The Gripping Climax – an ingredients list

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Camel bench - gripping climax ingredients
The story’s climax should have you on the edge of your camel-themed seat. Use an ingredients list to make sure you include everything you need. Camel bench, Embankment north, London, 2016.

After five solid months of writing, some of it even on the work in progress, I now approach the crucial moment in my story: the climax. Here is where all the foreshadowing I’ve been doing over the last 100,000 words must come to fruition; where the hero must face his demons and overcome his opponent; where everyone decides whose side they’re on and where, ultimately, the end of the story is decided. But what makes a great climax? How can I be sure to include everything I’ve been setting my hero up for? How can I make it exciting for the reader, and ensure it forms the inevitable outcome of all the hero’s decisions thus far? I’ve created numerous themes and story threads and I want them all in the mix at the end – and to make sense. There’s so much to remember that I need a plan.  I use this method, which I think of as my ingredients list.

Climax scenes are fun to read. A great climax scene has you breathlessly turning the pages, whether the scene is a confrontation on the edge of a crumbling precipice, or a formal exchange in a courtroom, or two people on a swing in a garden, admitting their love.  As a reader, you must know what’s coming next. You turn the pages until you discover the answer. Then, with a sigh, you are ready for the slip-slide down to the ending, and the wrap-up.

But climax scenes are hard to write. Like opening scenes, there is just so much to do. All the threads you’ve been teasing out must now come together in a way that resolves everything and makes sense to the reader. (Or, if you’re not going to resolve everything, then those threads of story must come to a logical conclusion of some kind. Some things cannot be fixed, but the hero, and the reader, still need closure.) The auhtor must not forget anythign crucial, and must also not introduce any new elements which will confuse the climax, or diminish its impact. An ingrdient list will help keep the climax-recipe on track.

So you need to resolve the story’s main, big, urgent problem – with maximum drama and in a way that makes the reader think Of course! That is exactly what ought to happen.

That’s a big ask, and given that I started this story six months ago and have a memory like a crocheted swimsuit, I have made an ingredient list of what must happen, plus what I would like to happen in my thrilling climax to my book.

This is a process I tend to do quite early on, as I am finding my way in the story. If I know what kind of big finish I’m aiming for, I can add in teasers and clues as I write, hints which make this particular ending inevitable and satisfying. I think the style of a story’s ending determines the tone of the whole book. It would be no good, for example, to have Luke Skywalker learn Jedi swordplay, fly a frantic seek and destroy mission, and then defeat Darth Vader on a technicality in court. On a similar note, I can hardly wrap up a comic fantasy about gods, faith and lies with a bloodthirsty battle scene. It needs trickery and humour and affirmation, as per the rest of the story.

Here’s my checklist of what needs to happen:.

  • Reconciliation with the hero’s ally- realisation they are on the same side.
  • Release of the captured gods.
  • Defeat of the antagonist, through trickery.
  • Acknowledgement of the hero’s powers and duty.

Here are my ingredients – the list of things I want to include in my climax:

  • A huge, stirring setting such as Big Ben, the Great Pyramid, etc.
  • Cries of despair as the hero thinks all is lost.
  • Unexpected hope arriving at the last moment, giving the hero his final, brilliant idea for fixing this mess.
  • A breathtaking act of deception which gets everyone what they need.
  • The momentous defeat of his opponent  – or possibly a surprise compromise brought about through the hero’s genius.
  • Admission of the romance between the hero and his sweetheart.
  • Everybody gathered around at the end in joyous relief.
  • One small and humorous problem left over for the wrap-up.
  • Plus a bigger problem which can be solved in the next book.

That’s quite a lot to cram in, so my next move is to go back to my scene list and check where I am going to put all those elements. I need to check it flows in a logical way, and that nothing is missed out.

Then all I need to do is write it.

Ha!

I feel more confident going into my climax scenes with a plan, however. I might deviate from my ingredients list but the required story elements are there. This means I can always get back on track if I begin to veer away from my goal.

How do you plan your stories’ climax scenes?

