Archive for category Outlining

Give Me Structure!

I’ve read Blake Snyder.  He says that a movie is a story told in three acts.  Of course the second act is twice as long and broken into two halves, so the three act structure is really four acts. I’ve read elsewhere that three acts is right for any story, though the second act should be the longest and be broken into three acts itself, so the three act structure is really five acts.  I’ve now heard Dan Wells talk, at least on YouTube, and describe a seven point outline for every successful story.

I’m not convinced how different these all are.

First up, some viewing.  For those not aware of the Dan Wells seven point story structure (which he admits to stealing from the Star Trek RPG), there’s a talk in five parts on YouTube.  I’m going to embed Part One, the rest should show up as suggested videos at the end.  Please note, the production elements are not mine:

To provide some recap, he breaks the plots of several movies, novels, and even the short story The Tell-Tale Heart down into seven points that the story has to hit:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution

There’s a great symmetry to the structure, the story mirrors itself around the midpoint, framed at either end by an opposing hook and resolution.  If the resolution is falling in love, the hook is two strangers.  If the resolution is solving a murder, the hook is the murder happening.  If the resolution is someone fulfilling their role as a hero, the hook is the person as a regular schlub.  Plot Turn 1 is the conflict being introduced, Plot Turn 2 is the last piece the character needs.  As Dan Wells puts it “the power is in you!”.  The Pinches surround the midpoint, they apply pressure.  The first may introduce a villain, the second may strip away a mentor.  The midpoint is the center of the whole thing, it is the mirror, and it’s where the character moves from being reactive to being proactive.

This is great, this is awesome, and he does a fantastic job breaking down the seven points of multiple lengths and genres of stories, but where the lecture really kicks some ass and is in Part 4/5 starting around the 7 minute mark where he applies this seven point structure to each of the four main plots of The Matrix: Neo defeating the Agents, Neo becoming The One (he defeats the agents by becoming The One, but they are slightly different plots), Neo and Trinity falling in love, and Cypher betraying the crew of the ship.  This is where I’m going to jump shift to where I originally know Dan Wells from: the Writing Excuses podcast.

In their October 2nd, 2011 episode, the Writing Excuses crew talked to Lou Anders about the Hollywood Formula.  Give it a listen, it’s only 20 minutes long (though that’s now 70 total minutes of material I’ve assigned this post).  While largely talking about the three act structure, the podcast also talks about the increased emotional impact of scenes where multiple things happen at the same time.  Looking at the seven point structure, it’s taking points from more than one plot line (though one plot’s Pinch can be another’s Turn) and putting them together in a scene.  The capture of Morpheus, the second pinch in one plot, happens simultaneously with the resolution of the betrayal plot.  At the end of the movie, the three Neo plotlines all have resolutions nearly on top of each other.  That’s why, while the lobby scene is all whizbang cool, the two actual emotional scenes in the movie are that midpoint betrayal and the big final fight with Agent Smith.  They’re designed as big scenes where stuff happens.

Alright, so look, this is all awesome, but why am I talking about it?

Two reasons.  First is because while this presents itself as a broader interpretation of the plotting of a novel, it’s really just another approach.  If we’re going to look at the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet compared to the Dan Wells Seven Points, I can directly line them up (though I suspect others could line them differently):

  1. The Hook is The Opening Image
  2. Plot Turn 1 is the Catalyst
  3. Pinch 1 is the Break Into 2
  4. Both agree on The Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2 is the All is Lost moment
  6. Plot Turn 2 is the Break Into 3
  7. The Resolution is The Final Image

Where does that put the finale?  Between Plot Turn 2, where the hero realizes he has what he needs to defeat the villain, and the resolution where the villain is defeated.

So it’s largely all the same structuring, whether you want to talk about three, four, or five acts, or seven points.  But what got me excited about the usefulness of the seven point structure versus the Beat Sheet is the presentations of subplots.  Blake Snyder does make room for a B-plot in the Beat Sheet, but the seven point system allows the writer to break down any number of subplots into their seven points, and use that all through their outline.  Which is probably more useful than the Beat Sheet when it comes to novels.  Let’s face it, the Beat Sheet is great, and it can inform someone writing for the page, but it’s for a specific purpose.

