Case Study: Staying in the Conceptual “Lane”

Here’s a good little case study, taken from my supposedly short (this turned out to be over 8 pages of feedback) $50 Conceptual Kick-Start analysis service.

As usual, props to the courageous writer who consented to share this.  Actually, she was delighted and enthusiastic when she found out there was a clear direction to take this, and she’s excited to hear your thoughts.

To tempt you further… this is a classic ghost story, with significant upside potential.  But for that to happen, certain things must be rethought and revamped.

Once again, this is a case of a muddy line between a proposed concept and the premise that springs from it, with one or both suffering from that lack of clarity.  An easy fix, when viewed through a new lens.

It’s also a cautionary tale on how easy it is to drift into another lane — often on-coming traffic — when the story proceeds without a clear blueprint and compellingly dramatic spine.

You are invited to weigh in.  I hope you get something out of this, as it’s a case of a perfectly good story with a perfectly common slippery slope… leading to a perfectly doable revision.

Read here: Case study in Concept vs. Premise


If you’d like some of this for yourself, click HERE for the $50 Kick Start program (as used here), and HERE for the full meal $150 story plan analysis.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

22 Responses to Case Study: Staying in the Conceptual “Lane”

  1. MikeR

    My suggestion for what would make this a really killer story – about a ghost who is a killer(!) – is simply … “scare the pants off me.” This ghost might be much more of a demon than a lady, and “so be it.” I’d spend little time with “she wants to reconcile with,” or delving into the backstory of this demon-from-hell, or the front- porch conversations of a fishing village. Find an incredibly compelling reason for them both to be there and to stay there, and ratchet-up the stakes as you scare the pants off me again and again. A lighthouse is a great setting for a ghost, or for a minion from the depths of hell. Is it finished yet? 😉

  2. Robert Jones

    I’m getting the same impression as Larry…the ghost is not a solid enough villain. Yet.

    My Grandfather was a great teller of ghost stories. Some people sit around a camp fire telling ghost stories. My grandfather offered no comfort from a fire. Or any light at all. He turned the lights out just as darkness was settling in and his story session would begin. Soon my brother and I were sitting in total darkness, listening. Every creak of the house settling, or clank of the pipes (they had steam heat with hissing, clanging radiators) became eerie. The right mood can make the most common things seem suspect.

    My grandfather was not a writer. He probably should have been. He liked his ghost stories and he liked to scare people. He had been doing it since before I was born–to my father, uncles, cousins. Which isn’t exactly nice, but it certainly made his stories effective. If Stephen King didn’t have a fondness for scaring people, would he be Stephen King? A wishy-washy ghost story is…well, a wishy-washy ghost story. Or it’s an after-school special designed for a younger audience.

    My grandfather didn’t care about our age. He gave us a few nightmares, but he certainly infected our imaginations. He did understand one thing about ghosts–they all had a reason. Usually they were protecting something hidden in the houses they haunted. Something dear to them in life. Maybe valuables stolen in a robbery and they want to keep their little secret–even after death. Or maybe it was just something of value to the ghost. Something it feels very protective, or possessive about.

    Ghosts are usually replaying something from their past lives. They are often caught in a continuous loop in time that keeps replaying for them. But just because this woman found herself murdered, as unfair as that notion may sound, is it going to really keep her spirit bound to this lighthouse for eternity, give her reason to commit murder after murder? If she was just treated unfairly in life, why is she damning herself after death? The center doesn’t hold. This woman had a secret in life. She was polluted, damned before her death–probably the reason she ended up getting murdered. She was as much a villain in life as she is in death because the soul doesn’t change and make you a murderer simply because you were murdered. Give her a reason to be the villain of the piece.

    Something these lighthouse keepers are doing is triggering something, or threatening her secret just by being there. Or they’re attracting the negative energy of the ghost because the people who move into the lighthouse are bringing their own negativity with them.

    If the girl is the one seeing the ghost, it may be that she is not yet over the death of her own mother. Something tragic in the mother’s death that the girl is still feeling emotionally acts like a magnet. Or maybe the father has a bit of a temper because he has issues of his own. Those issues are connected to why is the father is staying and not just getting out of the lighthouse. Maybe he can’t get another job. Maybe he is mired in debt. Maybe the people he owes money to are not so nice. Whatever his problems are, they’ve blinded him and caused those relations between himself and the daughter that are in need of repair. Maybe he blames himself for the mother’s death and he’s become bitter and useless…hence, the girl taking care of him because he’s not capable of a whole lot.