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Planning backwards with a scene list

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Floating man, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Floating Man, Newcastle. It might seem backwards, sideways or just crazy to write the way I do, but it works for me – write first, scene list later.*

I’m very nearly done with the first draft of the book. Very nearly. I just have a couple of scenes to write near the end, plus some backfill to do at the start. This means it’s time to do what I always do at this stage of a story, and make a scene list. Which might leave you thinking, What? Make a scene list after you’ve written the book? That’s backwards! What?? I can explain.

I plan backwards. In total contrast to those who write out a scene list at the start of their project, I get down all known parts of my story first, and then shuffle them into shape, ready to go through and add backbone where is needed.
Essentially, the whole first draft of any of my stories is the rough outline, the brainstorm, the freewrite. It’s dialogue, action, description, ideas. The difference is that by the end of my outline, rather than a bulleted list of one line scene descriptions, I have 80,000 words.
I’m not totally ad-libbing it as I go. The shape of the story is in my head when I start, key scenes, all my Would Like To Meets. Writing like this lets my brain off the hook, frees it to make connections and throw in clues I have not yet consciously considered.
At the end, or near it, is when I get the scene list together in order to let me do just that – work deliberately on the structure my brain has been creating as it goes along.
What is a scene list? For me, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – a long list of every scene in my book, just a line saying what happened/what the purpose of the scene was. Maybe it’s the scene where aliens arrive; maybe it’s the scene where the hero reflects on his mistakes whilst fleeing a murderous tree.
Sometimes, when I try to describe the scene and it comes out as the bit where my hero dances with his love interest and they discover childhood similarities and get a bit drunk together, I realise that in fact the scene is doing nothing at all except indulging my romantic impulses, and so I ditch it then and there. This makes my scene list shorter.
Losing wordcount is a hazard of writing this way, but generally I’ve got so much by this point that the odd thousand words here and there don’t have a huge impact. And because my writing style tends toward the sparse, I know I’ll be going back in second draft and making it more descriptive and less like a load of dialogue in a bald occasional setting, and that will bring the words back in.
When I write out the scenes, I’m checking a number of things, separately and in this order:
1. Gaps. Has Bob gone from A to B without warning, and does the reader understand the transition? Is another scene needed to clarify or emphasise a key point? Have I referenced Bob’s dog in chapter 20, but failed to mention the mutt in chapter one?
2. Timeline. Do I have the aliens vanishing before the incident which sets free their nemesis? (Yes. This is a problem.) What are the logical consequences of each scene, and does what I’ve got next, make logical (and psychological) sense?
3. A decent shape. Does the story pan out in a way which will keep the reader interested? Are there slack bits which they will skip and if so, can I skip them too? Do the big scenes happen at the right moments, or have I created a three-hour movie where the story is all wrapped up, and then Bond goes off on a seemingly fresh mission for another ninety minutes? I hate movies that do this. If the story you started with is resolved, then stop. Doctor Who has become guilty of this lately, and the Mission Impossible franchise. Boo.
4. Clues. Is everything needed to resolve the story, shown to the reader early on? Agatha Christie-style last minute convenience is not allowed. You cannot have the hero suddenly find a Planet Salve in his pocket just as the world needs a solution for massive nettle rash. For a perfect story, in this respect, see Star Trek Beyond. All you need to know is set up in the opening scenes. Nothing is wasted and nobody pulls any rabbits from space hats.
5. Tone or mood. Glancing through, I check that the mood shape works with the story shape. This is hard to formulate, but basically, I check that I don’t have a happy-go-lucky scene right after a tragic one, unless that makes emotional sense in the story. Do I need to move my comic moments around, or add more? Do I need to hint at darkness sooner in the story?
When I’ve done all this using my scene list, all plot holes should be filled in, and the shape of the story should be pretty reasonable.  I’m then free to write the remaining scenes in the light of the scene list.
And once that’s complete… I’m ready to start on the second draft.
Lots of story methods use scene lists, but they are generally written before you begin. I have tried this, and found that I lasted less than two weeks of writing. By trying to nail down my story shape too early, I stretched my suspension of disbelief and got tangled in theoretical plots and subplots before I even had a clear voice for my heroine. That might mean I was doing plotting wrong, or it might be the way my mind works, but anyway the result was rubbish.
Anyway, for the traditional approach to scene lists, try the first two of these links below. They make perfect sense, even if they don’t work for me personally. And although I’ve yet to read it, the third is on my list to read next and seems to be right up my street.
  1. The Write Practice on scene lists for planning and productivity
  2. The Snowflake Method of novel writing, which uses a scene list as its core
  3. James Scott Bell, Write Your Novel from the Middle

