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.
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.