But I just buried the important word in that last paragraph: “outline.”  In the past I’ve dabbled at being a discovery writer, which is fantastic for some but has gotten me into trouble.  So as I’ve been learning to outline (really, it’s a hybrid outline/discovery system) I’ve been looking for different ways to approach an outline.  The act structure was fine, but this is fantastic, because it allows each character’s arc to be broken into pieces at the same time as the main plotline of the book.

That’s my exact plan.  But not yet.  Instead, I’ve suggest to my wife we use it as one of our revision tools.  Right now we’re too far into the first draft to stop and try to figure out structure breakdowns, but when we hit editing I hope breaking the story into five seven-point diagrams (main plot, and each character’s arc) and seeing where the points line up, it will show where the story as a whole is weak, and where individual character arcs are weak.  Which, hopefully, will result in a stronger story after the second draft.  In that way, this is a tool not just for the outline writer, but for the discovery writer looking towards a second draft.  Make sure the major points are hit in each plot, and work in where they could hit better when revising.  Stacking points from multiple plotlines increases the emotion of a scene (though certainly not every scene needs, or even should, have elements of multiple plotlines).  Resolve them as closely as possible.

And keep an eye and ear out for structuring tools.  You may, as I have, find one you’ve never heard of that entirely changes how you approach your process.

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Nanowrimo Eve

I’ve made my reasons for not participating in the classic Nanowrimo event rather public.  If you haven’t seen them, they’re available on Unleaded.  So I’m not going to rehash them here.

What I will do is wish luck to everyone who is finalizing their outlines, limbering their fingers, auditioning their coffees, and otherwise participating in any of a number of pre-Nanowrimo traditions.  Myself?  I used to always stay up until midnight and write my first sentence, then go to bed.  Of course, the Nanos that I participated in tended to start on weekends, so this was more fitting with my schedule as a person with a day job.  So good luck!  Don’t take my lack of participation in any way as looking down on the event.  There are plenty of bloggers who will do so during the course of the next month, and I’ll probably end up taking one or two to task, it’s another of my annual Nano traditions.

However, please keep a few things in mind.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell this to anyone reading this blog, but what you’re writing the next thirty days is a rough draft.  Nothing more (though in my own experience, occasionally less).  Don’t be that person who is sending their manuscripts out to agents or publishers on December 1st.  Yes, those people exist.  Yes, those people are why Nanowrimo has a bad reputation in some circles.  It makes it easier for me to defend the event if people aren’t doing indefensible things at the end of it.  Have fun.  Say you’re writing a novel.  Yes, that makes you sound pretentious, but everyone needs a little pretension in their lives.

If this is your first time, remember, it’s not easy.  During one of the hours of Flashathon I mentioned a running term: the wall.  Novel writing is an endurance activity, and it is possible to hit that dreaded wall.  But keep going, keep pushing through.  This is, in part, where an outline may help, but not everyone is an outliner.  In that case, take a cue from compass-less orienteering.  Find a distant waypoint.  Keep pointing towards it.  If you have to go around an obstacle, do so with the waypoint in view.  If you have to look away, find it again quick.  It’s possible you’ll decide on a better waypoint as you go, but always think more than a few sentences ahead.

So what about me?  What will I be doing this month?  I’ve given myself another project, working half an hour a night with my wife on our joint novel project Nickajack.  This will be outlining and character development early in the month, it should hopefully be actual writing by later in the month.  We discovered we got a lot done during three weeks where we were eating out every night and talking about the novel over dinner.  We want to keep that momentum going.  I’ll likely be tracking my progress towards that goal more on Twitter and Google+ than in here.

