Terri-Lynne Smiles Goes for the LOCK

I’m delighted to have Terri-Lynne Smiles with me today. She writes, and she writes about writing. She does workshops on it, and I would have loved to attend at Imaginarium, but I was busy as a … as a busy person.

Anyway, here’s Terri-Lynne.

Terri-Lynne Smiles says Go for the LOCK.

Foreseen coverYou might expect an instructor on plotting to be naturally gifted. That wouldn’t be me. I’m great at creating characters and events that entertain and intrigue the readers, but despite a lot of effort, the early manuscripts of my first novel lacked a sense of completeness. To fix that, I had to painstakingly learn how to make a plot work. After a hard-fought battle, my first novel, Foreseen, received positive professional and reader reviews, but I wasn’t sure I could ever get there again. Yet, The Kirkus Review called my second novel, Choices, “a tense and well plotted sequel,” and the Midwest Book Review said I had “a native talent for imaginative storytelling that … readers will find unfailingly enjoyable and engaging from beginning to end.” In other words, I learned that plotting isn’t a mysterious gift that you have to be born with. Rather, it’s something that can be learned, and I’d managed to do it.

Last weekend I shared that learning in “The Plotter’s Workshop” at Imaginarium, the amazing writer’s con held in Louisville, Kentucky. Afterwards, Marian Allen asked if I would share the results on her blog – and hence, you have this blog post. I can’t condense the entire workshop into a few hundred words, so I will stick with one of the concepts instead: that all plots, come down to the LOCK.

All plots can be condensed down to (or designed starting from) four elements:

LEAD: a main character with something that makes him interesting, whether likable or not;

OBSESSION: a goal that is important to the main character;

COMPLICATIONS: the obstacles, generally building on each other, encountered by the main character while pursuing the goal;

KLOSURE: the resolution, often achieved through unexpected turns, that ties diverse aspects of the story together in a way that satisfies the reader that the story is complete.

These elements are not my own work, but are largely taken from the book, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, refined through the study of 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, discussion with other writers, and my own experience. To give a concrete example of how the elements play out, think of Shrek. That movie can be reduced to the following:

LEAD: A solitary ogre with a quirky sense of humor and a bit of a romantic side;

OBSESSION: To preserve the solitude of his swamp;

COMPLICATIONS: Donkey, fairy-tale creatures, knights, Farquaad’s quest, the dragon, Fiona’s curse slowing them down, getting his swamp & being lonely;

KLOSURE: he’s fallen in love with Fiona and doesn’t want to be alone anymore. But she’s marrying Farquaad! Satisfyingly and unexpectedly, the dragon shows up and eats Farquaad (well set up but unexpected).

Specific elements are required or expected in different types of plots, but these four elements embody the essence of every satisfying plot. Rewatch the movie, Independence Day, in which there are four separate leads and, thus four distinct plots that can be analyzed. That’s a lot on analytical bang for a two hour expenditure of time. Look for how these four elements work together and complement each other. If you’re working on a piece of fiction, can you articulate each element in your work? If you can’t, go for the LOCK. You’ll end up with a story that’s tighter and more satisfying to your readers.

Happy reading and writing!

Terri-Lynne SmilesTerri-Lynne Smiles lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she writes novel-length fiction from a desk looking out on trees, grass, flowers and all manner of nature that make her sneeze all summer. Her current novels are part of critically acclaimed The Rothston Series, where certain ordinary people have the special ability to control the decisions of anyone in the world. In them, college student Kinzie is just discovering her own dangerous powers — and her role in the battle for humanity’s future. You can find out more about Terri-Lynne and her work at www.terrilynnesmiles.com or by following @TLSmiles on Twitter or Author Terri-Lynne Smiles on Facebook.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Analyze a successful story/book — or one you enjoyed, whether it was successful or not — in terms of LOCK.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Terri-Lynne Smiles Goes for the LOCK

  1. Jane

    September 29, 2014 at 8:33am

    Great post. I like the notion of studying Independence Day. I’ve often thought that one could teach almost anything to a recalcitrant student if one taught from the Marvel Comics cannon. Even iampic pentameter (Thor) (Silver Surfer). Even basic reading wouldn’t be so gruesome.

    Important reservation:
    Today’s comics don’t count.

    Wish I’d been at the Imaginarium.

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