Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Building the Better Novel, Part Three: Plot Construction

I apologize for jumping between my essays on plot development (See Part 1: Foundation and Part 2: Framework) and independent publishing issues (See Finding an Editor and The Cost of Independent Publishing). In a perfect world,  I would write these as two distinct series and not mixed together. In the real world, I'm releasing one novel and plotting another while a third manuscript waits for editing. I write essays based on what I'm working on at the time, hence the bouncing from one subject to another. The world of an independent publisher isn't perfect,  but it is fun.

Before I got sidetracked, I broke down my plot development process into the foundation where the book is conceptualized and the framework where the broad outline of the book is laid out. The next step in my process is to add structure to the frame through the use of beats, chapters, and acts. By linking each one of these parts into the framework of the overall concept a plot can take shape.

The Beat
According to Robert McKee's Storya beat is an process of action and reaction. For example, a man and a woman are having a pleasant dinner when, he gets down on one knee and proposes marriage. The proposal is the action. Her response is the reaction.

Not all beats need to be that momentous or interpersonal. A woman who decides to hit the snooze button instead of getting out of bed. The alarm is the inanimate action and her snooze is the reaction. If a man washes his car and it starts to rain, it is an extrapersonal action reaction of cruel irony.

The Chapter
Existence is full of random beats, but writers who plot use the beats to move the story forward. A chapter is a series of beats that alters the conditions or situation of the characters. In our dinner chapter above, we have the action of the proposal and her reaction of saying yes or no. This sequence of events changes the situation of the characters and moves the story. She says yes and he experiences marriage. She says no and he faces rejection. She says maybe and he faces doubt. Any way you slice it, his situation changes and propels the story forward.

There one thing I have been taught about chapters is that the condition of the characters has to change on some level. In screenwriting I've heard this referred to as "turning the scene". If everything is the same for the character at the end of the chapter as it is in the beginning,  then the chapter does not move the story and is what's called non event that doesn't need to be in the story. For example, the shower that the man took before the proposal dinner and the ride he took to the restaurant don't move the story, so they are non events that can be skipped over. Putting in a non event kills the momentum and interest in the story in almost all cases.

Ideally, a chapter serves as a mini story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The characters are in one position at the start of the chapter. They move through beats and levels of conflict that are either internal,  interpersonal, extra personal or all three at once. The situation at the end of each chapter becomes the beginning of the next chapter. It is similar to episodic television,  where the overarching plot is broken down into smaller events that move toward the endgame. One of the reasons I started writing short stories before I tackled a novel was to get the feel of building a beginning middle and end in only a few pages (You can read some of my short fiction for here)

The Act
An act is a series of scenes that represent major milestones in a story. In the same way we discussed the beginning middle and end (See Framework), the acts can loosely represent this progression.

Story talks about absolute irreversible change between acts, where the level of conflict and the level of willpower and effort increases with each act, so that the protagonist can't go back to lesser effort or lesser actions in the pursuit of their desire. I don't know if this is true in all cases and genres, but I have adopted it for my use.

Most stories can be defined by the number of acts they have. A short story often has one. The novella has two. The novel has at least three. But some stories break this convention. Shakespeare's work often has five acts, Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven. You can have any number of acts that fit your work, but because of the beginning, middle, end concept, three is the norm for most novels.

How I Build a Plot
  • I layout my foundation and my framework in front of me to show where the acts are and where I'm going. 
  • Then I map out the chapters to show me how I'm going to get there. 
  • Next I build in the beats for each chapter with one sentence descriptions of action and reaction.
Once I've gone through the whole story I work backwards.  
  • I look at each beat and make sure it fits within the logical framework of the foundation of the story and its overall direction. 
  • I examine the structure of each chapter to figure out what goes where, what happens before or after something else and where the subplots, if any, need to go. 
  • Finally, I look at the acts and see if the pace and flow of the story works.
At that point I make myself a drink because I have a plot.

There are certain things that I put in the plot and things I always leave out. The goal of the protagonist in each chapter is explicitly stated in each chapter of the plot. Their emotions as the beats move also gets written down. Any research I need to do, hints or foreshadowing that needs to occur, and implications for other chapters is duly noted. Description, dialogue or other spontaneous details don't go in the plot. I save that for later.

The plot is highly adaptable and fluid at this stage. New subplots and chapters can be added in. Many chapters can be split up, combined or thrown away completely. The beginning,  middle and end can change quickly and easily. Anything can change if it serves the story. Characters sit next to you and offer their opinions. 'I would try to do this', 'I would never say that.' New connections are made and seeds are planted not just for this novel but for other stories down the line. It is like building with Lego. I've got a good idea of what it's supposed to look like, but I'm free to add, subtract and adapt.

Controlling Ideas
As the plot takes shape, the theme or controlling idea comes into focus. The controlling idea is the overall statement describing what they story is about. It is not just a stated value like love, truth or justice. It is a statement that states why a value undergoes change. Once I understand this idea, it will influence everything that I think of as I actually write the manuscript.

Write the Damn Book Already
Once the foundation has been established, the framework has been laid out and the plot has been based on that work, writing the book can actually happen. This three part preparation often takes time, but it makes the actual writing much easier for me. For my last manuscript it took about eight months of working on it off and on to go through all three steps. Writing the actual manuscript took six months or about 3,000 words per week. I still altered the plot while I was writing, but I never had writer's block or wrote myself into a place I couldn't get out of. I plan to start writing the next novel in January. It should be ready for beta reading by May.

I know this process isn't for everyone (See Plotter vs. Pantser). Many writers are struck with a flash of inspiration and rush to the computer. They write for as long as the Muse guides them and the results are based largely on spontaneous creativity (See How Much Inspiration Do You Need?). There is nothing wrong with that. This is the process that works for me. It's not better or worse, it's just different. If you find something here worth stealing, please be my guest. If not, at least you got some idea of how the other half writes.

Have fun.

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