In the last tip we talked about developing the Great Idea to the point where we have a file full of notes and an idea of the beginning, middle and end.
What's the next step?
Building your structure.
Understanding structure early on in your writing process will really help you when it comes to getting other things right, like pacing and building tension.
Most of you will have heard of the three-act structure commonly used for play and movie writing. One thing I did after writing my first published novel was to re-write it as a screenplay. I highly recommend this as a writing practice tool. Script writing deals primarily with action and dialogue and making the most with the least. You only have 120 pages to tell the whole story and the margins are very narrow.
(Excuse my chicken scratch!)
At this point I look through my notes and pinpoint what my plot points are and where on the three act structure they should “hang.” If I'm missing something vital, I see this right away before I get too heavily into it. Especially critical is the midpoint, or what Janice Hardy coins the midpoint reversal. This is where something unexpected happens. It's a twist that keeps the reader steadily hooked. Identifying your midpoint reversal early on will do wonders for preventing the chronic “saggy mid section”.
I'll use GINGERBREAD MAN to illustrate.
Act 1- Set Up: The story opens with the victim (Teagan) an art student, scrubbing clay out from under her finger nails. She stays in when her roommate, Sage, our heroine, goes out with friends and ends up chatting to an anonymous person in the college forums online. We’re left wondering if this person is a good guy or bad. The book alternates between the two heroes, Sage and Marlow, Teagan and the villain.
Inciting Incident: Marlow warns Teagan to be careful, that a girl on campus has been raped before it happens. (At least from Teagan’s perspective.)
Plot point I: Teagan Lake is murdered, but then she shows up for her chat meeting with Marlow.
Act 2 – Conflict: Marlow, who’s a physics genius figures out that the Teagan he’s been chatting with is from another realm. He’s determined to save her from the villain in her realm. Marlow and Sage meet for the first time and he tries to convince her that Teagan is in danger.
Midpoint reversal: Sage finally believes Marlow that he jumped realms and that Teagan is in trouble. The rest of Act 2 is about how Marlow and Sage work together to try to find Teagan.
Plot Point 2: I don't want to give this away in case you have yet to read Gingerbread Man, but like plot point 1, something unexpected happens to thrust us into the third act. (For those who have read it, it has to with what happens after Marlow gets his eyes layered.)
Act 3 – Climax and Resolution: Act 3 has new and tougher problems for our leads. The stakes are raised over and over. Again, I don't want to spoil the climax, but this is where everything falls apart and then comes back together for a satisfying ending. (For Gingerbread Man readers, this happens in shack and the villain is revealed.) There is a twist in the resolution – the story arc completes but it leaves you wanting to read the second book. Hopefully!
Here is another breakdown from the book The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
(For those who haven't read The Girl on the Train, this breakdown involves spoilers.)
Act 1 – Set up: We learn about our protagonist (main character), Rachel, that she takes a train into London every day, that she’s divorced, an alcoholic, and that she has a good imagination, particularly when it comes to a certain set of houses along the tracks. She sees a loving couple out in the garden most days. She calls them “Jess and Jason.”
Inciting Incident: Rachel has suffered another drunken black out. She knows she went to her old neighbourhood (to harass her ex-husband who’d cheated on her and his new wife Anna) and saw something bad. She just can’t remember the details.
Plot Point 1: Megan’s point of view: Megan and Scott are the couple Rachel’s been watching. We find out she’s been cheating on her husband but we don’t know with whom.
Act 2 – Conflict: “Jess” who is in reality Megan, goes missing.
Midpoint Reversal: Megan’s body is found.
Plot Point 2: Anna’s point of view: she discovers her husband Tom (Rachel’s ex) was cheating on her with Megan (the dead woman) and she begins to suspect him.
Act 3 – Climax and Resolution: Rachel remembers what she saw. It was her ex-husband Tom she saw with Megan the night she went missing. There’s the final confrontation between Rachel and Tom.
I’ll delve deeper into the meaning of each of these points in future tips.
One thing to keep in mind is you're not tied to these early decisions. You may change the inciting incident or where it happens, you might decide on a new midpoint reversal and move your original one to the pinch before Act 3. This is just a way to get you started. It's a tentative roadmap to the words “The End.”
A great exercise you can do is to go through your favorite stories and see if you can identify these seven points. If you want to learn more about developing structure, I highly recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and his famous beat sheet. We'll look at that more closely in another chapter.
Can you easily “hang” the plot points of your WIP (work in progress)?
Now that we've built the bones, the bones need some meat! We'll tackle that next.