While we know what the themes, moods, people and geography of the novel are, the main thing is, “What happens?” After all, we’ve established so much, and with so little prep time. An admirable job, for sure, but now onto what you’ll be writing.
Admittedly, this isn’t a linear series of advice pieces, it’s just laid out like this because we exist in linear time. Unfortunately. You can work on character and arc first, then fit the setting and the themes. Whatever works best for you, and for your story.
Robert McKee says a lot about the three-act model. I’ll save the complex work for him and his book. The big take home we must have from that though, is that he’s not always right. He’s not a fan of Goodfellas as it doesn’t fit his model of how a story’s told. That doesn’t make him wrong all the time, it simply means that there are other ways to be. I’m a fan of learning all the different rules people make, with Stephen King’s On Writing, Robert McKee’s Story, Save the Cat, Chuck Wendig’s 500 Ways to be a Better Writer and several more on my shelves and kindle.
If you know what the rules are, you know what the norms are, when it comes to your plot. You know what to take and what to avoid.
THREE ACT MODEL
Stories have a beginning, middle and end, a simple way to think of the three acts. When you’re planning your novel, it’s generally a good idea to have a start point and an end point. One or more mid-points to help drive up the drama are great, and build the middle act pretty naturally from there. There are a few other things to consider, too.
We need to hook the reader as soon as possible. In Point of Departure I showed the disastrous results of four days stranded in an airport departure lounge, a group of fifteen people reduced to fourteen, an unknown narrator, blood and sand under his fingernails. The horror of their situation. Then we hurtle back to the present for the story itself. I guess as I like to view things quite visually and enjoy studying the medium of television, I tend to view this first scene as “The Cold Open”. In the very self-aware Lightning, it’s even titled that. Lightning’s cold open starts to show us the beauty of the setting, the naïve, but pretty Lena, her family, and then to throw a car at her. The car’s destroyed and bang, there’s your scene. In London Knights, it’s the first time the supernatural showed itself to the public, at the Battle of the Somme. The horror of the trenches is met with the shining wonder of a band of real knights on horseback, resistant to bullets, charging across the battlefield. It establishes the strange dichotomy between normal and magical, as well as showing you that not all of history in the book works like our history.
As well as our Cold Open to hook the reader, we need to establish a few things in the opening act. Who are the characters? Why do we care? What is the inciting incident? What are the stakes?
There’s an amazing rant by David Mamet about creating a dramatic scene. It’s very easy, and yet he had to write a letter to the writers of The Unit, overusing Caps Lock like me when I first discovered e-mail. I keep a copy in one of my notebooks along with Merlin Mann’s Making the Clackity Noise. Read them, and when you need firing up about writing, read them again. The gist of Mamet’s letter is that someone needs to want something, and is prevented from getting it. You can play that out in any of millions of ways, going back to the character stuck up a tree with someone throwing rocks at them. They want to get out of the tree, or maybe to stay in there uninterrupted, and they definitely want the person on the ground to stop throwing those damn rocks. There, that exercise can now become a dramatic scene. You even have stakes. The character could fall or get a nasty injury.
Those stakes we talked about get higher in the middle. To be honest, you could weigh a good amount of what I’ve said in this section, after all there’s no rule about how long each act will be. My novel for this year looks pretty much like two acts, but that’s because act one will only be a handful of scenes. Lightning’s chapters follow an almost episodic structure, with chapters one and two as the first act, eight and nine as the final act and three through seven are the middle, where the main challenges are uncovered, faced, initially overcome and then the stakes are raised higher for the final act. In Point of Departure, there are five chapters split between four days. The first day comprises the first act, the second and third are the middle, then the fourth day (and cold open, oddly) are the third act and the horrors of the middle act are brought to the front.
The RPG Fiasco (yes, I’m still going on about this game) has a mechanic called The Tilt. I’ve referred to the midpoint of this year’s novel at The Tilt. It’s where something happens to make a good situation bad and a bad situation worse. In this case, it’s when the kids are done preparing for the shooting and actually commit to their action.
And then, with all your pieces in place, you’re ready for the final act.
The final act can be a nightmare, especially when taking part in NaNoWriMo. I have a hard enough time normally, so having time pressure to get a satisfactory conclusion could be disastrous. Final acts can suck even without the deadline, look at Stephen King for several examples of really good books with awful conclusions.
Ideally, you should know where things start and end in your book, even if you don’t know how to get there yet. You can still have some of the surprises which ‘pantsers’ revel in so much when they’re able to pull something great out of the ether. I’ll get more into that in the “Scene by Scene” article.
