Story structure is something I’ve worked long and hard to learn. If I wrote detective fiction or romance novels, I’d have a readymade scaffolding onto which I could hang my plot hooks and turning points. Those genres have conventions no writer of genre fiction can afford to ignore.
With literary fiction, however, story structure isn’t predetermined. Plots emerge from the characters themselves: what drives them; the troubles they carry around; and, their obsessions and self-deceptions. Each new writing project demands that writers revisit their assumptions about what makes stories work.
My main assumption is that when my feelings are fully engaged, and when I’m writing with a sense of discovery, I’m on the right track. Put simply, when I can’t wait to see what happens, I assume the reader will catch my enthusiasm.
Writing the Discovery Draft
In the first draft–sometimes called the “discovery draft”–I work very much at the sentence level. If I can capture the story’s voice, then I have a chance at evoking emotion in the reader.
Because I’m working on voice and sentences, I don’t start out knowing what’s going to happen every step of the way. At most I’ll have two or three “must-have” scenes in mind. I write these first, and then I write “toward” them–the events that happen just before the fully imagined scenes or just after them.
Often I have a hazy sense–based on a two-sentence plotting method I discuss in this post–about how the novel’s going to turn out; but, I don’t know the specifics of how the character gets from Point A to Point B.
To discover who that are and what they’re capable of doing, I put the characters in motion–on a road, in a room with another character, or at their jobs.
Stitching In A Plot
There comes a time when I’ve written myself out. All the scenes I can imagine have made their way onto the page. I’ve learned what the characters are likely to do. If I’m lucky, I’ve captured both their individual voices and the voice of the novel as a whole. Working on three or four chapters at a time, I begin to develop sequences that cause tension to mount. I make sure each chapter has a climactic event that makes the character’s situation worse.
The project I’m working on right now is historical fiction about a young French artist who goes to Baja California in 1769. Think of him as an art-school dropout who saw a shortcut to fame and fortune. I thought I had the elements of the plot worked out, but then my writing colleague, Judith Starkston, showed me a way to double-check my assumptions.
I want to share what that process was like. By storyboarding my novel and using a story structure borrowed from the film industry, Judith and another critique partner helped ensure that my novel has continuously rising tension and that the character development makes sense. I’ve never used a critique group in this way, and I found it incredibly generative.
The Difference Between Film and Fiction
Call me a “doubting Thomas,” but I am generally skeptical about “story doctors” who think that Hollywood techniques work the same way in fiction that they do in film. Unlike film, where the audience’s emotions are evoked by visual images, music, a fast-paced plot, and sharp dialogue, something different is going on for readers of fiction.
With the words they put down on the page, writers must satisfy the reader’s “inner ear.” Remember the pleasure of having a parent read to you or tell a bedtime story? We humans are hardwired for stories whispered in the dark or recounted around a campfire. Thus, I was skeptical when Judith proposed this screenwriters’ exercise. In fact, I considered the possibility that I was just wasting my time, rather than doing the actual writing.
The Three-Fold Board
This project began last week when Judith e-mailed me the title of a book she’d found helpful in her own revision process. The book is Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff, and the book is well worth the $3.99 price. The author uses examples from movies to explain the 3-Act dramatic structure that’s as old as Aristotle. But more useful for me was her ability to break each act into sequences–eight in all. Judith, very helpfully, had printed out headings, and you can see these on the three-fold board.
Breaking 3 Acts Into 8 Sequences
Andrea Sokoloff advocates using a story structure akin to that of movies. She uses examples from well known films to show how moviemakers keep tension high.
- Act 1 has two sequences, and each of those has a climax.
- Act 2 has two parts, and each of those parts is composed of two sequences.
- Act 3 has two parts: Sequence 7 contains the “Big Doom” or climax, and Sequence 8 leads to the “Final Battle,” followed by the Resolution.
|Act 1||Act 2-Part I||Act 1-Part II||Act 3|
|Sequence 1||Sequence 1||Sequence 1||Sequence 1|
|Sequence 1 Climax||Sequence 1 Climax||Sequence 1 Climax||Sequence 1 Climax|
|Sequence 2||Sequence 2||Sequence 2||Sequence 2|
|Sequence 2 Climax||Sequence 2 Climax||Sequence 2 Climax||Final Battle|
Act 1, Sequence 1
Prior to this storyboarding exercise, I’d been revising the start of my novel to give a greater sense of the protagonist’s ordinary life. My novel is about an artist, and I immediately saw that Sokoloff’s suggestions about using visual images, along with the events in the sequences, could open the door to “re-envisioning” the plot. My young artist Noël’s drawings and paintings provided an emotional jumping-off point for the changes to come. (For more about my novel, please drop in at my Authors’ Guild website.)
Sokoloff’s book contains great suggestions about what each sequence should contain, but I had already made a lot of progress on my novel using the Scrivener template I wrote about in a previous post. Using the headings from that template, and the scenes I had already written, I arranged Post-its according to the Sokoloff scheme. (I should also say that these headings owe a debt to Joseph Campbell and his notion of the “hero’s journey.”) The Scrivener template calls for 7 sections, not 8, and that meant I needed to take a second look at the structure as a whole.
My Story Structure Lacked A Midpoint Climax
As I moved Post-Its around the board, I gained a better sense of the approximate sizes for each sequence. For the length of the novel I’m writing, each sequence would come in at about 50,000 words, with Sequence 7 being about 40,000.
My first pass showed me that the book was heavily front- and back-loaded. I had many scenes setting up the hero’s normal world and many showing his world spiraling out of control. What I had failed to provide were satisfying mid-point climaxes. Sokoloff calls these the “tent posts” of the plot. That’s an apt term. Without those tent posts, the reader’s interest would collapse.
Prior to doing this exercise I had thought the climax of Act 1 would be the expedition’s departure from Spain–sailing off into the sunset, so to speak. But doing this exercise made envision a different end. Having the travelers arrive in Mexico during a hurricane (and while being fired on by cannon from an impregnable fort) made a more dramatic climax than my original poetic, but lame, idea.
My Big Aha Moment
Now, you’d think that working with a Scrivener template would have helped me figure out the story structure. It had almost done that, but not quite. Act III had a great “Big Doom” moment. The most famous astronomer of his day died of the “Black Vomit,” and my little hero Noël almost died.
I had actually written my way through his Resurrection and sent him careening down the echoing halls of survivor guilt. However, as so often happens, dramatic actions by themselves do not always line up well with what readers demand of a plot.
What I discovered was that, according to Sokoloff, I needed to provide a “Final Battle.”
What could happen that would be worse than the Black Vomit? It turns out that the story structure demanded that the hero meet his “dark night of the soul.”
My critique partners brainstormed options that would wrap up my hero’s personal journey. We considered the conflict that undergirded the novel as a whole, namely the competition between Spain and France. I won’t reveal the ending. Suffice to say, the ending is now worthy of the book as a whole
Story Structure and Filling the “Plot-holes”
Often when we bring work-in-progress to our critique partners, we’re showing 20 to 30 pages at a time. Our beta readers can’t spot gaping “plot-holes.” Using Sokoloff’s method, you can enlist the help of your fellow writers. Or, you can rely on the guidance Sokoloff gives you in her book.
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff