Tag Archives: three act structure

This post probably has spoilers

I don’t know why we have to say that, but I did anyway. It’s my blog, and I should be allowed to post anything I like. Today was a day of errands, and ended with my wife and I going to Infinity War.

My daughter had an hour available, so she gave me a much needed haircut. After that I went and got some blood work done. This is a twice per year thing for me to get my PSA numbers checked.

My wife ran her own errands, and we likely crossed paths on the main drag a few times today. After that, we went to the movies.

My verdict… meh. Here’s the deal, I’ve invested years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not seeing this film is like wasting all that time. I only knew bits and pieces of the original story, and they tell me the movie varies widely anyway.

Here’s where it goes off the rails for me. Three Act Structure. You guys know I’m a big believer in three act structure. This doesn’t mean you have to tell the whole story in one swoop, there are some masterpieces that came out as trilogies. Star Wars worked to a large degree because of three act structure: Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back – Return of the Jedi. Lord of the Rings did the same thing in book form long before the movies came along. When those movies came along, they stuck to the structure.

When you take a gigantic story, and split it into two movies it does not work. The midpoint, i.e. the end of the first film, falls at the absolute blackest most miserable point in the story. Everyone walks out being bummed to a large degree. I overheard comments from other viewers.

I felt this way when they split the last Harry Potter book into two films. I feel this way today. This is because the last part of Act Two involves a regrouping and moving forward with a desperate plan. There is a breath of hope this way. Now that breath of hope has to be the first part of the second Infinity War movie.

Yeah, I know it’s coming, but this film ends on a low note. I wonder how many casual fans Marvel will lose at this point. Some of them won’t come back for the big ending.

I also know Marvel won’t waste all of that capital and goodwill by killing off so many money making characters. It’s just not happening. This story didn’t have to be this way, and I’m sorry it was.

In a perfect world, I would have waited to watch this on HBO or something one day before I saw part 2 in the theater.

In other news, I broke my vow and worked on my pirate story. There is this event a few chapters from now, and I added about 1500 words to serve as a plant for that event. I like it, but it may need some tweaks later on.

I could have written a couple of interviews instead, but I have a bunch out in the mail. I hope they come in sometime in the next three weeks, but in that time I’ll probably send out a few more. So I used a bit of my time on my project.

Back to work tomorrow.

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An unexpected extra on planning

I recently spent several days going over my cork board version of outlining. Some of you really got into it, while others waited for a different topic. It's okay, there will always be another topic.

For those who liked the posts, I learned most of it from a writer named Alexandra Sokoloff. She started life as a screenwriter, and now writes novels. She knows more than I do about the process. I did my usual gathering of nuggets and used the parts I liked.

She isn't on WordPress, so it isn't easy to simply re-blog her post today. She's doing an act breakdown of Silence of the Lambs that's worth reading. She explains some of the fairytale aspects, use of scenery, and subtle things we novelists can learn from.

For those of you who are interested, here's a link to the post. I used a copy and paste to add her to my Reader stream, and the RSS link to follow her in that reader too. Her site has a ton of information, and I wouldn't want to miss anything.

 

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Planning your novel, part four

I’ve given everyone a pretty good idea of how I set up my board, and how I move my cards around to get between the cornerstones of a story. I’ve also explained how you might use a different style and still benefit from a storyboard. Today is all about the bells and whistles that really help me with a story.

My app comes with a drawer that holds things in addition to index cards. Some of these are very handy, others not so much. I have no need to put a contact card in my outline. (Maybe a pizza place that delivers?)

Note: if you want to try a physical storyboard, you can do all the same things.

I want to start off with the checklist option. There are certain things that you want your character to do. Why not make a checklist and include it in your outline. This is a good way to keep from getting out of logical order. Here’s a decent example:

The stages of grieving

 

We put our characters through a lot. It’s more realistic to have them experience a loss by following the stages of grieving. In a novel you might be able to skip a step, but it details how most folks would act in the event of a loss. This is one example. You can use a checklist for all kinds of things.

