How to Write a Good Book – Post 4. Structure

pen4So Rudolph is desperate to guide the tractor on Christmas eve, but his nose won’t glow properly. Erma makes him an enormous apple pie to make him happy and promises him a good night in bed afterwards. She wants that new TV!

How do you you get the structure of your story right?

First Draft

For your first draft, don’t worry about structure. Just get the story down. It will come out chronologically, that is, with the events in the order in which they happen. They may not stay this way, but that’s fine for now. Too many writers worry about writing a blockbuster with their first draft. You won’t. All writers have to write a second draft, so don’t try and avoid it.

Second draft

By now, you will have the basic story written, and hopefully the characters will be starting to interact naturally and seem real. You will also have enough ideas to keep the reader’s interest, but the pace may be uneven and the first few pages may seem a bit bland.

All stories, including those of Tolkien, J K Rowling and plays by Shakespeare, have a beginning, a middle and an end. In plays, these are called the first, second and third act. But they can be subdivided. Your story needs to have this basic skeleton:

  1. Beginning
    1. Hook
  2. Middle
  3. End
    1. Climax
    2. Optionally, a twist
    3. Ending or denouement

What is a hook?

The hook is really what happens on the first page, and probably in the first paragraph or even the first sentence. It is the bit that hooks a reader into wanting to read the whole story. Research has proved again and again that when a potential reader sees your book description, likes that and then decides to read the first page (as they almost always do in a bookshop, or on Amazon), they will decide within a few seconds, thirty at the very most, whether they want to read the rest or not.

That is all the time you have to really grab them! So make your first paragraph, and if possible, your first sentence, really grab them. Make it unusual, even odd, and make sure it contains some emotive words. For instance, have a look at this first draft of the first sentence of our Rudolph and Santa story:

Santa asked Rudolph to meet with him. He then proceeded to tell Rudolph that he has lost his sleigh, so they will have to hire a van. Rudolph says okay but he has to check with Erma, because he told her he should always check any changes to his working conditions with her. ….

That is okay, but it’s not going to make somebody want to read the rest of your book. Let’s try again:

The telephone rang in Rudolph’s apartment.

“It’s for you Rudolph!” his wife, Erma, yells up the stairs. “It’s Santa. Says its urgent!”
Rudolph turned away from the bathroom mirror and ran to the phone.
“My nose will never glow properly again!” he told himself.
“Rudolph! Is that you?”
“Yep, it’s me Santa.”
“I’ve lost my sleigh! It’s Christmas Eve. You know what that means?
“No.”
“I will have to use a van! That means I don’t need you!”
“I can’t pull the sleigh? Okay. Wait, Erma is trying to tell me something.”
Erma tells her husband. “Your union rules say you have to deliver the present. That means you have to drive the van!”

Now this is much better. First of all there is a lot of dialogue. Readers tend to prefer dialogue. They want the characters to show them what’s happening. They don’t want the narrator to tell them. It’s called ‘show, don’t tell,’ and is an important trick for story-telling. Basically people want to work things out for themselves. Good writing should have at least 50% dialogue, or monologue.

You can see also that there is a sense of urgency and tension with the dialogue. And already we can see that Erma is going to be instrumental in the events that follow.

The Climax

How do you write a climax? First of all, you should work out in your head what sort of climax it is. If its action, then you will need to use many more action words like ‘ran,’ ‘desperately lunged,’ ‘screamed,’ ‘screeched to a halt,’ etc. Try to use shorter sentences at this part of the story too; it makes for more tension. By now the reader should have had all the insight they need into the main characters’ emotions and motivations, so you can spend much less time on this. Focus on the action and make the reader anticipate the moment of climax by building a scene of terror or dramatic tension or scenery.

On the other hand, your moment of climax might simply be psychological. If you are writing an emotional love story, it might be the scene when the man finally proposes to his long lost love. Draw it out. Use lots of warm phrases like ‘heart burst with happiness’ or ‘finally she knew she had found true love.’

In our story it might be that Rudolph delivers all the presents on time and gets a big bonus from Santa. Not only can they get a really good wide-screen TV but he can take Erma on the honeymoon they never quite had (due to heavy work schedules at the time).

