Energising your plot

One-sentence theme: Working with narrative energy to improve story pacing 

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As most of you know, I’m in the second act doldrums of my current WIP (but not for long, because the break into the Act III is just around the corner – take that, writer insecurity!). Like most writers, this is a time of despair, and self-loathing, and doubt, and pretty much staring at the page and cursing its blankness. But also, for me, it is a time of introspection – I’m the sort of person, when faced with a problem, will keep attacking it until I solve it. I don’t cut knots off, I tease them out.

I’ve been stuck, this week, in a chapter where nothing really seems to happen. There’s a lot of things in motion, and there’s definitely forward momentum, but it’s all one foot in front of the other (some more hesitantly than others). When, if I were to follow my own advice of ‘every scene needs conflict’, it would be more a case of one step forward and then two steps back (preferably because something big and terrifying and intimidating had shoved it).

So here I am, in this problematic chapter (which comprises three scenes of 400, 600, and 300 words, respectively), and I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m close to the my third act, where I know the action and conflict will come on in spades; I don’t want to manufacture conflict when all I need to do is really drive these characters to the trigger for Act III; I know that I need to keep things at a sufficient level of tension to not let this sucker drop below the lifeline threshold (and commit my poor WIP to the slow death of a saggy middle).

And anyway, I started thinking, what if every chapter needed conflict, but every scene just needed energy.

(Now I fully appreciate that this may just be me indulging in delusional wishful-thinking – so call me out in the comments if you need to. I’n kind of just spitballing this in a stream of consciousness, so we’ll see how it plays out…)

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Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Two primary types of energy

When we talk about energy, we are talking about two primary types:

KINETIC and POTENTIAL

Kinetic energy is energy possessed by something in motion.

Potential energy is energy possessed by something because of its relative position to something else.

So far, so good – it’s easy to see how both concepts can be applied to fictional narratives: scenes with kinetic energy have direct, obvious, tangible conflict – bodies and things in motion; scenes with potential energy have the promise of conflict only because of where they sit in relation to other scenes.

Image result for types of energy
Graphic by Aniruddha Pochimcherla

If your scenes hold kinetic energy – you’re all good. You have pace, you have drama, you have in-your-face conflict. There’s no risk of saggy middle, go do a celebratory dance and leave the rest of us miserable writers alone.

But, if your novel has a run of potential energy scenes, you may be drifting into second act trouble. And if you have this run of potential energy scenes in the first or third act, well then, you’ve got bigger problems than I…

So, let’s check out these potential energy subtypes and see if we can apply them to fictional narratives. And then let’s evaluate whether that helps us ascertain whether we have a problem or not.

Four types of Potential Energy

So, obviously we can’t use the literal meaning of the Potential energy subtypes. But we’re talking about fictional narratives, so I am going to use a little creative licence.

Let’s say Chemical energy is romantic tension. No action, no sexy-time, no sneaking kisses behind the gym – but the almost-kiss, the lingering looks, the brief touches, the racing heart. There’s an energy in the scene, not because there is action, but because there is no action. Just the potential for action is enough (and maybe better) – the hint of the tension possibly being realised.

And let’s say Nuclear energy is a ticking time-bomb. The countdown to an inevitable disaster – the Titanic bobbing up and down before it goes under, the flashing numbers on a explosive device ticking down, the deterioration of a terminally-ill patient, the continued regression of Benjamin Button.

We could shape Gravitational energy in one of two ways: a) as the coming together of two objects, reluctantly and/or against their will  – the tension of opposite things occupying the same space (but without direct/realised conflict, remember); think Ann Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal just eyeing each other off; and/or b) as one thing going through a metamorphosis of a sort and transitioning (without resistance) between two states or environments (like falling from air to earth); think of scenes where a character is processing a revelation, like Elizabeth Bennet reading a letter in Pride and Prejudice. Not the aftermath, mind you; not the part when her world is turned upside down, just the part where there is the hint (or the promise) that it will.

And we could treat Elastic energy as the stretching of something away from its home, its destiny, its true North, just before it is inevitably snapped back. Like Scuffy the Tugboat (incidentally, I have (in my adult years) grown to hate that book, despite its beautiful prose, because of its depressing message of ‘don’t dream beyond your limits’), or like Jonah in the Bible.

That all seems to work, so what now?