My app comes with some cool little arrows. Since I can change the colors, I can coordinate what they mean with the key elements of a story.

In this example, I might add yellow arrows to take my main character from Ron Weasley all the way to Gandalf.

I’m an old guy. I don’t always remember minutia from day to day. When writing a novel it could be month to month.

If I know I’m going to use the old falling anvil trick in Act Three, I need to hoist the anvil somewhere in Act One or Two. The pink arrows can really help with that.

I don’t always follow this advice in my outline, but when I have, it makes everything much easier. There are still plenty of times I’ll have to go back and modify chapter three while I’m working on chapter 29, but it still helps.

I don’t color coordinate anything, but the potential is there. I did it for the purposes of this post. I use a lot of sticky notes. Again, my memory is still there, it just isn’t as fast as it used to be. Sometimes, at the end of a writing day, I’ll add a note about some idea I want to use in the next writing session. I call them “Hey Dummy” notes. It helps when the next writing session is fourteen days away. Here are some ideas for sticky notes:

When I finally get back to writing, I review my “Hey Dummy” notes and delete them.

I also read back and forward a bit. The story always deviates from the outline, and there is no law that says it can’t.

I’ve even been known to change the outline, because I’ve come up with some brilliant idea while writing.

Of course, I’ve also abandoned the outline completely on occasion. At least it got me started on the right foot. The cornerstones of three act structure were still useful to keep my story on track.

Its more typical for me to start writing before the outline is finished. I usually pay the price and have to go back, update the outline, and plan out the rest of the story.

One of the best things about a storyboard is pictures. Pictures really help with descriptions. I add them to my board at key places. Since this is the private part of your work, you can grab anything you like off the internet. No need to worry about copyright. Here’s an example from Arson:

Everyone’s favorite pyrophilliac has a distinct hairstyle. (Maybe she’s just my favorite.) She would never wear that horrible bow thing.

She also has some unique items she uses for work, and to decorate her office.

I find pictures to be extremely helpful. If your character has a unique style, you can pin some clothing or other bits to your board.

Maybe you want some actual crime scene photos to remind you to include specific details like pin flags or number markers.

 

True story time. When I was writing Arson, I was also outlining The Cock of the South.

Outlining is something I can do while my wife plays her music or watches American Idol. It doesn’t take quite the concentration that writing does.

I decided to completely outline the whole story. It was one of those personal challenges I talk about on occasion. I learn by trying new things, and this needed to be tested.

My app lets me seat a board within a board. I filled this storyboard with pictures and character arch reminders. I wound up with a board for each section.

The payoff was writing the whole novel in three months. Remember, I have a family and a full time job. I only get to write on Saturday mornings and one rotating day per week. Researching during the writing process was kept to a minimum. It was just writing. It was almost as if the only thing I had to concentrate on was making sure my cast of characters stayed unique and engaging. The image is how the links to the subsequent boards are displayed.

I’ve never taken it to this level since then. I should, but I always get too excited and want to start writing. My next challenge is to outline multiple projects and make them fight for my writing time. The losers will still be around, and may get a chance later. Here is a section of the board from The Playground. It shows some of the bells and whistles together on an actual storyboard.

My boards don’t start out this way. Most of them are a collection of loose notes. I won’t even fill out the premise or important act points until later.

Lorelei, my Muse, has been haunting me again blessing me with her presence. She’s been giving me ideas about all my potential stories. I decided to start a board last night so I could share one here.

This story doesn’t even have a title yet. The premise and act cards are still untouched. None of the cards are anything more than random ideas. My sticky notes are all about things I need to research. They aren’t even in columns right now.

I’ll move them into columns when the time comes. The research stickies will get discarded and replaced with data. If you want to expand the picture, there might be a spoiler or two, or everything could change. I might not let this one off the island. It’s a fair enough example for this post.