How do you plan your writing? Or do you work in a more backwards way, like me? I’d love to know!

  • For a better picture of Floating Man than I was able to take, see here.
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Book blog: Save the Cat (and your logline)

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The cat's OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?
The cat’s OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?

If you struggle with story structure, theme, or bookending your work with definite character progression, then Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat! is a must-read. I started this book last week and I’ve re-read parts of it so many times already, in particular his guidance on creating a killer story premise or logline. I’ve done Snyder’s writing exercises, and read out loud to friends the industry-insider anecdotes that Snyder scatters throughout his book.

This book addresses my primary story writing weaknesses: the logline (I’ve never had one) and story beats (I have them but they judder like a bad-news cardiogram). Since reading this book, I’ve been working on both, and found the writing growing stronger every time.

Snyder refuses to let you start your brilliant story until you can say, in a simple sentence or logline, what your story is. The logline forces you to examine the premise of your idea, and tests if it is strong enough to carry a whole story. His conviction that there must be something ironic about the logline, something that draws in the audience with its promise of trouble or fun, echoes CS Lakin’s advice that every good story must have a ‘concept with a kicker‘.

I found working on loglines incredibly helpful. Having to produce a logline strengthens every idea. Maybe you have this idea about a guy who wins a million pounds. OK, but what’s the irony – the kicker?  How about if the guy is the worst possible person to win because…  he’s got a week to live… he daren’t let his family get their hands on it…the love of his life hates wealth … he just became a monk … he’s just been put in jail -? A rich guy who got lucky isn’t enough of a story. The worst possible rich guy, a rich guy with an ironic reason why he can’t enjoy his new wealth…that could be the start of something.

Snyder uses the example of the movie Four Christmases to illustrate his insistence that your logline – and your title – must answer the audience’s question: what is it? In this case – it’s a couple who must endure four separate Christmases with their  double set of divorced parents. The irony? The couple are ready to commit to marriage and want out of their parents’ disastrous relationship history.

Snyder’s other piece of pure gold in  this book (among lots, lots more that is high value) is his beat sheet: fifteen points through which every successful story must pass. He demonstrate how every smash-hit movie fits this structure, whether it be Miss Congeniality or Elf. The three-act structure will be familiar if you’ve looked at work by James Scott Bell or KM Weiland – but has just 15 points, including the opening and closing images which define for your audience how the hero has changed.

For these 15 points, Snyder suggests a maximum of 40 scenes. He’s dealing with movies, but that’s a good number to go for in a novel too – you may end up with more, but 40 is nicely achievable. And only 15 points to hit, including start and end – that feels eminently doable!

This book is encouraging throughout and avoids the hectoring tone employed by some other story structure books. The examples are memorable and entertaining – the Pope in the Pool! – and their lessons are easy to learn. I know I will be watching for the hero’s ‘save the cat’ moment in the next film I see, and in every story. because if the hero doesn’t show humanity, even a tiny bit of it, then for Snyder, he ain’t the hero.

I recommend this book without reservation. The only downside is that now, as well as writing novels, I want to write a movie.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder


Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has been adapted by various writing blogs, including this one  on Jami Gold’s website. You could also set up this structure in Scrivener, which would be great for shuffling around your scene ideas.

Scrivener's corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.
Scrivener’s corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.