    There’s always someone in a ghost story who doesn’t believe what’s happening until it’s too late–or almost too late. So maybe he doesn’t believe the daughter, blames her for things the ghost is doing because he thinks she isn’t happy with their new life.

    There’s a lot of work to do here in connecting your characters to your core story. Just remember that everything in your story emanates from the core. The girl isn’t going to just sit around listening to the stories about a ghost killing the two previous lighthouse keepers, try to fit in at school, and “OMG, that boy is so cute. I want him to ask me out but there’s that pesky ghost to take care of first.”

    Core: Girl Vs, Ghost.

    Stakes: Her father’s life? Probably her own as well.

    Other characters in town stem from this, act from the basis of your core. They don’t want any part of the girl at school because they says she’s already dead by moving into the lighthouse. Kids aren’t nice. They are probably more apt to tell her those ghost stories as threats, rather than just passing rumors.

    If there’s a boyfriend, or girlfriend, they probably don’t want to see her get hurt. So maybe they try to help unravel some clues. They play their roles as offshoots to the core story. Any romance or friendship are a subplot. And what if the boy’s, or girl’s, parents find out they are helping? Will they forbid it? Will the ghost target anyone who makes strong connections, or tries to help the inhabitants of the lighthouse because it now sees them as a threat? Maybe that’s why the girl has trouble adjusting. Not because of teen angst, but because the whole town is avoiding them, treating them like the plague. And at first she can’t figure out why they are so unkind. She figures small town life just sucks until the threats about the ghost starts. Notes on her locker, cruel pranks meant to drive her and her father away.

    The father doesn’t see it, or care. he’s lost in his own world with his head shoved so far up his own butt that his daughter’s complaints don’t even penetrate his thick skull. This is why the girl becomes the hero. The father is useless in his current state.

    And how does all this tie in with the core story?

    Start with the primary questions first:

    –Why does the father stay at the lighthouse? Pin his issues down.

    –Is the ghost totally evil and malicious? If this is a novel designed for adults, she had better be a real villain.

    –How does whatever the ghost wants tie in with what the girl wants? How are these two linked? What might they share in common?

    –How will the girl be instrumental in bringing about a resolution to all of this?

    –What is it that makes her qualified to be the hero? Link that up with what she and the ghost may share, or have in common? There’s a bond between these two somewhere in the mix. It might be connected somehow with the ghost’s former life.

    And what about the person who hired these lighthouse keepers? Do they live out of town and think all the stories are just nonsense? Or is he hoping to find tenants who will do his dirty work and who cares? If they end up dead, he doesn’t have to pay them. And there’s always some poor slob who needs a job these days. Or maybe he knows more about the ghost than he’s letting on and hires people with certain qualifications because he figures one of them will eventually get rid of his ghost problem for him.

    Everything has a reason. And characters don’t just fall into situations. Does the girl enjoy unraveling mysteries? And whatever she’s overcoming in the form of the ghost has something to do with whatever she needs to overcome personally. A trauma connected to the mother’s death? Something that’s very intimate and connected to who she is–and relates to the ghost somehow, and who she was.

  3. Lara McGill

    I get the impression there’s money involved – whether there was a bonus that would have to be repaid if the new lighthouse keeper left before a certain time and they’ve already spent that bonus on cleaning up debt that hit them after the death of the wife, or whether they get hit with money they’d have to pay if the father’s contract was broken early. The bonus might even be a reason for them to go. The family needs it for debt, and the company needs to offer it to get someone to out there. Qualified locals may not want the job because they value their lives.

    Just a small thought pre-coffee.

  4. I think the FPP should be the ghost actually trying to kill the father, which ramps the stakes up a lot. That way the protag can see the ghost much earlier. When the ghost strikes, then the story is really on. The father won’t leave because he doesn’t believe her. He doesn’t see the danger. Maybe give the protag a history of mental instability, so that she’s afraid to speak up… people will think she’s off her meds again. Or maybe she’ll get sectioned. She may even doubt her own sanity. This puts her in the situation of having to deal with the situation alone, while keeping her cynic of a father safe.
    The second plot point could be when the father himself realises the ghost is real, but by then it’s too late and they’re both trapped in the lighthouse with no way to go for help.
    Of course, all this is tricky because we don’t know, from what we’ve read so far, how the author intends to work all this out. Is the ghost really the villain? Is the ghost evil? Or just misguided or something? How will she defeat the ghost?

  5. I don’t really have much else to add, Larry has done a great job of pointing out the weak spots and suggesting how to make the story stronger, I’m just here to say that I *love* the analogy of veering from your true storyline into on-coming traffic.

