With Divided Elements in the hands of my copy-editor, I’ve been using July to get some new writing done. Having signed up for both #JulyWritingChallenge and Camp NaNoWriMo, I was worried that my efforts would falter the way my first attempt at NaNoWriMo did – a lot of angst and procrastination, not much writing. Pleasantly enough, I am slaying it! (Already at 12,000 words (I set my target at 15,000))
Detailed and logically-structured plotting only up to the midpoint
The second secret is the important one (at least, for the purposes of this post).
I’m not sure whether it is pure genius or a product of my creative limitations, but it seems to be working. The thing is – when I get an idea for a story, it usually goes like this:
Thematic image and general premise – aka A visual and a one-liner ‘this is a story about…’
Since I don’t want to give away the juicy details of the new WIP just yet, let me show how this would work if I was writing Sons of Anarchy … (bear with me, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it and the memory may be rusty…)
I would picture that moment where Jax takes on the Presidency and Tara stands behind him as his Old Lady, a corruption of two individuals who had the potential to escape a violent and toxic environment but have ended up as the next generation of everything they didn’t want to be – Clay and Jemma.
That image also gives me my premise – the story of a son who seeks to escape the corrupted legacy of his father, who finds that escape in the return of an old girlfriend, but who ends up corrupted and corrupting her in his efforts to escape. Like struggling in quicksand – it only conspires to work against you.
That image and one-liner (okay, okay – one paragraph) give me everything I need up to the Midpoint – I get the status quo (Jax in the MC, Tara at the hospital), the hook (Jax finding his Dad’s journals), the inciting incident (reconnecting with Tara), the first plot point (going after Clay), the Midpoint (Jax and Tara as the new Clay and Jemma).
And that’s usually where the ideas run out – not because I can’t think of what happens next, but because there are so MANY paths this story can take. I generally know where I want it to end. I just don’t know how to get to that end.
This is why the first half of my plot outline for the new WIP is pages long and full of cool details. And the second half is … um, well… it’s blank.
I was kind of worried about this, but then I figured it could be a good thing. And I figured this while watching my beloved Wests Tigers play (and lose) another game (don’t get me started…).
A book, much like a game of football, is a tale of two halves. Every team goes into a game knowing the starting point (kick-off) and the end goal (walking away with a win, preferably a crushing defeat, that supplies two points on the ladder and a fantastic points differential). There will also be a detailed game plan – based on last week’s performance, where they are on the ladder, what current issues/injuries are affecting them, players playing out of position, whether it’s a home game, what they focused on in training, etc, etc.
But that game plan is only good up to the half time siren.
You walk into the sheds at half time with a 20 point deficit, you shake things up. You end the first forty minutes with three major injuries and a player sent off, and you start thinking twice about your earlier plan of putting on early points.
What it boils down to is this:
You can’t plan your second half until you know what position your first half has put you in.
Same goes for stories. I’ve spoken about this before – sometimes the little details you use to fill in your plot outlining can introduce a range of subtleties and nuances that shift the direction of your story. In the beginning the shift is negligible – but as it continues on that same trajectory, the difference becomes more and more noticeable.
It was the same with Divided Elements – what I had planned for my second half and what I executed were wildly different. In a good way. If I had stubbornly kept to the original game plan, I would have ended up with a incoherent, disjointed story with a lot of loose ends and an unsatisfying ending.
Which is why I am blissfully writing my way through the first half of this WIP without having a game plan for the second half. That can wait. I figure I will use the Midpoint as my new status quo and plot from there once I know my backstory (the first half).
What about you? If you are a plotter, do you plot the entire novel? And if so, do you ever allow yourself to change the plan late in the game?
I think about story structure. A lot. I’ve read countless books and studied hundreds of movies to gain a deeper understanding of narrative structure. I’ve reviewed the classic philosophies of act, scene and beat structure – from the Three Act Structure, to the Eight Sequences, and beyond to the 15 Beats. There is a plethora of information out there, in writing guides, on websites and forums, in blog posts, and from seminars and conferences. It can be a lot to take in, and over the past year I have worked my way through them to try and translate them into a language and format my brain can understand. And, this morning, I think I have had my enlightenment moment: Everything you need to know in order to understand narrative structure – whether you write screenplays or novels – can be boiled down to the Five Turning Points and the Gaps Between them.
Warning – this is going to be long. It would have to be to give you everything you need to know about story structure in one blog post 🙂
The Five Turning Points – A Shift in Direction
The Five Turning Points are the five key events in your story where the narrative shifts direction. It’s worthwhile spending some time discussing what a ‘shift in direction’ actually entails. For me, a shift in direction can be either character-driven or plot-driven.
For character-drivenshifts, we see either a shift in technique, in action or in motivation (you can read more about character-driven shifts and how they impact on your second act here)
A shift in technique is where a character maintains the same goal (the why) and the same action (the what), but changes their technique in undertaking the action (the how). e.g. My goal is to reach the mountain summit. My action is to trek along the mountain path. My technique changes from doing it alone, to joining a group and sharing the burden.
A shift in action, is where a character maintains their goal, but changes their action. e.g. My goal is still to reach the summit, but instead of trekking to get there, I decide to charter a helicopter to drop me off.
