Thursday, January 29, 2009

A novel in three acts: Act One

So, first, sorry. I didn't post on Monday. It was a Bad Day. I've been having a lot of those lately, but Monday was particularly Bad and I honestly just couldn't get my head around anything well enough to blog. So, sorry about that.

Seriously, is this month over yet? It's been AWFUL. One of the worst months I've ever had; I feel bruised all over from the beating it's given me. Part of it might be the Mercury retrograde; part of it might just be that it's January and the weather is a neverending stream of miserable (and has been for two years.) Whatever it is, I just want to go crawl under the covers and hide.

But of course I cannot. :-) I have kids to raise and a novel, a short story, and a proposal to write. So, no hiding for me. And actually, although it's been a slow month, the novel is coming along and so is the proposal (haven't started the short yet) so I feel good about that; I'm 25k or so into the third Downside book, which I'm calling CITY OF GHOSTS for now (although I'm not sure how unique that is, so we'll see if I get to keep it. It might end up being something like UNDERGROUND GHOSTS or maybe GHOSTS UNBOUND. Don't know. Reminder to self: Google "City of ghosts" and see what you get.) Shame, really, as it's the perfect title for what I think is going to be a kickass book; I'm actually extremely pleased with it so far, which is nice. I have a couple more clues to drop in this first third and my subplots are simmering along nicely.

See, here's what I do. I separate the novel, in my head, into three parts; assuming a 90k book, which of course it won't be exactly--the final version of UNHOLY GHOSTS is about 98k; DOWNSIDE GHOSTS before edits is about 101k. So we'll see. Anyway.

It occurred to me that this particular way of structuring a book might interest some of you, so here's what I'm going to do. This Thursday and the next two I'm going to outline my basic method; feel free to ask questions at the end of each post and I'll answer them the following Thursday, and we'll do a little summary at the end.

So. Why would you want to do this? Why would you want to structure your books this way? What is the benefit of it?

I can only answer what the benefit is for me, and how it helps me organize my thoughts and work, and the ways in which I feel it's improved my writing. Honestly I think most of you probably do this anyway, either consciously or unconsciously.

I'm not an outliner or planner. I start my books with a couple of characters and a problem which needs solving. Occasionally I'll have a couple of ideas for Big Scenes in my head, but that's really it. An idea excites me and I start writing, period. If you are an outliner or planner, this may not be necessary for you or, again, you probably already do this. And as with any other writing advice I give, this is my way and only mine; it's not in any way a "You must do it this way" or "This is the best way". But I mentioned my little structure elsewhere and a few people really liked it, so I thought why not share it a little more widely.

Also keep in mind that if your projected word counts are shorter, you will of course need shorter thirds, and especially remember this is not set in stone. Every book is different. Every book will have its own needs. You do not have to do this the way I do in order to write well, not at all, not remotely.

So. Here is what this does for me:

**It improves pacing. Separating the book into three 30k chunks, and knowing basically what purpose each chunk has to serve, gives me a structure on which to hang my wild imaginings (hee). Also, because of the way each "Act" is set up, it draws the reader into the story at a predictable pace and keeps the flow of information steady.

**It gives me a much stronger first draft. You pantsers know exactly what I'm talking about here. By the time our book is finished we have so many clues we need to go back and add, so many changes that need to be made, it's like rewriting the book. But keeping the structure in mind makes it easier for me to fit in anything I might need; I know where the additional info needs to go or from where it needs to be removed.

**It means I'm not cramming to fit things in at the end, or left with too many loose ends.

**It eliminates the problem of the "sagging middle". I believe the sagging middle is a pacing/information problem; sagging middles occur when too much information is given in the beginning of a story. By structuring my books this way I make sure there's plenty of action throughout.

Assuming a book is 90k words, by the end of the first third--or 30k--I need to have all my basic information in place:

*Who the major players are. The bad guy needs to be introduced here, even if--as is usually the case--the reader is unaware that s/he is the bad guy. Hell, I'm not usually aware at this point who the bad guy is, especially given how much I enjoy my red herrings. So I usually set up two or three likely suspects here. I can always edit later to strengthen or remove the connections, once I figure out who the Baddie really is. We also need, of course, the main characters.

*The basic plot. What is the mystery or problem we're solving? A lot of people will tell you this should be in the first chapter, and they're not wrong. The sooner the better. But I'm also a fan of the Indiana Jones opening, whereby the first chapter is an intro to character and action that clears up events which occurred before the book's opening. So I feel that as long as we introduce the issue in those first three chapters, we're good.

*At least one subplot, hopefully two. They don't have to be delved too deeply into in the first 10k or so, but by the end of 30k they should be (and we're going to go into the structure of each act itself as well). But the basic stage needs to be set early, in this first act. For example, in PERSONAL DEMONS, Megan's interview with Brian. We also met our Ultimate Baddie in those first chapters and added our little subplot with the vision of the Yezer's house on the astral plane. And of course we met our romantic lead as well and (hopefully) had a nice little attraction/irritation vibe going fairly quickly, at least by the end of that 30k.