The Twist

A story doesn’t need to have a twist, but a twist can leave the reader feeling, ‘Wow! That was a great book!’ so you might want to try it.

There is not much I can tell you about the twist, except that you should have planned it from the start and given readers small clues that something peculiar might happen. And then when it comes, it must be as big a surprise as possible. They will feel cheated if they either anticipated it, or if there have been no clues whatsoever that something was coming. Leave them gasping or saying “Wow!” and you have a fan for life! A really good example is the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense and. In our story it might be that Rudolph’s father was actually a farm reindeer, and so Rudolph turns out to be the best tractor driver ever!

The Ending or Denouement

It might seem a bit obvious to say a story needs an ending, but it does need to be structured. It needs to leave the reader with the message you worked into the story (see the Themes tutorial) and don’t forget the character needs to show that they are changed of have learned something. You might also need to explain the twist a bit. But if you know there will be a sequel, you might not want to explain anything, but simply put the twist in the last sentence and leave the reader desperate to read the next book (as I have done in The Synchronicity Code). This is the moment when you want all the strands to come together so that the reader says, “Ah! Ha!”. Then they will be satisfied and want to read your next book.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, you might need to address other matters of structure during the second draft.

Structural editing

The second draft is really where you take the first editing step; structural editing. If you are paying a very good editor, they will suggest these changes to you. But what is structural editing?

If you have a lot of background and character building to get into the first chapter, it’s going to seem slow to some readers. Other readers won’t even buy the book, unless they get a feel for how good the climax is going to be. Fortunately, you won’t need to worry about this once the reader has read a few of your book. But how do you get round this problem with your first book?

I have found that sometimes it helps to take a preview out from just before the climax and put it in near the beginning or even before Chapter One. For instance, in Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate, the climax is a confrontation between the main character and his arch enemy. Fortunately for us, he has recorded what happened on a tape-recorder, so his wife can set down the events. This is done in the form of a small insert, in italics, at the beginning of each chapter. In this way, I feed the reader a taste of what is to come later, and make them want to read more. Judging by the reviews, this technique seems to have worked quite well.

Take a Tip From the Movies

Lastly, I have discovered some very useful techniques used by movie makers. You might not want to try these ideas at all, but here is the structure for Gladiator. See how it develops the tension and keeps the watcher glued to the screen? You might want to try something similar with your books, especially if they are action adventures.

  1. A film should start with a scene that shows the main character doing what he/she does best
  2. Then comes the opportunity
  3. And then the new situation

Find out more at: http://www.whatascript.com/screenplay-structure-11.html#sthash.nsU1CVMf.dpuf

See you next time when we discuss 5. Varying the Pace.

And if you are wondering about the third draft, this will come later, in tutorial 6. Editing.

Let me know what you think of my tutorials by commenting below.

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Win ebook: Who might equal Shakespeare in the 21st century?

Lazlo Ferran Competition: Who might equal Shakespeare in the 21st Century?

Who might equal Shakespeare in the 21st Century?

Win ebook: Who might equal Shakespeare in the 21st century?

See further down for competition to win a free copy of my next eBook.

Here is the latest news…

Editing
I have just finished editing an illustrated novel for a very talented new writer. It’s very exciting work and I can’t wait to see the finished product but it is all top secret at the moment. I will announce the book here when it’s published.

New Novels
I have the basic framework for two scifi novels in my head and of course there is the second Wartime novel and the third installment of the Ordo Lupus series, both of which are with publishers and agents. I am hoping for to get signed but, if not, I will publish myself. If you want the very latest on release dates, competitions and free offers, sign up for the Newsletter. The next issue will go out in late September or early October.

It’s no secret that I am working hard on a new novel. It’s a romance set between the end of WWII and the Korean War and a work of literary nature, a genre I have only dabbled with in the past with The Ice Boat. The genre is highly competitive and readers expect an extremely high standard. Think Shakespeare, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, The Brontes, George Elliot, Jane Austin, D H Lawrence and Harper Lee and you will see what I mean. I don’t know who would qualify for that from 21st Century writers. Answers in your comments please! Best answer will get a free copy of my next published novel!