Yes, it’s quite the neat little package, isn’t it? All these things have energy – and seem to be very reasonable alternatives to their kinetic counterparts. I mean, who doesn’t love simmering tension in a hate-to-love story or the thrill of a race against time?

Oh, and, great question.

So, as I was writing this, I came to the conclusion that potential energy in fictional narratives works the same as in reality: It’s stronger a) when it is closer to the object it has a relationship with, and b) when the object it has a relationship with is strong in and of itself. 

In narrative terms, this means your potential energy scenes lose energy the more you distance them from kinetic (action) scenes. And that they have less energy if the nearby or related kinetic scenes are weak themselves. Moral of the story: Don’t run a lot of potential energy scenes together. And make sure that you boost your kinetic energy scenes to give your potential energy scenes more gravitas.

So, your problematic chapter is fixed, then?

Sadly, no 😦 While this was incredibly helpful in identifying ways to imbue ‘sequels’ or reaction scenes with energy, I’ve realised that none of these potential energy types are in my three bogged-down scenes (and that I’ve broken my own advice and linked them together in one, horrendous run). So it’s back to the drawing board for me, but I hope it’s been reassuring for you.

Let me know what you think in the comments! And don’t forget to share on social media. 

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Energising your plot

Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It seems that every time I reach the middle of a WIP, I start musing on the problems a second act can cause a writer. Second acts are notoriously difficult for writers – there are hundreds of books and articles out there decrying the flabby belly, the second act bog, the meandering middle, the belly of the beast, “the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which the artist and the protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun” (David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife).

My struggle, it seems, is all to do with divergence and convergence. As a former intelligence analyst, the process of positing a reasonable theory involved both modes of thinking – divergence: brainstorming as many ideas, variables, possibilities as you could think up, and just running with them; and convergence: critically analysing the options to identify the strongest and then pushing them to their limits to see which would break and which would stand up to the assault.

It’s the same with drafting a book. Act I is drafted with what I call acute divergence – all wild ideas are welcome and there is no internal consistency that has been established or needs to be obeyed. This is creativity unleashed – it’s the exciting, adrenalin-fuelled writing rush. It’s why I have a thousand story ideas lurking on index cards and why I started a dozen stories in my youth but never got beyond chapter five.

But, after Act I, comes Act II. The first part of the second act (Act II(a)) is drafted with I call obtuse divergence – there’s still a lot of room for movement and creativity, even though the rules of consistency have been established. The world, the characters, the way things work have shape and form, but are still, to a certain extent, malleable. Like a child out of the womb; the features are formed – eyes look like eyes, toes like toes, the external tail of the embryo now a coccyx – but the bones haven’t yet set. When I draft Act II(a), I know there isn’t as much free reign or creative licence I had in Act I, but there’s still enough to take one of the story threads and let my imagination exploit it.

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky - Writing Tips and Tricks

That all changes after the Midpoint and the arrival of Act II(b). Now, I’m firmly in obtuse convergence. The parameters of the story are well-established – the bones have set – and I can feel myself chafing against the harder boundary. What’s worse, there’s no forward/downhill momentum – everything is still so vague with all these story threads to manage, it all just seems to coalesce in the middle. The epitome of a sagging belly! There’s no magic cure for this – you just have to power through it. Keep converging your story – tightening the plot, weaving the story threads closer together, shedding dead weight, and sharpening the spear-point.

Because if you do that, you’ll get to Act III – the point of acute convergence. Here there is no creative licence to go off track – everything is firmly in place. But in a good way. With everything finally tightened, you have  clear sight to the end. You have the forward/downhill momentum. It’s at this point, much like the first act, where the story seems to take on a life of its own – the driving force of the earlier acts pushing it towards its natural conclusion. I find that I write fastest (and with the most confidence) in the first and third acts – because there is acute plotting, drafting, and creativity at play.

Knowing that obtuseness is the enemy of my writing productivity, I’m now on a mission to discover tips and techniques to help deal with it… I’ll keep you all updated on what I find!

And if you have tips and techniques of your own – share them below in the comments! 

Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

Books = Stories about stuff happening

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

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.

For more on this ‘stuff’ see my blog post on “The only two things your protagonist needs to be”.

* 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.

For more about crafting a solid Midpoint, check out my blog post, “Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and Write your Midpoint”

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 SUMMARY

So:

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)

Books = Stories about stuff happening

Straight & Narrow vs Zigzag Helter-Skelter: Which Character Arc is your Protagonist on?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

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:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 20.16.34

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 MatrixBreaking 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)

Straight & Narrow vs Zigzag Helter-Skelter: Which Character Arc is your Protagonist on?

Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I hit the middle of my novel and discovered that it was everything everyone said it would be – brutal, intimidating, a bog of viscosity to rival the pitch drop. You get the idea. Yes, the middle of a novel can be rough – thankfully, there are hundreds of helpful articles and blog posts out there to give advice or just share the pain. Most of them advocate a common panacea – ‘structure’.

I’m a big fan of structuring novels (well, I am now). Gus the plumber opened my eyes up to the simple effectiveness of building a novel from a logline through to a detailed three act summary and the Script Lab helped me to further develop my novel’s structure with the eight sequence synopsis.

I saw these tools as my very own Higgs Bosons – allowing the small seed of my novel idea to gain mass as it waded through each of the higher stages of evolution.  I have separate documents in the research folder of my Elementals scrivener file that document the development of my novel from a logline to a three-sentence summary, to a three-paragraph summary and to an eight-sequence synopsis. I have research documents that articulate the major plot development points of movies and books that have helped me develop a deeper understanding of these structural elements.

Basically, when it came to structure, I thought I had it sorted. But then the middle struck and my awesome structure wasn’t enough to help. I was like Artax in the swamp of sorrow. I had hit the saggy, mushy middle and it was dragging me and my novel down. As Chuck Wendig sagely notes:

The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera.

Gross, right? That was my middle. Even though I had the basic structure, my middle needed more support than my beginning and end. It needed more detail. Deciding on that detail was a major challenge.

 

Plotting the Second Act – Planning your Road Trip

Plotting a second act is like deciding your route on an epic road trip. You know where you’re starting from and you know where you want to end up. If you have a decent structure, you also know some major pit-stops along the way (the midpoint and lowest point). But even with those basics decided, there are a multitude of routes you can take. Do you go the most direct? The fastest? The most scenic? Do you make sure you pass through all the towns with funky art galleries and quirky historical icons? Do you throw in a random “let’s check out Hobart, even though its nowhere near our general route, because let’s face it – it would be awesome and we’re never heading in this general direction ever again’?

With a road trip, you make these decisions based on non-negotiable and ideal criteria – time, budget, aversion to sea/air travel, penchant for art/history, etc. And that is what was missing from my middle’s plot development and structure – the CRITERIA.

So, what criteria do you need to set for your middle? For me, the answer is found within a solid understanding of your protagonist. What does she need to learn, discover, obtain, let go of, in order to react/respond to a) the midpoint and b) the lowest point, the way you need her to?

For instance, your story may be about a intergalactic guitarist who slays aliens with the wicked chords she strangles from her obsidian axe. The inciting incident is her discovery of a mega-alien that is seemingly immune to her cool, yet deadly, tunes. The first plot point comes when the mega-alien, annoyed at our protagonist and her black guitar, kidnaps her boyfriend. Now the music warrior protag must find a way to defeat this mega alien. As a feel-good novel about how cool music solves all problems, we know our protag will eventually defeat the alien and rescue her boyfriend. The mid-point comes when our hero realises that it is not a perfect technique that will do the ultimate damage, but a riff of unparalleled uniqueness and awesomeness. The lowest point will come when her guitar is smashed under the alien’s foot before she gets a chance to play her riff.

The mid-point sets up a situation where the protagonist needs to LEARN or DISCOVER the true solution to defeating the alien. The lowest point sets up the situation where the protagonist needs to DEVELOP her original musical voice that goes beyond her guitar-playing. Knowing what our hero needs, we can now start plotting out the situations and encounters and near-misses and glimmers of hope that will eventually give her what she needs: guitar battles with the mega-alien’s minions; conscription into a league of awesome guitar player warriors; an encounter with a grumpy, retired guitar warrior; an appreciation for the obscure and alternative musical elements of her world, etc, etc.

That’s what the middle is all about – knowing what the protagonists needs and watching her struggle and fail and almost obtain it – each time learning something or gaining something or developing in some way that will ultimately reward her.

I love thinking about the middle in this way because it also allows me to create an environment in which the bond between my reader and my protagonist will deepen. Making the events of the midpoint and lowest point all the more powerful, poignant, gut-wrenching and all sorts of other high-charged emotions.

Now to writing it… Wish me luck!

 

(Featured Image courtesy of id-iom, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting