(Long post today, but good stuff, I think. There’s a more personal message at the end, too, if you’re a skimmer.)
The mission of the third quartile of a story (Part 3) is to show the hero proactively attacking what stands in the way of reaching of the goal, solving the problem, escaping the danger or whatever else the author has deviously plotted against them.
The mission of the second quartile of a story (Part 2) is to respond to – not attack, at least not in context to full disclosure of the nature of the antagonist or the stakes – that same opposition. Which may or may not be fully exposed at the First Plot Point, which is the intersection of the Part 1 set-up and Part.
And of course, the mission of the first quartile of a story (Part 1) is to introduce and position the elements of a story before the game-changing, story-defining moment of the First Plot Point, which is where it all suddenly begins to matter.
Make no mistake, the First Plot Point is the single most important moment in a story, at least from an architectural, execution-dependent point of view.That said, it should be noted here that…
… as we press forward into a story, and if we’ve carefully and properly designed our story using the varying contexts, missions and milestones (either through planning or drafting), things actually seem to get easier as we go deeper and further.
Or course they do. Because Part 3 is the natural evolution and outcome of all the stuff you’ve put into play in Parts 1 and 2. If you’ve done that effectively, then the odds of suddenly realizing you don’t know where you are, or where to go next are dramatically reduced.
And if that’s where you find yourself, there is really only one ultimately effective solution: stop writing the story. Now.
If you were driving toward a cliff, and you knew it, you’d stop. You’d change course. In fact, you’d go back to where you made the wrong turn that led you toward the cliff and request – execute – a do-over.
It’s time to go back to the story planning drawing board. Whatever that means to you.
The biggest mistake a writer can make, at this point, is to simply keep writing stuff – to drive off the cliff with hope that you’ll somehow survive the fall – even though you’re pretty such it doesn’t feel right in context to what you’ve written up to this point.
Oh, you’ll know. By the time you get to Part 3, you’ll know.
But it’s unlikely you’ll have to go that route, because unless you’ve pantsed your way into a corner (writer-speak for painting yourself into one) with your Parts 1 and 2 – or, your planning didn’t work out as you’d hoped – odds are you’ve had Part 3 in the back of your mind, perhaps subconsciously, all along.
All of which, by the way, is generic story architecture stuff.
As for “The Help,” once again it plays right into the universal mission definition of the four parts of a story, all of which are different.
In Part 3 of “The Help,” each of the 51 scenes delivered within its ten chapters share this context of attack. The characters know what they must do, and they set out to get ‘er done.
Milly is now all in. That Part 2 reactionary phase (her fear, her hesitance and cynicism, at least enough to give her a uniform) has been dealt with, the players are no longer fleeing, doubting or considering other choices… they’re in.
The game has changed. The essential dramatic question, which in Part 2 was “will Miss Skeeter get enough of the maids involved?”… to… “will the book get finished and published, and what will become of them when it does?”
They’re attacking the problem, or if you prefer, the goal. Proactively. In full view of the impending consequences.
All of that was implied and lurking in the sub-text of Part 2, but in Part 3 it pushes its way to the forefront. Not by some narrative accident, but through the author’s intentions, beginning at Page 1 of the draft that was published.
Doesn’t mean they’ll starting succeeding right away, in fact they don’t.
In fact, the reason they don’t is that the story is still building in tension and momentum and stakes in Part 3. Only in a contextually new and different way.
This is a critical, empowering subtlety, folks. One we need to embrace and practice. One that doesn’t often happen by accident.
This Part 3 shift and elevation of tension implies that the antagonist is also evolving, meeting the new vigor of the heroes in Part 3 with even darker, more compelling danger and consequential proactively of its own.
That, too, is a critical subtlety. Actually, it’s not a subtlety at all, come to think of it – it’s the fuel that makes the story work.
In Part 3 of “The Help,” Minnie and Aibileen align and support each other as part of the voice of Miss Skeeter’s book. Each of them, in doing so, comes closer to exposure and the dangers of their rebellion, which are for them bigger and more personal than the book (Miss Skeeter’s) itself. That collision of choices and consequences unfolds alongside the issue of Miss Skeeter’s book, albeit because of it.
