Building a strong structure
I’m working on the next step of my MyNoWriMo plan, which is to sketch out the scenes in my story. I’m using a format for the information I put into each scene sketch based on the one from Janice Hardy’s blog, with modifications. Here’s what I give for each scene, with all but the last being no more than a sentence or two:
- Descriptive name (just a few words)
- Goal (what the main character wants to get out of the scene)
- Internal conflict (why things are emotionally hard for the main character)
- External complication (why this will be outwardly hard to accomplish)
- Stakes (why the goal is important, what it will cost if it’s not achieved)
- Disaster (what happens at the end with respect to the goal)
- Summary (this can be one or more paragraphs with the action, dialogue, and anything else that I think of that should go into this scene)
There are a few differences from Janice Hardy’s plan:
- I’m leaving out the POV character, since my story is 1st person with one narrator, so that’s the same in every scene.
- Her system ends with a climax, but I’m substituting a term from Jack Bickham’s book Scene and Structure: a disaster. Every scene (except the last one) ends in one of three ways: a simple No (the goal was not achieved), Yes, but (the goal was achieved, but at the cost of making things worse overall), or No, and furthermore (the goal was not achieved, and the attempt made things worse). Keeping this in mind makes me focus on my goal and on ratcheting up the tension as the story moves forward.
- Janice Hardy’s system offers a paragraph summary of the scene as an alternative to the list of high points, but I’m including them both in my system. I want to have a place to summarize the action and dialogue, but also to throw in anything else as I work out my plan. If I’m working on one scene and realize I need to foreshadow something in an earlier scene, I can go back and make a note of this in the earlier scene. If I think of a juicy bit of description or a joke to relieve the tension, in it goes. This way I don’t forget anything later on when writing.
I’ve got a file with each scene starting on a new page. For my first pass I’m just filling in the bullet list, not the summary, but once the bullets are done I’ll transfer the information from the chapter summaries to each scene summary and begin fleshing them out. I should be on track to finish by my deadline of May 3. So far, so good!
I just finished M. R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, and I’m heartbroken. And thrilled. And wonderstruck. It blew my mind. Let me ramble a bit about why I liked it, then try to dig into its structure a little more deeply.
Though it never uses the word, this is a zombie story. Humans are fighting a last-ditch action against “hungries,” people who have been infected by a fungal spore that shuts down the brain’s cognitive functions and hijacks the body and nervous system as a host for the fungus. Hungries live on protein from uninfected animals and humans, and the fungus is transmitted in their saliva to infect those they bite. They are mindless hunting creatures, solitary and terrifying–except some that are different. Melanie, the girl at the heart of the story, identifies herself with Pandora, whose name translates as “the girl with all the gifts” and who brings to the world great trouble, and also hope. She is one of a small number of children infected by the spore who retain their mental functions. They have been isolated at a heavily-guarded military base north of London, where they attend a school to see how much they can learn while a medical researcher tries to understand how they have been spared the brain-killing aspects of the infection. What makes this different from a standard zombie story is the depth of characterization. The military men tasked with keeping the humans safe, the doctor trying to find a cure before it is too late for humanity, the teacher who opens her heart to the terrifying children, and most of all Melanie herself, are fully realized three-dimensional people, and I cared about each one of them. As the story progresses inevitably to its tragic, heroic end, possibilities fade and flicker out for each one, but there is still hope, from the girl with all the gifts.
I find myself these days reading stories for fun and delight, and also for the workmanship of the plot. This story is a spot-on example of the three-act structure, with everything precisely in its ordained place. Since I’m going to be taking it apart and discussing different events from the story, beware:
- Inciting incident: The event that disrupts out the uneasy, unsustainable status quo we opened with is Dr. Caldwell’s decision to dissect Melanie and Miss Justineau’s determination to stop that from happening. This event takes place at the 20% mark, which is rather late in some ways. However, in a story like this one, which takes place in a world so different from our own and is largely told by a person very different from anyone we know, a lot of ground had to be laid out to begin with.
- First plot point: What tears everything apart happens precisely at the 25% mark: suddenly there are sirens and explosions and a window shatters, “and the hungries swarm over the sill.” Four adults (Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and two military men from the base, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher) and one mysterious girl (Melanie) escape, trying to get to the human enclave at Beacon, 74 miles to the south.
