Pre Writing Step #3: Structure—Creating the Foundation

Tuesday, October 30

Even though I still consider myself to be in the pre-writing phase, the next thing I need to do is to create a foundation that will support the shape and heft of the book. I know that might seem like kind of a left-brained thing to do in the pre-writing stage, but I find if I don’t do it, I run out of steam after about 50 pages and the story just lays lays there, staring at me with accusing eyes.

However, if thinking about plot or structure makes you tense or nervous or doubt yourself or break out in a cold sweat, by all means, back away from the computer and ignore this post!

To make plotting feel less left-brained, I remind myself that at this stage, structure is merely a way of thinking about what sorts of scenes go where. Since character transformation happens through action, the plot is simply the actions our characters go through in order to grow and change, and looking at structure helps me brainstorm the sorts of story events and scenes I will need to be thinking about.

The thing is, we have all been studying plot since our parents first began reading Good Night Moon or Harold and the Purple Crayon to us. Ever since our first cartoon, we became consumers of story, and most classic story comes with a plot.

In its most simple form, plot is merely a beginning, a middle, and an end. And really, as a reader as long as one act pulls you along into the next act, you’re golden. But as writers, we have to think about how we make that happen.

I use a four act structure rather than a three act structure so that my true middle doesn’t get lost amid a looooong second act. It’s like when two people stand and hold a long piece of rope. It takes much more effort and concentration to stretch the rope across a fifty foot space, whereas it takes considerably less to stretch it across ten feet. J

FIRST ACT

Set up – Section of the story that gives a sense of who the character is, what is missing from their lives, and what they will need to change and grow.

Inciting Incident – what forces the character to engage in the elements of the plot, where the trouble starts, the day that is different

1st Turning Point (TP) – What propels the protagonist into the next act

SECOND ACT

Increasing Conflict/Dramatic Action – action that has some meaning or purpose within the greater context of the story as opposed to simple physical action.

Rising action – scenes increase in dramatic tension as the plot progresses. Also causality. This happens, because something else happened, which in turn forces even more conflict to happen.

2nd TP – MID POINT – this scene propels the story into the next act, but it also is the point of no return, the hero cannot go back to who they were, must go forward, which is why I think it needs to be marked on its own.

THIRD ACT
Continued Rising Action (Protagonist and Antagonist engaged in escalating struggle)

Final TP – the moment when everything coalesces to propel the hero toward the final showdown

FOURTH ACT
Climax – the final confrontation (either internal or external but preferably both) that the story has been building to.

Resolution – how the newly changed character, using skills and knowledge acquired through the course of the story, fixes the problem or comes to terms with the situation.

So that’s the basic four act structure. Another structure I use a lot is the one from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, a book I highly, highly recommend.

At this early stage of the process, this is the perfect template for me because it is vague enough that I don’t feel forced to ink in actual scenes and turning points yet, it mostly just reminds me what type of scenes and action should be happening at each stage of the book. A brainstorming template, if you will. And again, while it might seem a bit left-brained to bring in at this stage, I have learned that by seeding some soft, left-brained stuff in early, it actually becomes incorporated by my right brain’s creative process.

The template looks something like this:

(ETA: Okay, here is a quick and dirty explanation of the steps as talked about in SAVE THE CAT but for a full explanation you will need to read it and, again, I highly, HIGHLY recommend buying this book.)

You will see that some of these steps correspond pretty closely with the four act structure. It mostly just reframes the way we think about those parts of the story.

 

Setup (pgs 1-40) Section of the story that gives a sense of who the character is, what is missing from their lives, and what they will need to change and grow.

Catalyst (48 ) where the trouble starts, the day that is different

Debate (48-100) – This corresponds with the ‘refusal of the call’ stage in the Hero’s Journey and is simply the protagonist weighing his options, trying to decide which fork in the road to take, trying to stay in denial, or mentally and physically preparing himself to step out onto that journey.

Break into Two (100) What propels the protagonist into the next act

Fun and Games (100-200) – this is the point in the book where the “promise of the premise” is played out.