The content for the final act should be the heightened stake, the hope of overcoming and then either the success or failure. I’m going to be cagey with my own examples for once as I don’t want to spoil the endings of my books.
In Point of Departure despair sets in, all is lost. The shift between Act Two and Act Three should have been the ending. But it isn’t. This isn’t an easy world of consequence-free revelation. You have to witness the people who have done terrible things having to deal with their actions.
In Lightning, a night of recklessness causes our main protagonists, Bill, Luke & Lena, to reach emotional points they don’t want to be at. As a social book, it’s more about where they’re at personally with each other and those around them. The action is more about having to resolve the actions of chapter seven.
In London Knights, a betrayal ruins the group who spent the last act becoming a cohesive unit. They must pull together before something terrible happens on December 31st 1999.
In this novel… I’m not going to share, sorry.
TO BE CONTINUED…
If your novel is part of a series, there’s a slight change to the flow you’ll want for the final act. One of the biggest flaws I’ve seen with a book which is part of a series is that you need to still conclude the book. Ideally, each book should stand on its own, but make you want to read more. A story should be complete as a whole book’s been bought and (if George RR Martin is anything to go by) a sequel could be some time in coming out. A solution has been to be episodic and totally self-contained but referring to past events as and when they become necessary for the audience to experience. The Dresden Files are a good example of books which are all different, but follow the career of one lead character, and actions can carry across, even if they’re about a separate case.
The beginning also has challenges, in trying to reintroduce settings, characters, plots and themes in a way which is interesting for the new and old reader alike. George RR Martin does a good job of only telling us what we need to know for each customer, so if we have a new perspective, or an old one experiences something we know, then we experience it from the first time through their eyes.
One example of a continuing series which I really like is Chuck Wendig’s Atlanta Burns series which follows the titular Atlanta through her adventures investigating wrongs in her backwater town. Wendig has stated that he plans for a four book ‘season’ of novellas, each as ebooks with their own mysteries but a plot thread dangling all the way through the books. You don’t need to have read the previous one, or any afterwards, but you’ll get a lot more from them that way. Hopefully he’ll sell enough copies to help fund the next books and give us the whole season. John Perich has done something similar with his older female investigator, Mara Cunningham, in Too Close to Miss and Too Hard to Handle.
I like this episodic nature because not only am I a fan of television and comic books, so I’m used to ongoing series, but I like following the journey of characters. As another project once I’m done with Metal Made Flesh #0 and this year’s NaNoWriMo, I plan on testing this format with a series of rural murder mysteries mixed with Lovecraftian horror.
THE EMPTY SPACES
You’ve got a beginning, a middle and an end, possibly even some hooks for continuing your project, but there’s more space here which could be covered. Not physical space in the book, but something to be mindful of it what happened before and what happens after.
The before is more important, as it could change the way you start things. I was always taught that the story begins when the action begins. Don’t establish for ages, but leap into the action. Anything else can be sliced out and used in flashback or simply referred to. Something I hate with a passion is that opening title scrawl in fantasy films (and the equivalent in books) which explains in a dry, expository tone, what’s going on in the world. No, don’t do that. Show us. People are smart and will be able to pick things up as they go. Simply set the tone and show us the rules of the world visually.
The what comes next, similarly, is often run-off from the end of the story. Where does it end? Does it work that way? Could you fit more or perhaps even less?
To use an example and spoil The Dark Knight Rises (skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers!) at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is thought to be dead, Alfred goes on holiday to the place we flashed back to earlier in the film and like he said he’d always wanted to, he saw someone, smiled, nodded hello and left it at that. We, the audience, saw Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. That wasn’t necessary. Cut with Alfred smiling and nodding to someone and it leaves things interesting, tantalising. The audience knows what’s happening and feels smart for their knowledge. If they have their hands held, then it’s disappointing.
If the ending is a total foregone conclusion, is it necessary to see? Sometimes there’s a beautiful economy in being selective with what you show. If you look at Chekhov’s short fiction, a lot of them leave events in an inconclusive manner which encourages thought and discussion, even if it’s technically able to be deduced by the audience.
Conversely, there’s always the problem of telling too little, but as long as you have a resolution, then the audience should feel satisfied.
A lot of this might be overthinking it, but put simply, know where the reader and/or characters should be at the beginning, the end, and ideally the middle. You’ll hopefully be mindful about not telling us more than we need at the start and end of the story. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better equipped to fill in the gaps naturally.
Next time, filling in those gaps…
MY NANOWRIMO PAGE: http://nanowrimo.org/en/participants/charlie-x