This doesn't mean at all that by the end of the first act the mystery would be solvable. Oh, no. Not at all. But everything that comes later has to build on what's already in those first 30k words. No deus ex machinas for us; we need to lay our groundwork.

For example, let's say we're writing a murder mystery. It can be set in any world, from "normal" to total fantasy.

For example, let's say we're writing a murder mystery. It can be set in any world, from "normal" to total fantasy.

So, in the first 10-15k words we want to introduce:

Our main character
Sidekicks, if any
The mystery itself
The bad guys
The world we're in
Our basic clues

Is the murderer out for revenge? Then we might want to mention, in that first section, how many people loved (or hated) the victim. Out for money? Then we mention how rich (or poor) the victim was. We might introduce some physical clues here; the bloody knife or gun, say. Or there may be no obvious cause of death, and we introduce the cause at the very end of this act (we may even wait until the second act, but if that's the case we should have a lot of other stuff going on.)

And in the second 15k or so we want to start exploring the word, pick up a few additional clues, and get to our first Major Complication (beyond the basic plot-laying one).

Every act ends with action and deepening conflict.

Well, technically, every sentence, ever scene, every page, needs to deepen conflict, of course. But for the sake of our structure we're going to focus on Major Conflict.

To go back to our murder mystery, let's say our MC is Jennifer, a private detective. The subject of one of jennifer's investigations turns up dead, and she decides to work with the police--or behind their backs, perhaps--to solve the crime for whatever reason.

It's a pretty basic plot and one I think we're all fairly familiar with.

So our first act is the dead body, the introduction of Jennifer and her frenemies on the force, the world, whatever. And we pick up info here and there, and perhaps we learn that Jennifer is debating whether to put her grandmother in a home, and Jennifer's just broken up with a lover, and Jennifer needs a new car, or whatever.

We'll probably have some excitement in those chapters, and some uncoverings. But it's right around the end of that first act that things go from bad to worse. Jennifer is attacked at her home. Or a witness is found dead. Or she's kidnapped. Or the police tell her in a very shady way to get the heck out of their investigation.

Whatever the plot is, the end of the first act is where you generally put:

*A major action scene
*A major complication

Preferably at the same time. That first 30k has to encourage the reader to keep going; you want the end of that act to be an "Oh crap" moment, you know what I mean? I tend to think of those, and of those major action scenes, as "beats", and each act should end with or right around a beat.

This isn't to say at all that you shouldn't be having those moments as you go, because of course you should. But the end of that first act is where everything rolls on its side; it's where the MC finds him or herself in jeopardy somehow or where someone else is put in jeopardy (like, for example, the kidnapping of Catherine Martin in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs, to pull an example out of my--ahem--hat. The abduction, in fact, occurs on page 104 of my copy [I just went upstairs and grabbed it], which is 352 pages long, and is especially masterful there as just a few pages before Harris showed us the autopsy of a Buffalo Bill victim. Thus at the end of that book's "first act" we have a graphic representation of how different this killer is; we have a significant clue in the throat larvae; and we have the abduction--so we know exactly what is waiting for that girl.)

The end of the first act is where the stakes jump higher. It's not just an investigation anymore; this time it's personal, if you know what I mean. Something Bad Has Happened. It's going to happen again, unless we stop it. There's often--again, as in Silence--a time factor introduced here too. Either way, this is where everything that's come so far raises to a fever pitch, and the reader is (hopefully!) left breathlessly anticipating the second act, where everything gets deeper and more complicated.

Remember, none of this is set in stone. All stories are different. It's just a guideline.

So. Any questions? What do you think; is this a structure you use? Do you keep these things in mind as you work?


BernardL said...

That is a wonderful start, D. I especially like the 30k word clumps.

Anonymous said...

Concur with BernardL. -V95

Keep your chin up, kid.

laughingwolf said...

no argument from me, three bits is a good way to go :D

circe said...

De-lurking to say I find your writing advice very helpful.

I tend to just wing it during the first draft and then hit a block with the sagging middle. So how do you balance capturing interest yet save enough of the good stuff to hold up the middle? I'm still working on that.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks guys! {{hugs}}

Thank you, Circe! Stick around--we're going to do the middle sgment next Thursday and I'll be discussing the Sagging Middle a LOT. Since I'm not a planner/plotter either, this has really helped me avoid that problem.

kirsten saell said...

I don't really write a "first draft". There are times when the only difference between my first draft and my last is a lack of typoes. And I don't consciously think in terms of thirds myself, though that tends to be how things pan out much of the time.

I'm really looking forward to the next instalment, D. I am mostly a pantser myself and that can make things really difficult at times. I might learn a trick or two to keep things moving when they would normally grind to a halt (like now).