Keeping up to date with Lazlo Ferran

Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate - Extended Edition coverHi All
I wanted to let you know that I will only be posting every second Monday from now on. I have to focus very hard on my latest novel and the real world tends to intrude as well so I don’t have to much time.

If you really want exclusive inside information on what I am working on, what is coming up, competitions freebies AND THREE FREE THRILLERS, then you need to sign up for the Lazlo Newsletter.

You will always find a page with the link to the Newsletter in the menu at the top of all my blog pages.

Poll Results: Which is the Best Scifi Vehicle Ever?

Sulaco from Aliens (1986)

Sulaco from Aliens (1986)

The results are in for the poll: Which is the Best Scifi Vehicle Ever?

1. Sulaco spaceship from Aliens (Movie 1986)
2. The USS Enterprise from Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
3. Thunderbird 2 from Thunderbirds (1965 TV series)

Here are some interesting facts about the podium winners!

1. Sulaco spaceship from Aliens (Movie 1986)

The USS Sulaco was a Conestoga-class troop transport ship in service with the United States Colonial Marine Corps, assigned to 2nd Battalion Bravo Team.[3] It was most notably used in the investigation of the Hadley’s Hope colony on Acheron (LV-426) in 2179, when it was manned by Lieutenant William Gorman’s combat unit of Colonial Marines.

The Sulaco is basically a big gun (according to ash)

When the set crews were looking around for floor grating to use on the Sulaco set design, they asked a local set design manufacturer/shop if they had anything of the sort. Indeed they did, an immense pile of old floor grating had been sitting out in the back of their shop for the last seven years. It was left there from when they tore down the set of Alien (1979).

2. The USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) from Star Trek (1966 TV Series)

Here is Mike Jefferies’ original design for USS Enterprise

In the hallways of the Enterprise there are tubes marked “GNDN”, these initials stand for “goes nowhere does nothing”.

In the original series, the ‘arrowhead’ badge worn by the crew of the Enterprise was meant to be an insignia for the Enterprise only. If you’ll notice on any ‘guest’ Starfleet character, they all wear different symbols on their uniforms

3. Thunderbird 2 from Thunderbirds (1966 TV series)

When the launch sequence of Thunderbird 2 was shot, pilot Virgil Tracy was shown being taken to the craft in civilian clothing. When the completed sequence was cut together, he was seen to have mysteriously gained a uniform. To provide continuity, a scene was later shot and added showing his uniform appearing in the cockpit.

Two episodes, “The Man from MI.5” and “Attack of the Alligators!”, feature the full Thunderbird 4 launch sequence shown from inside Pod 4. In other episodes featuring Thunderbird 4, we have only seen Thunderbird 4 emerging down the ramp from outside the pod door. “The Man from MI.5” is the only episode in which Thunderbird 2 gently rests the pod on the surface of the water and then rises clear of the pod with lifting jets, whereas “Attack of the Alligators” shows Thunderbird 2 lifting from the pod several minutes after landing. Normally, the pod is simply dropped on to the water.

Brains designed Thunderbird 2, as he did all their vehicles.

Thanks for voting! Whether you disagree or agree with the results, your comments will be welcomed below.

Should a hero be a Brando or a Martin Freeman?

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Superhero or Everyman?

I woke up this morning wondering what to blog about and I decided the best post would be about the subject of my pondering at the moment; what makes a good hero?

Everyone (well, in the West anyway) will know who Marlon Brando is, possibly the greatest and certainly one of the greatest actors of all time. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins in the recent Hobbit films.

I am as big a fan of Bilbo as anybody and nobody can deny Bilbo is the hero of The Hobbit. What is more, he is an ‘everyman.’ What that means is that everyone can identify with his situation because he is just a normal guy. Brando, on the other hand, rarely plays normal guys; from The Wild One to Superman and Apocalypse Now, nearly all his characters are superhuman or out-and-out rebels; men on the edge of society.

Here are my reviews of two of his films that I watched recently. After you have read these, I will ask the question again:

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

I have been trying to view this 1958 film since my father watched it and recommended it, about ten years ago. He is not a huge fan of Brando and not one to recommend films very often so my interest was piqued. The film proved hard to find; a trip to Virgin and HMV in Oxford Street(at the time) produced nothing and not been able to stream it on-demand since. I tend to watch films when I am in the mood; one day a film might be just what I want, the next day what I definitely don’t want so ordering it from Amazon just wasn’t gonna work for me. A friend finally got it for me and so I was set.