I’m a little hesitant to return to a paranormal story right away. I’ve written two, back to back. Since this one is set in history, it doesn’t lend itself easily to fantasy or science fiction. It will have to compete for its writing time.

Storyboards provide a nice visual. It’s easy to see when you don’t have enough material in one of the acts. It’s usually Act Two. The beginning and ending are easier to come up with, because they’re more exciting. One glance can show you the problem.

Read Part Three here.

Let’s call it. This was my sequence on story boarding. I’ve learned so much from other writers that I thought it was time to share. My process formed by grabbing bits and pieces from other writers. Are you going to attempt a storyboard? Did you gain a nugget to add to your own style? Is it all bullshit that stifles creativity? Is storyboarding a mental version of water boarding in your mind? Could it be useful under some circumstances, but not others? Maybe you have a tip to offer? Let me hear from you.

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Planning Act Three

My regulars know that I usually don’t post on Thursdays. I’m excited to get this post out there because the next post is where I show you how to bring a storyboard to life. I’m looking forward to that one.

Here is my reminder for act three of the story:

This is the big boss battle. Everything you’ve been building up to happens here. Love triangles are broken, ships are sunk, throats are cut, revenge is taken. Any reward you have planned gets issued, and you drop the curtain.

I don’t even use a card for the ending. I made one, but it’s not worth displaying. The story ends. Act Three is usually the shortest act, so it deserves the shortest post.

All the structure part of this series is to show you what I personally do. You can glean the interesting stuff and leave the rest, but check back tomorrow.

If you only fill out these important points in your planning, you already have a decent outline. Maybe you prefer a few lines in a notebook instead of a board. That’s cool too, just write between the important points.

I like to use movie examples, because more people are likely to have seen a film. Here are some examples of the big changes these cards represent:

  • Sheriff Brody says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
  • Wyatt Earp stands in a downpour and it washes his dead brother’s blood from his shirt. Part of his soul washes away too.
  • A dying cop, (played by Sean Connery) grabs Elliot Ness by the shirt and says, “What are you prepared to do?”
  • Harry Potter walks into Hogwarts for the first time.
  • Davy Jones asks, “Do you fear death?”

Maybe you prefer a different story structure. Your cards might say:

  1. Put the character up a tree.
  2. Throw rocks at him.
  3. Get the character out of the tree.
Maybe your cards follow the Pixar method:

1.) Once Upon a Time __________

2.) And every day ______________

3.) Until one day _______________

4.) And because of this __________

5.) And because of this __________

6.) Until finally _________________

7.) And ever since that day _______

I like three act structure. I make extra cards to go between the important parts. I might have seven cards in Act One, but the first one starts me off. I don’t make the cards in order either. I may have two cards for Act Three while I’m working on Act one.

I move the cards around. Sometimes they just fit the story better in another place. I don’t have to scratch out my notes and try again. I just drag the card to a new location. Sometimes I drag it back.

Early in the game, my cards are only a word or two. I go back and add info as it occurs to me.

I’m about to start outlining four potential stories. I’m going to add a card here and there until one of them demands to be written.

Tomorrow is all about the cool things you can do with a storyboard, beyond index cards.

Read Part Two here.

Read Part Four here.

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Planning Act Two

It occurs to me this series also includes some data about story structure. There are many structures you can use, but I prefer three act structure. In fact, it’s actually a four act structure as we’ll see today. Act Two comes in two parts. Feel free to use any structure you like.

Many of the comments from the last post were about the technology. I use my iPad for everything, and am comfortable with a corkboard app. Use whatever you like, including a physical corkboard, or a storyboard.

At the end of the first act, we reminded ourselves to make sure all the settings, players, and stakes are in place. The main character has made a choice from which there is no return.  Act Two is the place to do something about the problem. The beginning of Act Two looks like this:

image

At this point your characters are taking steps to solve the problem. The first action is usually to power up. Maybe they need training, or weapons. Maybe it’s a makeover and new clothes in your sweet romance.

