Monday, January 27, 2014

Levels of Conflict: Hitting Your Hero From All Sides

by Gamal Hennessy

The vast majority of all fictional plots boils down to a struggle to achieve a goal. A protagonist has an object of desire that is material or situational. To get what she wants, your heroine has to exert effort against everything that stands between her and her goal. The power and intensity of her obstacles will define both your heroine and the strength of your story. But where do those obstacles come from and how can we build them into the story in a way that tests the heroine in the most satisfying manner? One answer lies in playing with the different levels of conflict.

Three Levels of Conflict
A level of conflict is a source of antagonism that stands between your protagonist and their goal. Robert McKee's book Story defines three major levels of conflict:
  • Internal: where the thoughts, feelings or physical characteristics of a protagonist block achievement of the goal
  • Interpersonal: where relationships with other people or groups block achievement
  • Extra-personal: where institutions, natural phenomenon and situations block achievement

To put this into perspective, let's say you're writing a story about a boy named Adam living in Jerusalem. Adam has just seen a beautiful Arab girl and in that moment decides that he is in love. What obstacles does Adam face in his quest for a relationship? As a writer, you have several options:
  • Internal: Adam's shyness, lack of experience with women and unattractive features get in the way of his budding romance. 
  • Interpersonal: The girl might resist his advances for her own reasons, or she might have another suitor who wants to remove Adam from the picture. Also, Adam's parents could try to prevent him from getting involved with an Arab girl. The girl's brothers might threaten him with violence.  His own friends might reject him.
  • Extra-personal: The wider Arab Israeli conflict could also inhibit our hero. Hezbollah bombings into the settlements could disrupt Adam's life or create a curfew situation. A suicide bomb could destroy everything or even kill the girl. Protests, strikes or other mass social events could tear their relationship apart before it even gets started.

This is just a few examples of what Adam is up against. If he is able to win this girl's love, the obstacles he'll have to overcome could make an amazing story.

The Different Directions of Conflict

After you determine the conflict against your hero, you have three main choices when deciding on the direction you’d like to go with each one:
  • Broad: where the protagonist has to deal with conflict on each level, either at once or simultaneously
  • Deep: where the conflict is primarily on one level, but the impact on that level is this hammers at the core of the character
  • Compound: where the conflicts are both broad and deep and the hero fights intense battles on all fronts to achieve their goal.

The direction you choose is often a function of genre. An action adventure might have heavy interpersonal and extra personal conflict when the hero battles the arch villain on the top of a mountain in a blinding snow storm. A cozy mystery might have strong internal focus as the detective quietly strains her intellect to solve the crime. Every style of writing can tap into each type of conflict, but some genres lend themselves to specific conflict types.

Conflict as Spotlight

The best way I've found to develop conflict in my work is to focus on the aspects of my protagonist that I want to reveal and then creating conflicts that explore those traits. One of my main characters is a young woman named Nikki. She wants the affection of her mentor and lover Chris. To show her dedication to this goal, I put several obstacles in her path in the first twenty five pages of the book.

Nikki has to deal with the extra personal danger of spying on the Russian mafia for Chris. She has to face the interpersonal roadblocks of abusive teammates. The internal doubt she has about who Chris really is and her own feelings for him create the largest source of conflict. As the story progresses, each level of conflict deepens and interacts with the others to build a story that reveals Nikki's true character as the narrative unfolds. (See Creating Complex Characters)

The best stories have the strongest conflicts. While it's not necessary to throw every obstacle at every character in every story, a weak story is most often the result of weak antagonists. Pit your heroine against the strongest combination of antagonism that you can think of. Your readers will thank you for it.

Have fun.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Profit and Loss Statements for Independent Publishers

by Gamal Hennessy

When I hear self-published authors talk about the success of their book in the marketplace, the discussion often begins and ends with the number of copies they’ve sold. A few of them might boil things down to an actual dollar amount a book makes each month, but these board measurements don't capture the whole story.

A book that makes $1,000 but costs $3,000 to launch isn't as financially successful as a book that makes $1,000 but cost $700 to launch. At the same time, a book sold through one outlet will bring in less money than the same book at the same price sold on a different website. To help independents get a better handle on the financial performance of their catalog, I suggest using a simple profit and loss statement or P&L.

A Little Background
My experience with P&Ls comes from the time I spent in the media industry. Every time we released a graphic novel, DVD or other product, the business affairs department had to generate a P&L to predict and measure that product’s potential success.

A lot of companies use P&L's to plan and evaluate their business. The banks that I deal with now have P&Ls that would make your eyes bleed. I've kept my version simple because independent publishing has a fairly straightforward business model and because I'm not that smart.