    Larry has managed to so clearly explain what will happen to a story if you do that – it will be left in little pieces all over the road with people shaking their heads and saying “what a shame, this didn’t have to happen.”


  6. I love reading these. Thanks once again to a generous writer for sharing this, and to you, Larry.

  7. Curt

    Thank you, Larry, for your books and for this website. You bring clarity to the craft of storytelling that can easily become cluttered and confusing.

    Like others here, and hinted at by the author, I saw the situation as one where the father does not see and does not believe in the ghost, but the protagonist has no choice. The father doesn’t run because he thinks its all malarkey, and the girl cannot because she is under the authority of her father.

    I like Simon’s idea for FPP, and I have a question. Could giving the girl a choice enhance Simon’s idea for the FPP? Say she has an opportunity to go live with an Aunt, and perhaps she is teetering on the brink of that decision because of difficulties with her father, but the first ghost incident happens, and her love for her imperfect father wins out over her need to escape him and her fear, showing her to be a plucky young gal worthy or our interest at the same time.

    I ask this for selfish reasons, wanting to explore the FPP concept further.

  8. Curt, I like it! Bound to improve the idea as it adds additional inner conflict and dilemmas. That has to be a good thing.

  9. Robert Jones

    I think Curt’s idea does make the girl seem more heroic.

    I like Simon’s idea of giving the girl a problem she needs to overcome as well. This speaks of the inner demons pat of the storyline–and somewhere in this might be the connection to the ghost.

  10. MikeR

    Lots of the ideas that crop in ghost-stories are somewhat pastiche – such as, “the [grown-up] doesn’t believe in the ghost.” Most likely, you either do believe in something that’s trying to kill you, or you very soon will. Likewise trying to put the school-age kid in school. Either ignore school or put it in the summer, or make her a little older. (Kids, sometimes, are over-rated in stories.) The core premise of the story appears to be that an older man and a younger woman who is his daughter are on a lonely lighthouse with a murderous ghost who has succeeded in killing two previous keepers.

    There are many, many ways that this story could be set, and I don’t want to presume to say how. But, for example, the lighthouse could be on a spit of land. The townspeople could be pivotal in finally driving away the ghost for good. And you could still put the main characters very-truly in peril while wringing from it all a very deep and thought-provoking tale.

  11. Robert Jones

    @Mike–You make a good point. A lot of kids are overrated in books and movies. But then, so are a lot of adults. Realistically, what would anyone do when confronted by a supernatural presence that meant them harm? They would have the crap scared out of them and either run screaming into the night, or become paralyzed by fear.

    I think the trick here, or in any work of fiction, is to make your hero and villain believable. But we’ve recently covered a lot of ground on that score. And I agree that it would be great to see a ghost story handled in a fresher way.

    That being said, the girl’s initial reaction to fear is what the FPP should kick into gear. The father needs to have a convincing reason to stay, not to mention be a credible character–but I’ll get to him shortly. This is the kind of story where some form of crucible would sure come in handy because there needs to be a reason that both girl and ghost are trapped in this situation and cannot leave until there is a clear victor. A choice to stay is heroic. And maybe the father is the things that ends up trapping the girl if losing him gives her nowhere else to go. But then by the mid-point, something is going to happen that makes this girl realize she needs to really get her act together and stop reacting to the fear. How does a kid do that?

    There are a lot more options open since the dawn of the Internet. There are places where she could learn. There are people she might contact through websites. There’s the families of those lighthouse keepers who were killed. There are doubtless clues in some of the stories circulating. And she could check that out in back issues of the newspapers at the local library. She doesn’t need to come off as a super-girl, just intelligent and motivated. Inside all fiction is a bit of a mystery. The girl’s learning and putting facts together is a way for the reader to learn the ghost’s back-story as well as empowering herself with knowledge.

    As to the father disbelieving, or making the adult look like an ambivalent fool…well, that’s up to the writer to make his character credible as well. We think an adult should be intelligent, maybe more capable than the average teenager when dealing with something of this nature. However, most adults have also had a lot more time to build their belief systems–what gets in and what gets blocked out.

    If the guy is intelligent, how come he’s taking a job that no one else in town wants? Obviously, the girl is taking after the mother here, or some family gene pool that skipped a generation with Dad. Not being overly bright, getting himself in a bad situation, alienating his daughter, all say he’s either shut down or has a lot of walls. I prefer walls. When people erect them to block things out, they often block out the ability to grow and mature. Age means little in terms of maturity. I’ve known people who fit this description and they can often be fearful and superstitious. Not to mention a bit controlling. That’s how hey compensate for what’s lacking in brain matter. They hear what they want to hear, believe what they want to believe. They can turn their backs when most needed because that fear is often controlling them. So I can well see someone in denial even when certain facts are staring them in the face. I’ve seen it happen. And when people refuse to believe something because accepting it would turn their lives upside down, they can be downright vehement. Even ugly in their refusal to accept the unacceptable.