Midpoint (200) – the point of no return, the hero cannot go back to who they were, must go forward

Bad Guys Closing In (200-300) – This is where all the negative forces that have been stirred up by the protagonist’s actions now begin to close in on him. They don’t have to be actual bad guys, but antagonistic forces, the hero’s own issues coming home to roost—whatever is acting as the antagonist in your story.

All is Lost (300) It looks like our protagonist has lost.

Dark Night of Soul (300-340)  He takes a moment and lets that failure sink in.

Break into Three (340) then something, some inner strength he didn’t know he had, some inner demon he finally faces, something gives him the courage to dig down deep and find the will to try one more time.

Finale/Climax /Resolution (340-400)

Those are the target page numbers I’m using for a 400 page mss, but if you were working on a 50,000 word novel, you’d just cut those numbers in half.

So, that’s some thoughts of structure that will hopefully spark ideas for all sorts of scenes to put in the novel. And that’s the last of my pre-writing posts. I do have some more writing posts I’ll put up throughout the month, but for now, Good Luck!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather October 30, 2012 at 9:20 am

Plotting scares the tar out of me. I’m going to keep this open in one window today while I try to get a foundation set for my NaNovel so I’m not flying blind. Thanks for sharing!

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Robin October 30, 2012 at 10:28 am

Gah! I so know that feeling, Heather! But don’t let it; it’s a skill like any other and VERY master-able. When I started thinking of the plot in terms of the character’s journey towards change, that really helped me get over my dread of plotting.

Good luck with NaNo!

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Allison October 30, 2012 at 9:25 am

This is so helpful. Consider it bookmarked! Thanks for sharing your process with us; I’ve definitely learned that (for me) it’s impossible to totally ignore the left brain while trying to wade my way through a messy first draft. A little bit of structure goes a long way toward helping me avoid dead ends!

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Robin October 30, 2012 at 10:30 am

Yay! So glad it’s helpful to you, Allison! And I agree, there is nothing WORSE than running into a dead end. So discouraging!

Also, I will be posting more writing stuff throughout November, I just wanted to get the pre-writing stuff up first.

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Scott Moon October 30, 2012 at 9:40 am

I like some of the headings you used it this post–very descriptive and fun. Good luck with NaNo!

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Robin October 30, 2012 at 10:30 am

Thanks! Although the fun headings are most likely from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT book. I didn’t make those up. (Sadly.)

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Bryan Sabol October 30, 2012 at 9:58 am

Robin, these pre-writing essays are pure gold. I come from the plot-driven mindset and plan to use some of your guidance to switch that around on my next ms and tackle the character first.

Looking forward to more of your craft posts.

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Robin October 30, 2012 at 10:32 am

I’m very happy to hear the posts are helpful to you, Bryan! I actually feel like I mastered plotting before I really got a handle on character depth and growth.

And then of course I struggle to marry the two of them together with each and every book. I don’t think that part ever goes away. But clearly none of us are in this writing gig because it’s easy. :-)

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Chuck Shingledecker October 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm

WOW! Robin, thanks so much for posting this! Plotting is one of my weaknesses. I’ve read tons of material about it, but this helps me break things down into something that, I think, I can wrap my head around. (Especially helping with the big swampy middle as Jim Butcher calls it.)

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Robin October 31, 2012 at 8:29 pm

You are so welcome, Chuck! I’m so glad this explanation might work for you!

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Donna Gephart October 31, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Love, love, LOVE your pre-writing posts as I’m just now understanding the power and necessity of extensive pre-writing.

Thank you for sharing these posts. They are highly valuable resources, Robin.

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Robin October 31, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I am honored that a writer of your caliber thinks so, Miss Donna!

And Lord, I shave off about seven drafts if I do thorough enough pre-writing!

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Lia Keyes November 5, 2012 at 10:53 am

Love the way you explain it, Robin, as well as your generosity in sharing your process with the rest of us!

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Robin November 5, 2012 at 11:07 am

So glad the explanation worked for you, Lia! And I hope you’re doing well and making GREAT progress on your book!

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Lia Keyes November 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I am, thank you!

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