Determining Losses
The first element to a profit and loss statement is calculating your loss. In publishing, this is the amount of money you have to pay to get your words out into the world. It is often referred to as the cost of goods sold. I've found that there are several costs that make up this number when releasing a book:
  • Editing
  • Cover Design
  • Formatting
  • Marketing
  • Registration (ISBN, copyright, etc.)
  • Advertising (if any)

You might have other costs associated with the marketing or production of your books, but this list covers the basics. (See Just How Much Does It Costs to Publish a Book Anyway?). In this case, your total cost is the sum of everything you have to pay to produce one book. That's the bad news.  

The good news is that digital distribution has reduced the subsequent costs to almost zero. You pay one price for the first book, but don't have to pay anything extra books whether it’s two more or two million more. That means the price you paid for that first book decreases with every additional book sold. You might have additional initial costs when you launch a new product (bundle, audiobook, graphic novel, etc) but then you also have an additional revenue stream.

All Profit Is Not Created Equal
Independents face a choice when it comes to distribution of their work. They can go with a low to generate volume sales or a high price to give each individual sale a higher impact. They can test the benefits of exclusivity with one distributor (Amazon's KDP program), or they can give up those benefits to post their books on several smaller online stores for higher incremental revenue.

There are vocal supporters on all sides of this debate. You'll have to make your own choices for each book you release. The one thing that should not change is keeping track of how many books you sell and how much you make for each book.

Profit in independent publishing is based on the royalty you collect for each book sold. For example, if your novel is $2.99 on Amazon, you collect 70% of the sales price or about $2.10. If that is the only place where your book is available, then it's fairly easy to determine how profitable your book is overall when you look at it relative to its loss.

Breaking Even
In the simplest economic terms, a book succeeds to the extent that the profits exceed the losses. The threshold between success and failure is the break even number. If your book sells at a level less than break even, you lost money on that book. If the book sells more than break even, it is technically profitable.  You might not be able to quit your job to write, but you're making more than you're spending. Congratulations, a lot of people never get to that point.

Using our example above, let's say your $2.99 book costs you $1,000 to release. If you make $2.10 per book, then you'd have to sell about 477 to break even.

In terms of a profit and loss sheet, it is helpful to determine the break even number and how much you make from each website at each price point. This will not only show you which websites are better for your book, but which prices make you the most money. Does it make sense to sell 50 books at a $2.10 royalty or 500 books at a $.35 royalty? Should you sell on one site and sell 200 copies or spread out to five sites and sell 40 copies each? If you compare the numbers in your P&L the answers should come to you.

Beware the Miser
A P&L has a larger benefit besides just telling you if you broke even or made money. It can help you manage the business side of publishing. It seems to me that there are only two ways to increase the profitability of a book; increase sales or decrease costs. Increased sales are the long term play. Because out books don't go "out of print" we can continue to count on long term sales if we continue to publish new material. Each new book stimulates interest in the overall catalog, making your new book the best advertising for your old book.

Decreasing costs is the short term play. If an author can make $500 in sales on a $250 production cost, he'll always be profitable. But it’s short sighted to reduce the quality of the product in an attempt to reduce the losses to zero. A low quality book will chase readers away to the point where both your costs and your profits are zero. (See Are Self-Published Books Inherently Inferior?). The smarter choice is to produce quality products within a budget you can handle.  They'll serve you better in the long run and you'll be proud of them.

Follow the Muse
It is also a mistake to use the P&L as an indicator or what to write. Let's say you're trying to choose between writing a YA werewolf story, a historical romance, and a sci-fi epic. According to your P&L, your last historical romance was profitable.  Your YA book fell flat and you don't have any previous sci-fi to make a comparison.

Which book should you write?

You write the book you are inspired to write most. The P&L is a helpful business tool, but it isn't a creative tool. Your artistic muse is in control when you sit down and write, not an Excel spreadsheet. You might get creative with costs and pricing when the book is done, but save most of your creativity for the book. Don't let the numbers get in the way.

Have fun.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Analysis of Story Structure Part 1: The Chapter

by Gamal Hennessy

Exploring the building blocks of story is a helpful exercise in the development of any novel. Writers who plot can use this technique to help map a story’s progression (See Building a Better Story Part 3: Plot Construction). Discovery Writers can use it during their rewrite phase to understand how the story developed. They can also use it to modify elements that might inhibit the flow of the narrative. (See Plot vs Pants: Which Road Do You Choose?) This essay will look at the second level of story structure, the chapter. I plan to discuss beats, sequences, acts and sequels in later posts.

Disclaimer: The foundation of this method comes from the screenwriting book, Story.  I've modified it slightly for my own personal use.