A shift in goal, is where the character rethinks their entire motivation and finds either a) a more worthy goal or b) the deeper, subconscious goal that had yet to be recognised. e.g. I start to wonder why I want to reach the summit. a) Is it to break the world record and become wildly famous and is that still important when I see the local villages along the way struggling with poverty? OR b) Is it to prove to myself that I am worthy of recognition and is there a better way I can do this?
For plot-driven shifts, we see either an escalation, a de-escalation, or an about-face.
An escalation takes a value and increases it. In this instance, an escalation would be a situation that was bad and then became worse, or that was urgent and then became desperate, or that was scary and then became deadly.
A de-escalation takes a value and decreases it. In this instance, a de-escalation would be a situation that was impossible and then became difficult (but achievable), or that was awe-inspiring and then became mildly interesting, or that was wildly over-the-top and then became merely eccentric.
An about-face takes a value and morphs it into its opposite. In this instance, an about-face would be a situation that was deadly and then became life-giving, that was interesting and then became nauseating, that was mournful and then became joyful.
The Gaps in Between – Action & Reaction
Having established our five turning points as the key shift in direction our narrative takes, we can begin to understand that the gaps in between are the spaces in which we can show how the shift has impacted on our story’s world and characters and how their reactions create the necessary environments for the next turning point (and its impact) to logically (albeit sometimes surprisingly) occur.
Essentially, the gaps present the momentum of the story and set up the tone of action. If the turning points are subtle escalations, increasing only by degrees, then the gaps between will necessarily produce a slower pace involving smaller changes in story world and characters and setting a context that is only slightly different from the one to be presented in the next gap – all of which makes for a very slow (and, possibly, boring) story.
If, however, the turning points are more dramatic, then the gaps will need to work hard to show the significant impacts on the story world and characters and to set-up a sharp contrast between the new world/character state and the state that will be produced by the next turning point – producing lots of tension, conflict and change.
This is all pretty cerebral at the moment, so why don’t we get stuck in and look in detail at each of the five turning points and their impact on the gaps that cushion them…
Turning Point 1 – the DISTURBANCE – and Gap A – the SET-UP
The disturbance is pretty much what it sounds like – something to unsettle the normal state of affairs and foreshadow a bigger change on the horizon. Known also as the Inciting Incident, it is the event that affects your story’s protagonist but does not directly engage them yet in the core conflict.
Here are some examples from popular movies:
BACK TO THE FUTURE – Marty McFly sees his friend Doc gunned down by Libyan Terrorists
CRAZY STUPID LOVE – Cal Weaver’s wife, Emily, abruptly announces that she wants a divorce
DISTRICT 9 – Wikus is sprayed with black alien goop as he carries out his eviction of District 9 residents
FINDING NEMO – Marlin watches in horror as his son, Nemo, is captured by divers
JUNO – Juno MacGuff sleeps with her boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker
OBLIVION – The Hydro rigs are destroyed by the scavengers leading to the discovery of an unknown signal
As you can see from these examples, sometimes the disturbance personally touches the protagonist (Crazy Stupid Love, District 9, Juno), sometimes it happens to a loved one (Finding Nemo, Back to the Future), and sometimes it happens to someone completely unrelated or an inanimate object (Oblivion). Sometimes it is caused by the protagonist (Juno), sometimes it happens to the protagonist (Back to the Future, Crazy Stupid Love, District 9, Finding Nemo) and sometimes it happens to something indirectly related to the protagonist (Oblivion). What they all have in common, is that each Disturbance poses a key question – What will your protagonist do now?
These characterisations are critical for writing the gaps between. With the first turning point (as with all turning points), there are two gaps between. For the Disturbance, there is the gap between the story’s very beginning and the turning point, and there is the gap between the turning point and the next turning point (in this case the Lock In). Let’s focus on Gap A – The Set-Up.
Gap A is all about detailing the current state of play, the status quo, which will provide the context as to why the Disturbance is so unsettling, so full of potential for further problems, so disturbing.
Let’s take Finding Nemo as our example – if Marlin is always losing his kids to divers, or if he has hundreds of other kids and one lost fish is but a drop in the ocean (*boom, tish*), seeing Nemo captured is likely to be only a mild disturbance – less a disaster and more an irritation. However, this is far from the truth – Marlin is an over-protective and loving father who is still struggling, thanks to a barracuda attack, with the loss of his wife and entire clutch of eggs (besides Nemo). This context is critical for giving depth and sharpness to the Disturbance.
LessonLearnt: Use your Gap A to build the necessary details that will give your Disturbance maximum impact.
Gap B – the LACK OF ACTION – and Turning Point 2 – the LOCK IN
After the first turning point, we arrive in Gap B, which is typically characterised by a lack of action. In the Hero’s Journey this is called the Rejection of the Call, but not all Gap B’s are about actively rejecting the call to action a disturbance typically presents. Sometimes there are other motivations that see our protagonist not yet directly engaging with this new conflict – no resources, no skills, no recognition of the disturbance and what it could mean.
Gap B is all about building the story towards the second turning point, the Lock In, where the protagonist is now willing and/or able to directly engage in the core conflict.
Let’s use Back to the Future as our example – the Lock In is Marty ending up in 1955 with no way of getting back to the future. Gap B sees Marty horrified by Doc’s brutal assassination, but the assassination is not what causes Marty to jump into the delorean. It is only when he is in personal danger of being shot that he needs to flee in the delorean. Marty initially fails to act for two reasons – 1) he doesn’t have the emotional stability to engage (he is in shock) and b) he doesn’t have the personal motivation to engage (he is still relatively safe).
To get Marty into the delorean and back to 1955, the writers needed to take away these two obstacles to action – they turned the gunfire towards Marty, breaking him out of his shock and giving him a reason to get into the delorean.
LessonLearnt: Identify the obstacles that are stopping your protagonist from responding to the Disturbance (these ideally will have been foreshadowed in Gap A, the Set-Up) and use Gap B to remove them.
Gap C – the PLAN A – and Turning Point 3 – the MIDPOINT
When your protagonist has no excuse for not responding to the Disturbance (or, alternatively, has no choice but to engage directly with the conflict), you’ve arrived in Gap C – what I call PLAN A and what others call the First Plot Point, and what formally announces the transition between Act One and Act Two of your narrative.
The distinction between no excuse and no choice is an important one. Many people say that the transition from the first act and second act should come from the protagonist actively choosing to engage. I don’t agree. Sometimes the lock in can be a choice, but sometimes it can be forced.
Take Juno, for example. The Lock In is when Juno discovers she is pregnant. There is no choice – it’s a fact. A situation she didn’t choose to be in, but finds herself in, nonetheless. Similarly, there are stories where the Lock In sees the protagonist kidnapped – they don’t choose to be, but are nonetheless.
What defines the Lock In is a situation where the protagonist becomes directly engaged and personally affected by the conflict, whether they choose to be or not.
It is the decision about how they will respond to this fact is what sets up Gap C and forms the basis of their Plan A.
For Juno, she is faced with numerous options for how to deal with this inconvenient and unwelcome news. Her decision to adopt out her baby is what sets her on the path of her Plan A – to give her baby to prospective adoptive parents Mark and Vanessa.
But, there is a reason I call it the Plan A. This plan, while seemingly a good one at the time, is doomed to fail. Why? Because of the Midpoint.
We’ve talked a lot about turning points – well, the Midpoint is the mother of all turning points. It is, in most cases, the most dramatic shift in direction – requiring our protagonist to develop an entirely different plan. As discussed above, the Midpoint shift can be plot-driven or character-driven, but it needs to be big enough to change the direction of your protagonist – not just a tinkering at the edges of what they want to do, but a wholesale re-think of what they are doing and what they should do.
In Juno, it is the discovery that Mark wants to leave Vanessa and his confession that he is not ready to raise a child.
Like the Disturbance, all Midpoints should have readers/viewers asking– What will the protagonist do now?
LessonLearnt: Know your midpoint from the beginning and build a Plan A that: i) given what has happened in Act One, is reasonable at the time, but ii) given what will happen at the Midpoint, is doomed to fail. Use your Gap C to either show i) the Plan A failing at each turn or ii) the Plan going along swimmingly (an unknowingly towards its eventual doom).
Gap D – the PLAN B – and Turning Point 4 – the CULMINATION
So, now your protagonist is faced with a doomed plan – they could either see it coming or it took them completely by surprise. Either way, they need a new plan. Gap D takes the changes to the story’s world and character development that occurred during Gap C and uses them as the necessary motivations, resources and opportunities for your protagonist to develop, and start implementing, their Plan B.
Unfortunately, Plan B is also doomed to fail. Not because it is a bad plan (like Plan A), but because of either a) the protagonist’s debilitating weakness or b) the antagonist’s uncompromising strength (or c) both of the above).
That is the core of what happens at Turning Point 4, the Culmination – it is your protagonist’s darkest moment, the point where they have seemingly given their all, but have been found wanting in the face of the antagonist’s dominance.
Happily, there are two sides to the Culmination – 1) the darkest moment and 2) the silver lining. The silver lining is the moment when the protagonist has an ‘a-ha!’ moment – when all of the lessons they have learnt and skills they have developed along the Plan B journey give them what they need to head towards the fifth Turning Point – the Final Battle.
In Crazy Stupid Love, Cal has realised his original plan to get over his wife and get good with the ladies is doomed when he realises he is still in love with his wife and the ladies he got good with are crazy. He quickly shifts to his Plan B – win his wife back. It’s a good plan, but ultimately also doomed to fail because Cal is prone to bad decisions and rash actions (his greatest weakness) – like losing his mind when his daughter turns up with bad boy Jacob, and his antagonist (his failing marriage) gains strength from the arrival of his wife’s romantic interest and a delicate matter involving a lovestruck babysitter.
The role of Gap D, therefore, is to:
Foreshadow the protagonist’s weakness and the antagonist’s strength
Lull the protagonist into a false sense of security as their Plan B continues to look the winner
Provide them with snippets of important knowledge, skills, traits and resources that will be the key to a final battle with the antagonist.
LessonLearnt: Use your Plan B to pull the wool over your protagonist’s eyes – keep them focused on, and confident in, their Plan B while a) sowing the seeds of currently irrelevant, but potentially crucial knowledge, skills, traits and/or resources, and b) hinting at the depths of the protagonist’s greatest weakness and antagonist’s greatest strength.