Like I mentioned, the cards are just reminders and help to spread out the big things that must happen. I write over the basic card for my individual tales.

Here’s what my beginning of Act Two looked like in The Cock of the South:

image

A mixed group of races left their home at the end of Act One. They had a plan, but that scene was all about looking back. Act Two begins with them crossing into a new part of the world to execute the plan. They are looking forward at this point. They are going to learn new skills from each other in order to survive. (A form of mentoring, and making allies.)

Obviously, things aren’t going to go according to plan, and there should be some failures to go along with the successes. The characters learn as much from failure as from success.

imageThis card isn’t strictly necessary, but since this is a post about my corkboard process, I threw one in. It’s basically a reminder that I need to have specific things in place for the next card which is of major importance.

image

This is almost as important as the premise. This is where it all hits the fan. It is the beginning of Act Two, Part Two. In case you can’t read it, it says: Completely changes the game, even the plan. A setback, loss, death, love interest, huge revelation, huge personal loss. Use re-calibrating, desperate acts, unethical behavior, to get to the end of this act. Great place for a ticking clock and dark night of the soul.

The game changes completely at this point. Think of it like Freddy’s plan failing, then Scooby & Shaggy take some desperate act to make up the difference. I spend quite a bit of time coming up with my midpoint these days.

Here’s an example of my midpoint card from Arson:

image

In this particular story, a freaky mentor/instructor actually becomes a love interest. This changes the dynamic and requires new thinking for my main character from this point on. It also introduced some cool extra stresses and distractions.

Filling in the cards between the Midpoint and the end of Act Two can be one of the most fun parts of the process. Let’s look at the end of Act Two.

image

This is the point of total revelation for your character(s). They know everything they need to know, but that doesn’t mean the villain can’t still have a surprise. There may be a plan formed, or there may be an act of desperation. This probably depends on your character more than anything.

Here’s my notecard for the end of Act Two in The Cock of the South:

image

The loose band of peoples are bickering. They’ve accomplished much, but aren’t acting together. Will they scatter to the four winds and eventual extinction, or come together to make a stand? Cobby takes a desperate act to try bringing them all together. They have complete knowledge of what they are facing, and failure to work together is fatal.

That’s Act Two in a big nutshell. As far as the remaining cards go, you have the important foundations to build up your outline. Add in cards to take the story from point to point. I frequently have cards to discard completely (usually research), and even move some around from act to act. This is also the largest act, and can make up half of your story. It isn’t unusual to move the cards around for quite some time to get them just right.

Part one is here. Part three is here.

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Planning your novel

We’re going to do another sequence of posts. I haven’t been real lucky with sequences, but I’m a glutton for punishment. I have a few disclaimers to make before we start:

First, I don’t want to come across like a pretentious douche. I’ve benefitted from everyone else’s methods, and I simply want to share mine.

Second, the best method is the one that works for you. I’m not saying I have the secret to anything.

Third, I don’t always follow my own advice. I try new things too. I used “bookend” outlines when I wrote Panama. One to get me started, and another one to help me tie up loose ends in the final parts.

Third, I called it “planning” on purpose. I want seat of the pants writers to read along too, but it’s secretly an outlining series. I wrote my first few novels by the seat of my pants. If I can open my mind to something new, so can you. You can croak the entire idea after you’ve given it some consideration. I won’t be offended.

I use a cork board app called Corkulous Pro. They haven’t updated it in years, and it’s getting a little strange on iOS8. I heard there is something similar in Scrivner. I’m open to other suggestions for apps. I’d kind of like some pushpins and strings to help with plants and payoffs.

When we talk about outlining, most people think of the formal outlining method they tried to teach us in high school. This is unhelpful, and even detrimental to the creative process.

Kill this with fire!

