Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Story Structure, Take One – A Guest Post by Robert Arrington

One writer’s dance with the principles of structure, and an honest self-analysis of the result.

 

Well, it’s been a wild 18 months of effort for me, but I have finally succeeded in putting my first novel, The Wonderland Effect, to bed, and it is out there attempting to make its way in the world. If you haven’t heard about it yet (probably most of you are in this camp) it’s a YA fantasy story that fits into the superhero subgenre.

In the process of realizing my vision, I’ve learned a lot about a lot of things: maintaining a writing schedule, navigating the paths and pitfalls on the road to self-publishing and marketing, and, thanks to Storyfix.com, how to structure my story properly. I may not have managed everything perfectly on my first attempt, but Larry’s book, Story Engineering, was my guide in setting up the major events in my book, and I’m certain it’s a better work because of his advice.

Since you’re reading this guest blog entry on Larry’s site, I’ll just assume you are already familiar with the benefits of giving your story a proper structure (and if you’re not, there are dozens of posts here to that effect). So rather than covering a lot of old ground, I thought I’d just look back on the experience and see how well I did in spacing my plot points and transitions between the four acts of the narrative.

I prefer the “Hero as…” designations for the acts, so that’s what I’ll use here. If you need a quick refresher, the four acts are

1. Hero as Orphan (the setup quartile)
2. Hero as Wanderer (the response quartile)
3. Hero as Warrior (the attache quartile)
4. Hero as Martyr (the resolution quartile)

Here is a short synopsis to help clarify this analysis.

The protagonist, Alice Littleton, has powers that draw on Lewis Carroll’s writings for their inspiration. In the story she is hunted by a powerful paranormal for reasons of his own. During the course of her journey, she encounters a lot of empowered characters close to her own age at Prometheus Academy. Ultimately, when the school is threatened, she must choose between running away and taking a stand with her new friends.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not yet read The Wonderland Effect, and you don’t like having things ruined for you, stop here. Come back once you’re done with the book. Really, you’ve been warned.

Hero as Orphan

At the start of the story, the reader gets to see the hero in her “normal” life, for whatever value of normal works in the setting. During this portion of the story, the writer’s job is to establish audience empathy with the protagonist and show what’s going on in her life before the antagonist comes into her view. What trials or opportunities is she facing? What does she want from life? More importantly, what does she need, and how conscious is she of her need? The antagonist may appear during this portion of the story, although his motives should remain unclear, as should the circumstances that will inevitably draw him into conflict with the protagonist.

At the end of this section comes the inciting incident, which some writers call Plot Point One. Something new arrives in the hero’s life that changes the course of her life in some way, giving her something she must respond to, opening a new path that becomes the spine of the ensuring narrative. As a result, her normal life will be left behind due to the urgency she feels for responding to it. This will give the reader their first clear understanding of the antagonist’s goals and methods, and present the hero with challenges and obstacles she must overcome.

In the Part 1, “Hero as orphan” stage of The Wonderland Effect, Alice’s normal life consists of school and her friendship with Miranda. She needs to establish bonds with others in her peer group, but she uses her powers as an excuse to push people away. She is also starting to cast off her father’s restrictions on the use of her powers, which brings about a disaster by bringing her to Oglethorpe’s attention. The inciting incident comes when Oglethorpe comes to her home and attacks her, and is resolved in their confrontation in Wonderland. This confrontation occurs right on schedule, 25% of the way through the book. So far, so good. This brings us to…

Hero as Wanderer

In this section of the story, the hero has a new found sense of purpose due to the inciting incident, but lacks information. She needs to figure out who the antagonist is, what he wants, and what methods he is likely to employ to achieve his goal. The hero needs time to analyze what she knows, observe and collect additional information, and recruit allies. Her goal is to come up with a plan that will allow her to attack the antagonist, or at least begin to turn the tables on him. But in the meantime, the hero must run and hide. The time for the counter attack has not yet arrived.

This section of the story drives toward the mid-point milestone. New information or awareness will allow the hero to shift gears and the story will move in a new direction because of it. we’ll look at this in slightly more detail in the next section.