 

 

 

 

 

The four essential elements of a logline are:

  • Irony – it must give an involving and dramatic situation.
  • Compelling mental picture – a whole movie, including its timeframe, must be implied.
  • Audience and cost – for novels, the target audience and tone.
  • Killer title – says what the story is, in a clever way.
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Master post on outlining a novel – 21 ways to outline your book

Reading Time: 2 minutes
The Sphinx beside Cleopatra’s Needle is inscrutable, but these links will help unlock the mysteries of book outlining.

In my attempts to outline my novel I did a lot of online reading as well as the books I’ve previously mentioned. Google will find you many sites which offer help with outlining a (fiction) book, but I’ve gathered 20 useful articles. Which one suits you?

  1. This starts small and builds up from a single sentence for your story, to a complete novel. It does assume your initial sentence is good though:

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

2. This is like the reverse of the snowflake method – start with some questions, imagine scenes that answer them, then write a sentence to describe the overall story:

http://www.creative-writing-now.com/novel-outline.html

3. This helps you build a scene list for a novel:

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2010/01/25/outlining-novel/

4. This has 8 story structure elements, different to others I’ve seen:

http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/plot-outline.html

5. Like a Lady Boss? Surely that’s just a Boss, the same way we no longer have Lady Doctors, or Authoresses? But anyway. This is an overall strategy for your book, including outlining:

http://www.shesnovel.com/blog/write-novel-outline-like-lady-boss

6. This is part of the Guardian’s series, 30 Days to Write a Novel, or more accurately, 30 days to outline a novel. It goes into enormous detail and for a total pantser like me, is terrifying. 30 days before you can write? What? It’s high quality advice though:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/20/how-to-write-premliminary-outline-day-one

7. This takes a workshop format to build up an outline:

http://www.aliciarasley.com/artout.htm

8. Oh my god so much detail in this I can feel the creative life force being drained from me. Sorry. If you love micro-managing your writing, this is for you:

http://pbackwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/novel-outlining-101.html

9. This has a great checklist to make sure every scene is adding to your story. No fluff allowed!

http://www.livewritethrive.com/2016/01/25/why-outlining-your-scenes-will-help-you-write-a-great-novel/

10. This is very strict – answer 9 questions to develop a chapter list, then the remaining 15 to complete a detailed outline:

http://www.fracturedhorizonnovel.com/2011/05/02/a-simple-novel-outline-9-questions-for-25-chapters/

11.This is high level novel-writing strategy, but it includes what to consider when crafting your outline:

http://thewritelife.com/first-novel-8-strategies/

12. The Plot ‘Skeleton’. Ugh. But it explains it clearly:

https://www.scribendi.com/advice/theplotskeleton.en.html

13. This is very detailed and you’ll need to up your browser zoom to read it but:

http://www.authorsalon.com/page/general/sixact/

14. Short and sweet, with further links to explore:

http://www.writerstoauthors.com/how-to-outline-a-novel-seven-point-story-structure/

15. For pantsers:

Planning for Pansters: Writing a Novel without an Outline

16. This uses the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to illustrate story structure:

http://samuelloveland.com/writing/story-skeleton-a-simple-seven-step-outline/

17. This is very similar indeed to the snowflake outline:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/guiltypleasures/how-to-write-a-romance-novel-gill-sanderson/

18. So is this:

http://thewritepractice.com/scene-list/

19. This is very straightforward and would work for pantsers as well as plotters:

http://helpwithpublishing.com/using-a-step-outline-to-create-a-plot/

20. This comes with various free templates. The spreadsheet one is pretty good:

http://www.eadeverell.com/the-one-page-novel-plot-formula/

And finally this – if you’ve read all of these and tried them and still your story will not be shoehorned into any of these outline shapes:

21. Pants it.

https://selfpubauthors.com/2013/05/18/how-to-write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants/

 

 

 

 

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Outlining challenge- finish my novel outline in two days

Reading Time: 2 minutes
New York bull, 2014
Am I caging my novel by creating an outline? There’s no way to find out without trying.

This week I have a mission – to finish the outline for my book. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks, by reading from some experts, plus actually drafting some outlines, mind maps and scene lists. I think it has helped, but now I have a sneaking feeling that the main point of all this has been writing avoidance. And so I’m going to finish my outline.