    It’s through planting these things about the father in the setup, showing him reacting this way in other problem situations in his life that makes his denial credible when the ghost hits the scene.

    Plus having the father shutting things out and reacting badly under fearful, or dire circumstances gives the girl a reasons to behave differently, to deal with problem situations. She’s already seen where pretending problems don’t exist has gotten her father. Maybe she’s had to clean up after him too many times already. So the father sets a precedent…an example for her NOT to follow.

  12. Great conversation from people who have experience putting this in practice. This helps me flesh out what I’ve learned from Larry’s books.

    It seems to me the FPP is more powerful if the protagonist in a story like this consciously walks across the bridge from Act 1 to Act 2 as opposed to being dragged. Like MikeR, I would not presume to tell the young lady how to execute her story. She’s come up with an intriguing idea and fleshed it out using Larry’s principles, so I’d say the story is in good hands.

  13. Curt, what moves me most is when the hero is unwilling, dragged into some quest they abhor, but then embraces the quest as some stance for higher moral ground or whatever.

    I guess I like my heroes to start out reg’lar folk, then become heroic in Act II B. But that’s subjective.

  14. MikeR

    I would also caution against necessarily having the old man be, well, stupid – or in any other way “insufficient.” This is a difficult set of assumptions that makes it more difficult to engage either with the man or with his apparently-negligent daughter (who could be seen putting her own father in death’s way, etc). Who says the man has to be old; the daughter, young?

    And, let us remember, the role of the lighthouse-keeper was a profoundly honorable profession that was very often passed down from father to son or even daughter. The lights had to be manned; every night. Lighthouse keepers also often ran rescues. This man could be determined that the beacon must remain lit at all costs, even, if you want it to be so, at the risk of his own life. And the girl could be … his daughter, indeed. Likewise, the evil spirit could be anything you want.

    As I suggested earlier, ghost-stories are often the realm of pastiche. But they can also be among the most powerful stories to be told, because you control every element. You get to define the ghost/demon, where his power comes from, where his weakness is, how evil he is or isn’t, what he’s done and is capable of doing. You have free rein as to both concept and premise, and your audience will readily believe you.

    Some of my favorite tales, as an adult and as a child, are “ghost stories.”
    – The Ghost of Dibble Hollow
    – Stonewords (young-adult fiction genre, but if you haven’t read it, go get it)
    – Something Wicked This Way Comes
    – The Girl In The Swing

  15. MikeR

    Also: most lighthouses are on shore; not islands.

  16. Patti

    Hi Everybody:
    I’m Patti, the author of the ghost story in question.
    First, let me say that I was amazed at the amount of feedback Larry Brooks provided me for a mere $50.
    I just started writing a couple of years ago. I attended two “writer’s workshop” classes here in the Phoenix area and while I really don’t think that the workshop format is the best for nurturing creativity, it was a place to start and meet other writers. I was fortunate enough to have my two first short stories published, but even more fortunate to stumble across the work of Larry Brooks.
    The ghost story that Larry commented upon is the embryo of a new story, my first full-length manuscript.
    I actually lived on Mackinac Island, Michigan and am, of course, very familiar with the Round Island Lighthouse (less than a mile off the shore of Mackinac Island, and, yes, a lighthouse on a spit). It always struck me as a wonderful setting for a story.
    My original idea, which came to me out-of-the-blue, was a cross between True Grit (one of my favorite novels, with Mattie Ross, one of my favorite all-time characters) and The Woman In Black. I’m interested in writing a classic ghost story, not a Stephen King type of horror book, and I very much liked the idea of the young girl and her father.
    Since I’ve received Larry’s feedback, the story has changed dramatically. I’m going to submit at the $150 level next month, with the new changes.
    But I want to say how appreciative I am at the feedback I’ve received here. Writers are a generous bunch, and I’m very grateful at the people who’ve commented, taking the time to think my story through, and trying to help me make it stronger. Believe me, I’ll take ALL of your suggestions to heart, and I thank you!

  17. Robert Jones

    Hi Patti–Thanks for giving us a chance to exercise our minds and make suggestions. I think lighthouses are cool as well. And would certainly make for an interesting setting for a ghost story.

