Tonight, I added a new page to the site and adjusted the menu a bit to reorganize. If you’re looking for the various templates, worksheets, etc. that I’ve used over the years, they can now all be found on the Writers page!
Note: this includes the new Mind Mapping templates that I created the other day as I was plotting the ZCR.
Are you sick of plotting yet? I certainly am. I’ve almost come to the place where I’m going to start writing, even if I don’t have all the details figured out. I feel stuck, mired in the mud, and I need progress. Again, we come back to “do what works for you.” If the process becomes painful, boring, or tedious, why are you still doing it? However, I know from past experience that if I rush too much, I’ll have more revisions to make in order to tighten the story up. The more thinking and planning I do now, the better the first draft will be. I don’t want to spend a year revising this story — in fact, I’d really be happy if I could submit it by the end of the year. (That’s my unofficial goal.)
Loosely, this stage ties to the spreadsheets I showed in the last post — but they’re not quite exactly the way I was taught by the Witch. Originally, I learned to take a story and break it into 10 chunks, called blocks since they’re the building blocks of the story. Act 1 contains 3 blocks, Act 2 contains 5, and Act 3 contains 2. The hero’s journey lies very nicely on top of the blocks:
Block 1 = Ordinary World
Block 3 = Accepting the Call – ending with Crossing the First Threshold into Act 2.
This helps you define the structure and pacing of the story and for the most part, this really resonates with me. Where I ran into problems (creating those spreadsheets) was with the Maya thriller, where I had three major story lines all converging in the last half/third of the book. I needed a bit more space to keep track of what was happening — so I technically added more “blocks” to the Acts. It was more of a spacing/usability decision than a structure decision — I couldn’t fit all the details I needed into 2 tiny columns (blocks) for Act 3!
The point I’m trying to make is that structure is well and good — but it should be fluid and flexible too. If the story you’re writing feels like it needs 3 blocks for Act 3 instead of 2, who cares. The important part is that you recognize Act 3 should be roughly the last 1/4 of the story and should move very, very quickly. Act 2 should be the meatiest and encompasses roughly 50% of your story. Exactly how many blocks that means is up to you. So feel free to modify this process for yourself, and for each book.
With Victor’s story, I don’t need nearly as much space to write out the rough details of the Block. I only have 2 POVs. I have the main story line of Victor and Shiloh’s romance, wound into the premise of the story, that it takes place on a reality show. I have a subplot about an industry spy. And that’s it! The real meat of the story is the relationship and the conflicts that arise because of the show — which feeds directly into the romance, because Shiloh crafted this show down to the littlest detail, for him.
One fun thing that can help you think about structure and story at the same time is to NAME the blocks something meaningful to you and the story. I had the idea this morning that I should base the blocks on the idea of episode titles for the show. Not all of them are show titles, but this will definitely give you an idea of what kind of story this is going to be.
Block One – The Pitch
Block Two – Try Outs
Block Three – Premiere
Block Four – Serving Your Master
Block Five – Loving Your Master
Block Six – Do You Know Your Master’s Hand?
Block Seven – At Your Master’s Pleasure…or Displeasure
After all our brainstorming and character building fun, now it’s time to begin adding structure to your story. This is where you weld into place the foundation and girders that will hold up your storyscraper.
When I first began writing, I didn’t think about structure at all. I had a story to tell, and I told it. As I learned more about Story and the writing craft, I realized there were some things I’d done involuntarily. These things are inherently part of storytelling — keeping the reader involved in a story, speeding up the pacing or slowing it down, throwing more rocks at your character stuck up in that tree. But for awhile, I remember being terribly confused. I suddenly knew why I’d done certain things, but then the how began to waiver. If I’d done something naturally, how could I force it to happen now?
Trust the magic. It’s there. You’ve been mixing a potion from the very start of storybuilding. Adding a framework for the story to hang onto will not damage the magic. On the contrary, it will give it a place to shine.
Knowing the structure of the story helps you guess the length too. Say you have a really big “candybar scene” already in mind, but you have no idea how far into the story that scene will play out. Is it in the first third? The last third? Somewhere in the middle? Thinking about structure — and specifically the hero’s journey — will help you figure out in which “Act” the scene lies.
The level of detail you define at this point of Storybuilding is entirely up to you and the story you’re writing. Don’t be surprised if one story wants more work than others — my process changes a little with each story I write. I’ve known people who plotted out to great detail with pages and pages of outline and scene details. I’ve also known people who only have a vague idea of the ending and that’s what they’re writing toward.
The whole point of this exercise is to get a story to the place where you can successfully begin writing. By “successfully” I mean that you’re setting yourself up to FINISH THE BOOK. In the end, that’s the only victory. Do whatever you need to do to finish the book. Plot a lot — plot only a little. Write up detailed character sketches — or just a few emotional letters. Whatever you need to. Finish. The. Book. You can plaster over holes, demo entire rooms or floors of the storyscraper if you need to, LATER. You can’t see enough of the Story structure and how it fits into the skyline you envisioned until you finish the first draft. Renovation Nightmares will begin later.
If you at least know the ending of the book, then you have a target to shoot for. If you know the major inciting incident that sets the story in motion, then you know how to write the first 100-120 pages of the book. If you can get a few additional key scenes or surprises laid out in your mind, then you’ve got something to write to in the middle. How much more detail you add at this point is entirely up to you.
