A poor workman may always blame his tools, but a good workman always makes sure he has the right tools for the job. I mentioned in the third post, Plotting out a Story, the character tool I use. Perhaps you might be interested in knowing a little more about tools.
Perhaps of course, you won’t. For some writers, the idea of tools is anathema. If you follow a format, they might say with some justification, the writing will become mechanical – it will impede creativity. Such writers enjoy the roller-coaster ride, hanging on for dear life as their characters and their subconscious lead them through a winding plot.
The counter-argument would be that if you’re not sure where your story is going, or who your characters are, you can spend months writing a 100,000 word first draft that doesn’t hang together, and lacks continuity. It’s worth remembering that, since millions of whatever currency they work in are at stake, screenwriters and film directors never trust their work to whims of the Muse, and to the vagaries of their memories.
There’s absolutely no reason why you should use any tools at all, but, if you don’t, be prepared for some pretty savage editing after your first draft.
So let me talk about tools. I said in an earlier post that, for me, the elements of good story-telling are the plot, the characters, and the quality of the writing. I’ve already written about the tool I use to keep track of my character, so let me talk about plot. Perhaps in a later post I’ll talk about tools that can help good writing.
There are lots of theories about what makes a good plot structure. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. After a set-up, tension should rise to a climax and then be resolved. This is the basis for the Three Act Structure, much used in screen-writing. The first act sets the scene, introduces the protagonist, and contains the inciting incident, which drives the rest of the plot. The inciting incident poses a problem. The screenwriter, Michael Hauge in his book Writing Screenplays that Sell, says there are five possible goals that flow from the set-up:
- To escape
- To stop something from happening
- To deliver something of value to where it’s needed
- To retrieve something of value and return it to the right people or place
- To win something (a contest, love, respect etc.)
The second act, is one of rising tension as the protagonist struggles to solve the problem posed by the inciting incident. In this, he or she is usually added by others, and foiled by an antagonist. Conflict is an essential part of tension. The author, Randy Ingermanson, creator of the Snowflake writing method (http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/), is a great believer in combining disaster with the Three Act Structure. He believes in a “three-disasters-plus-an-ending” structure, with the first disaster at the end of Act 1, the second in the middle of Act 2, and the third at the end of Act 2. You can buy his tool as software, but you can just as easily create it yourself on a spreadsheet.
The third act, the ending, provides the resolution to the problem.
This, of course, is only one way of thinking about plot. Joseph Campbell, in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, said that all stories were variants of one “mono-myth”. George Lucas followed Campbell’s recipe in the making of Star Wars, and there is another writing method that is built on this basis – the Agile Method (http://agilewriters.com). I used my own variant of the Agile formula for the book I’m working on now, The Golden Illusion. Just to see what would happen, I plotted the story arc into four phases:
- Discovery and growth
- Decline and despair
- Climax and dénouement
It worked pretty well for keeping track of the story, though it escaped the boxes in every direction. You’ll notice this structure only gives me one major disaster, where the Snowflake method advocates three. The protagonist was thwarted in his drive to the goal, and lost his girlfriend and best friend into the bargain. But there were, of course, other minor setbacks as well as triumphs on the way there.
Other people disagree vehemently with Campbell’s mono-myth idea. Critics have argued, for example, that he was oblivious to the stories women tell. As I mentioned above, Michael Hauge believes there are five basic stories. Christopher Booker, influenced by Jung’s psychology, believed there were seven basic stories. Vladimir Propp analysed Russian fairy tales, and claimed to have identified 31 different plots, while Georges Polti advocated for 36 fundamental dramatic situations. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
However you design your plot. It helps to plan (or at least record as you write) the essential elements. You need something that will keep track of your timeline, so you don’t get jumps in sequence, or time of day, or sequence. You need something to keep track of where the action is going – particularly if you have several threads interwoven in your story. This is my master story-board template for The Golden Illusion
I took out the details, so there are no spoilers when the book finally, if ever, sees the light of day. But, you can see the grid is divided horizontally into the four elements of the arc, with an associated time-line, and vertically into the main plot, and the three sub-threads (A, B, and C). These sub-threads were: the protagonist’s search for the secret of an ancient Egyptian magic trick, which he believes will be a “Golden Illusion” that will make his fortune; the unfolding story of a group of nineteenth century villagers that seems to be connected to the Golden Illusion; and the protagonist’s problem in emotional commitment. There is also a column for characters, so the main events that happen to each character can be tracked.
For my next book, the sequel to A Prize of Sovereigns, I have modified this template and added two new elements. The first is a summary of the whole book. There are two summaries: a one sentence summary, which is the pre-cursor of the elevator pitch (see post 4: After the writing is over – publishing), and a one-paragraph elaboration of the elevator pitch. Previously I have written these only when the book was finished, but Randy Ingermanson advocates doing this at the beginning in his Snowflake method, so I thought I’d give it a try. At least I now know exactly what the book is about, and am half way to the pitch and synopsis. The second new element is a scene list, again a suggestion from Ingermanson, with a one sentence description of each scene.
I have used a version of scene lists before. In the past, I’ve written one paragraph summaries of each chapter, but only after I’d drafted the chapter. This made it easier to keep track of where I had got to if there was a break in writing, as well as vastly simplifying the writing of the synopsis. What is new this time is that I’ll write the scene descriptions before I draft. I’m curious to see how that works out. In theory, it should make writing the first draft much quicker.