Once she returns from Wonderland, Alice is firmly in the “Hero as wanderer” stage in my story. She is uncertain who Oglethorpe’s confederates are or the extent of their reach. In this case, she and her father are literally running away from the situation, and they have no awareness of who their foes really are. They do not even know that Oglethorpe somehow survived his “unmaking” by the Boojum. Potential allies soon appear in the form of Houston, LaRonda, and Scott, which leads to an increased understanding of their situation.

The midpoint milestone arrives when Alice receives (actually, demands) a slot at Prometheus Academy, though at the 45th percentile, this section of the book wraps up a bit early.

Hero as Warrior

The mid-point milestone allows the hero to change her actions. She will stop running, and display a greater tendency to think creatively to address challenges. She will also begin to address her inner demons, those things that are preventing her from attaining the things she needs. In short, she will begin to act courageously and take the fight to her opponent. However, the antagonist’s plans are moving forward as well. Therefore, the hero will not yet be able to win the day.

This section of the story culminates in the second plot point.

The final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. New information or the act of attaining a crucial resource will make it possible for the hero to achieve victory, which will lead the reader into the final act.

As Alice settles into life at Prometheus Academy, things start to change for the better. She no longer needs to hide who she is, and she finds a good friend in Sarah Thompson, and a romantic interest in her brother, Scott. In addition to reaching out to other students, she discovers she has a real flair for understanding others’ abilities and to note important details. Her campaign against Oglethorpe is derailed by her belief that her foe has died, though the possibility that he has left behind an organization that may want revenge keeps her wary. The pressure goes back up when Oglethorpe reappears and kidnaps her mother and half-sister.

But where is the second plot point? I want to say that it is when she discovers that Elaine is actually behind everything that has happened, at about the 79th percentile. The realization who her true enemy is will allow her to redirect her efforts in a focused manner.

The only problem is that, contrary to Larry’s excellent advice, it isn’t until about 83% of the way through the story that Kirdja assures Alice that she, and she alone, can end Elaine’s threat. Is that crucial? Does this knowledge actually change anything Alice does from that point on? I tend to think not, as I intended this prophecy only to explain why Kirdja and Hector are involved in the events surrounding Alice and Prometheus Academy (maybe Larry will weigh in on this point…hint, hint). At any rate, I’m not considering this “new information” in the sense that Larry discusses, but your opinion may differ. Either way, the plot point comes a bit late in the story, though not, I think, late enough to throw off the story’s balance too severely.

Hero as Martyr

Let’s face it, in most stories the hero does not die. That would limit the writer’s options for putting out the sequel, after all. The point here is not that the hero will die, but that she is fully committed to seeing the conflict through to the end, regardless of the consequences. This is where the stage is set for the final confrontation and a resolution to the conflict imposed by the antagonist and his goals.

There are just a couple of hard and fast rules for this section of the story.

First, the writer cannot introduce additional information in this section of the story. No new characters should be introduced, and the hero should not gain new resources needed to defeat her opponent. If the antagonist’s childhood trauma is key to his defeat, she must have learned about it before this section of the story commences. Violating this rule will weaken the story and give the conclusion a sense of having been forced. Second, the hero must be the primary mover in resolving the conflict with the antagonist. If that duty falls to someone else, the story has the wrong protagonist.

So how does Alice stack up as a warrior?

Her stated goal in returning to Prometheus Academy after her near disaster is not to defeat Elaine, but simply to free her friends of her influence. Still, in the face of overwhelming odds and the likelihood of her death if she comes face to face with Elaine again, Alice is determined to complete the task she has set for herself. Plus, she does not rule out confronting Elaine at some point in the future, once she has identified a weakness she can exploit. So I have no problem seeing Alice’s role at this stage as that of a warrior.

Of course, in the course of her mission, Alice is forced into a confrontation in which she must utterly defeat Elaine or die herself. In the extremis of the struggle, she finally realizes where Elaine’s weakness lies. Her body will regenerate any wound, but her resiliency does not extend to her mind, the spiritual essence that directs the body. The revelation allows Alice to give Elaine her desire, and then use it to destroy the threat Elaine represents forever.