My method is a storyboard style, using a three act structure. This can be as detailed as you like, but mine aren’t. Some people like all the detail, but I still like to leave my characters a bit of control. What I’m looking for are more like mile markers.

In the USA, highways have mile markers along all the route. The idea is that you can’t go from one to three without passing two. They are also helpful in the event of an emergency. You can tell the dispatcher you’re in trouble at mile marker 141 so someone can find you faster. Bear with me folks, not all my readers are in the USA.

My outline markers serve the same purposes. They keep me moving in the right direction, and give me help if I crash. With the big exception that I can move them around if I want. Sometimes an event you planned out simply works better in another location. That’s one of the big tricks, don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan. Look at the storyboard and make sure you really want to change things before you write through it.

Let’s look at a blank board to get started. I’m going to be outlining several stories in the near future, and this is how I’ll start.

Notice the open drawer at the bottom of the app. This holds index cards, sticky notes, and quite a few other goodies.

Today, we’re going to talk about the blue card, and the two cards on the left side of the board. I can use any color, and made the one blue just so it would stand out.

Kristen Lamb had a great post today about a one sentence pitch for your novel. Her suggestion was to create it before you start writing. This is a great idea, and one I believe in. I’m just a little less formal about it.

I usually just include a blank card, so here’s one I used when I wrote Arson. I’m not afraid to use two or three lines.

I’m also not afraid to rewrite it part way through my draft. Remember, I said this wasn’t a rigid process. You know how it goes, characters develop and things change along the way. Change things if you want to.

Think of this like a set of tools, and not a rigid chemical formula that you absolutely must duplicate.

I’m going to stop after Act one today so I don’t swamp you with information.

 

In case you can’t read the photo, Act One is all about introducing the characters, the situations (genre), and the stakes.

I always type over this card with my individual introduction. There isn’t much on the first card.

We’re only detailing the major cards in this series. Think of them like mile markers for the outline. They will help you place the other mile markers.

I’ll go ahead and show you one I used in The Cock of the South.

 

 

That’s all it says. This is Cobby’s introduction to the reader, and will show a little bit of genre. There’s a lot of prejudice in this story, so I introduced a bunch of it right away. Now let’s move to the end of Act One. You kind of have my format down by now so here are the screen shots.

It’s simply a question. Are all of the stakes, characters, and themes present? All of them have to have made a choice from which there is no return.

At this point in Will O’ the Wisp there have been a couple of deaths that all seem to tie together. Patty has a plan to sneak off for some research. The story changed slightly by this point, and the card isn’t a perfect match for the final story. Because you can change things up, that’s why.

You can add even more detail at this point if you’re of a mind. You can write a target word count on this card. 25-30K seems like a good target. I stopped doing that.

You can also plan out chapters if you want. What I do is add cards between the beginning and end of Act One. I like one of the traditional story structures, and I’ll even mix and match them. Maybe you need a herald character, or a mentor. Maybe you want some scenes for your villain. Make a card and describe what you want to happen.

Do you have a cool scene you like. Make a card for it. Move them around, maybe they work better in a different order. You can have as many or few as you like.

I’m not in love with outlining chapters. I usually make a new chapter after ten pages. That seems about right for a 21st century attention span. When I write the story, I use my cards like mile markers. If something isn’t working, I go back to my storyboard.

This works for me, because I’m a very lineal writer. I actually write my stories from Once Upon a Time all the way to Happily Ever After. If you like to bounce around, knock yourself out. I still think a storyboard is helpful.

We’ll dive into Act Two next time. I figure another post for Act Three, then one about all the bells and whistles that make a storyboard so handy. Stick with me folks, the bells and whistles are pretty cool, and really bring your board to life.

So what do you think? Is anyone out there willing to try this out? Does anyone have a better app to suggest? Am I out of my mind for quashing your creative process?

Read Part Two here.

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Let’s all Outline

I sent a text to Lisa* this morning. “Thaw him out. I’ll be there in a few hours.”