- Midpoint reversal: After narrowly escaping the most terrifying hungry attack yet, two things happen. They are quieter than most of the big action-packed events in the story, but they represent an upheaval at a core level, and they’re exactly at 50% in the story. One is that we’ve now seen two hungries with unusual behaviors, closer to human though not nearly at Melanie’s level: a woman blindly pushing a baby carriage that held the dead body of her baby, and a man thumbing mechanically through family pictures in his wallet and singing snatches of an old song. This opens a whole new vista about what hungries can be. The other is that Melanie, who until this point has only wondered what she is, now realizes that she is herself a hungry, a monster. It rocks her, but she goes on.
- Second plot point: The five have fought their way to what seems like a miracle: a mobile lab, built just after the breakout and designed to enable scientists to travel in safety and study the infection. For Caldwell it is the chance to study the infection under the best possible conditions. For Parks and Gallagher it is firepower and armor plating and a motor to get them through London and on to Beacon. For Justineau it is safety from the hungries who surround them ever more densely the farther south they go. Only Melanie is not cheered by the vehicle. She is fighting her nonhuman nature more and more as she spends time with the humans, and needs to get away from them and feed so that she can get her hunger under control. But she runs across something that sends her mind reeling: a group of hungry children who hunt in packs and communicate with each other, just like her but feral, without the benefit of school. At this point, exactly 75% through the book, things tip and start racing to the inevitable conclusion.
- Climax and denoument: One by one everyone dies except Melanie and Justineau, and Melanie makes a frightful decision. If things go as they are, the attempts of the last few humans to kill the hungries will endanger the children, but there is no hope for humans in the end. It would be best if all the humans on the planet to become infected right away. Some of them will make new children before the fungus destroys them, and those children will be the future of the planet. So Melanie makes this happen. True to her alter ego as Pandora, she has unleashed the ultimate horror on the world, while preserving the most slender thread of hope: Miss Justineau, sealed in an environmental suit, begins teaching the next generation of children.
It is certainly true that a good genre novel doesn’t have to hew this precisely to the rules of the three-act structure, but this book is an example of how it can be done. I learned a lot by analyzing it, in addition to the pleasure of reading such a gripping tale.
Major Story Turning Points
I’ve worked on this a lot this week, and I think I have a structure that’s going to work. I actually framed it out in 20 chapters, with a general idea of the action and importance of each chapter, because otherwise I couldn’t really pin down the story beats. So when you see how vague the beats themselves are when summarized, trust me that I have a pretty clear idea of what each beat actually means and how each one leads to the next. So, drum roll, please – here they are!
- Inciting Incident: Kay (my Main Character) realizes the evil that has been stalking her for years is reappearing yet again. She takes steps to do what she always does, which is run, but lingers to try to help a friend. In the process she meets a team of people who are working against that same evil, though this isn’t very comfortable for her. She deals with trouble by avoiding it, deals with life by staying apart.
- First Plot Point (end of Act I): Kay and the team discover that she carries a curse that makes her a point of strength for the evil. They decide to band together to try to understand Kay’s curse and figure out how to fight that evil together. She is still uncomfortable with this business of joining forces with others and staying to fight, but she can’t find a way to avoid it, and she is starting to form actual connections to others in the team (especially Chase, who is starting to become the romantic interest).
- Midpoint Reversal: After several false starts, they find a way to block the gateway the evil forces can use to attack people in our world, and they are successful in destroying the device that they use for this. However, it is moments too late, and the core of the evil force has now moved into our world. It can use its new position to expand and, eventually, take over our world. Kay is devastated not only by the risk to the world, but her sense that she bears personal responsibility for it. If she could run again, she would, but it’s impossible, and her new friends are pulling her in with them.
- Second Plot Point (end of Act II): The team has engaged in several attempts to stop the evil, without success. Kay is now face-to-face with this ultimate evil all alone, knowing that her curse makes her contribute to their strength in spite of herself. She has now bonded with the team and feels more alone than she did when she started.
- Climax: Kay realizes that the curse that gives strength to her enemies can also be turned against them. She finds the courage to step forward, toward the evil she’s run from for so long, and defeats it, with the support of others, particularly Chase.