So, to recap, we have a four-act structure with an elongated third act, with the second and fourth somewhat shortened. Plus, depending on how one views the prophecy, a possible violation of the rule against introducing new information in the final act. I’ll give myself a B+ on following Larry’s advice, and try to learn from the experience. I’ll try to do better with the sequel.

What has been your experience with pouring your narrative into the given parameters of the four part structural model, and have you paid a price (via rejection, or online critique relative to pace, character arc, or dramatic tension) for taking those liberties.

Product Details

Robert Arrington is the author of The Wonderland Effect, available on Amazon.com and other digital venues.  This is his first novel.

Visit Robert’s blog at www.DispatchesFromWonderland.com to enter his Rafflecopter giveaway. You may win a $25Amazon GC or a paperback copy of The Wonderland Effect.

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The Three Stages of the Novel-Writing Journey

One writer’s journey from dream to publication, with all the lessons and setbacks and turnarounds that dot the broken road we travel.

 

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard

 

Let me guess, you dream of publishing a novel; of your book reaching bestseller status and having raving fans. You dream of being able to make a living from writing and publishing novels.

I get you, because I’ve had those same dreams since I was 13 years old. But getting there isn’t quite as easy as you dream it’s gonna be.

My journey to publishing my debut novel has taken 18-plus years—7 of those years actively working on it, 2 of those years spent on the story I published.

Over the course of my journey so far, I’ve found there are really three major “stages” that you go through:

• Stage 1: Oblivious Dream
• Stage 2: The Backtrack
• Stage 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Sadly, most writers spend their lives in Stage 1, refusing to believe that storytelling has a process and principles that need to be in play. They just keep dreaming, keep writing, oblivious that they’re heading nowhere.

You’ll also find a good number of writers in Stage 2, where they spend most of their time learning what it takes to write a novel. But never actually writing. Or if they do write, they don’t finish. They don’t go all the way.

It’s Stage 3 everyone strives for, but few actually get to. Because it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, sacrifices, practice and letting go.

Here’s how my journey unfolded over the three stages:

Stage 1: Oblivious Dream

I spent a good 13 years of my life in this stage.

This is the stage where you’re enamored with the dream: being a bestseller, having a book signing, going on a book tour. The stage where you have no idea what you’re doing, but you either don’t know or don’t care. So you sit down and start writing, to see what comes out.

I did this hundreds of times over the 13 years. Starting, stopping, starting over again, starting something new, never getting anywhere.

Back in 2008, I wrote my first novel. Pantsed the whole thing. And then I spent another year writing and rewriting and rewriting. Still not getting anywhere.

I was frustrated. I was pissed off. I had a ton of stories bouncing around inside me, but I couldn’t figure out how to make any of them work on paper.

I so badly wanted to get my stories out there. So I decided it was time to learn what I was missing.

Stage 2: The Backtrack

I call this stage the Backtrack because this stage is really step one in the novel-writing process. But 99 percent of writers skip over it and think they just intuitively know how to write a novel.

This is the stage where you make it your mission to become a student of story. To go back and learn what it takes to write a novel you can publish.

I had taken every fiction writing class I could get my hands on. Read every book under the sun about writing novels. And yet I couldn’t make my stories work. So I knew there had to be some vital information I was missing.

At this point in my journey, around the beginning of 2010, I went on a hunt.

And that’s when I found an article by Larry Brooks on story structure. I swear I heard trumpets in my head. It was like all the gaps and holes left by my previous fiction education got filled in.

All stories must have structure, they must have specific plot points occur at certain times and places in the story. Boom.

A life-changing moment I will never forget.

For months I studied every article, every eBook, everything written by Larry Brooks that I could find. I immersed myself in story. I dedicated myself to it.

I watched movies every day, sometimes twice a day, breaking down the structure, the scene missions, and really trying to wrap my head around the whole storytelling thing. I read books, studying the structure.

And toward the end of the year I had a thought: I need to teach story structure to writers, so they didn’t waste years of their lives writing stories that go nowhere.