GAP E – the RE-AWAKENING – and Turning Point 5 – the FINAL BATTLE
Your protagonist has come through their darkest moment and has seen the silver lining – welcome to Gap E, the Re-Awakening. This Gap is all about taking the little threads of hope you have sprinkled through the Second Act and helping your protagonist piece them together and strengthen them until they form a weapon that is capable of both a) destroying the protagonist’s weakness and b) overcoming the antagonist’s strength.
The operative word here is capable. This new found personal discovery and growth must give the protagonist (and the reader/viewer) hope that the protagonist will prevail. Hope, but not certainty (because where is the drama in that?).
Building an effective Turning Point 5 – the Final Battle – and a strong Gap E – the Re-Awakening – is fundamentally built upon a sound understanding of the protagonist’s greatest weakness and their growing strengths, the antagonist’s greatest strength and hinted weakness, and the key factors that will bolster the protagonist whilst simultaneously undermining the antagonist.
In Oblivion, the Re-Awakening is Jack #49 reading the Flight Recorder and understanding what had happened to the Odyssey – thus gaining the critical knowledge and resolve he needs to carry through with his final battle plan against Tet – sacrificing himself and detonating the nuclear bomb aboard his ship to destroy Tet – relying on Sally’s weakness to let the ship in under the impression that it is Julia who is inside.
Lesson Learnt: Build a Final Battle that centres on the protagonist’s recently realised and newly strengthened advantages versus the antagonist’s hinted weakness. Use Gap E to show how the protagonist develops these strengths and hint at how they may be useful against the previously invincible antagonist.
GAP F – the DENOUEMENT
The protagonist and antagonist face each other in an epic battle. The protagonist digs deep and finds the inner strength to prevail. End of story. Right? Um. No. The protagonist has won, the antagonist is defeated – but has the protagonist achieved their goal? And how has the battle’s outcome created a new status quo?
Gap F – the Denouement (a fancy French word that literally means ‘to unknot’, and essentially means the conclusion or resolution of a plot) – answers the question – Okay, so the protagonist won, but…?
But, did he get the girl? But, did she get to go back home to Kansas? But, did they live happily ever after?
It’s where you wrap up the loose ends and give a sense of finality to the overall story – recognising that the antagonist was just the major/last obstacle in between the protagonist and their goal – and that the protagonist still, at the end of the battle, needs to reach out and grab that goal.
The Denouement should also, ideally, present a hint at what that means – begin to answer the question of what impact will the protagonist achieving their goal have? In this way, the Denouement is like a twisted mirror image of the Set-Up – establishing a new status quo, a new world order that is ripe for other disturbances…
And, there you have it. My complete road map to story structure.
Let me know in the comments whether you’ve found it useful!
Earlier this week I began discussing story structure – looking at the macro structure of entire novels and their component Acts.
You’ll remember from the last post that I described story structure as a Russian Doll – the novel structure replicating itself in miniature with each of the smaller dolls it held inside. With that being said, now is probably a good time to reflect on that structure and pull out the key elements that form a clear beginning, middle and end:
1. An indication of what is normal or usual in the world of the protagonist
2. A trigger event that shakes up the protagonist’s world and gives them a new objective
3. Rising conflict and tension cause by obstacles of increasing significance, preventing the protagonist from achieving their objective
4. A major challenge that demands the protagonist make a decision
5. The response of the protagonist to this question
6. The outcome that flows from the protagonist’s decision and response
Looking at these elements we can identify the: (1) Status Quo, (2) Call to Action, (3) Engagement, (4) Crisis Point (5) Directed Action, and (6) Outcome.
Before I explore this structure is mirrored in Sequences, Scenes and Beats – Let’s review in more detail how these six elements play out in each of the acts in the Three Act Structure.
1. STATUS QUO: The opening scene(s) that introduce the world and the protagonist.
2. CALL TO ACTION: The disturbance (also known as the Inciting Incident)
3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Zero. The reluctance of the protagonist to engage due to the call not being strong enough, or personal enough.
4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the moment where the protagonist can no longer ignore the call to action. The question posed: Do I run away or Do I engage? To be or not to be?
5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages. James Scott Bell calls this the First Doorway – the first point of no return for our protagonist. It’s the “We’re not in Kansas, anymore” moment – where the world will never be the same again, regardless of what subsequent decisions the protagonist makes.
