Kiss, Katch, Kick, Kill – What to Do When You Get Stuck

Every novelist has experienced that moment when they hit a roadblock, even when they’ve taken the time to outline their project. It’s impossible to know all the answers from beginning to end, especially when you’re at the beginning of the process of creating your book. (See, It’s Okay to Not Have All the Answers When You Write)

As you create, new answers can emerge, sometimes changing the direction or aspects of the story. Sometimes a character doesn’t live up to what you’ve envisioned and the story slows. This is normal and experienced by all novelists, even New York Times bestselling authors. I know, because I’ve been in critique groups with some of them.

When we find ourselves in a place where the story lags or comes to a halt, it’s always about one thing:

Conflict.

Or rather, the lack, thereof.

Happily, I have a fun method to help you in those times. I learned this in a workshop taught by Jennifer Crusie (jennifercrusie.com) a long time ago, and have carried it with me ever since.

HOW TO USE THIS TECHNIQUE

Shakespeare liked to start his stories with romance, a fight, or the paranormal. Why? Conflict! And, hey, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare….

Using conflict techniques improves not only a book’s beginning, but also every chapter, and every scene. Dang, that’s a lot of conflict to come up with!

Yes. Yes, it is. But it doesn’t always mean a love scene, a fight, or the paranormal. Well, sort of.

And we can absolutely do it. Let the categories below spark your creativity and help you keep moving forward until you reach the satisfying end of your story.

NOTE: Of the lists below, any of the suggested actions can be taken, or received by a character.

KISS

This conflict category is the nicer end of the spectrum and isn’t only about kissing, although it can be. It also includes:

  • Welcomed touching of any kind, like a hug, or the brushing of hands
  • Flirting
  • Banter
  • Friendship and Family (emerging or established)
  • Loyalty
  • Protection
  • A positive reveal

IMPORTANT: As long as any of the above result in complications, they count for our purposes.

KICK

This category can mean a literal kick in the pants, or a slap in the face, but predominantly represents any kind of aggressive action that hurts another at a milder level than, say, murder. These could be:

  • Betrayal
  • Tricking
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Tempting
  • Sabotage (at this level, usually another character’s plan)
  • Conning (a related kick to lying and betrayal)

KILL

Whereas Kick represents milder physical, emotional, or mental attack, Kill is, as you would expect, more serious.

This category includes conflicts of any kind that lead to deep physical, mental, or emotional damage. They include all of the categories above taken to an intense level, as well as:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical assault
  • Murder
  • A reveal that permanently damages a relationship or person

KATCH

Yes, Jennifer spelled “catch” with a K, and since I find it to be an enjoyable addition to the pattern, I’ve done the same all these years.

Katch covers such interesting and conflict-generating activities as:

  • Trapping (physically, socially, emotionally, or any other way you can think of)
  • Incarcerating
  • Kidnapping
  • Stopping
  • Discovering (learning something that could influence one of the above categories and causes conflict)
  • Revealing (a more public form of discovering)

KEEPING SECRETS

This category is my addition, and not part of Jennifer’s original list. I discovered this amazing conflict technique while watching one of my favorite series, Vampire Diaries. Every character in that story had a secret, from off the charts to moderately normal. Amazing stuff.

Keeping and losing secrets is one of the best ways to ensure your readers will give up sleep or miss work before they’ll put down your book. Because characters with secrets are interesting, and their stories are, as well.

The Keeping Secrets list includes:

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love
  • Guilt
  • Lying (on the side of the liar as opposed to the victim in Kick)
  • Withholding information (or anything else you can think of)
  • Escaping
  • Hiding
  • Spying (includes ease dropping)
  • Controversial or dangerous pasts
  • Hiding anything (from their appearance, to the rules, to a location, or anything else you can think of)
  • Avoidance

What makes secrets particularly delicious is the subtext underneath them. People lie for as many reasons as there are individuals. Sometimes from embarrassment, sometimes because they’ve committed a crime, sometimes to manipulate or protect others.

Whatever the reason, it’s there below the surface influencing everything they do and say. For a writer, the result is a rich source of conflict.

And conflict drives all great stories.

Enjoy using this playful method to improve your writing, your characters, and to keep your stories moving forward in interesting ways.

And always remember what makes a happy, productive writer – conflict in our books, peace in our lives.

See you on the bestsellers list!

My Starter Draft’s a Hot Mess, Now What?

Before I give you the inside scoop on using passes to improve your Starter Draft, I offer this important message.

Finish your starter draft first.

Do not tackle passes until you have, otherwise you’ll bog down as described in, Finishing Your Starter Draft is Crucial to Success.

In addition, please know that passes are not finished in a day, or even a week. Especially for a novel. They take time, patience, and dedication. What they don’t require is perfect solutions.

Passes are about improvement, not perfection. Your stories will never be perfect, so try to release any internal commitments to that unattainable goal. But they can be good. Even great.

Happily, readers don’t require perfection. They want interesting characters they can root for, and an intriguing and emotional journey they can take with those characters. Passes can get you there.

Finally, do each pass in the order listed below. That’s important, as they build on each other, going from broad fixes to detailed ones.

Focus on each pass, one at a time. Also important, unless you want your brain to explode.

Improving Your Starter Draft

For each pass, potential story weaknesses and possible solutions are listed. Scan through your story for each weakness listed, one at a time. If you find that particular problem, brainstorm potential solutions and repair it.

If no solution comes to you in one or two minutes of brainstorming, mark the area and move on. Something later, perhaps during one of the other passes, might spark exactly the solution you need.