The film starts promisingly enough with Brando, as Christian, a young German ski-instructor, wooing the delicious Hope Lange. But then we are ‘treated’ to nearly half an hour of very mundane acting by Dean Martin (only recently out of his partnership with Jerry Lewis) and a struggling Montgomery Clift. I have seen Clift acting well but for the first hour in this film, he is wooden or overwrought by turns. His tone is so misjudged, I found it hard to watch and Martin is of course not an actor of even Clift’s calibre.

I was beginning to lose hope that we would see Brando on form but he finally reappeared, now as an SS officer in Paris. He meets a friend who sets him up on a blind date with a French girl, whose husband has been killed by the Nazis. “Okay; fireworks! ” I hear you say and you’d be right, She throws the wine Brando just bought her in his face and Christian, with his oft-employed stoic look, listens to her rant without comment for what must be a couple of minutes of screen gold.

Of course he is so tolerant and charming that she has to forgive him in the end and they strike a flame together. Christian has to arrest a Jewish boy but reacts by refusing to make any more arrests and risks a firing squad when ge confronts his commanding officer.

“Ah this is the Brando we love!” I thought. “A rebel within the SS! What a gem!”

His commanding officer takes pity on Christian’s humanity and sends him on an errand to deliver a silk nightie to his own wife, back in Berlin. Brando is happy to get some leave and thus meets the gorgeous and Deitrich-like May Britt. With half-lidded eyes she tells him he can sleep on the couch and help himself to as much schnapps as he can hold while she beds a general.

Christian takes up her offer and later beds her but he doesn’t like her and nor does she care for him.

The strange relationship tension between Christian and his commander weaves a thread right through the film to near the end when Christian has to deliver another gift to Britt’s character in a ruined Berlin. This time, he can’t even find pity for her and takes out his pent up rage about the pointless war on her.

Of course Martin and Clift have parts which run parallel to Brando’s but while theirs is the simple story of all-american-boys making good in the war, albeit a Jewish underdog in the case of Clift, these only serve to highlight just how unusual and complex Brando’s part is. No doubt he worked hard to accentuate this but he hardly needed to; his acting alone lifts the film far beyond what it might otherwise be. He looks the part as the blonde-haired SS uber-soldier but of course he has a weakness in the eyes of his superiors – he is human.

The final scenes play out in, and around a liberated concentration camp. The film is poignant for the inclusion of Clift’s Jew liberating such a horror and Brando delivers a final scene that tops even that (as you would expect) and I am not giving it away.

All in all, well worth a watch if you like a war movie with a little Brando to spice it up! Oh and watch out for a very early performance from Lee van Cleef as a drill sergeant.

The Brave

I watched this 1997 film simply because it is one of the few Brando movies I haven’t seen and it was available on Youtube. I didn’t expect too much from this, the only full-length Johnny Depp directed film to date, although it also has Johnny Depp in the lead role and a cameo from Brando so I expected to at least be competent.

I quickly realised that this film was so obscure and unloved by Hollywood that I could watch it free not because it was bad but because of the subject matter. It’s certainly not an uplifting movie and no doubt the distributors and marketing people had their heads in their hands on this one!

Depp plays a Mexican Indian who is struggling to support his small family on a reserve that essentially survives by recycling stuff from the municipal dump of white people. In and out of jail all his life, he is offered the chance to ‘star’ in a snuff movie for Brando’s McCarthy. He takes the job, knowing it will pay to rehouse his family and educate his children but later regrets it.

The scenes in the rubbish dump are harrowing; Depp’s family sleeping in a tiny caravan, surrounded by waste and his trips further and further up river to find clean water, which he collects in plastic pales hung from a yoke over his back, turned my stomach.

His life is so bad, you can almost understand why he takes up the snuff movie offer… almost … but not quite. When he visits McCarthy in a downtown warehouse he sees the iron torture chair he will be strapped into for the first time. I could barely watch from this point on. Depp underplays his role, playing the stoic American Indian brave trapped in a sick world by uttering very few words, instead using facial expressions silence to communicate his feelings of entrapment.