- Resolution: The world is safe because of the team and especially because Kay pulled it out. The romantic interest has flowered, and Kay is now able to make an actual commitment to Chase, and to the whole team.
So, my readers – what do you think? Does it sound interesting? Would you read it?
Progress so far:
- 3/1/15: Set the goal (a full 50,000-word draft, or half a novel?) – On time
- 3/8/15: Develop my one-sentence pitch line – Early
- 3/22/15: Establish major set pieces/beats – On time
- 4/12/15: Develop a rough synopsis
- 5/3/15: Complete a rough outline or scene sketch
- 5/24/15: Complete an “idea bank” with the things I want to include in the novel
- 5/31/15: Plan the beginning of the novel, from opening scene to first major turn
- 6/14/15: Plan the middle of the novel, including all the twists and complications leading to the ending
- 6/28/15: Plan the ending of the novel, including the climax and the final resolution
- 6/30/15: Get all my logistics in place (word-count log, file formats, backups, and so on)
So many questions!
I’ve opened all the aspects of my story to possible revisions – except for the actual climax, which I see clearly and want to drive the story toward. But I’m re-figuring everything about how to get there. The characters are in flux, and the plot points, and even the basic through line, though that’s not going to change in a major way. I keep erasing and revising. But I’m determined to meet my next goal, which is on Sunday, just 3 days from now. Aaaaah! How am I going to make it?
Part of it is that I want to make sure I can draw a line that goes from Point A to Point C . Point A is the point where my main character is thrown off balance, so that her way of coping with her life challenges just isn’t working any more, so she starts trying to figure out how to hold on the things she’s familiar with. Point C is the climax, where she uses strengths that were barely hinted at in the beginning to overcome weaknesses that she started out clinging to fiercely, saving the day and demonstrating that she has become a new, stronger person. Everything in between needs to follow a logical progression, so that each step leads inevitably (but surprisingly) to the next step, getting her deeper and deeper into trouble the more she tries to solve her problems until she finally commits herself completely to her new reality.
Easy to say. Hard to do! I’m still working on it.
Potholes – I ran into a couple recently.
One was the flu. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s the flu, though I didn’t get tested so I could be wrong. Sunday afternoon I started feeling bad and by Sunday night my fever was up to 101, and it stayed up there until last night. I’ve been home from work for four days, which I believe is a personal record for me (and that’s over 27 years on the job). Being home would have given me lots of time for writing, except that the fever and the the usual hit-by-a-bus feeling left me good for nothing but coughing and watching TV with my eyes glazed over. Seriously, I couldn’t even manage reading. I’m doing better today and might even be at work tomorrow. I can’t express how happy that makes me.
The other pothole, the one that was looming before the fever hit and is still waiting there fore me, is a plot hole. My next deadline, which I haven’t missed yet, is to establish the major set pieces and beats in my story. I’ve kind of done that, only not really. I think I know the big ones (the inciting incident, the first plot point (end of Act 1), the midpoint turn, the second plot point (end of Act 2), and the climax. The problem is there are enough glaring holes on both sides of the midpoint that I’m not secure about it. Unless I can convince myself that I know enough about the complications that happen in Act 2, I’m not really ready to drive those stakes into the ground. So that was my focus before I got sick, and is going to be my focus now.
So, I’m off to sip tea with lemon and honey and see how long I can think about plot structure and character arcs before I have to go soak in some TV for a while. Lordy, but it feels good to have some brain cells firing again.
So I was thinking.
I was rethinking the character mix in my story. This got me to rethinking the overall story arc, which brought me back to the scene worksheets and beat sheets I’ve been using to plan. And I ran into something I’ve never really had a good answer for: What is the logline for my story?
Now, logline means different things to different people. Some think of it as a comparison (My book is like Harry Potter, but with murderers instead of wizards). Others as a simple statement of high concept (Wagon Train to the stars – that was the actual concept for the original Star Trek TV show). What seems most useful to me, though, is the one-sentence summary, identifying the protagonist, the story goals, and the antagonist. That is the most useful idea, it seems to me, and something I want to get clear before I go any further. I haven’t been able to pin it down, though, so I have work to do!
Once I get that – my hook, my logline, and my thinking cap warmed up – I’ll be ready to go!