6. OUTCOME: The entry into the story of ACT II – PART II…
1. STATUS QUO: The new world the protagonist now finds themselves in – the one brought about by their Act I decision, action and its outcome. (ACT II – PART I)
2. CALL TO ACTION: The new objective the protagonist has, now that they have chosen to accept their mission. This is usually overly-simplified – e.g. beat the baddie. It signals the protagonist’s Plan A. (ACT II – PART I)
3. ENGAGE: Engagement Status = Pathetic. The inability of the protagonist to do anything useful due to them being a total noob in this strange and threatening world. Cue subplot and fun & games… (ACT II – PART I)
4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the culmination of urgency, growing strength of the baddie and developing skills and expertise of our protagonist. The question posed: Am I ready to trade my defense strategy for an attack strategy? Am I ready to flex my newly-formed muscle and take the fight to the bad guy? (MIDPOINT)
5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages more fully and with more focus. It signals the protagonist’s Plan B – which is either a complete re-imagining of the Act II – Part I objective or a more detailed version – e.g. I don’t want to beat the baddie, I want to convert them to the light! or I want to beat the baddie by amassing an army of flying monkeys. The protagonist has a better plan and more skills to implement it. But the antagonist isn’t resting on their laurels – they come to the party. Cue ramping up of tension… (ACT II – PART II)
6. OUTCOME: The Darkest Moment. The protagonist is so close to victory, only to have it snatched from their grasp and their greatest weakness laid bare before the greatest strength of the antagonist. The quest is over. The protagonist has failed. (ACT II – PART II)
1. STATUS QUO: The new world of pain and hurt and bruised ego and despair the protagonist now finds themself in.
2. CALL TO ACTION: The Glimmer of Hope. That thing whose use becomes suddenly apparent, that grumpy old hag that is now seen as a wise old mentor, the useless hunk of metal that is recognised a key. All is not lost – victory can still be the protagonist’s! This signals the protagonist’s Plan C. Not as vague as Plan A, not as ambitious or ignorant as Plan B.
3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Reinvigorated. The protagonist is not holding back. They are throwing all they have at the antagonist. They are not going down without a full-on Rocky IV fight.
4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the part in the battle between the protagonist and antagonist where it is looking pretty dicey. It’s the All is Lost moment, when it seems the hero has finally run out of luck. In the Karate Kid, it is that moment when Daniel San falls victim to Cobra Kai’s dirty tactics – a cowardly leg sweep by the jerk Johnny that exacerbates Daniel San’s already-weakened leg. The question posed: Do I surrender? Have I given everything? Is there something left in the dregs of this frail and beaten body/mind/soul that I can still draw on.
5. DIRECTED ACTION: The protagonist identifies that last bastion of hope and in a singular display of courage, strength, integrity (and all the other noble adjectives we can throw at them), plays their final card to defeat the antagonist.
6. OUTCOME: The tying up of loose ends. Defeating the antagonist should always be a means to an end – not the end itself. In winning the battle, did the protagonist win the war? Did they achieve their real, true goal? It’s the: “You’re alright, Larusso”. (you’re still a jerk, Johnny).
So, that’s the detailed look at Acts. Stay tuned for a detailed look at LITTLE STRUCTURE – the story of Sequences, Scenes and Beats.
(Featured Images courtesy of a) evil_mel via Flickr Creative Commons, and b) Colombia Pictures Corporation)
Books are a lot of things, but mostly they are stories about stuff that happens. They are not monologues or dialogues, long transcripts of people just talking. They are not detailed descriptions of static environments, lovingly crafted words about what things look like or how they smell. (Not that these things don’t have their place).
No, books are all about the action – movement, activity, change, consequences.
THE FIVE Ws
In crafting a book, it is the 5Ws that separate out that stuff that is happening in your book from the stuff that is happening in other books:
* What is the stuff that is happening? Is it an alien invasion, a falling in love, a fight to the death?
* Who is the stuff happening to? Is it a small and isolated island community, a thirteen year old boy, a nun on the run?
* Where is the stuff happening? In the middle of the Andaman ocean, a backwater town, a distant moon colony?
* Why is the stuff happening? Because of a stray meteor hitting earth, the arrival of a new face, the unexpected discovery and firing of a gamma ray?
These first four Ws can inject a great sense of character to your novel, tag it with its own unique personality. But, it is the fifth W – the When does this stuff happen? – that is the most crucial and that provides us with the framework of the Three Act Structure.
THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE
The Three Act Structure is built around pivotal story moments – all points of the story where important stuff happens.
In the First Act, there is:
* The sympathetic stuff that happens: This is the introduction to your protagonist. They are doing something that a) gives the reader both a sense of who they are and the world they live in and b) instils in the reader a sense of sympathy for the protagonist – something that will keep them cheering for your story’s main character, even if they don’t particularly like or relate to the character.
* The call to action stuff that happens: This is part of the story where something changes the protagonist or the world they inhabit, something that is of such magnitude that it calls to the protagonist to get involved.
* The resistance stuff that happens: Despite your protagonist’s call to action, there is a resistance to engage. This could be because of fear, uncertainty, apathy or ignorance (or a multitude of other reasons). In their effort to resist the call, the protagonist does a lot of stuff to avoid getting involved.
At the juncture of the First and Second Acts is the First Plot Point – a major point of significant stuff happening. This is where, despite your protagonist’s best efforts to avoid personally engaging with the inciting incident, something happens to spur them into action. A bigger fear trumps the earlier one, a mentor provides assurances and generates confidence, the stuff happens to someone close to the protagonist, making the challenge personal, or the protagonist has an ‘a-ha’ moment and finally sees the truth and severity of the situation.
The Second Act is divided into two parts of stuff happening.
Part One is about stuff happening to the protagonist. This is basically where the protagonist is the weak punching bag for the plot – it just hammers them with stuff that happens – events and actions and conflicts and explosions – and the protagonist is like a piece of driftwood in the ocean, just trying to stay afloat and survive.
