Writing Goddess extraordinaire Jennifer Cruise put up a fantastic blog the other day about story structure. If you're a writer, go there now (then come back here!) As usual, her blog got me thinking about the structure of my own stories and about the characters in my stories. If there's any secret to writing a good book I'd have to say it's, revision, revision, revision. Can't stress that enough. The first draft is always crap. At least mine are, and I would suspect that holds true for the majority of writers. Even though I preplot in a bare bones minimal style, it's not until I actually finish the first draft that I have any idea what the story is really about. That's when the fun and the really hard work comes in and you have to look at your story structure.
As you know, every story is about a central character (the protagonist) who wants something. It doesn't matter what they want, it just has to be important to them. You make this character likable or sympathetic or empathetic or whatever you want to call it, and this in turn, makes their goal important to the reader. But there's always someone in the story who gets in their way. This is the really fun character. The antagonist. The nemesis. The "villain." The Dr. Evil of your novel. As elemental as this concept is to storytelling, I have to tell you, I always struggle when it comes to discovering who my Dr. Evil is. Dr. Evil doesn't always operate out in the open. He/she works in sneaky and mysterious ways. He doesn't always wear black and tote a gun or make plans to destroy the world with his super powerful new laser machine. Sometimes, at least in my books, Dr. Evil is actually a really nice person.
In my first novel, Bunco Babes Tell All, I thought my land developer Ted Ferguson was Kitty's (my protagonist's) nemesis. He was slimy, greedy and he wanted to build high rise condos on the beach. Boo! But in truth, Ted was actually an ally of Kitty's. Kitty's true nemesis was her own mother. Kitty's goal throughout the story was to buy her grandmother's old house. Her mother wanted to sell it for mega bucks (and not to Kitty). Hence, she was the character most in opposition to my protagonist's goal. Slimy Ted was actually aiding Kitty in her goal. It wasn't until I realized this (on a second or third revision) that I was able to flesh that out in the novel. BUT... then I got to about 3/4's of the book and Kitty's goal changed. Although yes, she still wanted to buy her grandmother's house, she wanted to save the Whispering Bay Senior Center even more. Kitty's new story goal was much more altruistic than her original one, and voila! Ted Ferguson, evil land developer, now becomes Kitty's nemesis.
I had to scratch my head over this one because the story structure of one goal/one central nemesis didn't fit my manuscript anymore. Eventually, I had to let go of that kind of thinking. Story structure/acts/turning points- all that stuff is great, and I believe if you're writing genre fiction you have to have these familiar elements to make the story flow, but you also can't be married to them either. There have to be allowances for things in your story that don't seem to "fit". Then I watched the movie Star Wars again and thought, hey! Star Wars is kind of like Bunco Babes Tell All (stay with me here). Like Kitty, Luke doesn't have just one goal in the story. Initially, his goal is to rescue Leia. He sees the video of Leia asking for help and gets motivated by lust and the chance for adventure and goes off with Obi Wan Kanobi to save the princess. But... once he's "saved" her, his goal changes (also to a higher, more altruistic one) to defeat the Death Star. His nemesis remains the same (Darth Vadar) but his goal gets "upped" in the story.
With The Boyfriend of the Month Club, it took me forever (call me dense) to figure out who Grace's nemesis was. Grace's goal is to turn her book club into a boyfriend club where women can discuss the men they've dated. She's motivated by the fact that she's hit rock bottom in the dating world and she wants to help other women avoid the loser dating pool she's been swimming in. She's aided by the other members of her book club, who also happen to be her best friends. But two of the members (Sarah and Penny) are initially opposed to the idea of the boyfriend club.
“Seriously? I just don’t know about this whole boyfriend club,” Sarah said. “It smacks of disgruntlement.”
But Ellen, the fourth member of the group, is totally on Grace's side. She helps Grace convince Sarah and Penny to go along with the agenda.
"So we're really going through with this?" Sarah said.
“Of course we are,” Grace said. “It’s going to empower us!”
So imagine my surprise (light bulb above the head moment) when I finally figured out that Ellen was Grace's nemesis. Yes, she's totally on board the boyfriend club wagon, but she has her own agenda. Ellen, who teaches English Composition and Poetry Appreciation 101, wants to use the data they collect at the boyfriend club meetings to expand her masters thesis, Undressing the Romantic Hero in Popular Literature (isn't that a great title for a thesis?) into a book. Slowly but surely, she and Grace start butting heads and Ellen becomes Grace's greatest opposition to achieving her goal. The thing is, Ellen is a totally likable and sympathetic character in her own right, which I think makes her a really interesting nemesis.
But about 3/4's of the way through the book, Ellen is defeated and Grace wins. So the conflict should be over. But not really. Because with Ellen's defeat, a new and much stronger nemesis rises from Ellen's ashes. His name is Speedway Gonzalez and he's Daytona Beach's hottest DJ and a Tucker Max wannabe. Speedway uses the information from Grace's boyfriend club as daily fodder for his radio show, humiliating not just the members of the club, but the men they've "critiqued." Now Grace's goal changes. She has to shut down the boyfriend club and try to make everyone in Daytona Beach forget it ever happened. But Speedway isn't just going to roll over and die.
“Hey, Speedsters! This is Speedway Gonzalez, taking you round and round Day-to-na Beach. Guess who’s decided to come out and play this morning? It’s none other than the head honch-ess of the boyfriend club, herself, Grace O’Bryan. So, Gracie, first things first. Are you fat?”
“Yes, I am. I tip the scales at four hundred pounds. Thanks for asking.”
Speedway chuckled. “It’s not that going to be that easy, babe.”
And Dr. Evil (I mean, Speedway) is right. The final conflict between protagonist and nemesis should be a fight to the death. I have to admit, of all the antagonists I've written, Speedway is by far my favorite. He's not really bad you know, he just wants to make a living.
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