The Story within a Story

In an ideal scenario a chapter is a miniature version of a story. It has all the structural components of a full novel in a compact form (See Building a Better Novel Part 2: The Narrative Framework). The goal of these ”mini stories” two fold; we want to move the story forward and reveal aspects of the characters. These goals are achieved when each chapter alters the condition of the characters on some level. The change can be minor or major. The change can be positive, negative or a bit of both. The change can be internal, interpersonal or extra personal. But in almost all cases, we need to create some change that drives the overall narrative and shows us who the characters are (See Creating Characters We Want to Know)

Felt but Not Seen

When the structure of a story works well it is similar to the structure of a building. People can enjoy the effects without thinking about or even noticing the details. For example, I work in an office building every day. The only time I notice the structure of the building itself is when something doesn't work. The same concept applies in your story. If a casual reader is picking out each element in your narrative, then they are not fully engaged in the story. Of course, a fellow writer might look at your story structure in the same way a building engineer instinctively looks at the working of a building. The casual reader shouldn't notice those things.

The Elements of a Chapter

I identify five fundamental structural elements in any chapter in a story.
  • POV: This gives the reader the emotional perspective that you want them to follow and understand (See Managing Emotional Points of View
  • Situation: This orients the reader in time and space, giving them an understanding of the character’s relationship to their world 
  • Desire: This expresses what the POV characters want, whether it is their ultimate goal in the story or just a step that brings them closer to that goal. 
  • Beats: The sequence of action and reaction designed to dramatize conflict.
  • Turning Point: The action or revelation that changes the condition of the POV character
  • Outcome: The result of the character's pursuit of desire. The outcome in most chapters plays a role in the situation and desire of the next chapter.


The chapter structure does not require anything long, elaborate or convoluted. Consider this:

Jacob stormed up to the trailer with his Louisville slugger clutched tight in his gnarled fist. Lucky wanted to put his dirty paws on Ella? Let's see him try that with broken fingers. Jacob banged the handle of the bat on the flimsy door. It felt good to do that. If Lucky didn't open it and open it fast, it would only take a couple of swings to knock it down. Jacob had a mind to tear down the whole damn trailer.

Jacob never fired a shotgun before, but he knew the sound it made before it went off. His aunt Tee said it was a sound God created to drive off the spineless. Jacob wasn't spineless. He wasn't stupid either. The click clak of the shotgun on the other side of Lucky's door sent him diving for the mud. Splinters rained down on him. All the sound got sucked out of his ears. Jacob swallowed hard to keep his heart and his lunch from shooting up into his throat and choking him to death. Then he moved his ass.

Jacob scrambled away from the trailer on his hands and knees. He forgot about the Louisville slugger. He wasn't gonna get Ella back from Lucky with that.

My hope is that you can not only see the basic elements in that passage, but that you were also entertained enough to ignore the structure while you were reading.

Exposition and Non Events

If the goal of a chapter is moving the story forward and revealing character through conflict then there are two ways that a chapter can fail on a structural level. The first problem is referred to as exposition. This occurs if a recitation of facts is placed in a narrative for any reason other than the progress of conflict in the story. For example, in the recent series of Batman films, Bruce Wayne inherits a multi-billion dollar enterprise that seemingly built, controls and pays for most of Gotham City. No attempt is ever made to explain where this money comes from or even how much money he has. This wasn't left out because it's a "comic book movie". It's left out because it has nothing to do with telling the story. It is exposition that needs to be left out.

The second problem is the related issue of a non-event. This occurs when the condition of the characters in the end of the chapter is the same as it was in the beginning. These are the mundane events that provide no insight into the character and don't move the story along either. This is why as writers we leave out every shower, meal and bathroom break that doesn't directly impact the story. Sitting down to eat a ham sandwich often doesn't have a turning point, unless the meal is transcendent.

Stealing this for Your Own Purposes

If you want to look at the structure of your chapters, all you have to do is answer the following questions of each chapter in isolation:
  1. Who is this chapter about?
  2. Where are they in the story?
  3. What do they want?
  4. How do they try to get what they want?
  5. Who or what tries to stop them?
  6. Do they succeed or fail? What is the outcome?

Do you think this kind of analysis is helpful for your fiction? Do you already do something like this, or do you have your own method? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Special Sale Price for Smooth Operator!

To celebrate the release of my new novel, A Taste of Honey, I’ve decided to offer my last novel at a special low price for a limited time.

About Smooth Operator

Born into privilege, wounded by war, and skilled in the art of manipulation, Warren Baker works like a spider. He weaves plans and plots, drawing people into his web until they accomplish his goals without ever knowing he was involved.

In some cases, his influence is as delicate as a woman's smile. In others, he is a blunt instrument ruthlessly pursuing his goals. All the stories in this collection reveal insights into this complicated man and his mysterious quest for power.

Smooth Operator is ultimately a crime story about our desires, and how they define us. From ambition to passion, from blood lust to vengeance, our motivations do more than shape what we are willing to do; they reveal who we are as people.

When you are faced with a critical life choice, what you are capable of?

Note: Readers who purchase and review this book will be eligible for a FREE gift!

Smooth Operator was a 2013 Amazon Espionage Bestseller in 2013 and was a #1 bestseller in the Amazon's Hot New releases category. 

This sale won’t last long, so take advantage of it now so you can be ready for A Taste of Honey when it is released in February 2014.

Have fun.