“Are you sure? Lefty can be kind of disruptive.”

“I’m sure. I need to expand my outline.”

I spent a couple of hours reading your blogs and going through email. I really didn’t want to do this project, but it was time. I headed for the writing cabin.

I climbed the stairs from the basement and Lisa met me in the kitchen. She had on a nice suit in Autumn colors with matching pumps. “The cork board is all set up in the paranormal office.”

“Where’s Lefty?”

“He’s in there sharpening all the pencils, filling your fountain pen, and lining up all the index cards and sticky notes.”

I headed for the paranormal office while talking over my shoulder. “You need to watch him. He’ll rearrange everything if you let him.”

We walked in and pulled on our lab coats. Lefty can be a little gooey. The left side of my brain stood on the working surface of the roll top desk from Will ‘O the Wisp.

Lefty held up an index card. “Here you go. This is your first target. You’ve finished act one, and some of the characters drifted into act two already. They’re all at different places and need to be–

I held up my palm and stopped him. The card said, “Midpoint Act Two: Completely changes the game, even the plan. A setback, loss, death, love interest, huge revelation, huge personal loss.

Use recalibrating, desperate acts, unethical behavior to get to the end of the act. Great place for ticking clock and dark night of the soul.”

“I don’t know what you were thinking. You got three point of view characters in three different places. How are you going to introduce all this for each character?” Lefty asked.

I pinned the index card to the cork board. “I’m not. I think whatever events I choose must happen in the story. I don’t think they have to happen to each character.”

“Sounds like crap to me. Move that card so it makes a nice column. Hey doll face, make genius here drink some coffee. I’ve been frozen for months.”

I moved the card and rolled my eyes. “Think about it. I’ve got two characters that would do something unethical. My heroine has to give up on a lifelong career and that’s a huge personal loss.” Lisa handed me a cup of coffee. “I think I can mix and match. Besides, it’s a first draft.”

“Remember, you have to do some plants along the way leading up to this.” Lefty handed me another card. “Just pin that one to the bottom there. A little more to the right. Then your payoffs can come in the second half, or even Act Three.”

The card said, “Act Two Climax: Full revelation for the characters. They know who, what, when, where, why, and how. This includes how dangerous and what the stakes are.”

I made cards for each character and decided to send them to New Orleans. I like to make my characters work in an unfamiliar environment. It adds a subtile tension you don’t have on familiar streets.

“When are you going to kill the dog?” Lefty asked. “I don’t see that card.”

“I’m not. It’s been done so often I think it’s cliche.”

“Come on. You need a personal loss somewhere. Does that mean the sidekick dude bites it?”

“Don’t know yet. There has to be some creative way to put a little emotion in here.”

“Go with the classics, I say. That’s why they’re classic. I know, you could kill that little girl. The readers will be all pissed off, but your other leads will never know.”

“Dude, seriously? It’s more classic to save the victim, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, that’s also a classic.” He moved closer to my cup to warm his backside.

I added some sticky notes off to the side to remind me about plants & payoffs, important events, and character arch. We even googled some old mausoleums and pinned up a few photos.

“Now in the second half, they have to get the maguffin, and find out they’re in the wrong place. You could have the wrong guy get it, and lead to a big chase or a shootout,” Lefty said.

“Not today,” I said. “I’m going to write this part and see where it goes. That makes the next part of the outline tighter.”

“Pansy. You should have done the whole outline before writing the first word. It makes you more efficient.”

I wiggled my finger at Lisa and she took a freezer bag from her lab coat. “There’s a reason you don’t get to write with me. You’d have all my stories full of pie charts and graphs.”

Lefty used the drawers like stairs and scurried out of the room and down the hall; Lisa in hot pursuit. I wiped down the desktop and started writing.

*Lisa is the main character in Wild Concept. She’s a robot and works for me at the writing cabin these days.

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