Sub-plots evolve in Part 3, but in context to the new urgency of the primary plot. Minnie emerges as the stronger part of the liaison with her employer, Miss Celia (a white woman), thus juxtaposing the balance of power and soul beneath the skin of the culture in which they exist.
Skeeter realizes her new boyfriend is too steeped in the culture she is trying to expose. This puts her family status in danger, as well as her social well-being. Meanwhile, she’s getting closer to the prize – a career as a published writer.
Toward the end of Part 3, in a major twist that demonstrates that you can insert all the curveballs you want apart from and in addition to those that become your plot and mid points, Skeeter learns the book will be published after all.
Which, because the consequences have just stepped up from if to when, lights a fuse in each of the character arcs.
Of course, no Part 3 would be complete without experiencing a power surge of threat and devious mechanism from the villain…
… and Miss Hilly doesn’t disappoint. She succeeds in getting Skeeter fired from her newsletter gig, as well as putting her own maid in jail on trumped up charges. Her potential for evil is clearer than ever, and thus, her threat to our beloved heroes, which is not remotely, accidentally or coincidentally relevant to the more personal exposure she is risking through the outing of Minnie’s pie story.
The bad guy (Miss Hilly), you see, also has a goal, stakes and consequences. It is what drives them, and it must be part of the narrative exposition.
If you haven’t read the book, Millie’s pie story is critical.
It’s a killer, both literal and metaphoric plot device that, after 397 pages of tension-building, suddenly and deliciously (no pun intended) jacks the stakes to a new, unexpected level. For everyone.
Plot Point Two happens when that little kitty is let out of the bag. Minnie reveals the Big Secret that went down between her and Miss Hilly, which, when presented to the world via her narrative in Skeeter’s book, will rock both of their worlds.
It becomes the centerpiece of the story’s consequences. The McGuffin, if you will.
In fact, it might just get Minnie killed. Or at least, thrown in jail on yet more of Miss Hilly’s lies.
Or it might, in fact, expose Miss Hilly for the pitiful human being that she is. Which, after all this brilliant reader manipulation on the author’s part, would be wonderful and gratifying. Something to really root for.
Worth staying up all night for, in fact. Which is precisely what happens.
The reader is there. We must know what happens. Not because it is inherently consequential – it’s not, it’s a bit sophomoric and is a bit of history without direct impact on anything at all other than reputations and karma – but because we, the readers, want it so desperately.
Make no mistake, the reason we care so much has as much to do with the architecture of the story as it does with its themes.
I’m planning a “walk the walk” experiment/promotion for July.
With all this information and perspective on what makes a story work comes a bit of a challenge, and occasionally a calling out. What have I done, as the purveyor of all this supposed expertise, to justify my claim to credibility? Who am I to put all this stuff on the table and position it as definitely as I have?
If you’ve read some of the reviews of my writing book, “Story Engineering,”
you’ll see the question posed there. My enthusiasm for story architecture is as misunderstood as it is valid. At least by some.
Anyhow – and without masking my intention to give my own novels a second life – I’ll be offering the Kindle version of my novel, “Bait and Switch,” for only 99 cents in the month of July. Shortly thereafter I’ll have the other three novels (which were published prior to Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, and is already available on Kindle or in trade paperback) up on Kindle, as well.
I confess, I’m hoping to become one of those miraculous case studies in the emergence of Kindle and other digital e-readers as a venue for established authors as well as new ones.
My goal is to move 5000 copies of the book in the month of July… but for that to happen, I can use your help. If you like it, please recommend it and or write about it. People in the industry have told me the book deserves(ed) to be a bestseller (it was a critical home run), so let’s see if the power of social media and the internet can make it so.
If I get feedback that it will be helpful, I’ll also post a short series that deconstructs “Bait and Switch” from the author’s point of view.
You can read a mid-story sample chapter from the book HERE.
The more we see it happen on the page, the more real it gets.
The novel, published in 2004, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, rave reviews elsewhere, and PW selected it to their “Best Books of 2004” list (scroll down to the “Mass Market” category, where you’ll see the cover image), as well as their “Best Overlooked Books of 2004” list, the only paperback so-named.
Hoping you’ll help me make that last one an ironic moot point.
More on this promotion as it launches. Thanks for your support.