Going to close with today’s XKCD, which isn’t entirely on topic, but not entirely off topic either.  I just really loved it:

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The Limitations of Reverse Outlining

The process of carving Capsule apart is slow.  Slow and mentally exhausting.  I’m averaging about three chapters per night before my brain and eyes stage a coup and leave me insensate.  Something about staring at my own writing and trying to reverse engineer it into an outline dries my eyeballs.  Or maybe that’s just all the dust being kicked up by the kitchen renovations taking place on the first floor while I write in the basement.

Something about using the phrase “while I write in the basement” as part of a blog post.  Nevermind.

The process is slow, but I’m pushing on, largely for the sake of the novel that will still be called Capsule.  The toughest part about transitioning from the conjoined story to the split novels is pulling out the murder motivations, which entirely belong to the frustrated cultists who’ll land in Post Apocalypse.  So I need everything about the murder plot that I can salvage, so I know where to start weaving in entirely different characters and motivations.  It’s that age-old question: Why would someone commit murder in the 2070s if not for the influence of Tezcatlipoca?  I’d like to think Shakespeare and Hemingway dealt with this same question when working on King Lear and Old Man and the Sea, respectively.

My companion and friend on this road was and is Scrivener for Windows, and thank Lit & Latte for that.  I’m not drilling as much as I could with the tool, but the constant presence of a little note card beside the chapter I’m currently dissecting is keeping me sane.  No hand written notes, no flipping between programs, just a friendly little note card.  Pulling this novel apart is teaching me a lot of the features I’ll be using to stitch Frankenstein back together at the far end.  I’ve got the file broken into chapters, but not into scenes, just because I’m not going to do the kind of rearranging in this file.

At some point I’m going to reach the end of how useful the reverse outlining is, well before I reach the end of the conjoined draft.  The farther I get away from Chapter One the more I drift afield from the eventual plot of Capsule.  After that I’ll probably carve out all the dream sequences that will get adapted into Post Apocalypse, and then get to outlining the two new novels.  That’s probably my November project, as I doubt I’m doing Nanowrimo this year.  Maybe next year with the next of the three outlines in the queue.  After the post on Writers Block and Nano, I’m serious about not tackling the challenge again without a full outline ready to go.

For now, I need some eye drops.

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Outlining Outlines

I have a very real feeling this blog is going to turn from a focus on writing to a focus on outlining over the next few months.  Especially after crafting my last post about Writers’ Block #5 and using outlines to counter it I can’t help but think about the three novels churning in my brain.  The longer they stay up there, the more essential it feels to get them into some solid form, to get them outlined.

But do you want to know my dirty secret?

I’ve never done a full novel outline before.

I’ve done partial outlines, section outlines, but never felt moved to outline a novel from opening to closing scene, touching on everything in between.  So I’m also going to be doing a lot of learning about the process, reading up on it, studying it, finding the tools and the methods that work best for me.  In terms of tools, Scrivener for Windows looks like the clear early winner in terms of software, especially with the full release finally coming out on Halloween.  I’ve been doing some poking around with it the last two weeks, going through a process akin to reverse outlining as I pick apart the manuscript that was Capsule to turn it into two new outlines.  Outline one will still be called Capsule and will include all my near-futurism and the murder plotline.  Outline two now has a working title of Post Apocalypse and will include all the Lovecraftian dream elements, kidnapping, and frustrated doom cultists.

Outline three will be the joint project I’m working on with my wife, a steampunk adventure novel we’re calling Nickajack, a name that I’m seriously intending to keep.

Being that I’m new to this whole outlining thing, I’m not sure how long to expect it to take.  I’m hoping to get a rough outline of each of the three done by the end of the calendar year, so that I know which needs the most focus.  Post Apocalypse is the most time sensitive of the stories, so might get priority for that.

I’d love to know anything you have.  Articles.  Books.  Recommendations.  Suggestions.  Tools.  Methods.  I’m going to do my own research, but I’m stepping into a world that scares me, ground I’ve never really walked on before, and any and all guidance that can come from my blog readers is one step closer to making these novels actually work, and not just wither and die in my grey matter.  Help me tell these stories!

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