So, you enthusiastic future novelist, you! You have just come up with the greatest premise for a story since Helen launched a thousand ships, but there’s just one problem: how do you tell your awesome story awesomely? For the first time novelist, the urge to just sit down and start vomiting words on the page is strong. But after that first chapter, or even ten, it’s easy to lose your way and your momentum. So, not only do we not just sit down and start writing, we do not even start at the beginning.
At the most basic level, J and I use three act structure when planning our novels. It’s a structure as old as written narrative, boiling down to beginning, middle, and end. One of the most popular models, frequently used by screenwriters*, is called the Syd Field Paradigm, and consists of the following parts:
Act 1: Opening Image, Exposition, Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1
Act 2: Pinch 1, Midpoint, Pinch 2, Plot Point 2
Act 3: Showdown, Resolution, Tag
Occasionally J and I will combine or elide parts of this, but these are the first parts of the novel we figure out. However, the Opening Image is not where we begin planning; we begin with the Resolution/Tag.
We started working from the end after I watched the wonderful series of videos by author Dan Wells on his Seven-Point System. His story structure method is essentially a simplified version of Syd Field, the seven points being:
Plot Turn 1
Plot Turn 2
But what he does that was new to us when we discovered it is that his first step is to decide his Resolution, and then he goes back to the beginning to determine his Hook. In a well-structured story (which is the goal I’m aiming for, anyway), there should be a symmetry between these two, the Resolution and Hook opposites, but two-sides of the same coin. How did you get from the Hook to the Resolution? Well, next plot out the Midpoint, when the transition from one to the other happens. Then go back to the beginning to figure out Plot Turn 1 to find the catalyst to get the story from the beginning to the middle, and then jump to Plot Turn 2, the catalyst to get the story from the middle to the end. Finally apply pressure to keep the plot moving by figuring out Pinch 1 and Pinch 2. Keeping with the mirror idea started in the Hook/Resolution pairing, the Pinches should thematically relate to one another. And they should also be saying something significant thematically about the story. (We were long confused on the exact nature of good Pinches before attending a plotting workshop with Diana Botsford. If you ever get the chance, we recommend attending.)
Now, do we always plot with this exact back and forth? Nah. We have dry erase boards where we fill in the blanks, and sometimes we’ll know exactly what our Plot Turn/Point 1 will be before we’ve figured out the Midpoint, and that’s fine. However, we never do anything serious until we know the Resolution. Until we know where we’re going, we don’t start the car. So, for instance, when I started outlining the novel I’m writing for this year’s NaNoWriMo, the first things I wanted to know are who committed the murderer and if my detective, Oleg, would catch her. Once I knew the murderess would get away with it, leaving poor Oleg pretty bummed, I knew I needed to start the novel with him experiencing one of his rare happy moments in life where things were actually going well.
And for us, this is where we start. We slowly fill in more and more of the outline, figure out what events need to happen between Pinch 1 and the Midpoint, for instance, which we will be getting into in more detail in future posts. Now, this all may sound incredibly dull to do, and it might seem it would make writing the novel boring, since we know exactly what’s going to happen. However, I’d like to take a second to dispel those myths. First off, outlining a novel is incredibly creative. I sit down to outline (actually, I’m often standing, but more about that later), and I’m creating a story. How is that not incredibly enjoyable? In fact, our outlines are so detailed, they’re almost like first drafts. So when I sit down to write (and I usually am sitting at this point), it’s somewhere between rough draft and first revision. Also, at this point, I don’t have to worry about the plot or who the characters are, because I know. Instead, I get to focus on the words and how I’m telling the story, not what story I’m going to tell. I’m an actress who has learned her lines, and now I can concentrate on my performance.
- Most of the structure techniques we employ come from screenwriting. In fact, the next two blogs are going to heavily revolve around the two screenwriting books we’re pretty sure we couldn’t live without.