Brando is incredible! He rolls himself into the warehouse in a wheelchair, while playing a sad blues tune on a harmonica (for real; Brando was a highly accomplished musician, drummer and dancer) and proceeds to take apart the whole concept of death, to the point that he makes it almost sound like a higher-calling. Of course Depp’s character isn’t fooled but he takes the cash and McCarthy tells him to come back in a week.

“Why would you trust me to come back?” Depp asks him (I am paraphrasing here)

“I have a feeling for people; a sensitivity. A man, such as yourself, a man of spirit, is a man of honour.”

This movie is well-worth watching if you care at all about the struggle of some communities to overcome prejudice and inequality. It is heart-breaking to watch what one man has to contemplate in order to provide for his family. I am not very tolerant of pain myself and McCarthy’s answer; “It depends on how much you can take,” when Depp’s character asks him how much he will get, really made me squirm. I simply cannot put this film out of my mind. Of course if you are a person who likes to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, don’t watch this film. But don’t ever look behind you again.

That’s the reviews over. Now back to the question. I am thinking about my next book and it often helps me to think of a Hollywood actor when planning the main character’s role. Here I have got a bit stuck; I see a plot with an old-time Hollywood actor called William Holden. I guess in some ways you could say he is like Martin Freeman in that you probably wouldn’t pick say he was a flamboyant character or would stand out in a crowd.

The trouble is, I worry that such a book would not have a wide enough appeal because the character is not larger-than-life. I get the feeling big epic themes need big epic characters and I wonder if a Brando/Pacino/Russell Crowe type character would work better.

Which type of character do you like best? Let me know by commenting below or @Lazlo_F or on Facebook.

Occult Thriller Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate Translated into Chinese!!

Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate

Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate

Stop the Press! Occult Thriller Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate is being Translated into Chinese

Great news! Yes it’s true. I recently submitted half a dozen of my books to a publisher that specialises in translating books into Chinese and distributing within China and Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate has already been accepted and partially translated. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. I have made concerted efforts to reach the Far East Market as well as the Middle East (which Amazon ignores and in fact in which it positively blocks downloads) but I didn’t know how to reach any Chinese readers.

Timescales are hazy at this point but it looks like it will be available around the end of the year if all goes well. I will keep you posted if I get anything firmer.

I can also confirm that the next Newsletter will go out around the 15th March and in it you will find information on two different ways you can get any of my eBooks FREE! So sign up to the Newsletter today!

Poll Results: Best Vampire or werewolf Acting?

Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire

Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire

Best Vampire or werewolf Acting?

The results are in! I wonder if you will agree or disagree with the people’s choice! Please comment with your opinion or tweet me @Lazlo_F or facebook.com/lazloferran

In first place we have Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt in Interview with the Vampire.

In second place, we have Salma Hayak as Santanico Pandamonium in From Dusk till Dawn.

Tying for third place, we have Jack Nicholson as Will Randall in Wolf and Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in various Hammer movies.

Did you know?

Interview with the Vampire:

Tom Cruise and all the other vampire actors were required to hang upside down for up to thirty minutes at a time during the make-up application.

Johnny Depp was offered the role of Lestat.

There’s a scene towards the end of the movie where Louis is watching Superman (1978) in a cinema. This scene doesn’t appear in the novel because the book was written in 1976, two years before the film was made.

From Dusk till Dawn:

Salma Hayek did not have a choreographer for her dance. Director Robert Rodriguez just told her to feel the music and dance to it. Rodriguez would later use the same tactic with Jessica Alba in Sin City (2005).

If you look closely, when Cheech Marin is playing the Customs Agent, his name badge says, “Oscar Marin” which is Cheech’s real-life father’s name. His father was an LAPD officer.

Wolf:

Although the film is about a werewolf, that particular word is never mentioned.

Dracula movies of Hammer:

Christopher Lee’s last film for Hammer as Dracula, The Satanic Rights of Dracula was the final Hammer film in which both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appear.

Watch out for another poll soon, this time on scifi movies!