out.
  3. Keep it short. (We can learn a character’s likes and dislikes by how they treat themselves and others, or how they react to what other people say and do.)

Some summary is okay, but it should be interspersed widely, not just dropped into the plot.

In terms of dialog, avoid small talk. Every word characters say should get right to the heart of the subject. Thank-yous and goodbyes are examples of small talk.

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