Part Two is about stuff happening because of the protagonist. Your main character is in control and pulling the strings – the plot is now the character’s slave and the hunter has become the hunted. Stuff happens because the protagonist says so – the wall explodes because they set the TNT, the aliens flee because the protagonist is chasing them with a sword of fire, the girl is swooning because the thirteen year old boy is putting on the moves, and the moon mafia is gearing up for a fight because the nun on the run is kicking some serious ass.
Part One and Two are separated by the Midpoint – another major point of significant stuff happening. So major, that the protagonist inevitably and seamlessly shifts from punching bag to Bruce Lee.
The juncture of the Second and Third Acts is marked by the Second Plot Point – the final major point of significant stuff happening. For me the Second Plot Point is a composite of two significant moments – the Darkest Night of the Soul and the Glimmer of Hope. In Part Two of the Second Act, the protagonist is killing it – they are on fire and clearly destined for success – until the Darkest Night of the Soul. Some major stuff happens to seriously put a dampener of the hero’s quest, to crush it so low that it seems all is lost. But then some other major stuff happens – the community’s outcast finishes his alien-destroying weapon, the boy discovers the girl’s favourite story, the nun runs into the mafia-boss’ mother-in-law – and once again, there is hope that the hero with triumph.
The Third Act is one big stuff-happening fest. It’s hell for leather, as lots of stuff happens – driven by the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, the conflict and tension, the hopes and dreams, the insatiable pull towards the climax – until it all culminates in one big showdown (major stuff happening here) – which the protagonist either wins (comedy) or loses (tragedy).
In the First Act, stuff just happens (and not necessarily to the protagonist).
In the First Part of the Second Act, stuff happens to the protagonist.
In the Second Part of the Second Act, the protagonist makes stuff happen.
In the Third Act, all the stuff happens.
(Featured Image courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read, via Flickr Creative Commons)
Now that I’ve past the midpoint of my WIP, Divided Elements, and am on my way towards the second plot point, darkest hour of the soul and shattering enlightenment of Act III, I’ve been thinking a lot about my protagonist’s character arc.
“Her what, now?” you ask.
(Hahahahaha. Oh, reader – you are such a card!)
Her character arc. Wikipedia knows it as the status of a character as it unfolds throughout a narrative; Jim Hull stresses that we heed the difference between character growth and character transformation in a character arc; and Gabe Moura sums it up as the way in which a characters evolves, grows, learns, or changes as the plot unfolds.
Basically it’s the path your character (in this case, the protagonist) takes on their journey of self development, discovery, awareness and actualisation.
The varied paths your characters can take
Now, for anyone that has ever taken a road trip, you’ll know that there are many and varied paths that can lead to a destination. And, in knowing this, is the ever-constant reminder that “life is a journey, not a destination”.
(interestingly, my autocorrect wanted ‘destination’ changed to ‘detonation’, a Freudian slip on behalf of my keyboard, perhaps?)
Random, tangential observations aside, Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right. A thousand protagonists could end up at the same point (UN Secretary General) and still be incredibly different characters depending on their starting point (orphan vs the wealthiest 5 year old in the world) and their journey (complete with pirates, smugglers, assassins and moonlit seductresses vs lots of hard work, bribes and the occasional extra-marital affair).
So, yes, character arcs can be wildly different in terms of NATURE, but what of DIRECTION?
This has been the major question on my mind lately…
When I look at the plethora of images tagged with “character arc” on Google, I get this:
Yes, they all seem vastly different. But, do you notice the one thing that they all have in common? (Have another look – I’ll sit here singing the Sesame Street song – you know the one…)
Yep, they are all LINEAR.
Not linear, in terms of straight, but linear in terms of no double-backs, loops or crazy spirals. I don’t know about you, but I change my mind a couple of times a millisecond. I think I want A, get distracted by B, get bored by B and remember that I love A, and then remember why I got disillusioned with A in the first place and go after C.
Unsurprisingly, my protagonist is a little like me in that respect. And I’m wondering whether that is a good thing. Yes, it may be authentic, but is it readable? (Incidentally, that is the second major question I have been toying with lately, and will no doubt become a blog post in due time…)
Character Arc Directions
So, let’s look at some of the kinds of character arcs, different in both NATURE and DIRECTION, that we can play with as writers:
1. The straight and narrow: Your character is born or gradually endowed with what they need to do to fulfil their destiny and they grow in stages accordingly to reach their destiny.
For me this is the most boring – it screams privileged white boy growing up in a gated community with all the trappings of an entitled life. A boy who is groomed to become the CEO of a multinational corporation worth gazillions by his demanding father and subsequently goes through a series of trials to gain the remaining necessary skills to do just that. Uggghhhh. I can’t think of any movie or book with this plot line because it is so boring it either wasn’t made or I fell asleep somewhere in the middle… Or, could The Last Starfighter fit this description? (in which case, I may have to write a lengthy retraction…)
2. The slight deviation: Your character needs A and knows that they need it, but somewhere along the way the become distracted by B and take a little detour, before realising their mind snap and dutifully return to their proper path.