Personally, how much work I do depends on the length of the story. Ironically, very short and very long pieces take about the same amount of work. In a short story, you need to choose the scenes very, very carefully. A good short story is still going to have a character changing in some memorable way, and the few precious words must reflect those changes quickly. A long (e.g. 100K or more) story has a lot of Deadly Middle Ground to conquer. If I don’t have a few key turning points already identified, I’m going to get stuck halfway over the mountain, and that’s not a good place to be.
There are a ton of great Hero’s Journey links available on the internet. Also check out our character clinic and Left Behind & Loving It categories; my friend Jenna wrote up a great post about how she uses the hero’s journey. I refer back to Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey constantly.
Minimally, I like to know the following journey points of a story before I begin writing (and why). I do a lot of this brainstorming on paper, and then when I know the rough idea of the “scene,” I write out a card for it. One card may spawn another idea, so I jot that down. Think about reactions – you can get another card or so for each main POV character after a turning point scene. How did Victor feel when THIS happened? What’s he going to do now?
Ordinary World: this helps me figure out how to start the book in the right place. Note that you still have to have ACTION happening here. Characters in the shower, waking up from a dream, etc. are boring
Inciting Incident: this is the Big Bang that sets your story universe into motion. It’s the event that sets your hero’s feet onto the yellow brick road of your journey.
Crossing the Threshold: this scene helps me know that Act I is finished and I’m moving into the middle. The first Act should be roughly 100-120 pages (in a 400 page book). If my character takes the first step on the main journey — and I only have 50 pages — then this is going to be a very short novel. Maybe that’s okay – or maybe I need more details.
Midpoint Shakeup: Okay, I lied, this isn’t part of the hero’s journey, not exactly. But I love to have a big major event in the midpoint of the story. It’s the candybar I’m writing toward that helps me get the next 100-150 pages.
Approaching the Innermost Cave, the Dark Moment: there comes a time when the hero believes all is lost, the journey is hopeless, the battle will never be won. This is signaling the end of Act II. Even though I’m on the downhill slide at this point, I always get bogged down around 275-320 pages of a book. It’s like the bleak emotions begin to take their toll on me — and I find myself in my own dark moment. This is where I begin to wonder if I’m going to be able to pull the story off. This would be a really really bad time for me to read a negative review or allow any harsh words to inflict any damage on my writer’s psyche. This is a whole other post — but protect the writing. Protect yourself. “Having a thick skin” does not mean that you need to shovel other people’s caca with a smile!
The Climax(es): Ah, the showdown begins. The last 100 pages–once they get rolling–should just fly. Now your hero goes to battle. You throw every surprise and horror at him/her that you can think of. If you’re really doing good, you’ll write them so far into a dark dead-end alley that even YOU won’t have any idea how to get them out. Yes, this still happens, even if you “plot” the story. Let the magic happen.
Resolution and Return: in the last 20 pages or so, tie up all loose ends, decide how your character is going to live out the rest of his life, grieve for the fallen, and soak in the victory. I don’t always do a ton of plotting for this stage — unless there’s a book that follows. Then I need to make sure that the elements I need to bridge into the next book are present and make sense.
Now you may feel as exhausted as your characters, but I promise, nothing, absolutely NOTHING, compares to the rush you’ll feel when you type:
P.S. If spreadsheets don’t scare the crap out of you, you may find these helpful. These are filled out for the Maya thriller. The character rows are the major players that I needed to track through the story, even if they didn’t have a POV. Note that I didn’t do this much plotting before the first draft — this level of detail came during Revision Xibalba.
Twas the night before Story, when all through my head
Not a character was stirring, not even a Fred.
The worldbuilding and rules I had already begun,
In the hopes that my character would soon to me come.
The photos were nestled all snug on my board,
While I knew how he looked, he still made me bored.
No hero to journey, and me without plot,
My Story was doomed to molder and rot.
When in my head there arose such a clatter
I sprang to my keyboard to record the sudden chatter.
In my scrapbook bible I wrote in a flash,
A few mannerisms I kept in my stash.
Like tugging his hair when lost deep in thought,
Or his palm rolling to and fro an ivory rahke.
When, what in my wondering mind should appear,
But shades of people, real people, my dear!
Key phrases only he would ever say,
A silver ring he wears night and day.
A dark, dark secret held close to his heart,
The ratty blue shirt from which he refused to part.
With quirks and flaws, so interesting to see
How such little things were obviously the key.
More lively than cardboard, my character breathed,
Rounded and rich, I swore he would bleed.
And then in a twinkling, I heard a new voice,
His clear words to listen I simply had no choice.
Defining moments from my hero’s past,
Darkest secrets he shared with me at last.
Friends and family, and his enemies, too,
All his troubles and fears were mine to review.
How many times he had fallen in love,
What gods he honored in the heavens above.
His hopes–how they shone! His fears, how dread!
His secrets were like ghosts from which he fled!
His heart lay shattered like fragile spun glass.
No matter his goals, his past ne’er surpassed.
And now I knew the path I should set,
How best my hero to torment and fret.
His arc I saw like a gleaming thread,
A steep, dark ravine I would send him to tread.
The darkest moment, his innermost fears to face.
The elixir to lure him through this dangerous race.
His character scrapbook and his hero’s journey,
Soon gave me the framework for his grand story.
I spoke not a word but went straight to work,
And began plotting without a single shirk,
And laying the journey over ten even blocks,
And at my hero I threw bigger rocks.
I opened up Word, to my scrapbook a look,
And away my Story flew like all really good books.
But I exclaimed, ere I typed chapter one,
“Remember character is plot, and well you’ve begun.”