Pass One: The Big Picture

Your first pass improves weaknesses in the broader story, such as conflicts that arch the entire journey, pacing, cliffhangers, hooks, and general plot elements that could be stronger. Only concern yourself with the areas that apply to each potential weakness.

Weakness:  The first ten pages don’t launch the broad challenge of the series or book. If a short work, the first two pages.

Solutions: What larger mystery, problem, or conflict can you set up in the first five to ten pages? If you can do that on page one, even better.

Weakness: Main characters are not in opposition to each other. They do not hold opposite philosophies, goals, personality traits, or methodologies for solving problems.

Solution: Brainstorm changes you can make to your character profiles that will achieve these goals. (See Interesting Characters Mean Easier Writing.)

Weakness: The structure does not deliver an engaging pace, or growing challenges at each key turning point. (See Story Arcs.)

Solutions:

  • When characters solve one problem, it leads to a worse problem.
  • Midpoint reveals something surprising and sends the story in a new direction.
  • Main story and secondary stories relate to each other and are cohesive.
  • Main character is changed by the end in an important way for them.
  • If a series, the ending sets up the next book.
  • Add a relevant cliffhanger to the end of each scene. (See Cliffhangers, Not Just for the End of a Book by Jami Gold)

Weakness: Not enough character empathy and distress.

Solution: Brainstorm how to increase the emotional stakes using difficult situations such as forced decisions, betrayal, emotional wounds, undeserved misfortune, or failed plans.

Pass Two: Dialogue

For this pass, focus on one main character at a time. After that, if you feel so inclined, do the pass for secondary characters.

Weakness: Readers may not know who is speaking.

Solution: Clarify speaker through dialogue tags (“Charlotte said”), or character action/internal process. If only two characters are conversing, clarify every third line of dialogue, or as appropriate.

Weakness: Character does not speak in alignment with their wounds, beliefs, environment, and personality.

Solution: Make each line a character speaks reflect their profile and environment (time period, social standing, role).

Weakness: Dialogue is mundane (boring).

Solutions:

  • Cut it.
  • Change to an attack/counterattack pattern, whether hostile, flirtatious, or manipulative.
  • Foreshadow the future.
  • Introduce intrigue/mystery.
  • Add irony or subtext.
  • Substitute with action or internal thoughts and emotions.

Pass Three: Action and Description

In this pass, ignore emotional descriptions for now. Focus on physical action and environment/character descriptions only.

Weakness: Action tells. (Usually passive voice and holds reader distant from experiencing story)

Solutions: Action shows. (Strive for active voice to pull reader into the experience with the POV character)

Weakness: Description is bland and list-like.

Solutions: Brainstorm how description could–

  • Deliver the emotional tone you want for the scene or book.
  • Reflect a character’s traits, wound, career, or social standing.
  • Deliver irony (For example: a violent conflict in a beautiful or peaceful setting).

Weakness: Characters do not interact with their environment (just talking heads).

Solutions:

  • Add physical action that reflects or counters character’s words/internal experience.
  • Add physical action that grounds the speaker in place and time.
  • Add physical action that “speaks” instead of the line of dialogue.

Pass Four: Emotion

For this pass, focus only on characters’ emotional descriptions.

Weakness: There are no emotions, or bland emotions. Characters are flat.

Solutions: Evaluate each scene and the characters in it and brainstorm what they are feeling. For POV character, reflect this internally (through physical reaction and thoughts). For other characters show observable, physical reflections of their emotions. (See Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language on Writers Write.)

Weakness: Emotions are delivered by telling (usually using passive voice or lists).

Solutions: Brainstorm how to show the emotion with physical reactions and active internal conflict or processing.

Weakness: Character emotions do not fit their profiles.

Solutions: Review profile of character and brainstorm emotional reactions which fit who they are and what they want.

Weakness: Character emotional reaction does not inspire reader curiosity (why?), satisfaction (ah-hah!), amusement (LOL), or discovery (They’re lying!).  

Solutions: Brainstorm ways to add intrigue (why), reveals (ah-hah), irony (LOL), and subtext (They’re lying) to characters’ emotional reactions.

Pass Five: Wordsmithing

The final pass is wordsmithing which is the detail work and always saved for last.

Wordsmithing is as important as the previous passes, however. It’s the deep clean before you send your book off to an agent or editor, or before you launch it on Amazon.

Fixing the weaknesses listed below matters. Any of them can potentially pull a reader out of your story and give them a reason to put down your book. Often never to return.

Go through your story and one at a time, in order, look for:

  1. Is this dialogue line, description, or action necessary? If not, cut it.
  2. Is this dialogue, description, or action too long? How can I break it up or cut it down?
  3. Is this dialogue line, description, or action clear? If not, brainstorm how to clarify, shorten, or even cut it.
  4. Are verbs and nouns strong and descriptive enough? How can I improve them?
  5. Do descriptive paragraphs contain too many visual images? Which one works best? How can I expand that one and change, or cut, the rest?
  6. Are exclamation points, all caps, dashes, or ellipses overused? If so, delete and replace with action/emotion.
  7. Are there overused words, such as curses, action verbs (walked, ran), or emotions (glared, eyes widened, smiled)? Replace them.
  8. Finally, read your manuscript backwards. You’ll be amazed by what you find to fix, especially typos.

See you on the bestsellers list.

Article adapted from ScreenwritingU courses, including the fabulous Binge Worthy TV class.