Still working on the revised roadmap for my book, but making progress!
I have found several wonderful resources:
- A series of posts by writer and blogger Larry Brooks on his Storyfix blog about inciting incidents and how they’re different from the first plot point. This really helped me to identify the actual first plot point of my story.
- A collection of beat sheets and scene worksheets put out by Jami Gold on her Beach Reads with Bite site, which I am using to work on the overall plan and the scene-by-scene plan.
- From Michael Hague via Janice Hardy’s Fiction University site, a six-part plot structure that feels like it will work well for me.
I’m really rethinking how the structure all fits together, but the great news is – it doesn’t look like I’ll need to throw out much of what I’ve done. Just a little tweaking, and I’ll be headed in a new direction with more confidence, and a good map. Yay!
Taking a step back – so I can move forward
I’ve been floundering. That is, I write some, take it out, write some more… I can’t tell if I’m really getting where I want to go. I have a very clear vision of what I want this story to do, how it affects my characters and how they struggle and finally triumph over the odds stacked against them. But I how do I get from here to there?
One option – just jump ahead and write the scenes I have playing in my head. Later on I can stitch them together. I may try that, but first I think I need an actual roadmap. And for that, I’ve decided to work with a beat sheet.
There are lots of beat sheets, which define where specific plot elements need to fall in the story. A good summary of what beat sheets are and a collection of downloadable beat sheets is available from Jami Gold, who has an awesome writing blog and did a post on beat sheets. I’m taking time this week to step back from writing to lay out the plot points on my own beat sheet, so then I can forge ahead. Thanks, Jami.
“When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” ~~Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.
I’ve been bogged down lately. Yes, life is busy, but come on – I couldn’t find time to even sit down and write 100 words? What’s up with that? I think I’ve figured it out – I’m in the middle of writing the part that people will skip.
I had a scene planned where the whole gang gets together and fills in the protagonist about what’s going on. In this contemporary fantasy they have to explain to this poor woman about magic powers, faerie, and Evil From Another Dimension. Yes, this has to happen. Yes, I managed to get all the way to Chapter 3, with cool stuff happening and crises to deal with and character development and so on, but now I had to start dropping the background. I played with that for a long time, starting it over again 4 or 5 times, and I finally got a version I’m happy with (it involved narrowing it down to just two people, the main character and one who is in some ways her nemesis, setting aside the Evil thing).
But now I have a couple of scenes planned that, as I try to work on them, feel like filler. The real action is going to start up again soon, but not yet. In the meantime, I was going to develop some more character background and set the stage for some stuff that’s coming up. But seriously, I think I’m in the middle of the part that readers skip.
So – listening to Leonard – I’m stepping back to re-think. Can I just jump ahead to the next action moment? Can I make something more important happen now, so this stage-setting and character-building can feel less dumpy?
I think I think too much. Comes with the territory, I guess – college professors are like that. I keep looking for the “right” way to do things, and then tweaking things a little, and a little more, and still more, to try to get everything to fit.
Case in point – I read a post by K. M. Weiland recently on one of my favorite blogs about the importance of a character’s breaking point. It is when the character, who has been struggling throughout Act II, finally makes the irrevocable commitment to the new view of the world, and in the process must sacrifice something he/she thought, at the beginning, of the story, was of ultimate importance. It will allow him/her to face the crucial trials of Act III and be successful. It proves that the character has really made the change that the book is all about, and pivots the story from Act II to Act III, which means it should come about 75% of the way through the book.
Problem: in my Work in Progress, I don’t know that I can pinpoint such a moment. There’s one that I think will qualify – Kay, my protagonist, starts out all about running from her problems, but at a crucial point decides to stay and fight, and this is what saves the day in the end. Well and good. But (a) I’m not sure what she sacrifices to do this, and (b) it’s closer to 90% into the book than it is to 75%.
So is this something I need to fix? Will it push my story out of shape? These are the kinds of things I struggle with. My solution for now: keep thinking about it. I have a (distressingly) long way to go before I get to that point in the story (I’m maybe 10-15% through my first draft). Maybe a solution will bubble up. If not – I’ll write it the way I’m seeing it now, and fix it (if it needs fixing) in the revision.
Put things off to the revision – a good plan. JUST KEEP WRITING!