Slightly more exciting that the rich white snob, but still pretty tame. Having said that, this is 30% me on a daily basis. I’ll be driving towards our agreed dinner destination, will see a neon sign for a new Mexican restaurant, convince my passenger to go there instead and instantly regret it when faced with plastic chairs, cutlery and queso, beat a hasty retreat and end up where we were meant to be all along. Plus, some of my favourite stories employ the approach. Think Crazy, Stupid, Love, or Easy A, or Divided Kingdom, or Animal Farm.
3. The variety is the spice of life: (bear with me, it’s a little like #2, but with a twist) Your character needs/wants/is lost in A, gets distracted/enticed/entrapped by B, jumps at the chance/agonises over whether to make the switch (or resists making it), makes the switch, learns to love/endure it, life is great.
This falls more into the ‘transformation’ arc and is very, very, very popular (as in, you’ve probably read it in a hundred books or seen it in a hundred movies). Think Fahrenheit 451, the entire Wheel of Time series, The Matrix, Breaking Bad, etc etc.
4. The I want it, I want it, I want it: Your character is stuck with A, finds their ultimate soul mate (person, job, life) in B, faces obstacle after obstacle to get B, but throws such a tanty – everyone and everything else be damned – until they get B.
I want to hate on this arc, but, if done right, can be cool – think Whip It – but if done wrong, is like the girl with the curl (horrid) – you can figure out your own examples, because I am not going there 🙂
5. The I don’t know what I want, but, when I find it, I will probably change my mind a thousand times before I realise I want it: Yes, as you can tell by the vitriol, that is where I am at with my protag: It’s the arc where your character wants A, then something happens and they want B, but then B is not all it cracked up to be, so A is looking good again, and then A turns out to be exactly the thing that made it possible to be distracted by B, which just ends up in messy confusion and lots of soul searching and a heap of tension.
Sounds like a messy relationship, but this arc isn’t specific to romance. I think it is specific to character-driven stories, however. Because characters, by their very nature, are complex and (largely) unpredictable, and (following the ‘character arc’ theme) undergoing a serious and profound transformation/change/evolution. I also think it is specific to the human mind and goal setting.
Without going on a long and boring nerd-track, if you’ve read or heard of Daniel Kahneman and his Thinking, Fast and Slow, you’ll know that humans do not think rationally. About anything. Especially the things they care most about – love and money. So, having a character that bounces around and back-flips in the #5 profile isn’t unreasonable.
Whilst these arcs are more goal-oriented than growth-oriented – i.e. they focus on the goals and path of action that the protagonist takes – they can incorporate the strict character arc either directly or indirectly.
Directly, we can apply the same approaches to character development and growth – e.g. with the first approach, you can have a protagonist who starts out as a little shy an timid but with a spark of bravery in a particular area (when they are wearing their red spiderman underpants), who continues to grow in courage until they are fighting fires and saving kittens and disarming nuclear bombs. With the fifth approach, you can have a protagonist who starts off as emotionally distant, falls for someone and becomes more vulnerable, gets hurt by them and decides emotionally-distant and alone is better than vulnerable and heartbroken, but then finds there is no satisfaction any more in being aloof.
Indirectly, you can use your protagonist’s inner development and growth to drive the decisions and actions that generate the plot paths above – e.g. your protagonists wants B because they have become more loyal, or selfish, or curious, or grounded (etc, etc. you get the picture).
As you can see, the goal arc and inner-growth arc are inevitably intertwined. As Robert McKee says:
We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.
What do you think? Which character arc does your protagonist follow?
(Feature Image courtesy of Swalo Photo via Flickr Creative Commons)
It is a common misconception amongst writers that the structuring process is an activity undertaken only at the beginning of the writing process. Structuring is firmly located after generating your story idea and definitely before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). After your structure is developed, it’s just a matter of using the blueprint to herd the plethora of chaotic words, sentences and paragraphs into a coherent story. Right?
Hmmm, maybe not.
Every new beginning…
As you know, I recently hit the midpoint of Divided Elements, my first novel. In many ways it felt like I had finished a mini-novel – there was a full character arc, an ending with clear references to the beginning, major conflict and a very definite sense of beginning, middle and end. But as Dan Wilson sang, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” and Maria Von Trapp mused, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window”, the ending of this mini-novel is just the catalyst for the next mini-novel, the closed door to the first half of the story just the opened window of the second half.
Don’t get me wrong – I was prepared for this. I had diligently structured my novel from the first to last scene and had a very clear outline for how the second half of Act II and all of Act III would play out. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how the fleshing out of the first half outline – with new characters, interesting dialogue, hidden motivations and complex character reactions – would create an internal logic that was completely at odds with this outline.
Suddenly, I found that the earlier reactions of my protagonist were hinting at a vulnerability I hadn’t planned for, a vulnerability that would take her on a different journey of discovery from the midpoint towards her “all is lost” moment. I discovered secondary characters with motivations and secrets that would cause different opportunities and threats for the protagonist in reaching her end-goal. I found that the dialogue and interaction between characters were creating an unexpected dynamic between them that would, in turn, create new and unexpected tensions over the following scenes and chapters.
In summary, I learnt that the micro-level stuff – the stuff you can’t plan and outline – was having major consequences for the macro-level structure.