    Maybe the fact that the ghost is haunting a lighthouse could be symbolic somehow. They’re beacons of warnings against potential danger. Could some past lighthouskeeper in the ghost’s time have tried to turn out the light so someone couldn’t see the beacon–someone the ghost was trying to save from being murdered, but it ended up costing her life?

    If she’s been terrorizing lighthouse keepers since, killing at least two, maybe she’s reenacting the day she was killed, thinking she is still trying to save whoever it was back in her time.

    That at least sounds like a classic ghost story. Something that a local legend could be spun around, twisting her into some crazy murderess when she was really a victim of small town paranoia–much like the young girl finds herself a victim of by moving to the lighthouse in the present.

    It would at least give the two girls, past and present, a common thread.

    Congrats on getting your first two short stories published, BTW–that’s a very big plus in your favor 🙂

  18. MikeR

    @Patti – thanks for revealing and introducing yourself. I am eager to be transported to Mackinac Island, into Round Island Light, by someone who knows the place so very well because she once lived there … and, once there, to find myself totally engaged in your story, whether I lose my pants 😉 or not. I’m sure I will be, because I also know those two novels well, and this idea “that came to you out of the blue” is pure-gold if handled right. (And @Larry will indeed help you to do it.) Good luck. (“Is it finished yet?”)

  19. Robert Jones

    And of course it goes without saying that if the ghost turns out to be misunderstood and put to rest, it must be absolutely convinced that all it is doing and has done is right up to that point. It has to come on strong or it won’t seem like a real threat.

    The history of a real lighthouse and town could prove interesting too. Might even hold some clues for the story, or the history of the ghost. Never underestimate the real history of a place. People are never predictable, always interesting, and sometimes a little scary. Or a lot scary…LOL!

  20. MikeR

    @Robert, @Patti – my favorite non-fiction genre is … travel writing. I love to swept away by fiction to a real place and a time (or a fictionalized one) by someone who knows it well. Therefore, I am keenly interested that the book will not only introduce me to the father, the daughter, and the ghost/demon, but also to your chosen place and time (whether it’s literally real or not). There is a palpable texture to well-crafted settings, scenes, and people. I especially like a story when, after the story is done, I can close my eyes and still experience the place. That, to me, is absolutely a critical part of the story-experience that I as a reader look for – and that’s what I myself am now trying to create.

    I’m actually more-interested now that you say that you’re not going to “do Stephen.” Stephen does Stephen better than anyone else does already, though many have tried. A slower-paced book, rich in texture yet forceful and decisive in its action, would be an ideal ghost-story to me. I look forward to it.

  21. Patti,
    Thanks for sharing this information with us, and good luck!

  22. Robert Jones

    As Larry says, a place can become a character in the story. Setting can be fused with your primary characters as well. It should never become a history lesson that veers from the course of the story to explain things like history, architecture, vast descriptions that make up entire scenes or chapters about a place. Yet all of those things can be important. They are woven into the texture of all the hero encounters a little at a time. Just like any other characterization would be furnished within the space of a novel for the reader to encounter.

    In this case, it comes to the girl through the actions of those she meets. How the appearance of the town either resembles, or contradicts the attitude of it’s people. Inanimate objects can be characterized in the same way as people.

    The history part might come in with learning the past of the ghost. But again, it’s either implied, or shown, by the actions of ghost, or the people she encountered in her time. It’s all done in a way that visually characterizes. And bit by bit, as the reader gets to know the people in the past, juxtaposed with the people in the present, in ways things have changed, or haven’t changed. And when the girl encounters the same settings as the ghost, feel her impressions filtered through her experiences, readers begin to get to know the town as a character.

    Has the town been abused, neglected, a place where past secrets have been buried and their unspoken energy is picked up by the current inhabitants in a way that causes unrest? The history of a town is really the history of it’s people. They share a state of mind, paying it forward, passing on problems and prejudices from one generation to the next. That’s basically how we work as a race on the whole. However, in a specific place, like this town, that energy becomes very localized.

    There may be people, stewards of the town, keepers of it’s darkest secrets, that know from where such energies originated. But how these things usually work is that future generations breed their hostilities by passing it on without reason. Thus it becomes a taught attitude more than one of actual fact of experience. That doesn’t stop the human race from feeling just as potent in their anger concerning issues of race, creed, differences–even their attitudes about locality, how things should be done. Because those things, good and bad, become traditions. And we are nothing if not creatures of habit. Sometimes blind habits that have no reason. Although pass on a problem to your children and they’ll soon discover reasons to make it true…usually before they’ve finished grade school.

    The specifics of them are found in the history each town, county, country on the planet.