Even though I was still learning, I knew I was a step further than the writers who were coming to me for help. And I kept expanding my education, reading more books by Brooks and anyone else I could find who aligned with Larry’s teachings (Randy Ingermanson, Syd Field, etc).

I even hired Larry to analyze two of my story plans, to see if I had anything viable yet.

My first story needed a lot more development, but he said my second story could work and be interesting, if I fixed my Premise.

Stage 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

This is the stage where you’ve learned enough and absorbed enough storytelling information and had enough practice at writing, where you are now able to turn out stories with publishing potential.

I spent three years in Stage 2, before I was able to move into Stage 3 (and I’d add that you never really leave Stage 2, because storytelling is a life-long journey, and you have to be committed to always being a student of story). Larry’s analysis of my story is what allowed me to move to Stage 3.

Because now I was getting somewhere. Now I had an idea that was viable, if executed properly.

I spent the next two years working through how to properly execute this story. But for the first time, I didn’t write several drafts in order to find my story.

Instead, I used a specific story planning and development process that allowed me to work through all the details of my story, including structure and scene architecture.

Once I felt really good about my story roadmap, then and only then, did I sit down to write the draft. When I finished it two short months later, I knew I finally had something with potential.

Of course, there were still edits and tweaks that were needed, but I was close. Much closer than I’d been previously.

I worked through a specific revision process to make sure the story worked, beginning to end. And then I gathered a team of people to help me with the final polish: an editor and Beta Readers.

I did it, I made it to the end. I finished a story.

And the story was actually good.

On June 16, I released this story into the world. My debut novel, SoundCheck, is now available on Amazon. Jennifer proper cover

I credit this achievement to my willingness to move out of Stage 1 and work through Stages 2 and 3, the ones that most writers never get to.

There’s a hell of a lot more to writing a publishable novel than you even realize. My entire process, from story plan to published novel, only took me about 7 months.

But I had 17 months (plus 16 years) of fear, doubt, Resistance, perfectionism, procrastination and distractions to contend with. All of this wrapped around the 7 months it actually took for me to finish this novel.

Is my debut novel perfect?

No. No such thing. There’s always something you can do to improve it. Always some way to make it better.  But it’s a novel from my heart, shaped with a keen understanding of craft, and my beta readers tell me its good.

Some say, really good.

At some point, you have to call it done.

You have to say, I’ve made it through all three Stages, this is my best work to date and I know my next one will be even better.

Some Super-Secret Tips No One Ever Talks About

As you’re working through these three stages of the novel-writing journey, here are some super-secret tips to help you out. These tips come directly from my journey to publishing my first novel.

These tips relate to things no one ever really talks about, but that are a huge part of the novel-writing process:

Work On Your Mindset—writing a novel takes strengthening your mindset, because if you don’t believe in yourself or believe you can do this, no amount of effort will bring you success. You have to make your mindset match your goal, your desired outcome.

Writers tend to have a lot of negative, limiting beliefs about what’s possible, and you have to transcend all of that to get where you want to go.

Set Intentional Ways of Being—when it comes to your writing goals, you have to be intentional. You have to know where you’re aiming to come even close. And you have to take consistent action every single day. Intention is a huge part of being successful.

Commit to the Process—because it’s definitely a process. And you won’t get it right the first time, the second time, maybe not even the third time. But if you’re committed to the process, you’ll eventually get it right.

So many writers give up when things get hard, when all they have to do is take a step back, reevaluate and be willing to let go of what’s not working.

Have Tools for Busting Through Fear—and distractions, and self-doubt, and perfectionism, and procrastination. All of these things are gonna come up while you’re working through your novel-writing journey, and if you don’t have tools to help you deal with them, you’ll get stopped in your tracks.

What stage are you at on your novel-writing journey?

Jennifer proper cover

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is an author, award-winning blogger, and story coach who helps serious emerging novelists write, revise and launch their books.

Her debut novel, SoundCheck, is now available. Read more about it HERE.

Want to know what it takes to go from Story Idea to Published in 7 Months? Contact Jennifer through her website to register for my upcoming webinar.

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