 In two days.

To do this I will need my skills. Here’s a quick review of those:

Things I know I’m good at:
  • Openings and hooks
  • Foreshadowing
  • UST 
  • Romantic intimate scenes
  • Humour
  • Cliff hanger chapter endings
  • Mimicking a voice I know well e.g. for fanfiction
  • Sounding confident
Things I know I’m not very good at:
  • Structure
  • Endings
  • Fulfilling on the promise offered in early chapters
  • Balance of length across chapters – actually, dividing things up into chapters at all
  • Outlining. I barely do it, have barely ever done it, but like self-editing* I now need to learn how to do it
So it seems like I know where to concentrate my efforts. But I don’t; all these elements are opaque to me. I’m starting with outlining because that gives me a shape with which to work on the rest. It’s been far too long since I wrote a spine-tingling finale. Time to change that and craft an outline for this book that will have me itching to get to the good bits.
Tasks
  1. Complete reading the James Scott Bell book on Superstructure.
  2. Build on my theme mind map and add to it with a scenes mind map. Anything goes – just get it all down.
  3. Build up an order of play for my scenes, based around my theme.
  4. Check my outline against the various structures suggested by Bell and others.
  5. If there’s time, work in reading another book on structure. KM Weiland  has one, there are many others.
I still want to really study structure and outlining as I feel this is the main missing tool in my skill set. Given how well and fluently I can write, imagine what I could achieve if I had an actual plan before I started.
Hence my target for this week: a completed outline. I’m now sick of not having it done, so I need to do it.
Also …  I joined the Accountability thread in the SPS community, so now I have to. Yikes.

I’ll update on progress when I’ve finished blogging and made some.

PS: If all else fails, then there’s always this: Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t

*There will be more on self editing. I never used to do this and then fanfiction. Suddenly I was faced with the idea that not every word I wrote was golden. Imagine. And so I had to learn how to do things like re-read my work, and even delete some of it. I’ll share my tips for this soon.

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My Biggest Pants Yet – outlining a novel, Part 2

Reading Time: 2 minutes

sefton-vertical-encrustedI read these books last week when I got in trouble with outlining my first novel. Below are my impressions of these books, and what I’ve learned by reading them.

Take off your pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was my first admission that, for a story longer than anything I’d ever written*, I needed help.

Libbie Hawker’s book started out annoying – I dislike the cosy, sparkly tone she adopts – but soon it gets down to solid advice, and her own suggested formula for a satisfying story structure. She uses one of her own books as an example, but also some well known stories. I liked the shape of her outline, but had trouble with her definitions of the Antagonist and Ally, since they seemed to be the opposite of standard explanations of these.

I could see what she was getting at, but I couldn’t pin these definitions on any of my characters. Did that mean I was trying to write a novel without either of these? I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t make it stick.

I liked her iteration of the ‘Drive for Goal>Antagonist Attacks!>Thwart>Revisiting Main Character’s Flaw>New Drive For Goal’ flow. I can totally see how that could lead the reader through a series of increasingly Bad Things until the main character is forced to address their Flaw, challenge the Antagonist, and be changed by the outcome. I tend to do this anyway, but I don’t think I use the Antagonist/Ally double-whammy she describes. So this book was interesting but I’ve yet to get a handle on applying its ideas.

Super Structure, by James Scott Bell. James Scott Bell proposes a different structure, based around the main character experiencing a disturbance in their status quo, and then being propelled through two ‘doorways of no return.’ I like this simpler idea, but then got stuck again trying to identify my doorways. Is it when my character runs away recklessly seeking glory? Is it when his home is destroyed by the bad guys? Is it much, much sooner, when he first arrives at the strange village? Aarrgghh. (But see my later post on this – Sef)

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them. Ronald B Tobias’ book is a little different. It suggests you identify your story as one of his 20 basic types of plot, and then use the corresponding deep structure. My plot is easily identified as a quest (hurrah – I can ignore the following 19 chapters) but then again I got tied up in trying to match anything in my book to any of the stages Tobias insists are fundamental.