My response? I rewrote the outline for the next half of my novel – a process I am still playing with. I am using my newly-developed knowledge of my characters, world and conflicts to reshape the rest of the story. And this knowledge can only come with a deep and intimate understanding of your story – something you can never have at the beginning of your writing process, when characters, events and tensions are just ideas floating in your head.
In trying to capture the importance of how the detail of the early scenes sets the logic for the following scenes, I was reminded of how, in 1896, proto-modern architect Louis Sullivan famously argued that form follows function.
In his classic (albeit prosaically-titled) essay on The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, he wrote:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
In other words, it is paramount that your writing follow a consistent, internal logic – that your creativity in the writing process (the form) follows a structural integrity that is both continuous and progressive across the full narrative (the function).
In order to achieve this continuous and logical progression of the narrative, you may find yourself (like me) needing to review and restructure your novel outline. In this way, novel structuring is not a static process undertaken only at the beginning of a novel’s development, but a dynamic process that should be undertaken regularly and used a tool to strengthen the internal logic of your narrative.
Let me know what you think – do you find yourself changing your novel outline or structure because of micro-level details in earlier scenes or chapters?
As with all things chased with dogged persistence, the middle of my first book, Divided Elements, is growing larger and larger as it comes within reach. Not the general middle of the second act, but the specific middle – the actual halfway point. With the WIP at just over 42,000 words, first plot point reactions and repercussions are a distant memory and it’s time that the fun and games of the first part of Act II give way to the business end of the story.
Which brings me, and therefore us, to the Midpoint.
For me, the Midpoint has two definitions – a functional one and an allegorical one – both of which are equally important; as it should be with something called a midpoint.
The functional definition articulates the Midpoint as the middle point (shock! who saw that coming?) – The point of your story that separates the first half from the second half; the mathematical halfway point that acts like a signpost, directing you 45,000 words that way to the start of your story and 45,000 words this way to the end of your story.
In contrast, the allegorical definition is, obviously, more interesting. Many authors, readers and writing mentors identify the midpoint as the point at which everything changes. I don’t agree. Everything can’t change – that would mean that we are reading a completely different story; and there is a very big difference between a new direction and a new story.
And so, for me, the midpoint is not just a distance marker set to the middle. It is a fulcrum. And the definition of a fulcrum is so much more interesting than the definition of a mere middle point:
A fulcrum is the “point or support about which a lever pivots” (wikipedia), the “thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation” (oxford dictionary), or “any of various structures in an animal serving as a hinge or support” (free dictionary) – and yes, my story is an animal; sometimes all wet licks and puppy yelps of excitement and sometimes a netherworld beast determined to wreak havoc…
So, the midpoint is the point on which the story shifts its balance – the centrepoint of the see-saw that facilitates the shift from a) the safety of being down on the ground, legs crouched and ready to spring, to b) the wild abandon and panic of being airborne with legs dangling and gravity resisting.
And that point, in any story, is the realisation that something needs to change – that Plan A isn’t working or isn’t sufficient or isn’t right anymore and that a Plan B is needed.
Developing your Plan B
Plan A is the first part of the second act – the plan that is borne of the shock of the first plot point; borne of reactions and naiveté and resistance and ignorance and general hubris of the protagonist who finds themselves in a new world they didn’t want, but nonetheless got. But the reveal of the midpoint lifts the veil and forces consideration, development and implementation of a Plan B.
For me, Plan B comes back to triple loop learning – with the protagonist deciding that either the HOW (actions), the WHAT (strategy) or the WHY (motivation) is sabotaging their goal.
When the second part of the second act is driven by a “HOW” Plan B, the Protagonist is shown to change how they achieve their goals. Consider the following storyline – A girl has lost her lucky charm and she decides (in Act II, Part 1) to try to find the all-powerful magus who will be able to restore it to her. In this first part of Act II, the girl attempts to find the all-powerful magus by teaming up with a private detective. At the midpoint, she discovers that the private detective is just another hack and comes up with a new plan – Plan B – to find the magus. Her actions change.
In a “WHAT” Plan B, it’s not the how that is holding the Protagonist back, it is the what. For this type of midpoint, the private detective is the real deal and working with him is the right way to find the magus, but the problem is that the magus is just a myth – a bad Wizard of Oz fake. So the girl and the detective come up with a new plan to find her lucky charm. Her strategy changes.
And then there is the “WHY” Plan B, the nuclear game changer. What the protagonist is doing is keeping her on the right path to her goals, and she is doing all of the necessary actions perfectly. The magus is the real deal (definitely all-powerful and fully capable of restoring the girl’s lucky charm) and the detective is brilliant at finding him. But somewhere along the way, the protagonist realises that what she really needs to do is let go of her lucky charm. Her motivation changes and her new Plan B is to let go of the charm and create her own luck.
And it is the midpoint that kicks off this Plan B. In the “How” scenario, the midpoint could be an amateur mistake made by the detective – causing the protagonist to question his credentials and decide to go it alone. In the “What” scenario, the midpoint could be the detective tripping over his own shoelaces and falling into the tech haven of the nerd behind the magus illusion. In the “Why” scenario, the midpoint could be the culmination of lessons learned along the path of Act II, Part 1, teaching the protagonist that luck is earned and not gifted.
And so, to craft the midpoint, all you need to do is ask yourself, “What will tip the balance?”