Lessons learned about structure: think about structure when you first brainstorm your ideas. That way, instead of shoehorning your existing plot into a structure-shape and assessing if it works, you can be starting from an empty system which you can fill with your inspiration. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe I need some slightly smaller pants after all.

To be continued…


Jump back to Part 1

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My Biggest Pants Yet – Outlining a novel, Part 1

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Biggest Pants yet - outlining a novel
Antony Gormley’s statues have no pants at all. Is it time to take off my own metaphorical trousers?

Where I come from, pants means knickers. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about outlining my novel.

In Lancashire, (and also in, you know, America) pants means trousers. Flying by the seat of them is a style of writing beloved of those who like to be spontaneous, creative, freeform. They are known as pantsers and are often set up in opposition to plotters, who prefer a more orderly approach. I don’t believe these styles are mutually exclusive, but it’s a handy label. I am a pantser, and I am also someone who wants to write a novel. That’s what this blog is about. I put on the pants in January 2016 and they are huge.

It’s now June. And for the first time in my life, the pants are not comfy.

I started with a story outline of my usual kind: a wobbly line drawn in a notebook, with a couple of high and low points labelled, like a cross section of the Lancashire Dales. Peaks were my main characters’ triumphs; valleys, their terrible defeats at the hands of the enemy.

Later I added a few pages of mind map, connecting the various scenes I had in my head (and also, now, in Scrivener*) and trying to invent the ones I would need to make it all work logically.

Two weeks ago with a large Don’t Know now blockading Part 1 and Part 3 of my story, I went out and found these books:

Take off your pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was my first admission that, for a story longer than anything I’d ever written**, I needed help.

Superstructure, by James Scott Bell. This had so many stars on Amazon that it was an obvious choice for someone with a novel to write and a pants problem.

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B Tobias. This book has been on my shelf for twenty years I’d never read it. Time to open it up.

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood and Co), by Jonathan Stroud – well, I needed cheering up, and Stroud’s scary, funny, thrilling tales are a sure thing for that.***

Some detail on each of these books is in Part 2, but the bottom line is this: they didn’t help me outline a novel. Or rather, they didn’t help me with this novel. I will certainly be trying their methods for future stories, particularly some of the genre fiction I have lined up in my mental Must Write list.

My stories have never had any of these suggested structures. Reading these books left me panicking. Am I no good at all? Am I only made to enjoy the work of other writers, who can create a Mirror Moment (JSB) or show their character Girding Their Loins (LH)?

Every part of me answers No to these questions. I can write, I do write and I will write. I will work this out. I will stare at my wobbly cross section of the Dales until I figure out what is on that big peak in the middle, and how my lead will tumble down it, cursing, into the valley below.

So that’s where I’m up to. I’m sitting in enormous pants, with a complete idea for a book except some detail about the middle, unable to make my ideas fit other people’s. I’m not so arrogant as to think I have nothing to learn from established authors and screenwriters. Perhaps I am only hopeless at identifying a story’s structure (this does ring a faint bell from my English degree).

The only conclusion I’ve reached so far is that when I do figure out how story structure works for me, I’m going to write it down and put it in a book.

Jump to Part 2

*I have a separate post on Scrivener, the writing software used by many authors and bloggers. I’m roadtesting it for my first proper novel, plus also trying out WordPress and having a personal blog for the first time. Because obviously writing a novel won’t occupy my entire life.

**Longest original story. I have fanfics which go on and on. They needed some outlining too, but I did it as I went along and it worked out fine. Probably because all the hard worldbuilding, characterisation, premise and motivation had been done for me.

*** The Hollow Boy was awesome. I devoured it in three sittings, ignoring my childcare and dinner preparation duties, and reading it on the train when a keen professional might have been doing a bit of unpaid overtime. I’m in love with Lockwood, and desperate to know the cause of the ghost Problem, and how the narrator, Lucy, will manage after the cataclysmic events at the end of this book. It’s part 3 of the Lockwood series and I already have part 4 on pre-order. Stroud is an amazing writer! I bet he understands story structure.

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